This month Bright Spots, a new live, interactive series hosted by NewSchools debuted on LinkedIn. We’re excited to connect with more education innovators and stakeholders in real-time and lift up what’s working during this time of rebuilding and reinvention in education. This series features our NewSchools colleagues in conversation with the innovators we fund and support and the communities we serve. We discuss bold innovative solutions to address some of the most pressing challenges in education today. Our first episode was dedicated to all the amazing and resilient school leaders and educators who started a new school year. Watch the highlights from the conversation and be sure to tune in on October 11 for our next LinkedIn Live session, “Shifting Power to Communities in Grantmaking.”
New achievement data — comparing student performance before the coronavirus pandemic to now —shows the gaps between lower and higher achieving students have widened. Jason Atwood, director of research and learning at NewSchools, and our research partners analyzed academic data for schools in our portfolio and found that academic backsliding was not as pronounced at some schools. These are schools where students reported stronger relationships with teachers, higher academic expectations, better perceptions of fairness, a greater sense of psychological and physical safety, and better management of their learning. If more schools move to create these conditions, more students will be better off for it.
We spoke with three leaders who opened schools in various phases of the coronavirus pandemic and have had to grapple with how to design and operate schools in enormously complex circumstances without losing sight of their incredible vision and core innovations. Mia Howard, who leads the Innovative Schools investment team at NewSchools, says these leaders are meeting the moment by becoming public health experts, operations gurus, and coalition builders, all while still rallying staff around a vision for instructional excellence and delivering on it day in and day out.
Fernanda Flores is the principal of La Promesa, a high school in Houston that enrolls students from non-English speaking countries who are new to the U.S. Her school has faced challenges, but Fernanda explains that her commitment to create better opportunities for immigrant students keeps her motivated. “Showing students how do we bridge our own identity and culture with a new culture and not finding what we’re different with, but how we can become brothers and sisters because we have so much more to share — that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says. Her advice when things get hard: Build a community that you can lean on.
Kimberly Neal-Brannum is the founder and executive director of BELIEVE Schools. BELIEVE is an early college and career high school serving students in the Indianapolis area. Months before opening her school, Kimberly was battling Covid, unsure if she would be able to enroll enough students and hire the staff she needed to open her school on time. “I think that’s what for me was the definition of resilience and it allowed me to tap into an inner strength that I didn’t necessarily know that I had” to build a school with a strong culture. Her students are now taking college classes and starting internships to be able to graduate with good options after high school.
Veronica Coleman is the principal of A School Without Walls, New York City’s first hybrid public school for students interested in interdisciplinary, project-based learning. She talked about the support that school districts can provide leaders who are navigating new realities trying to open schools. “Having people with us as we’re iterating, as we’re going through this journey, who are willing to say, ‘Okay, I see a roadblock. How can I help you to remove that roadblock? And not to say, no, that’s not possible because it hasn’t been done before. That’s been really really fantastic and has been very sustaining for me.”