School’s Out: Exploring a Family-Anchored Strategy to Transform Education

Voices from the Field   18 September 2018
By Amy Anderson, ReSchool Colorado


Think back to your own life, or that of your children today. Where and with whom did your greatest learning experiences happen?

Amy Anderson
Executive Director

On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To amplify the voices of these learner-centered leaders, we have invited each to author articles that express the context from which they approached the question: What if school did not exist?

The first in this series comes from ReSchool Colorado’s Executive Director, Amy Anderson, who takes us through ReSchool’s bold work in The Centennial State.

Given the speed in which our world is changing, considerable energy is being spent predicting future needs so that today’s students will be ready for what lies ahead. While this is a useful intellectual exercise, it should be acknowledged that there is no endpoint to the discussion—what we value as necessary for learners to have a bright future will always be shifting. This means the responsibility of preparing our children for the future needs to be held by more than these futurists or any other single cohort of stakeholders.

What if parents and their kids developed the agency and were provided the access and resources necessary to navigate these increasingly complex systems of learning? Rather than relying on a third-party, all families, particularly those who have been historically blocked from such privilege and access, could be directly informed about and engaged with what the system has to offer. This type of thinking is what got the wheels churning for me in Colorado—flipping the focus from schools and systems to families. We are on a quest to co-create a learner-centered, expansive system of education that will serve the unique needs, interests, and passions of all learners.

A Shift in Perspective from School to Learner

In late 2012, I was working for the Colorado Department of Education as an Associate Commissioner, focusing my time on how to innovate within the system and expand the array of learning models and schools available for youth across the state—charter and innovation schools, blended learning, concurrent enrollment, and the office of dropout prevention and student re-engagement were some of the areas of focus within my division.

I was frustrated. After a 25-year career in education, I saw too many kids struggling in school and life. Education improvement largely focuses on schools or districts as the units of change. And, this unit of change hasn’t shifted, even as personalized learning has become the new focus in many environments across the country. Everything is still anchored within the context of classroom and school settings. I realized then, and believe even stronger today, that simply tweaking the current system isn’t going to fundamentally improve the experience for most students in this country.

Those students who do see improvement largely fall within the same cohorts we always see— learners whose families have greater access to resources and, therefore, a robust array of choices when it comes to their learning.

Shifts to new school models, like charter schools, has helped expand the supply of school choices; however, the voices of families to inform the design of these schools has been largely absent. In many cases, especially in higher poverty communities and communities of color, well intentioned leaders and education experts have designed schools for communities, not with communities. As a result, many families are pushing back or opting out of the system all together.

Despite this trend, we continue looking to schools as the primary providers and brokers of the knowledge and skills that hold currency for a child’s future. Yet, students spend only 25% of their waking hours in school. Think back to your own life, or that of your children today. Where and with whom did your greatest learning experiences happen? So much of what young people learn about themselves, their relationships with others, and the world around them occurs beyond the walls of school.

I felt a calling to explore these questions and consider what a more expansive, learner-centered system of education might look like if we had the chance to reimagine it, but I knew that I couldn’t do this in my role at the State DOE. My plate was so full with the activities and programming required to keep the current system running, I had very little time or space to spend on reimagining the system, much less on working directly with families and communities.

So, I left the state in 2013 to return to the Donnell-Kay Foundation (where I had worked previously from 2007-2011) to explore the concept of designing a modernized education system in partnership with communities. Five years later, that concept has evolved into ReSchool, a Colorado-based non-profit organization that works directly with families to build their capacity and confidence to get what they want and need from our systems of learning, within and beyond school. ReSchool also partners with educators, community-based organizations, philanthropists, and businesses to leverage existing assets more purposefully around the needs and aspirations of learners and to launch new solutions to address gaps in the ecosystem.

ReSchool’s Evolutionary Purpose & Commitment to User-Centered Design

When we committed to co-designing a system with communities in 2013, we were also committing to using different methods than we had used in the past. Traditional planning efforts normally imagine some future state and backmap from there. For this co-design to work, we needed to create that future state over time and allow it to evolve and shift as more people became engaged in our work.

We viewed ReSchool as an entrepreneurial endeavor, so we researched the processes that successful startups have used to take an idea from early concept to reality and explored how such processes could be leveraged in the context of a social enterprise. Our design partners at Greater Good Studio taught us that having an authentic understanding of the current end-users’ context was critical. From that process of engagement, new ideas would emerge that we could collectively test and grow in partnership with learners, parents, and other partners.

Since starting this work, we’ve partnered with hundreds of parents, youth, educators, and community partners. We’ve identified gaps, uncovered barriers to access, and discovered creative strategies and tools to leverage at a larger scale.

What We’ve Learned and What ReSchool is Doing Today

Our current activities are informed by time spent shadowing families who are navigating childcare, schooling, and out-of-school time. We’ve also run pop-up workshops focused on acute needs families identified, such as school choice during key transition years of kindergarten, middle, and high school and planning for what kids can do during the summer months and school breaks for working families. As a result of these various engagements, ReSchool is currently focusing on three primary areas.

Building Family Agency

Every parent we meet has aspirations for their children’s educations and futures. Their children also have their own interests and opinions about what, where, and how they want to engage in learning and life. Yet, they often struggle to know what goals are appropriate at different stages, what opportunities exist, which ones are the best fit, and how to have conversations together (parent and child) to make decisions about which schools and other learning experiences reflect their family context, academic goals, interests, and cultural identity. Having a trusted partner—someone who can coach them through this process and build their capacity and confidence to navigate increasingly complex options—has become essential.

To address this need, we tested concepts to build family agency, which led to the evolution of Learner Advocate Networks (LAN). These advocates meet with parents in the workplace and with families, virtually and in person, to guide them in their pursuit of purposeful and relevant learning paths from birth to career. The first network started in partnership with Boulder Housing Partners, and they continue to grow their model years after our first prototypes together. The second iteration of the LAN is run by the ReSchool team and partners with local employers who offer free LAN access to any working parent as an employee benefit.

Image 1: David is Ruby and Davian’s father. The family worked with a ReSchool advocate to uncover interests and difficulties in the kids’ learning. Ruby was also getting ready for a big transition to middle school.Through working with the advocate, the family identified their desire for Ruby to attend the Denver School of the Arts and put together relevant experiences for Ruby to be able to apply. She was accepted and started school there this fall!
Image 2: After some skepticism and hesitation, one parent took a leap and signed up her two boys for their first summer camp experience with the popular Avid4Adventure. They spent a full-week outside developing skills in mountain biking, hiking, stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking. They had an incredible time and can’t wait to go back next summer!
Image 3: A mom of five kids had the opportunity to take parent-child swim class with her youngest while the other children took a driver’s education class, independent swim lessons and photography.

Expanding Access to Out-of-School Learning

Unless a family has made the choice to homeschool, most everyone we work with enrolls their children in what we call a “home base”—a childcare center or school. If they aren’t happy with that home base or find themselves in transition years between schools, it is important that they find a new home base that is safe, welcoming, and reflects their goals and needs.

Once that home base is secured, we focus on the 75% of waking time kids spend outside of school. Very few of them have opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities outside of school, and we don’t see the types of enrichment opportunities we used to within the school day, either. Compare that to more affluent kids whose families often spend thousands of dollars each year for camps, lessons, tutors, travel, etc. Schools are not the only places where opportunity gaps are widening.

Focusing on summer, after school, and school breaks reduces this enrichment gap and prevents what is referred to as the “summer slide”—when kids lose academic progress over the summer due to a lack of continued learning. Summer is also ripe for exploration. Kids can pursue passions and gain exposure to new relationships and environments, adding long-term value to their lives. As designers and testers of new concepts, we like summer because we aren’t competing with the demands of the existing school day or structures that can often inhibit innovation.

Eliminating Barriers to Access

As families navigate more expansive landscapes of learning, barriers come to light. And, as these challenges surface, the ReSchool team turns to our networks to find solutions to these vexing problems:

  • Transportation: School choice presents its own unique set of problems in Colorado because transportation to schools beyond those in one’s home boundary is limited. Couple that with summer and out-of-school learning and the transportation challenges multiply. Families are looking for affordable, flexible transportation options. While we are pursuing this design challenge on several fronts, one asset we identified is HopSkipDrive, a ride sharing service for kids that started in California. HopSkipDrive recently expanded to Colorado and transported kids in our network to and from their chosen summer learning opportunities.
  • Accessible Information: There are tens of thousands of summer experiences and out-of-school learning opportunities available for kids in the Denver metro area each year. Yet, finding information about these programs (e.g. when their sessions are available and how much they cost) can be overwhelming and time consuming. In the earlier days of ReSchool, we spent hours of staff time curating the landscape of learning opportunities in the summer and organizing this information into spreadsheets that advocates and parents could utilize.

    In our quest to find tools to make this an easier, more user-friendly experience, we came across Blueprint4Summer. Launched in 2015 by the Clark-Fox Family Foundation in St. Louis, Blueprint4Summer is a mobile friendly website that puts thousands of summer offerings at the fingertips of families. Parents can search for classes, lessons, one-day experiences, or week-long camps. The tool is free and easy to use for parents, students, and learning providers, allowing you to filter options by zip code, price, dates, and interests. ReSchool partnered with the Clark-Fox Family Foundation to bring this resource to Colorado and launched the Blueprint4SummerCO site in January 2018.

    While we still have a long way to go to ensuring greater access to information about out-of-school learning year-round, the presence of Blueprint4SummerCO has helped alleviate the burdens of searching and planning for summer learning for thousands of families across the Denver metro area.

  • Funding: Concern about cost is one of the primary reasons families don’t participate in learning activities beyond school. And, they have valid reasons to be concerned, as some summer and after-school programs are very expensive. That said, there are also many low and no-cost options that families are unaware of, as well as scholarships that go untapped each year due to lack of demand from families who would qualify. Going through the scholarship process can also be confusing and intimidating, especially for families whose first language isn’t English.

    Through our Learner Advocate Network (LAN) and Blueprint4SummerCO, ReSchool supports families as they navigate these challenges. We raise private funding to offer scholarships to families in our network and to open up more spots for kids who want to attend programming where there is greater demand than scholarships available. Going forward, we plan to partner with some larger community-based providers to help match families to scholarships that exist in an effort to expand the diversity of learners attending these programs and to utilize some of the scholarship money available that was previously unspent.

    We are looking for opportunities to leverage new or existing sources of public funding in ways that allow more families to bundle learning for their children from an array of providers, within and beyond school settings. In the meantime, we will continue to leverage private funding to alleviate cost as a barrier.

What Lies Ahead

While much of our current work is anchored in a few key initiatives, the vision of ReSchool isn’t just about Learner Advocate Networks or Blueprint4SummerCO. Our goal is to create a more expansive, equitable, and accessible education system with, and for, learners across Colorado.

To get there, ReSchool will continue to focus on families as the drivers of change. As we break down barriers to access and a growing number of families harness the capacity to get what they want and need for their education from a vast array of providers, we will see lives radically transformed. Most importantly, this isn’t something we have to wait for the system to do for us. As a community, we have the power to make this shift happen ourselves. The future is now!

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