Building Community
Building Community

When educators design and create new schools, and live next gen learning themselves, they take the lead in growing next gen learning across the nation. Other educators don’t simply follow and adopt; next gen learning depends on personal and community agency—the will to own the change, fueled by the desire to learn from and with others. Networks and policy play important roles in enabling grassroots approaches to change.

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Reflecting on its top priorities for the year, Distinctive Schools relies on “Stay Ready & Better Together” as it continues to ask: What can we do better?

This month marked the two-year anniversary of the COVID shutdown—an anniversary we will certainly not celebrate—but it is a time that we recognize has immensely altered our thinking. The past two years have seemed to come in waves. The start of this year felt like a bit of a déjà vu, with many of us seeing, feeling, and facing challenges all too familiar. Reflecting on those first frightening days of March 2020, we are undeniably better prepared today. We are more well versed in how to ‘pivot’ and how to support students during a rapidly changing future. At the same time, we adopted two different mantras early on in the pandemic that have continued to serve our students and staff well: Stay Ready. Better Together. What we now move to actualize are all the things we know that moving forward: We can do better.

This school year Distinctive Schools focused on three key priority areas to guide our work: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion; Mental Health & Wellness; and Learning Acceleration. While these areas have always been present in our work, we had not previously made such a concerted effort to truly name them and use them as a lens in our decision making.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI)—Better Together.

In 2020, as many people found themselves with the time and space to reflect on what is truly important in their own lives, the stories of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor pushed that thinking in new ways. Aside from dealing with a pandemic, the world experienced social and racial awakening. Our classrooms filled with questions and discussion that we hadn’t always prioritized the space for. Our students were living through history, asking substantial questions, and, suddenly, our focus on equity work became very real. As Bettina Love wrote, “Real equity work is attempting to undo and heal generations of violence, trauma, and racial and economic inequities” (How to Make Anti-Racism More Than a Performance). During professional development this year, our discussions shifted and expanded to more deeply address real equity work, and our DEI work moved toward creating anti-racist classrooms.

Recently, we have focused our DEI work on the development of working agreements. Working agreements are a set of beliefs that we collectively commit to as an organization—to invest in one another and our work, commit to authentic conversation, and intentionally make space for alternative perspectives. We know that in order to ensure DEI work is genuine (not an item we cross off a to-do list, but an ongoing journey), we have to have the difficult conversations (sometimes with ourselves) and move from talk to action. We know we won’t always get it right, but we take the best of what we have done in the past as we move forward together.

This set of working agreements from Blue State was particularly helpful in shaping how we approached the initiative. Our working agreements are currently in a thorough review process. They have been shared across the organization to ensure that all staff have had the opportunity to provide input and give feedback.

Mental Health & Wellness—Stay Ready. Better Together.

Over the past two years the lines between school and home blurred, and at times, completely disappeared. During this time we had a literal window into the lives of our students, as they had into our own lives (and living rooms). While we are grateful to be learning in person together again, we recognize the need to expand mental health support beyond the walls of our schools. Prioritizing mental health and wellness across our organization looks like new partnerships and deepened existing relationships, a focus on SEL in our daily practice, and leading with questions for understanding instead of assumptions.

In the classroom, social-emotional learning (SEL) is incorporated into lessons daily. Through a partnership with Move This World, we provide students with the emotional regulation tools they can use both in and out of school. Fourth-grade teacher Meghan Camacho has seen the benefits. “Over my past six years of teaching, I have seen the difference SEL can make in student/teacher and student/student relationships,” she shared with Move This World. “When these relationships are strong and continuously developing, learning occurs on a much deeper level and students become more confident in who they are as a person and learner.”

This year, we launched a partnership with Care Solace to benefit students, families, and staff. Care Solace provides personalized, relationship-oriented care coordination to efficiently match students and families in need with verified local mental health care providers. This resource is available to anyone in the Distinctive Schools community, removing substantial barriers that could prevent students and families from receiving the mental health support they need.

Learning Acceleration—Stay Ready.

The pandemic created a seismic shift in teaching and learning. In the early months, teachers struggled to engage with students through their screens, had to rethink how to structure and pace a lesson, and soon realized that simply replicating the traditional classroom in a virtual environment was not feasible and certainly not the best way to reach students. As we continue to rethink and redefine the “new normal” in education, we remain committed to ensuring that all students receive access to strong grade-level instruction. Rather than focusing on what students may have lost from March 2020 to now, we keep a laser focus on preparing students to access grade-level content and standards.

In partnership with TNTP (formerly the new teacher project), we continue to reimagine teaching and learning so our students can access grade-level content and standards. One of the key shifts we’ve made is in adopting a “just in time” approach. This approach is a shift away from past practices that often relied on “just in case” scaffolds, which ask teachers to anticipate what students have not yet mastered and provide instruction to address these potential skill gaps. In the “just in time” approach, teachers provide grade-level instruction and targeted scaffolds when they see that students need additional reteaching. Teachers continue to assess the quality of instructional tools with a new lens, and they actively shift the cognitive load from teacher to student.

Holding onto the mantra that we truly are Better Together, we are collaborating with our partners to accelerate learning and provide the kind of support our students and families need and deserve. Learning acceleration is not a temporary “fix” designed to fill an instructional gap; rather, it is rooted in the mindset that all students can achieve at high levels and, as educators, we have a responsibility to tap into and develop these assets.

The last two years have taught us many lessons, defined by incredible challenges, suffering, and loss. As educators, as parents, as a community, we look for the positives and ask, what might come from all of this? Our mantras continue to guide us. Stay Ready, authentically connecting with families, staff, and community members to more deeply understand the resources, opportunities, and supports that will allow our communities to thrive post-pandemic. As we determine opportunities for partnership and innovative ways to invest in our schools, we work Better Together, side-by-side with families and staff to redesign and build what schools can provide beyond our walls.

Image at top courtesy of Distinctive Schools.

Jane Szot headshot

Jane Szot

Director of Instructional Coaching and Professional Growth, Distinctive Schools

Jane Szot is a founding member of Distinctive Schools. She began her educational career as a fourth grade teacher in Chicago and has dedicated the last eight years to instructional coaching. Jane is committed to developing teacher talent to ensure a meaningful and positive learning experience for all.