Lessons from Education Leaders for Helping Young People Thrive
Throughout the pandemic, the Chicago Fed has heard that the need to address learning and opportunity gaps for youth is a first-order concern for their well-being and future success. Fortunately, though the pandemic presented innumerable disruptions and challenges for schools and students, it also created opportunities for educators and communities to innovate.
In a recent FedListens event, organized by the Chicago Fed, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan moderated a discussion with K-16 education leaders who were on the ground throughout the pandemic, working with teachers, professors, principals, and students across the Seventh District’s many public education systems to navigate unprecedented challenges. The conversation highlighted several ways schools and communities can work together to help young people thrive in the years ahead.
1. Create “systems of care” that look beyond individual solutions
A major theme highlighted by each panelist was the need to shift the burden for any given problem away from the individual—be it student, teacher, or staff—and instead build solutions into and across entire systems.
“Thinking about systems of care is really an important piece,” said Tina Owen-Moore, superintendent of the School District of Cudahy in Wisconsin. “In our district, we heard very loudly from our teachers about the weight of the work throughout this pandemic,” she said.
To turn self-care into a system of care, Owen-Moore said the Cudahy district set up opportunities for the teachers to speak directly to the school board about how they were feeling and what they needed.
Other panelists shared similar initiatives. Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, a community college system serving nearly 70,000 students across seven colleges, agreed it’s critical to find ways for leaders to work together to improve decision-making.
“The entire institution rests on those critical decisions that are being made and how they’re communicated,” he said. “I think we do have a big responsibility for just getting core decision-making healthier in our institutions because I think that can help a lot,” Salgado added.
2. Address not only learning loss, but “opportunity loss”
After two years of educational disruption, panelists agreed learning loss was a major concern. However, they also agreed with Duncan that the term “learning loss” doesn’t capture the full breadth of what students missed and need to regain. Students need to catch up on formal instruction and learning, but they also need to benefit from other opportunities that are critical to their development.
To create new opportunities for youth throughout Chicago, Salgado discussed a major effort to make sure Chicago City Colleges are “tied at the hip” with Chicago Public Schools “in ways they never were before.”
“Every community college in America has a responsibility to have that kind of relationship with their public school system,” said Salgado.
Speaking about learning loss, Sharita Ware, the 2022 Indiana State Teacher of the Year, who teaches engineering and technology to middle school students in Tippecanoe, Indiana, gave several examples of how she and other teachers need to continually innovate to help students build motivation and learn new skills through problem-based learning.
“We’ve tried to make some of these projects real-world problem-solving projects. Like, how do you develop a mask that doesn’t fog up your glasses?” Jones said. “Give the kids real-world problems to solve,” she added, “and they feel like they’re doing things to help contribute to the issues that we are dealing with.”
Owen-Moore highlighted her district’s focus on literacy, and how they used Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) funds to rework literacy teaching district-wide. “We really focused on the science of reading and have been building the systems within our schools to help students to get the number of repetitions that they need to both make up for what they missed out on… and also just to accelerate their learning overall,” she said.
3. Make education and opportunity-building a community call to action
Not every household or business in a community interacts with their schools on a daily basis. However, schools are “the nucleus of the community,” said Iranetta Wright, the deputy superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the newly appointed superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools. Wright went on to argue that community partnerships are critical for serving students holistically.
“I think it’s really important for the community to engage in any way that they can. Everyone does not have the expertise to work with students in terms of tutoring, but everyone can be a mentor,” Wright said.
Wright described a $23 million investment from the Detroit Business Community to ensure that students had take-home devices and Internet service during the pandemic. “That was a big ask, and it was a tall order, but they made it happen. And I think that continuing to do that is important.”
Maurice Swinney, former interim chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools, said there’s an opportunity to work with the community to increase the capacity for mentorships, internships, and apprenticeships that “allow young people to experience the real world earlier,” and strengthen the systems of support that surround students. “There are lots of opportunities [to engage community members], whether we’re thinking about mentorship, internships, mental health,” said Swinney. “I think it [doing the work at scale] was really seeing ourselves as a convener, at some point, to do the right work with the people who are impacted by it.”
As a final idea for community involvement, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, gave a nod to summer jobs programs, which the Chicago Fed has encouraged business leaders to support to help young people meet mentors, develop soft skills, and earn and save money.
4. Embrace agility and drive transformative change
In his opening remarks at the event, Evans emphasized a point he heard repeated at several Project Hometown listening sessions: Though it’s undeniable the pandemic continues to exacerbate many pre-existing inequities, he said, he also heard from community leaders “about opportunities the pandemic provides to reimagine what schools can do.”
Shantá Robinson, an assistant professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago, echoed this point, noting that “people started talking about schools and educational spaces as agile spaces. … I don’t know when in my recent past I’ve ever heard anyone talk about schools as agile spaces, or even anywhere in modern history that we phrase schools in that way. And yet, they did that,” Robinson said.
Swinney spoke about the importance of embracing change, but also the critical need to bring young people into the conversation so they can inform the process.
“We have to start inviting young people into this space to help us respond to the problems that were not created by them, but that they are most impacted by,” said Swinney. “There’s got to be a way to see young people as a part of the team, as partners in this work, to continue to codesign solutions moving forward.”
To close the event, Duncan said he was optimistic that the pandemic can catalyze overdue and much-needed changes. “For me, the goal is not to go back to quote-unquote ‘normal,’ because normal didn’t serve far too many kids,” Duncan said.
Robinson agreed, adding “The young people give me hope. The way that they’re learning to recognize their voices, and use it for what they think is right, and to advocate for themselves and others gives me hope. The persistence and dedication of teachers gives me hope. The willingness of people to start to think about others and put the community’s needs above their own gives me hope,” she said.