Breaking down silos that separate students by race and class

Pandemic school closures are an opportunity to remake schools to serve all children

AT A RECENT press briefing, Massachusetts education commissioner Jeff Riley observed that the crisis of COVID-19 school closures is also “an amazing opportunity to think differently about how we educate our kids.” We couldn’t agree more. Let’s use this chance to make schools more equitable. Let’s build a “campus without walls” where all students – regardless of zip code, race, or class – engage with and learn from top teachers, universities, business, and community-based organizations across the state.

Sudden school closures have exacerbated the inequities that plague our current education system. While the lives of all students, parents, and educators have been upended by the closures, their challenges look vastly different from community to community. Some private schools and wealthier suburban districts shifted to virtual learning almost overnight with live synchronous instruction, daily class schedules, office hours, and even virtual enrichment activities.

Meanwhile, schools serving under-resourced families had to focus on making sure students could access free meals and other vital services once the school doors closed. Knowing many students wouldn’t have access to a computer or the internet, some districts sent home printed packets of schoolwork while scrambling to find enough devices to deliver to families so that online classes could eventually begin.

In a time when all students are learning remotely, how is it that zip codes still determine the quality of their education? What could happen if well-resourced school districts with strong distance learning opened their virtual classrooms to students in need? Or if private schools did the same, in the spirit of good citizenship?

Our schools operate in silos that are still largely segregated by race and class. Many low-income children are trapped in high-poverty, high-need schools, sometimes in the same city and in close proximity to highly resourced, high-performing schools. We see the impact of this in significant disparities in student outcomes based on race and income. In the past, our state has attempted to remedy these inequities by busing students of color at great expense to wealthier white neighborhoods either within a city or out to the suburbs. But right now, we have a chance to create a new world that looks beyond the limiting factors of the past. Let’s seize this moment to rethink how students access learning opportunities, both during the current crisis and once they are back in school.

What would this mean in practice? We can provide every student with year-long, personalized learning plans to help unlock their passions, address their specific needs, and chart a path toward future success. We can establish digital learning platforms to track student progress and share resources as students move between districts, or as they engage with local community-based organizations and businesses.

For today’s students, a computer is as essential a learning tool as a textbook, opening up a world of possibilities.  It’s time to move beyond our traditional notion of mass schooling developed in the industrial age. Traditionally, students went to school to learn and master content. Today, when nearly anything can be pulled up with a tap on a screen, we must focus on helping learners navigate information and synthesize what they’re learning, particularly by building students’ critical thinking and digital literacy skills. We must ensure that all students have access to the internet, a computer, and the skills they need to use them well—essential steps in closing the digital divide.

We can identify the top teachers in the state to deliver remote learning to students regardless of the home district where they live and attend school. We must work on bringing together educators from across the Commonwealth to share best practices, tools, and resources through cross-district collaboration and statewide teacher communities. Districts and schools can also provide equitable access to the best curriculum by collaborating and integrating virtual learning experiences into daily coursework. Even after schools reopen, all students could stream high-quality lessons or join live classes taught by the best educators across the state.

We can connect business and community-based organizations to the digital learning platforms we’re creating to break down the barriers between the “real world” and the classroom. For instance, students can take virtual tours of local workplaces and chat with employees to learn about their day-to-day work and career pathways. Students can also earn credit and digital badges for learning that takes place outside of school, whether in workplace settings or community-based organizations, by applying their academic skills and building essential “soft skills” like leadership and collaboration.

Remote learning can also provide students with more flexible schedules, including evening and weekend classes, freeing them up for internships and apprenticeships during the day. Our universities could open their entry level classes both on campus and through distance learning to extend Early College credit to more high schoolers. And to house it all, our first-rate technology companies can leverage innovation to help create an information technology system for public education that matches the role technology plays in today’s workforce.

These strategies will allow us to build on the lessons that are emerging from the current period of school closure. To start, learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom. From conversations about public health to afternoons spent observing ant trails in a local park to developing animation studios in their own living rooms, students are currently learning in many ways we never would have anticipated, even last month. As Commissioner Riley’s guidance makes clear, “Remote learning can take place in a multitude of ways, including by helping students engage with resources in their everyday lives and in the natural world around them.”

To be sure, technology can never replace high quality relationships between teachers and their students in a nurturing school environment. Schools are central to the life of the community. They provide a sense of stability and structure to families as well as students. They provide nourishment for students’ minds and bodies and support for their social-emotional development. But we can use this unprecedented time to pause, reset, and create a more equitable and interconnected society that changes the way students learn, even after schools reopen. Creating a campus without walls doesn’t just mean developing online courses, but rather embedding students’ learning within their communities and the possibilities beyond.

We don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to finding them. Our organizations have come together to advance racial and economic equity, and we hope others join us in this challenge. We can use this time of crisis—when we are reminded of our own fragility and our own humanity—to create greater access and opportunities for every student and family. Let’s work together to ensure that once this pandemic is over, we walk out into a better world.

Ayele Shakur is the CEO of BUILD and Chad d’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. They are co-chairs of  Open Opportunity – Massachusetts, a statewide initiative focused on advancing racial and income equity. The initiative’s leadership team also includes Hardin Coleman, dean emeritus and professor at the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, Alex Oliver-Davila, executive director of Sociedad Latina, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, Amanda Fernandez, Founder and CEO of Latinos for Education, Paul Toner, senior director of national policy, partnerships & Northeast region at Teach Plus, and Wayne Ysaguirre, executive director of The Care Institute.

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