At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Annie Robison, our Chief of Schools, was tasked with organizing and leading RePublic’s response to the crisis. During this process, she, along with the organization, had to face the hard truth — after the pandemic is over, we cannot return to “normal” because “normal” was not equitable for all kids. This hard truth came with four important lessons — our academic program must inspire independent, not dependent learners, we must build partnerships with our families, our schools must address the health and wellness of our staff and our scholars, and our organization must deepen our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout this period, rather than pausing it. She challenges educators to take this opportunity to learn about our lessons and to seize the moment in their own organizations to make change.
At the start of the pandemic crisis, I was tasked with organizing our network’s response to COVID-19. Everything was urgent, everything was changing, and it was hard. But, we got our program off the ground (in seven working days), revised our way of working, and implemented policies and practices to keep our people safe. And then, I realized that this wasn’t going away and that this was indeed going to become our new “normal.” Next year would be different, our schools would need to change and I would need to change how I was leading to make that happen.
Below, you’ll find the four lessons I’ve learned throughout this crisis, a reflection of my leadership as the leader of our response, and my charge to you. And, with that, let’s start at the turning point for me when I realized I needed to stop leading a crisis response and started leading a change in our organization.
My Turning Point
On Tuesday, April 7th, I tuned in to watch Dr. Anthony Fauci address the public during the daily coronavirus task force briefing, “When all this is over and, as we said, it will end, we will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities which we really do need to address in the African American community.” These words haunt me and they should haunt you too. Fauci’s wise assessment of the healthcare system can just as well, should just as well, be applied to the American education system, where I’ve built my career. During this time, when leaders like myself are rightfully expected to quickly change course and figure out a solution to provide learning to all of our scholars, it’s easy to lose sight of this most important assessment looming over our education system. Yes, we need to figure out how to persist and perform our roles as educators during this pandemic. Yes, this will take an incredible amount of effort, reorganization, and flexibility. Despite all of these challenges and the very human pull of wanting to return to normal, we must recognize that normal wasn’t equitable or successful for the majority of Americans, particularly for black and brown scholars. Educators, let’s not miss the rare opportunity this crisis presents us, when there are few policies or guidelines, no mandated assessments or rulebooks, to reimagine the public education system in America to be one that is equitable for all children.
After the initial burst of activity that followed our school closures, which included launching a distance learning program, revising organizational policies, and restructuring our daily work life, we at RePublic have intentionally taken the opportunity to slow down and grapple with the questions that have long been on our hearts and minds. How are we going to use this opportunity to truly embrace our mission to reimagine public education in the South rather than to return to before? What would the process need to look like to get us there? What have we learned along the way? And, of course, what would school look like next year?
Prioritizing Inclusivity Over Urgency
In an effort to really dig into these questions, we paused. Literally, we stopped meeting about the topic of COVID-19 for about a week, which felt strange, and started meeting about how we would structure the design work to get us to a solution, informed by scholar, parent, and staff data about our progress. That led us to restructuring our initially rapid response COVID Task Force (CTF) into working groups that could adequately address these questions. We expanded this group’s membership from seven members of our senior team, to 12 members including more junior staff, to ultimately 35 people. Our senior team collaborated to ensure that we intentionally increased the diversity of perspectives and experiences of the team, particularly insisting on engaging with a racially diverse cohort and role diverse cohort. We made that shift because we knew we needed to benefit from the ideas and creativity that existed throughout our organization and not just at the highest level. We then chose to engage folks in ongoing working groups related to critical work streams of our organization: academic programming, health and wellness, school models, organizational structure and finances, and preparing for next fall. We were careful to slow down our process to engage meaningfully in both the uncertainty of the conditions of schooling we face next year and the questions at the core of our mission.
As we launched our working groups in mid-April, we took time to study the research coming out about the impact of COVID-19 on the education system. We internalized the materials coming from other districts across the country. Our group leaders grounded the work in news articles outlining the long term impact of COVID-19 on our society in an effort to change manage hearts and minds around the struggle we were up against. After a week of observing working groups, we piloted a strategic planning document that challenged us to zoom out and consider the critical factors, uncertainties, and people we wanted to intentionally plan for. The document also intentionally pushed us to think bigger rather than reverting back to normal. We’ve made a commitment as a team to not allow the urgency of the moment to cloud our commitment to equity, even in the processes we are using to confront this challenge.
And trust me, it’s hard; our people want answers around what next year will look like and we don’t have them yet. But, as we’ve slowed down and allowed room for real research, exploration, and debate, we’ve seen the benefit of this diverse group of individuals coming together to work on solutions. The solutions they’ve developed are better than any we could have come up with if we had done this the way that we had originally planned. We are benefiting from the diversity of thought, experiences, and beliefs not just because the solutions are undoubtedly better, but also because our culture feels better. As our working groups march towards their end product, we’ve already seen our organization embrace our charge to reimagine rather than to return to normal. This leads us to the four most significant takeaways that our team is prioritizing as we plan for the future.
Our Academic Program Must Inspire Independent, Not Dependent, Thinkers, and Learners.
Like many districts experiencing distance learning on a large scale for the first time, we were initially shocked by the struggles we saw playing out. Our scholar engagement levels were not as high as we had initially hoped, the quality of work wasn’t what we typically see in the classroom, and it didn’t feel as productive because we weren’t able to directly instruct our scholars the way we normally do. But, after further study, we’ve realized that these challenges aren’t a result of our distance learning program. Instead, they are a result of the academic practices we’ve either overtly embraced or subtly allowed as an organization. As Zaretta Hammond says in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, “we have to recognize that we help maintain the achievement gap when we don’t teach advanced cognitive skills to students we label as ‘disadvantaged’ because of their language, gender, race, or socioeconomic status.” At RePublic, as we continue to craft our program for the uncertainties of next year, we must take this moment to put the cognitive skills front and center for all scholars, regardless of their identity, if we want to not only “recover” from the COVID slide, but actually fulfill our mission. This means we are already carefully considering everything from our curriculum, to our instructional methods, to our assessment program to ensure that scholars are set up to take charge of their own learning rather than relying on the teacher to do the heavy lifting. This does not mean we will be teaching asynchronously; we believe deeply that synchronous and in person experiences are critical. What we are doing is challenging our own beliefs on what our instruction looks like if we truly aim to create independent learners. It will undoubtedly require iterations and ingenuity along the way, but it’s progress that our team has demanded that this is the central question they must face as an academic working group.
“RATHER, OUR LESSON HERE IS THAT THIS CRISIS IS NOT AN EXCUSE TO PAUSE OUR EQUITY WORK BUT INSTEAD A GLARING EXAMPLE OF WHY WE MUST SET UP A SYSTEMATIC RESPONSE WITH EQUITY AT THE CENTER.”
We Must Build Partnerships With Our Families.
As we launched our distance learning program, it quickly became clear to us that while we know it is essential to engage with our families as partners in their scholars’ education, we have not met that bar. Even before launching our first distance learning lesson, we knew that we needed to keep our families at the forefront of our distance learning plan design to make sure that we kept it simple. We also quickly decided to execute a family communication and engagement strategy we modeled after case management work from the social work sector. We required school teams to communicate with families on a weekly basis to ensure families had essential needs met and were able to focus on distance learning. After the first few weeks, we noticed the call numbers quickly decline (in some places). We received feedback from pockets of our organization that the calls were not a priority because they weren’t producing radically new information from families. This response was surprising when our expectation was that school teams would call and, at minimum, make sure our families were okay and offer a listening ear.
This demonstrated a problem that we’ve always failed to embrace and prioritize: we need to commit to building real and lasting partnerships with our parents and scholars and insist on regular and meaningful communication with our parents. Even though we were supporting our families through a simple distance learning plan, we were still missing the overall mark. We have examples of amazing educators and school leaders who regularly have meaningful communication with our families, often based on their own sense of values, particularly our leaders and teachers of color, but we haven’t insisted on this as part of our organizational design. And, we haven’t routinely insisted on this when educators have pushed back around the importance of building relationships with our families. At times in our history, we’ve struggled to push our educators on this because addressing it would potentially uncover something altogether more troubling; some of our folks are uncomfortable speaking to our parents for reasons that are more likely than not, related to race or differences in backgrounds. Yet, during this time, we’ve continued to push and insist on engaging with families. Educators have shown us that, when pushed and given time to engage with parents, this effort builds community and is rewarding. We are seeing our educators organize celebrations, parades, and virtual gatherings to build community with parents and scholars. We are seeing more and more of our educators embrace weekly family check-ins. They are partnering with families more to solve technology issues and supporting parents as they access our distance learning program in a way that wasn’t happening before. This crisis demonstrated the enduring need for us to embrace building and sustaining authentic, ongoing family partnerships to serve as allies in the work of educating scholars.
Our Schools Must Address the Health and Wellness of Our Staff and Our Scholars.
Much like our lesson learned around partnerships, this crisis has heightened our awareness of how our people are doing and what their needs are. Stripping away the construct of a normal school day has forced us to think about what really matters and, in some ways, has forced us to take the time to check in and really listen to the needs of our people. Relationships, health, and wellness are front and center when we are working together on a video call, teaching a lesson on Zoom, or running a virtual meeting. We’ve learned from the incredible leaders and teachers within our organization who have modeled tremendous humanity during this difficult time. So many of our teachers are using preexisting relationships with scholars to support them through these difficult times. They are rallying around families who need support and urgently directing them to resources that they can use. Our leaders quickly insisted that we prioritize staff health and wellness and enacted policies, such as all staff members now receiving two mental health days to use, and work hours, no standing meetings outside of 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., that demonstrate this commitment.
Our working group charged with defining what health and wellness should look like in the future has clearly articulated how, regardless of whether or not we are able to operate school in buildings, health and wellness need to be embedded into our planning. We are currently working to figure out how we could model our schools to prioritize wellness for staff, both physically in terms of safety and mentally, and provide the flexibility needed to take care of their own children or their health needs during this time. In terms of applying this to our scholars, we are still researching and learning what it will look like to support our scholars’ safety and social emotional needs stemming from this pandemic. We know we will commit time daily to address these needs and we are prioritizing this in our school day. In the meantime, we believe that the increased emphasis on family contact and communication will serve as a helpful lesson for our organization around showing care. The weekly check-in structure with families ensures we are seeing how they are doing, connecting them with resources, and troubleshooting issues with distance learning. Ultimately, we aren’t exactly sure what our version of addressing scholar wellness will look like in its final state but we know it’s a non-negotiable.
Our Organization Must Deepen Our Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Throughout This Period, Rather Than Pausing It.
Our newfound emphasis on the wellness of our people has undoubtedly heightened our awareness around the different experiences our people, including our staff members, face during this pandemic. Our people are talking about their home lives more (it’s hard not to do when your family is walking around in the background!) at work than ever before. This serves as a helpful reminder of who people are and how different the life of a staff member can be, depending on where they live, their racial identity, or what stage of life they are in. Simply understanding people or at least, simply seeing our people beyond their role in the organization is widening our understanding of the differences we need to celebrate within our organization.
But, it’s not just about knowing people; it’s also about actively making choices that advance equity within our organization. For the last few years, our organization has explored and engaged in work related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We started this by forming a DEI Coalition that pushed us to adopt new, bolder core values that would guide us as an organization. We’ve also engaged as a senior team in personal development and team development related to DEI. Once COVID-19 hit, we found ourselves not talking quite as much about this despite the news and facts surrounding the inequitable impact of COVID-19 in the U.S. As we consider this question of reimagining our schools, we cannot do this without doing so with an equity lens and an inclusive process. Keeping this as an evergreen in our organization will take intentionality. That’s why, despite the challenges of planning for next year, we are moving forward with rolling out and implementing our new core values because that’s the organization we need to be. As we are planning in our working groups, we are careful to consider our critical audiences, often our scholar or staff subgroups who have been historically underserved, and are aiming to create a plan with these scholars and staff members at the center of it. Do not misunderstand: we do not claim to have mastered embracing an equity lens. Rather, our lesson here is that this crisis is not an excuse to pause our equity work but instead a glaring example of why we must set up a systematic response with equity at the center.
Becoming the Organization We Want To Be
As we look forward, there is a noticeable shift in our organization. In the beginning of planning for next year and beyond, with COVID-19 questions popping up everywhere, we sensed trepidation and anxiety. The number of scenarios, contingencies, what-ifs, and unknowns have been paralyzing and humbling for us. At the start, we weren’t aligned on what an appropriate response would be and on what to prioritize in that response. However, by slowing down, looking up, and embracing this uncertainty, we as an organization have shifted to see the opportunity to innovate and reimagine what our schools can look like during this time and beyond. As we are engaging in discussions, I’m seeing more ingenuity and creativity, more boldness, than I’ve seen in years. I think we’ve learned the most obvious lesson through this crisis: that our people have always wanted to embrace our mission of reimagining public education in the South; we simply needed to provide the opportunity, and sadly, the permission structure for them to do so.
To summarize Dr. Fauci, this crisis is only highlighting inequities and disparities that existed all along. As a senior team in our organization, our charge is to cultivate this bold thinking into action, to encourage innovative and equitable policies, and insist on creativity and groundbreaking ideas every day. That’s our charge every day, not only in this moment of crisis. We know that we cannot afford to go back to before because before was not equitable. We cannot let this moment pass us by. Let’s think boldly and change for the better by partnering with our families to reimagine what schooling should look like. Let’s not make schools for communities but rather remake our schools with communities. We committed to challenge this status quo when we joined this work in education, now we have this opportunity. I challenge you to honor that commitment and build a better future for all kids.