Several months into the pandemic and school closure, our leadership team at Highline Public Schools was struggling. Like so many other district leaders across the country, on many days we were exhausted, sad and overwhelmed by the challenges we faced.
That was until our chief talent officer provided us with an incredibly insightful analogy that shifted our perspective.
Up until March 12, the last day we had students physically in schools, we had been playing a great game of checkers, he said. And during our years working together, we had gotten really good at playing checkers—we may have even been some of the best in the state. But school closure changed the game; we were no longer playing checkers. We were now playing a new game, one with no name, no rules, no clearly articulated strategy. But we were playing this new game by the old rules because that was all we knew. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t working.
Our response was to begin crafting a longer-term strategy at the same time as we dealt with our day-to-day reality. Yes, we had to make sure our students had devices, food and internet, and we also had to begin envisioning a different way of learning and working. While there was no pandemic playbook, those of us committed to achieving equity in public education have long had a very long wish list of changes we want to see in our schools.
We now have the opportunity, and responsibility, to turn this wish list into an action plan. Rather than frame these changes solely as a response to the pandemic, however, we should instead view them as providing every student with what they need to succeed in school and beyond—something which is long overdue. Every student, regardless of background or circumstance, deserves:
- healthy food so they are ready to learn each and every day;
- reliable home broadband access, permanently, so that learning is not contingent on being in a school building;
- an adult advocate in their school who knows them by name, strength and need and checks in with them weekly, if not daily;
- an individualized learning plan that supports them on a path to graduation and the future they choose for themselves;
- a team, consisting of their family and school staff, communicating regularly and working together to ensure they have the academic and social-emotional support they need; and
- more opportunities to learn year-round, meaning a shift away from the antiquated agrarian school calendar that leads to “summer slide” for too many.
While these may seem obvious, and in some places are indeed happening, they are hardly the norm in public education today. The time is now to deliver on educational equity once and for all by changing that. We must move from high quality, personalized learning being something that happens by luck or chance depending on where a student attends school, to something that happens by design and with intention for every student everywhere in this country.
Equity was not a founding design principle of our public education system, and the pandemic has laid this bare by showing just how far and wide the inequities are for so many of our students. While many are talking about the need for changes such as those outlined above, we cannot take for granted how strong the muscle memory within a bureaucracy as established as K-12 public education is. Change will not come easily or automatically. It will require courage and a commitment to thinking beyond the traditional roles that too often limit how adults in schools work together in true partnership with families, in service of children.
Creating truly equitable school systems is the only way to ensure that every child has an equal share in the promise of public education. The pandemic may have forever changed the rules we have known and played by for decades. The question now is: Will we collectively seize this opportunity to rewrite those rules and reimagine and rebuild an education system worthy of our children?
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.