Even the most cautious medical experts foresee the day when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Unfortunately, for those monitoring its impact on the educational futures of the nation’s students, there is no end in sight.
After a spring of learning losses and a summer of quarantine restrictions, fall’s back-to-school scenarios have already ticked down to Plans B and C in many districts.
Uncertainty stresses everyone, but for the most vulnerable students — those from low-income neighborhoods and minority communities — the implications are grave: It could result in more than a setback in the glacial pace of resolving enduring inequities — it could be a complete reversal of direction.
While affluent parents can help their children stay on track through traditional private schooling or improvised “pandemic pods,” students from under-resourced schools fall farther behind. With Black and Hispanic parents disproportionately selecting virtual learning to protect families from a greater risk of infection, the deficit could permanently shortchange a generation.
One solution — mobilizing the nation’s college students, many with their own pathways disrupted by COVID-19 — holds a dual benefit. It also addresses a critical systemic problem underlying the root of these same inequities: the need to recruit, train and retain teachers of color.
The Breakthrough Collaborative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit with 24 affiliates around the country, has 40 years of experience delivering out-of-school programs that demonstrate this unique synergy at scale, engaging 10,000 public middle- and high-school students annually. Breakthrough Miami is one of its largest sites.
As the nation’s largest provider of pre-professional teacher training to college students, Breakthrough uses an online recruiting hub and partnerships with 160 campuses to assemble the typical corps of 1,100 summer fellows. Each fellow serves a nine-week residency at a local site, under the guidance of professional educators.
This summer, of course, was anything but typical. By leveraging the assets of these college-age “digital natives,” Breakthrough provided remote programming — a virtual replica of its in-person summer academy — to 5,000 middle-school students, including 800 in Miami.
Fellows taught math and language, led pep rallies, directed project-based science experiments and small-group advisories from bedrooms or kitchens that often were thousands of miles from their students. Breakthrough’s hallmarks — career days, guest lectures, boisterous cheering and team challenges, as well as safe spaces for unloading the emotional trauma of stressful times — prioritized the relationships that are the conduit of learning.
As a real-time experiment for students, teachers and staff, virtual summer had its glitches, technical and otherwise. Rothschild Toussaint, a Dartmouth sophomore, found his Miami students “so willing to try new things as they navigate this crazy world. I’m happy I got a chance to be a part of their journey, learning as much as they were — time management, communication, team building . . . resilience.”
Early results from programs that were just completed are promising: Many sites reported student engagement as high as 90 percent.
Among top takeaways: Investing in building community among virtual learners notably amplifies the learning. Small-group time and one-to-one interactions are critical, a proxy for non-verbal communication that is lost. Blank looks on video screens don’t necessarily mean disengagement; middle-school students “manage their faces.” Insights from summer data will be published in early fall.
As is typical, more than 60 percent of 2020 Breakthrough fellows identified as people of color — nearly three times the average among the nation’s teachers. Historically, surveys show that three out of four choose careers in education, primarily in the classroom.
Breakthrough’s six-year program is based on the proven academic benefit of having a teacher of the same race or ethnicity and the socio-emotional benefit of near-peer mentoring. National Student Clearinghouse tracking shows graduates — the vast majority are first-generation, low-income by federal guidelines or both — complete college degrees on par with their most affluent peers.
A new school-year teaching residency that builds on summer’s virtual infrastructure is in the works. National growth, through partnerships and investments, will follow. The goal is to innovate and learn quickly what works and what doesn’t, so other organizations and school systems can provide every student the quality education that is an absolute right.
The glaring educational disparities we’re seeing in the pandemic have persisted for decades; they’ll be here when COVID-19 is gone. If we work together, we can keep our most vulnerable students moving in the right direction, toward better futures.
There is no better time to engage college students. If we can reimagine out-of-school programs, and at the same time invest in correcting historical systemic deficits in teaching and learning, we’d be crazy not to.
Elissa Vanaver is CEO of the national Breakthrough Collaborative. www.breakthroughcollaborative.org
See Breakthrough’s Virtual Summer programming in action below!