Parents don’t need someone to give them the answers; they just need someone who can assist in processing everything they want to do for their children and seeing how much is possible.
Amy Anderson, co-author of the School’s Out paper, introduced us to the dynamic work happening at ReSchool Colorado. The Learner Advocate Network is a core component of their pilot program, so we took the time to speak with Lauren Fine, ReSchool’s first Learner Advocate, to explore her role with families.
Q: What path led you to working as a Learner Advocate for ReSchool Colorado?
A: I’m a native of Colorado; this is my home. An important part of my story comes from my high school days where I was actually wheelchair-bound due to a broken back. Because of my parents’ ability to navigate the system, I didn’t fall behind. They were able to leverage the system in ways that ensured I wouldn’t lose access. This helped me develop a lens around access and equity and who has the ability to leverage the system for their child.
As I moved into college, barely walking again at this point, I wanted to explore my interest in child psychology. During my time in college, I caught wind of Teach for America and ended up teaching in St. Louis from 2005-2007. My kids didn’t have access to basic foundations of learning. In 3rd grade, half of them didn’t know the alphabet, many didn’t have much number sense, and any kids with special education needs were given coloring packets. That experience brought to light the many inequities that exist in our country that I didn’t even realize existed. One of those is the fact that public schooling is not equal. And, that not everyone has access to the information needed to leverage that system to make it work for them.
That experience fueled my passion around addressing educational inequities. Post-college, I did work in Africa, and then came back to the US and did work with school turnaround. After ten years in that work, I still felt really disappointed in many aspects of our educational system. We want our kids to fit into these very specific boxes of success that are exclusively academic-based. And, while I find academics to be important, they do not represent the whole child. At another level, that focus doesn’t represent family units. If we look at school beyond the four walls of a building, we find there are entire communities we should be concerned with.
As a teacher, we reserve small windows of time for everything. We have an expectation of parents to fit into the needs and times that work for our schools, rather than adapting the schools to the needs and schedules of the parents.
In fact, we’ve asked schools to be superheros. We expect them to be in control of after-school programming, daytime learning, having food banks, and more. We’ve asked our schools to become so big that it becomes extremely hard to do anything well. Can you really juggle 500 balls at once or should you focus on juggling three, so you can be sure to really nail it? What if we really put the learner at the center of everything? What is it that this kid loves? What ignites their passion? What if we unlocked our cities in a way that allowed each kid to explore their passion? These are the questions that brought me to ReSchool Colorado.
Q: Through your work with turnaround schools, what did you find to be most helpful in creating a new culture of learning?
A: It was vital that everyone involved knew we were starting from scratch. The places I worked with were able to ask, “What are the experiences we want our learners to have between the time they come through our doors and when they leave for their next adventure?”
It is important to note that, with turnaround schools, there is a deeply held interest in improving academic success, so everyone wants that to be the key focus. However, with schools that are successful, we find they are able to not only improve the academics but they also aim to stay mindful of the individual experiences of each kid to better serve them. It is unfortunate because I think the schools I worked with were also very interested in addressing questions like, “What do we want families to experience when they are at our school? What relationships do we want them to have with us and the school community?”
Q: What barriers have you seen in the traditional education system that prevent schools from engaging more with families?
A: As a teacher, we reserve small windows of time for everything. We have an expectation that the parents will fit themselves into the needs and times that work for our schools, rather than adapting the schools to the needs and schedules of the parents. “We will be holding parent-teacher conferences from 5-7pm.” What about the parent who works during those hours?
With this pilot at ReSchool Colorado and the Learner Advocate Network, my main site has been a hospital. A hospital is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week machine. Someone is always working there. So, when I think about how many people working at hospitals have children, I recognize how creative they need to be in making sure their kids are taken care of. It then becomes our duty as an educator or a school to ask ourselves, “What does an engaged parent look like?”
We make a lot of assumptions in schools that if a parent doesn’t visit the school, they are disengaged. Instead, I think we should be asking, “What kind of barriers exist for that parent (e.g. work, previous education experiences, language fluency) that might actually make school a scary and intimidating place?” Or, more simply, “How might a parent’s working hours make it impossible for them to visit while the school is open?”
We toss around the term “whole-child” all the time, but if we actually sat down and defined it, we’d be able to identify the components every child would need to have in order to unlock the learning experiences we would like to provide.
I work with parents whose schedules change weekly, so scheduling anything with the school is a headache for them. I like to think every parent loves their child and truly wants the best for them. The challenge is how to get the child the things they want or need in terms of their ongoing learning experiences. If you know your kid wants to play baseball and his dad’s schedule changes every week, it’s incredibly difficult to get him to baseball practice. It’s not that the dad doesn’t support his child. At ReSchool we are seeking a solution for this kind of situation. So, a lot of my responsibility as a Learner Advocate is to help families think these things through and ensure what they and their child most want can be accessed.
Before we can even ask those questions though, we have to discover what is actually motivating to the child. We toss around the term “whole-child” all the time, but if we actually sat down and defined it, we’d be able to identify the components every child would need to have in order to unlock the learning experiences we would like to provide.
One parent I worked with came in on day one and said, “My kids need to take self defense classes because there are too many bullies in our neighborhood.” We said, “Ok, let’s explore this and get to know your children.” So, we started creating learner profiles of each child and specifically asked them what they wanted to explore.
Working with a Learner Advocate is an invitation to shift how parents think about themselves in different environments.
While the dad was really pushing for self-defense classes, the children had no interest in attending those classes. As I worked with the dad, it became clear that the kids were not actually worried about being bullied, so didn’t share the dad’s sense of urgency about the classes.
When the children were asked what they wanted to explore, we came to understand one wanted to learn more about the arts and one was obsessed with animals. This guided our work, and we ensured that both kids had access to ongoing learning experiences within the arts and with animals. Through weekend classes, winter break learning experiences, and summer camps, each child was able to further pursue their passions.
Q: How do those negotiations between parent and child play out?
A: Doing this work for the past year has continually surprised me. As a teacher, I was always building my relationship with families through the child first. As a Learner Advocate, I’m building my relationship through the parent and then onto the child. Getting to meet with parents in their workspace and providing them the opportunity to just vent about the things that are stressing them is huge. Parents don’t need someone to give them the answers; they just need someone who can assist in processing everything they want to do for their children and seeing how much is possible.
It’s always interesting talking with parents first to get a sneak-peek preview of the kids. Then, when I get to meet with everyone at their home—which is a paradigm shift for the parents to not bear the responsibility of traveling to meet us—we get a more complete picture that is really beautiful and provides new information for everyone.
Q: Overall, what is the ideal structure for how this Learner Advocate Network will operate in the future?
A: The “ideal” structure would be for all learners to have access to advocates throughout their schooling years. Having access to a network of advocates would allow for the students to be supported in their learning journeys both inside and outside of school. The power of having this kind of network is that you can have lots of people with a variety of strengths, backgrounds, experiences, and expertise who can all work together to support the learner. The advocates would function like navigators; students would be the center of the learning paradigm, not schools.
I had a family who was really struggling to find a daycare for a two-year-old who was going to need help learning English. Denver is a daycare desert. People get on lists before they’re even pregnant. So, when this challenge came up, I didn’t have an immediate answer. But, because I have a colleague who is part of the advocate network and is knowledgeable about the daycare system, I had someone go to and ask for help. In situations like these, the other advocate might even work with the family for a short time, and the relationship would be turned back over to me after this problem is solved.
Q: How does the network stay connected and know the skills everyone is bringing to the table?
A: With our current team of six at ReSchool (plus five who still help out from the Donnell-Kay Foundation), we all own what we know, and more importantly, we own what we don’t know. That level of comfort and transparency with the team allows us to collaborate and problem solve together as a Learner Advocate Network, so I can go back to the family with a solution to the problem that popped up.
We have Advocates in the Learner Advocate Network that have experience working across a wide range of ages and with specific areas of expertise, such as special education or literacy. When we are able to work with Donnell-Kay staff, we are able to bring to life the policy and practices they are advocating for.
As an example, one of our partners at Donnell-Kay was working on increasing access to transportation through public busing to help Denver youth. I was simultaneously working with a high schooler who had to spend 90 minutes and travel on multiple buses in order to make it to school. It is really special when we can learn from the families in the LAN and ensure we are creating policies and practices that best support the Denver community.
Q: What qualities does a Learner Advocate need to play the role well?
A: You have to be humble. You have to be comfortable to walk into spaces and places that might not have been your own experience and to not assume your expertise can address what a particular family needs from you. I don’t know what it’s like to be a mom with three kids and the various barriers that exist in their lives. Being able to have grace and walk in with families knowing they are doing the best they can is crucial.
A Learner Advocate needs to be able to work collaboratively, rather than arriving and saying: “I have all the answers for you.” Like I said before, I believe the parents have all the answers, and it’s my job to unlock that for them. Their advocacy skills are there within them, and we need to help bring them out.
It makes a huge difference when Learner Advocates are networked within the system. Our system is so complex that, even as a Denver native, I discover new programs I hadn’t ever heard of all the time. You want to be a sponge of the city and navigate all the new things you discover. And, now, I’m knowledgeable about Denver, but as we expand to Jefferson County, I don’t know that landscape as well. I will need to immerse myself as much as possible to be of service to the families I work with.
Finally, I have to add that a Learner Advocate needs to have patience. For most parents, this isn’t their top priority when we show up to work with them. We meet them at work, where they have their work hats on. When they go home, they put their parent hat on. Working with a Learner Advocate is an invitation to shift how parents think about themselves in different environments. Rather than being seen as the person who is good at cleaning the floors in the hospital, both the individual themselves and their employer can start seeing the them as a parent who is working in the hospital. Working on the shift in personal identity takes patience.
Q: What would bring this from a pilot to a sustainable resource?
A: My dream is to see education funding actually tied to the kid and not the school. What if a child wanted to go to their school for half the day and go to a makerspace across town for the other half? With the family in control of the spending, you can now direct the money in ways that best serves the child’s interests. That’s really intriguing to think about. In Denver, we have so many opportunities, but the questions become: How do we get kids to those places? How do they pay for them? And, most importantly, what is learning?