Today, all over the world, we see the power, commitment and wisdom of young people in action. For inspiration, just look at Chris Suggs, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg or the young activists from Parkland. Our world needs many more young leaders like these.
Can U.S. public school systems support the growth and development of thousands of such young leaders? Writ large, their response to the current pandemic tells us no, not as currently constructed. The pandemic has exposed the inflexibility, inadequate vision, and fundamental inequities at the heart of most public schooling in the United States.
Given the pandemic has created a desperate need for more flexible learning options, now is the moment to escape the physical limitations of a traditional school building. Rather than simply hobbling together a temporary response to the crisis, we can get to work to transform education once and for all to serve, include, value, and love each and every child and young person in our country.
Districts and education leaders around the country should be asking themselves many hard questions:
- How are we creating time for educators to build supportive, loving relationships with their students?
- How can teachers help students make sense of world events and discover their interests, gifts and aspirations?
- How do we value and credential the learning happening in kids’ lives outside of “schoolwork?”
- How are we allowing young people to develop learning plans around their interests and aspirations?
- How do we map and leverage community assets to support young people’s learning journeys?
- For districts where students are able to learn together in person, how do educators make the most of that precious time?
To answer these tough questions, we can look to some forward-thinking, publicly-funded schools for inspiration and guidance.
- Big Picture Learning’s Met High School, a public school in Providence, Rhode Island, showcases the power of creating and honoring learning both within and outside of school walls, building relationships, and supporting kids to find and pursue their interests. Their proven advisory structure intentionally fosters tight-knit learning communities amongst groups of 15 students and an adult advisor who meet daily and stay together for four years.
Building close and authentic relationships with each student and their family, advisors support students to set learning goals and create learning pathways that are based on their unique interests and aspirations and that leverage the learning opportunities in the local community. There are over 65 Big Picture network schools in the United States.
- CommunityShare in Tucson, Arizona, is an online platform that enables a community to become a human library by connecting community members, industry professionals, parents, and organizations with educators who want to create real-world learning opportunities with their students. From partnering with a community food bank to build a community garden to working with a local rap artist to produce student-made raps, teachers are better able to connect young people with real-world experiences in areas that matter to them.
- Virtual Learning Academy Charter School is a statewide virtual public school that enables any student in New Hampshire to enroll in anything from a single class to a full course load. Because they are competency-based and allow learning to be demonstrated in many ways, students can gain credit from online courses, pre-designed performance-based tasks, or real-world projects or internships. Whether offered as a complement to a district’s offerings or as a fully virtual alternative for a young person, this state-wide model can quickly and dramatically expand the ways young people can gain credit and acquire competencies.
These are only a few of the bright spots we can look to. Among other publicly-funded models are Iowa BIG (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), High School for Recording Arts (St. Paul, Minnesota), City Garden Montessori (St. Louis, Missouri) and Norris School District (Mukwonago, Wisconsin).
Districts may also be able to draw from models developed in the private sector, such as Portfolio School (New York City, New York), Workspace Education (Bethel, Connecticut) and Verdi EcoSchool (Melbourne, Florida).
It’s time for a nationwide commitment and investment to invent wholly new systems that enable a learner-centered, socially-just future for education. Leaders at all levels must make it a priority to reinvent how we educate young people and prepare them for a world that is vastly different from the one for which their schools were designed.
This is the moment when we must think bigger than a return to the pre-pandemic normal. This is the moment we can begin building the education system we know we need today, tomorrow and for the future soon to come.