Enabling Change
Enabling Change

Next generation learning is all about everyone in the system—from students through teachers to policymakers—taking charge of their own learning, development, and work. That doesn’t happen by forcing change through mandates and compliance. It happens by creating the environment and the equity of opportunity for everyone in the system to do their best possible work.

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What Made Them So Prepared?
A Project about K-12 Resilience

Systems and practices that prioritized relationship-building with students and staff helped these schools stay on-mission and keep students healthy, engaged, and learning during the pandemic.

One of the biggest challenges schools faced during the past year was keeping students' emotional well-being top-of-mind during uncertain times. As schools transitioned to remote learning, high school students were missing crucial developmental opportunities—the ritual of belonging to the school community, including relationships with peers and trusted adults outside of the home. These opportunities are critical, as teenagers begin the hard work of crafting their own identity, defining their own goals, and solidifying the values they will take with them into the larger world. High schools needed to replicate these essential social-emotional experiences, otherwise students’ mental well being would suffer, and significantly hinder ability for students to engage in any meaningful learning.

At Springpoint, positive youth development is foundational to our approach and deep appreciation for the value that consistent access to reliable, supportive relationships is to the academic experience. We know that effective schools place relationships front-and-center: Creating opportunities for all students to build supportive relationships, make meaningful contributions, and engage authentically with others. Our work designing and supporting innovative, student-centered schools over the last nine years has consistently reinforced elements of positive youth development permeating the culture of the schools across instructional practices, support systems, and extracurriculars as critical to student success.

We spent time with various school leaders over the past year, as a way to understand what practices helped them stay on-mission and keep students healthy, engaged, and learning. We consistently heard leaders discuss systems and practices in place that prioritized relationship-building, including student and teacher support. Schools that intentionally connected with their students, anchored in structures that prioritized the student experience, were able to mobilize critical support, maintain a strong culture, and provide both students and staff with an experience that reinforced the elements of a school community that they could recognize as a “school community.”

Disorientation: Prioritizing Strong Relationships with Students Right from the Start

The Jefferson County Open School (JCOS) in Lakewood, Colorado, for example, devoted their onboarding process—usually dedicated to a wilderness trip where bonds are formed and the school culture is transmitted—to an extended, two-week advisory, grounded in relationship building, with no classes scheduled. Small, cross-age groups met daily to focus on getting to know each other, creating community, and sharing the expectations and norms of the school. In line with the school’s student-led ethos, older students served as peer leaders in these groups and, through assigned activities, modeled the school's values and expectations for younger students, demonstrating how community is built at JCOS. Although the school was hybrid at the time, this tried and true approach of “disorientation” (so described because the school requires unlearning what students have traditionally come to understand about education) gave students a strong understanding of the school, its people, and its ethos. School began with energy focused on what students understood to be the school's priorities—building relationships and cultivating self-direction in students. These efforts meant that even as the world seemed upside down, students knew what was expected of them, had connections to their advisors and their peers, and understood the community that they were a part of.

Advisories: How Do We Continue to Provide the Experience that Students Signed Up for?

William Smith High School (WSHS) in Aurora, Colorado, was able to effectively deliver relational supports in a consistent and recognizable way by carefully translating both the essence and the practice of their advisory system into the virtual world. As an Expeditionary Learning school, WSHS operates from a mindset of creating and innovating at all times. The school’s design is oriented toward pushing students out of their comfort zone and enabling students to see challenges as opportunities for growth and learning.

When confronted with adapting to remote schooling, WSHS committed to providing students with the experience that students signed up for regardless of setting. Principal Kristin Wiedmaier noted, “We still have to be William Smith...we just have to figure out how to do it online.” She knew her job was to ensure that the spirit of the school was realized. Her choice was to lean hard into the mindset of creative adaptation and values centered around choice, independence, perseverance, and resilience, all of which come to life in their advisory program they call Crew.

Crew is typically introduced as a setting for focusing on self-knowledge and self-awareness, and helping students build the tools they will need to cope with life’s inevitable challenges. Translating the Crew structure into a remote offering helped the whole year feel “a little more normal” to both staff and students, Wiedmaier noted. Crew ran as it always did: Crews met four times a week, in mixed-grade groups with the same teacher from the previous year (who stays with the group year after year). Crew practice continued to focus on providing students support in academics and social-emotional development and creating lots of mentoring opportunities between older and younger students. What kept Crew aligned with the school culture and the evolving needs of students during the pandemic year was WSHS’s commitment to re-enforcing its value with staff. WSHS maintained weekly professional development and Crew meetings for staff, did team building online, had staff clubs, and integrated staff and student celebrations regularly to keep focused on the positives in the community.

While classroom experiences significantly changed at WSHS, they worked hard to recreate virtually the systems and structure for support they knew the students relied on in-person. By never losing a sense of what the essence and purpose of the school was, they were able to ensure that every student got to feel the trust and belonging that Crew provides. Relationships were so strong, according to Wiedmaier, that even new 9th graders felt connected. Staff even took lessons from their all-virtual program to innovate for the current school year. Noting the success of fully asynchronous Fridays last school year, the leadership team announced that one Friday per month will be an all-day Crew, doubling down on their core values of choice and independence.

This article was developed through the What Made Them So Prepared? project. What can we learn from public schools and districts whose learning models and organizational cultures made them genuinely prepared for the challenges of COVID? The answer should shape public education for decades to come. Nine organizations, assembled into a partnership by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), are collaborating this year to explore that answer, through a project funded by the Leon Lowenstein Foundation: What Made Them So Prepared? Follow #PreparedProject and @springpointedu on Twitter.

Photo at top Allison Shelley for EDUimages, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Elina Alayeva headshot

Elina Alayeva

Executive Director, Springpoint

As the executive director, Elina sets Springpoint’s strategic direction and oversees programmatic offerings, organizational growth, and new partnerships. As a founding leader of Springpoint, Elina has grown the organization and its offerings to expand reach and impact. She has deep expertise in strategic planning and systems-level alignment to enable successful school efforts, technology-enabled innovation, student-centered school models, and organizational operations.