One Year In: Innovative Approaches to Learning During a Pandemic
by Miho Kubagawa, Partner, NewSchools Venture Fund
This time last year, I was visiting Ednovate’s public high schools in Los Angeles with school leaders from NewSchools’ innovative schools portfolio. Each of these leaders were designing and launching new, innovative public schools like Ednovate.
Little did we know that these school leaders would have to completely redesign their approach to adjust to the realities of the pandemic. For many, this meant launching a new virtual school. For some, this meant managing two different types of schools — in-person and remote. And for those that managed to open in-person, this meant redesigning their schools to meet all of the pandemic-related health and safety requirements.
Even with the promise of vaccines, it’s likely that we will have a similar start to next school year. A recent RAND report highlighted that one in five school districts plan to create, expand or maintain their remote learning offerings. The challenge facing schools, though, is not just in determining the delivery options. The National Parents Union has found consistently month-over-month that the majority of parents do not want schools just to “return to normal.” Instead, they want schools to focus on rethinking how to educate students. We’ve also witnessed this theme unfold with new or deeper collaborations forming among parents, educators and organizations to support or enhance teaching and learning.
We continue to hear from school leaders, educators and parents that there are groups of students who are thriving at this time, especially those who did not feel safe or affirmed in their brick-and-mortar schools. While recognizing that there are real challenges with remote learning, we’ve been working to better understand the experience for these students in particular and how these insights can serve as opportunities to redesign schools moving forward.
Now that we are a year in to the pandemic, we are seeing some emerging trends. Here are a few we are watching closely:
- Parents, especially those from underserved communities, will keep demanding change. Educators and schools that fully engage parents as true partners in this new reality will unlock ways to support and accelerate student learning. As Springboard Collaborative founder Alejandro Gibes de Gac shared, “Parents’ love for their children is the single greatest — and most underutilized — natural resource in education.” His organization leverages parents to support reading at home through five- to ten-week cycles with higher participation rates and student engagement now than before the pandemic. As a result, students demonstrated three to four months of reading growth while at home with the largest gains from students behind grade level. Similarly, The Oakland REACH trains parent leaders to serve as family liaisons, who provide academic, social emotional and technical support to families. The parent leaders help families develop the skills to access educational opportunities, assess the quality of those opportunities, and ultimately become better advocates for their children’s education. After a successful summer pilot, nearly 20 family liaisons supported 400 students in remote learning this fall across 80 different public schools.
- The pandemic has laid bare the disconnect between what students are asked to do and the relevancy or meaning that these tasks have on their lives. Educators and schools seek better ways to engage students holistically, especially remotely. We can accelerate student learning by focusing on specific social emotional competencies and learning environment factors — two critical elements which can get lost in a myopic pursuit to address “learning loss.” RevX and nXu are demonstrating a third way. RevX supports educators in the Bronx, NY and Edgecombe County, NC to facilitate project-based learning that focuses on relevant real-world challenges for elementary students. Students are able to opt into the bite-sized modules (six to eight weeks long, delivered in-person or virtual) based on their own interests and which are grounded in foundational skills, while educators receive actionable data on how students are progressing along academic standards and social emotional competencies. In their last pilot, all students reported increased self-efficacy and a sense of belonging, while simultaneously moving forward with their projects in meaningful ways. Meanwhile, nXu supports students and educators to explore, identify and articulate their purpose, building on the research that shows youth with a strong sense of purpose perform better in school, have higher college retention rates and experience greater well-being. Since the pandemic, the team has trained students and educators on purpose development with an estimated 20 percent increase in sense of purpose, regardless of their delivery method (in-person or virtual). The team is now building out a bundled set of resources to support high school students in their career exploration through a lens of purpose, which is needed more than ever given the impact the pandemic has had specifically on high school juniors and seniors.
- The power of a strong educator cannot be underestimated, and that is even more true in a remote context. We can configure talent in new and different ways to increase the number of caring, supportive adults and to better support student learning. Cadence Learning leverages award-winning mentor teachers to model and deliver lessons in core subjects through its online platform, while teachers at partner organizations focus on engagement, individualized instruction and relationship building with their students. This “one to many” model unbundles the traditional teacher role between instructor and facilitator so that in last summer’s pilot, 15 mentor teachers and over 500 partner teachers taught summer school virtually to nearly 12,000 students across the country. This structure also creates a new approach to teacher professional development, which is gaining more traction among schools as the organization continues to provide services (in-person and virtually) this summer and next year. CommunityShare takes a different approach by connecting community partners (local leaders, industry professionals, parents and organizations) directly to educators and students. Through an online matching platform dubbed as the “library of human books,” community leaders offer their unique skills, wisdom and real world experiences to educators who then co-create in-person or virtual learning experiences with their students. The pandemic has only accelerated demand for CommunityShare as more educators and schools seek to reveal and tap into the existing resources, relationships and assets in their respective communities.
Each of these organizations have responded to the pandemic in innovative ways, unlocking new or different ways that facilitate student learning across remote and in-person learning environments. We have funded these organizations to help build these new approaches. As a result of the pandemic, many of these organizations are also broadening their services to not only support brick-and-mortar schools and school systems but also nonprofit organizations, community-based organizations, micro schools, pods and learning hubs. While the short-term need is critical, the medium-term implications for how to build schools in the future are promising. We believe that organizations that are rising to the challenge now will chart the path for a different and better public system moving forward: one that enables learning to happen anytime and anywhere so that all students, parents and educators — not just those who have the means — can exercise agency and choice.
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