I’ve learned that it isn’t as simple as creating new platforms or credentialing learning outside of school buildings. It is about telling a new story together.
Can you imagine what it would be and feel like if our children played an essential role in the daily life of our communities?
Instead of the kids being over in a big warehouse from 7am to 7pm from the ages of 5-18 and then released into the community, they would be immersed in the life of our towns and cities. Learning would be happening everywhere—passion projects, internships, apprenticeships, mentorships, new collaborations between city and neighbors and children and businesses.
In my role at Education Reimagined as the Senior Partner for Ecosystems Growth and Advancement, my job is to do just that—imagine and inspire these places of learning. Over the last year, I’ve been working on unpacking what it will take to get to this vision. I’ve learned that it isn’t as simple as creating new platforms or credentialing learning outside of school buildings. It is about telling a new story together. A story that lets go of the conventional model of “school” and instead, creates a new kind of living system to bring to life equitable, community-based, learner-centered ecosystems.
I began my career as an early childhood educator.
I worked with teachers and school leaders in lab schools, private schools, public schools, and Head Start. I experienced how it felt to be immersed in loving classrooms and strong communities. I also had the opportunity, as a Momma and an educator, to design and grow a network of schools in Baltimore called City Neighbors.
Over those 17 years, while my own children were growing up in the schools, I experienced what it was like to be part of a community focused on creating something new—something that would be responsive to what each child needs—and something that required a process for imagining together. As a community, we created structures and spaces, and traditions based on valuing relationships and play as the context for learning and honoring every child and person’s inherent need to be known, loved and inspired.
We took a stand for the essential relationship of families, and the significance of each child’s story, history, and identity. Together, we were crafting, weaving together, and telling the City Neighbors’ story.
But, all of the work we were doing in Baltimore over those years was often at odds with the systems we were a part of. In fact, for the most part, the system saw us as unwelcome disruptors. The system valued standardization, compliance, and averages.
City Neighbors didn’t align with those values. We spent time in those days both trying to partner and positioning ourselves to hold off the system—creating space for our school leaders, educators, families, and students to keep relationships at the heart of the work, no matter what the system wanted. And, that stand—being at odds with the system—became a part of our story.
So, the question is, how do we take the best parts of what we learned during these difficult days into the future?
What it will take—imagining a new story together
We are in a time of great learning and heightened awareness. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed possibilities for alternative models when schools were no longer able to operate as usual. Families and communities stepped in to facilitate learning and care for learners.
The pandemic pods that formed during the pandemic to meet the urgent need for socialization and childcare are one example we can look to and learn from. A recent report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) takes an in-depth look at families’ and educators’ experiences with pandemic pods, drawing upon 200 interviews and a national survey of 152 parents and 101 instructors who participated in a pod during the pandemic. CRPE found that two-thirds of the families participating preferred pods over conventional schools. Overall, the most commonly cited benefit was a belief that their child felt “known, heard, and valued,” followed by increased engagement in their learning.
The research reveals that pods offered families, teachers, and students a new way to approach teaching and learning that surpassed expectations for what school can be.
Community organizations reported feeling inspired by the opportunities they were able to provide during the pandemic, and educators found new benefits for their own craft in pandemic pods, with 74% of educators reporting they found more “freedom and flexibility” in their teaching.
While the pods clarified the great benefits that small groupings, individualized instruction, and using the community as a playground for learning bring to learners; CRPE’s findings also showed that families and educators missed the elements of support that being part of a system can provide. Supports that offer some stability, such as transportation, professional development, coordination of people, and the kind of functions that families rely on in day-to-day living. The study found that almost half of pod instructors (46%) said inadequate employment security was an obstacle to continuing with the pod model.
We are standing at the crossroads of what we know learner-centered education can offer and the need for a public system designed to nurture and grow what works.
We are standing at the crossroads of what we know learner-centered education can offer and the need for a public system designed to nurture and grow what works. Without a transformation of the system itself, we are being pulled back to the default—into a system designed to see children as fitting into averages, to be sifted and sorted and put on a conveyor belt ready to be released into the workforce upon graduation. Pulled back to a system where families are not seen as essential partners, and learning that happens out of school doesn’t necessarily “count.”
At this unique moment, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves: How do we create a system that values deep and connected communities over time? What kind of system could we create that is biased toward the well-being of everyone involved? What new language, traditions, roles, and awareness do we need if we are to create equitable, community-based, learner-centered ecosystems?
These are the kinds of questions we must answer together if we are to transform our systems and tell a new story. Because, as Stephanie Pace Marshall puts it so eloquently, “A new story is waiting to be born, and we are its storytellers.”