Disruption Creates Opportunity: We Must Do Better Together

Karen Pittman and the Readiness Projects Partners

Every aspect of community life has been disrupted, from the economy to the family. Disruptions on multiple fronts have wreaked havoc with young people’s rhythms, relationships and responsibilities. Coordinated responses are desperately needed, especially among the people, places, and spaces where young people spend their time.

Our teams have reviewed dozens of district re-opening plans and expert guidance and we see two important themes:

  • An acknowledgement that experiences and relationships drive learning — this is a basic takeaway of the science of learning and development. When learning is all or partially happening virtually relationships are different and need to be augmented for children and youth to succeed and thrive. There’s a fundamental equity issue here: with school buildings closed, youth in low-income communities are even more disconnected from the supports and services they need. This calls for more adults from families, afterschool programs and community partners to connect, support, and advocate for youth.
  • An expressed desire from schools and districts (and sometimes funding requirements) to “partner with families and community.” We all know, however, that eloquent language is often followed up with limited execution, sometimes for valid reasons. The missed opportunities for school/community partnership were masked when school was in full swing eight hours a day, five days a week, ten months a year. Now partnership is an imperative. Community partners have assets — buildings, staff, experience, connections — that are making a difference and can be put to better use.

Build Forward Together

The only way to move forward is to build forward together — to learn about and leverage the planning underway not only in schools, but child care centers, youth serving organizations, community, civic, and faith based organizations and other public systems such as libraries and recreation departments.

Families, community advocacy and coordinating organizations, school resource and city services coordinators must have the information, access, and supports they need to take shared responsibility for creating children and teen’s learning and development opportunities.

The need to rebuild relationships, routines, and rhythms as well as address academic learning loss, upended post-graduation plans, and unaddressed trauma (new and chronic), while simultaneously working to keep kids and adults COVID-safe and incorporate virtual learning is weighing heavily on educators, families, community partners, and all public systems. All are making decisions facing new constraints on time, space, people, skills, funding, relationships, partnersBut, as daily posts and articles document, school districts are calling the shots. This is not surprising. They control the dedicated resources and the right to mandate attendance and assess progress.

No one wants to see these goals — safety, supports, services, instruction, contribution, connections — as competing priorities. But they likely will be by necessity as decision-makers (including parents) juggle the resources they control to meet their separate priorities. Schools, in the end, have budgets and metrics that drive them to focus on academics. Families, first and foremost, have to prioritize safety even if this means sending their children into potentially unsafe school and child-care situations because they have to go to work. But low income-families, in particular, rely on schools to help them ensure that their sacrifices for their children pay off. Community programs, by design, are prioritizing kids and families — trying to juggle scarce resources to address the greatest gaps and needs including, but by no means limited to academic supports while juggling the competing priorities set by funders.

Putting Young People at the Center

Disruptions in families, schools and community organizations have created an opportunity to put young people and their development at the center. Doing this requires a series of all-out efforts to create or increase policy, practice, and public awareness to support all adults who are working to support learning and development in all settings to advance the goal of reaching all children and teens, prioritizing those who are the most likely to lack strong connections. These efforts can be advanced and supported nationally (with funding, training, and guidance), but they have to be executed locally within and between systems.

We urge everyone to:

  • Think families first. We need to know as much as possible about where, how, and with whom families connect and why they connect. Who is with youth when they are at home? Where and with whom are they when they aren’t at home?
  • Think connections. Which adults in which roles in which organizations have prior relationships with youth and families and/or the capacity to connect, respond, coordinate, and broker solutions?
  • Think capacity. Make fast and tough assessments of capacity to scale. Where is there capacity that can be quickly rebuilt or expanded? What would it take to make this happen?
  • Think continuity and quality. Access is important, but quick fixes can do more harm than good. Where can we lnvest in high quality learning experiences and sustainable relationships?
  • Think coordinated information and data. We know there are gaps. One of the best ways to find them and fill them is to ask youth and families what they have and what they need and use it. What do connectors need to be better collectors and conduits of information?

Homes, Pods, Hubs, Schools, Communities: Finding New Solutions

Parents are scrambling. Families who can are creating “pandemic pods” with tutors, extra-curriculars and supports for the social, emotional and physical needs of children and youth. Progressive communities like San Francisco are creating “learning hubs” bringing together community partners to support school-driven virtual learning in all neighborhoods across the city. But in most places, especially low-income communities, young people will fall through the cracks. They are counting on us to step up.

We need a new frame. We need a solution that builds on all of the assets of the community.

Let schools focus on serving students with the best possible instruction and academic learning virtually, in-school or in hybrid formats. And let’s bring together everyone to support the care, safety, health and well-being of our children and youth. It’s time. We must be better together.