Beta Eaton as told to Liz Katz -- When we look ahead to what we can expect of our students in the 2021-2022 school year, we keep thinking about the ways the past fifteen months have been both more challenging and more simple than a typical year for high-achieving students. The challenging pieces are obvious--grappling with a global pandemic, racist systems, and a norm-shattering election year is hard for adults, let alone for children and adolescents. At the same time, our students’ lives were stripped down. When school was online, social structures had less of an impact on adolescents; when sports teams and plays were cancelled, students had fewer competing priorities. For some students, the focus and independence was just what they needed to thrive; others were challenged by isolation and missed opportunities.
As a result, students are coming back to school with less practice in the soft skills that are essential for success in high school while at the same time, they’re still emotionally and cognitively processing the upheaval of the past year. Academic leaders and educators need to be aware that their student support systems have to evolve to meet the unique needs of the next few years. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve developed a student support program that meshes with on-campus services. Building a flexible program for students who are new to us every fall has taught us how to expand on schools’ existing programs to be ready for a wide range of situations. Here are some of our key strategies that will help schools prepare for Fall 2021:
Emphasize engagement: In 2020-2021, many teachers made the decision to pare down their course content as they adjusted to new modalities of teaching. Some built around competencies, and they were able to preserve their signature projects. Teachers who focused on content, in contrast, frequently gave up projects and hands-on learning--for many students, the most engaging elements of the curriculum. As a result, even when students’ performance stayed strong, enthusiasm and engagement often faltered. Expanding your course catalog with online courses and on-campus offerings, and increasing student-driven and project-based learning opportunities builds the intrinsic motivation that drives students to reach their full potential.
Be ready for the unexpected: One of the key lessons we’ve learned doing student support at One Schoolhouse is that when a student is struggling, their situation can pivot quickly from the containable to the critical. This is especially true of students who are already vulnerable. What’s different this year is that your vulnerable group includes every student in your school, no matter how on top of it they seem. Don’t assume that only some students are liable to struggle—the risk is universal and unpredictable.
Move small, move fast: Since our students’ risk levels are elevated, we can expect that they may be less able to manage the flexibility and self-advocacy that academic challenge demands. This isn’t the year to wait to see if kids solve their problems on their own. Instead, think about what the smallest possible intervention can be. It can be as simple as checking in with the student on their way out of your classroom, or sending an email reminder about an overdue assignment. Watch how they respond—if a nudge doesn’t activate the student, it’s time to lean into your school’s support networks.
Open communication lines between academics and counseling: Academic struggles often indicate that a student is experiencing challenges outside of the classroom. At the same time, known adverse events, whether at home or with peers, often presage academic challenges. In this climate of elevated risk, it’s essential that faculty keep in open communication with the counseling or guidance professionals at your school. Examine your practices to make sure your systems foster the collaboration of caring adults.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)