By Sonja Santelises
Recently, I had the honor of officiating our mid-year graduation. The graduates crossing the stage at this time of year often arrive the hard way: persisting through challenges that would bring many adults to their knees.
The faces and smiles of more than 100 beaming candidates, surrounded by cheering family members and educators, reminded me of what young people can do when supported by caring adults. It also reinforced why the work we are prioritizing in City Schools is precisely the right work for this moment.
The types of dynamic efforts that brought these students, many from the brink of giving up to graduation day, are precisely the kinds of support that all students need. We designed our “Reconnect, Restore, Reimagine” re-opening plan to lead to these moments.
Certainly, we poured heavy investments of federal and other dollars into robust safety measures to keep our young people and staff safe. But even beyond that, we wanted to transform our schools and instruction to inspire and encourage students.
The components of that work are not new. Our students and families have shared these needs, and it is why they are the bedrock of our strategic plan, Building a Generation: City Schools’ Blueprint for Success.
The pandemic accelerated our timeline. The separation from our students due to community and classroom closures caused great harm to their learning. What once was nice to do, or even right to do, now simply cannot wait.
With hard-won Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Kirwan dollars that our community—including many AFRO readers— fought and marched for, we’ve matched the urgency of the moment with tangible resources to speed and enhance our efforts.
Shoring up strong relationships
Among the most powerful things that connect young people to school are their relationships with caring adults who see and value them—their needs and gifts, their budding interests, and untold potentials. We have placed a premium on building deeper connections with students and families. Particularly for our students and families struggling the most, we have continued the robust outreach efforts we began at the onset of school closures with ongoing phone calls, home visits, and partnerships with deeply-connected community organizations.
Investing in wholeness and wellness supports
In recent years, we have invested heavily in wellness support for our students. We have added social workers at every school and introduced rich social-emotional programming. We have also forged dynamic partnerships with community-based mental health providers to support students and families. But our approach around wellness has never been exclusively about mental health, social-emotional learning or the so-called “fixing” of students. It has been about valuing and investing in our young people in their wholeness, providing opportunities to expand and discover themselves and their gifts through the arts, extracurriculars, and other activities.
Providing a path to recover academic ground and accelerate
Students lost academic ground over the pandemic through no fault of their own, and they need to see a path for recovering it. Call it learning loss, unfinished learning, call it what you will—but large numbers of our young people have more skills to make up and academic ground to cover if they’re going to have the lives they desire—and that we desire for them.
We are doubling down on efforts to accelerate students academically. We are investing heavily in robust tutoring programming that connects students to specially-trained college students, dynamic supplemental literacy programming for our youngest learners, and targeted professional development for our teachers and academic support staff.
Connecting students to their passions and goals
Math or English classes alone are not enough to compel large numbers of our kids to come back and remain. After more than 18 months of physical disconnection from school—and, for some, complete disconnection from even remote schooling—we need to tap into students’ unique interests and goals, creating opportunities for students to explore their passions and connect what they are learning in school to opportunities beyond.
We are investing federal and Kirwan dollars in dynamic new programming and partnerships to ensure that our schools are places where young people can explore their interests. We’ve launched elementary school music programming and middle school athletics, built out career exposure opportunities and increased access to advanced placement courses, including in African American history.
For our older learners, we are creating opportunities for students to connect what they are learning and experiencing in school each day to their career goals. And we are doing this in a host of ways, building out high-quality CTE programming, from manufacturing to robotics to health care, and creating pathways to paid internships, among other strategies.
Those 100 young people who crossed the stage at mid-year graduation were a powerful reminder for me that what we adults do each day— in our schools, our communities, and our homes— to lift our young people to their God-given purpose matters. This has always been empirical, but it is particularly true at this moment.
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