Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Learning pods for all, the Hoosier way

Across Indianapolis, hundreds of students are getting help navigating remote learning while school campuses remain closed.

The city is now home to two efforts—one led by the local school district, one outside it—to extend an academic lifeline to students who, for a variety of reasons, needed additional support during remote learning. 

Once Indianapolis Public Schools decided to start the school year fully remote, education leaders knew they would have to get creative, quickly, about how to sustain school without school buildings.

"We are responsible for making sure we have some sort of structure to address what we know will be a gap exacerbated by our decision to go fully virtual," Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said during an online presentation hosted by CRPE.

To close that gap, the district launched what Johnson called a "Herculean effort" to create 11 learning hubs that prioritized access for students who are housing insecure or those with disabilities—the students most vulnerable to missing learning opportunities without access to campuses. 

The Mind Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding high-quality education opportunities in the city, complemented those efforts with a $200,000 investment to launch 11 additional learning sites, with more set to come online, run by churches and neighborhood organizations, where students can connect virtually to their public schools.

Brandon Brown, The Mind Trust's CEO, said the community organizations had a critical advantage that helped them quickly identify families who needed help: community connections and credibility.

Both the school district and the Mind Trust had to train adults who served as learning facilitators in the hubs. They needed to learn how to operate the online learning platforms used by local schools, and to figure out how to support students who might be part of the same hub, but attend different schools, with slightly different online class schedules, and different breaks between classes that learning hubs needed to fill.

Indianapolis is not the only city that’s seeing new and quickly evolving efforts to support students in new ways, filling essential gaps in childcare, technology access, and student support that arise when schools remain closed. But it’s an example of a citywide effort that’s serving hundreds of students with the support of the local district. Conditions in the city before the pandemic likely helped this effort get off the ground. 

First, it has a school district leader, in Johnson, who had already started thinking creatively about budgeting and staffing. She's had no choice. The district faces enrollment declines and stiff competition for students in a city full of charter schools and other school choice options.

To support its learning hubs, the district redeployed staff, facilities, and equipment that might otherwise have sat idle during remote learning. Campus deans serve as site directors for each of the district's hubs—seven of which are housed in district facilities. The district's transportation department helps ensure the most vulnerable students—including those who qualified for support under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, can get daily rides to the hubs. The food service department provides meals to district-run hubs.

Second, Indianapolis has a strong civic triangle. The school district, the mayor's office, and an array of education-focused nonprofits have all embraced a collaborative ethos, the Hoosier Way. And they've been able to get the ear of state officials, who acted quickly in this crisis to cut red tape.

Brown said he received a phone call the weekend before the planned launch of the learning hub initiative, informing him state childcare regulations could thwart the plan. Within days, however, local leaders had convinced the governor's office to issue an executive order easing some of those regulations.

These advantages, combined with a growing track record of education innovation and improvement, still haven't been enough to ensure it will meet the needs of all the students who might need help, or to ensure a long-term future for the hubs. 
Many students who might benefit from learning hubs still don't have access to them. Brown said hundreds of students are on the waiting list for The Mind Trust's hubs, while Johnson said the school district's efforts, focused on specific high-need groups, had been "slow on the uptake"—suggesting a need for new forms of outreach to families.

In addition, long-term funding remains uncertain. The Mind Trust has secured funding to sustain its hubs through mid-October. It's worked with organizations that operate hubs to drive the cost down to about $50 per student per week, and it hopes to help them tap other funding sources, like federal childcare grants. 

But Brown said sustaining the hubs will ultimately require new public funding——perhaps from the city, the state, or federal stimulus funding.

"If our politicians want us to be back in schools, and we're not yet at the point where it's safe for all kids to be back in school, then we've got a moral imperative to make sure that we're supporting families in any way that we can," he said.

Despite these uncertainties, both Johnson and Brown say their initial effort to support learning hubs has prompted some thinking about how learning might look different after the pandemic. 

Could the same community organizations whose credibility and connections helped them quickly invite families into learning hubs support learning in other ways? Could the training that learning facilitators received to support students hint at new roles for adults to complement the work of certified teachers who deliver instruction? Could the line between in-school learning time and out-of-school enrichment remain blurred? 

"What if we thought more holistically around what are the educational experiences that our kids deserve?" Brown asked. "I think there's real innovations that could take place if we think about school as a community, and not school as a building."

This was a compelling question for school systems before the pandemic. The pandemic has forced some forward-thinking school systems and community organizations to try out a new answer. At CRPE, we will be tracking those efforts and sharing lessons as we learn them.

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Mon, 09/13/2021

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