The dueling crises of COVID-19 and systemic racial injustice have created a pivotal moment that not only demands a transformation of our school system, but requires innovative problem solving that will let us rise to the challenge.
COVID-related instability at home and fights for racial justice on the streets have had a unique and profound impact on each of our students—one that will most certainly be felt this school year. It’s critical that schools support students in a way that the leaders of this country haven’t—by considering the vast range of experiences students had at home this spring and designing an equitable response that gives each student what they need to thrive.
This back-to-school season presents a unique opportunity to reject the status quo by centering student needs and equity at all levels of our education system.
We’ve seen and heard from countless educators, district leaders and superintendents across the country that they want to implement equitable learning practices into their schools and classrooms. However, tightened budgets and a lack of clear guidance from the federal level has left educators in crisis mode and centering equity in the middle of a pandemic seems like a daunting task.
But the first step towards creating an equitable learning environment happens to be easiest—if you’re willing to listen.
Ask Students What They Need
The education system may have ostensibly been designed for students, but almost never is it designed with them. Every decision has an impact on how and what students learn, and the best ones are made when educators and systems leaders ask students directly what they need, academically and emotionally.
One of Transcend’s partners, the Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD), took the time this spring to ask students about their experience with the transition to distance learning. What they heard gave them insight into how to better design remote learning for the unique needs of every student.
District officials found that while students have access to the technology they need to participate in distance learning through LUSD’s one-to-one device program, some were busy helping their parents at work during traditional school hours. After identifying this gap, LUSD was able to provide additional support for individual learners at home and create a period for instruction later in the evening to accommodate students who needed to help support their families.
This is just the start, and creating equitable learning environments doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. There is a wealth of guidance out there, from the Building Equitable Learning Environment Network’s framework, with evidence-based practices and resources for anyone looking to transform the student experience, to Transcend’s “Recovery to Reinvention Playbook” which highlights tools that school and system leaders can use in their planning processes. Additionally, there are collections of resources like the Transcend Library and the Equitable Learning Library where educators can view, adopt and adapt what others have already built for their own schools.
Never before has a transformation of the education system seemed so firmly within our reach. Just last month, the board of The School Superintendents Association (AASA) partner district Fairfax County Public Schools swiftly and unanimously voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School after the late member of Congress and civil rights leader John R. Lewis, effective this school year. These changes are happening across the country. For any systems leader or educator who wants to make learning more equitable, public support is on your side and now is the time to dream boldly and advocate for changes that seemed impossible even six months ago.
We find ourselves at a defining crossroads—faced with the choice between soldiering on with an inequitable system insufficient for this moment of dueling crises, or intentionally leaving behind what wasn’t working to build learning environments with equity at their center. Done well, we can emerge from this tumultuous period stronger than before with a system that will truly serve each and every student.