Students during the first day back at school at Friendship Tech Prep Middle School, August 2018.
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Kids aren’t widgets. They aren’t cars. School isn’t—and shouldn’t be—an assembly line. Yet as we fight to return school to ‘normal’ for students, we’re focused on keeping the way we’ve always done things going rather than learning from the last two years.
Here’s the thing: Parents aren’t going to accept that. And, they shouldn’t.
Parent demand for homeschool and online school is growing at historic rates. Families are not just choosing these options because of COVID. Families want more control over their child’s education. At Friendship Public Charter School in D.C., we’ve piloted microschools, online learning, and other options that build more choices into the public school system. Microschools aren’t new. Neither is online learning. Ensuring access to small learning environments and robust online options to the students and families we partner with, 97% of whom are Black, is unique.
We’ve already seen success with this approach. Like all schools, we pivoted to online learning in early 2020. Being completely online didn’t work for all families. Some families needed a safe place for their child to learn because of work, family, or other life commitments. Some students needed in-person learning because of their unique learning styles. We were committed to doing what was best for each child and family. As soon as we could, we opened small learning pods. In all of the craziness that was happening in the world, there was peace and progress in these classrooms. When we look at the data, kids who were in those pods achieved larger academic gains than their peers who were not. Some even progressed faster than they did before the pandemic.
We asked ourselves: What is it that kids are getting from this and can we get that to scale?
In the long-term, we’re interested in how to create these opportunities so they work for all students. We want all students who would thrive in a smaller learning environment to have access to it. Figuring out how to do that requires us to learn about and pilot ideas focusing on people, place, and platform.
- To ensure students are able to move from experience to experience based on competency rather than age, number of minutes in a classroom, or other rigid regulation not aligned with the time it takes for a student’s personal growth.
- To think about where learning will happen best. Exploring flexible learning options may also mean that learning won’t happen in a traditional classroom setting. We need to be open to all possibilities, work to set up the approvals needed, and fund creating these safe, accessible learning spaces.
- To invest in people. Educators need to be empowered to work with students and create experiences that meet their needs throughout the year. That takes time and support.
- To ensure access to high-quality content that’s available to students learning in person and digitally. We need to empower our students and their families to take on this work when it makes sense to them, ensuring students can stay engaged even if they can’t be at a desk when the bell rings at 8:10 a.m.
Making opportunities like providing access to flexible microschools for all requires initial investments, startup money, before we figure out how to scale. We’ve started the work to learn. With over 100 pods in 2021 serving 6-10 students and nine citywide learning hubs open five days a week, we’ve learned more about how to do this well every day. The good news? This idea is possible—if we’re willing to make the investment and learn together. The question is: Will we invest in our students to create the right learning opportunities for all children? If you’re interested in making such an investment, give me a call.