Time to Reimagine and Rebuild

A broad coalition of California organizations (including NCUST) is supporting a campaign called Reimagine and Rebuild. While students in California are the focus of the effort, the central issues are important to public schools throughout our nation. All of us (students, families, teachers, support staff, school administrators, district leaders, and external support providers) have endured upheaval during the past 16 months. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and our nation’s reckoning with long-standing racial issues push us to acknowledge that a return to the “normal” that did not serve many students and families well is unacceptable. As well, if we we rush back toward 2019, we might fail to acknowledge how many of us are frustrated, distressed, tired, and questioning our resolve to remain in our chosen profession. Teachers, counselors, principals, and superintendents are exiting public education in record numbers. Instead of seeking a return to normal, we believe it is important to see this moment as a time to reimagine and rebuild in a way that strengthens public education, strengthens each other and builds our capacity to serve all students and families well.

Reimagining and rebuilding is much more difficult than simply trying to return to familiar practices, procedures, policies, and programs. Specifically, the report specifies the importance of a restorative restart that focuses on:

  1. Centering relationships,
  2. Addressing whole child needs,
  3. Strengthening staffing and partnerships,
  4. Making teaching and learning relevant and rigorous, and
  5. Empowering teams to reimagine and rebuild systems.

These cornerstones are critical to the success of each high-performing school NCUST awards, celebrates, and studies. How wonderful would it be if school districts around the nation embraced the challenge of returning to school this fall with a focus on a restorative restart that targeted the letter and the spirit of these five issues! Doing so, however, requires committed leadership from multiple levels and a deep desire to “rebuild” in a way that promotes the success of students we have not served well traditionally. As well, it requires a commitment to working together across our differences, in ways that create more positive working environments for us all.

Centering Relationships means acknowledging that we have to plan deliberately to spend time building relationships with students and families. In  equitable and excellent schools, teachers, principals, and other school personnel spend more time getting to know students and families than school personnel in struggling schools. Instead of fearing students of color or imagining the worst about their families, in high-achieving schools, educators take the time to get to know students, their families, their challenges, and their dreams. In our nation’s most amazing schools, students of color, English learners, students from low-income families, students in foster care, and many other groups of students tell us clearly and powerfully how adults cared enough to listen and create structures and systems in which they felt valued, respected, and capable of success. We will not successfully address “learning losses,” if we fail to build trust and relationships with students and families, especially with those students and families who were never convinced we cared sincerely about them. As well, centering relationships means deliberately dedicating time and effort to building relationships among the teams of adults (teachers, administrators, parents, support personnel, and community leaders) who must depend upon each other to achieve any success.

Addressing Whole-Child Needs means enacting strategies to identify the needs of every child we serve. We cannot afford to ignore how the past 16 months have influenced our students’ emotional, social, physical, and academic wellbeing. In the great schools that NCUST awards, educators find simple, sensitive, and effective ways to know when their students need additional support. Even as they acknowledge that their first responsibility is to educate students, educators gain so much more traction on academic issues when they show they care enough to connect students and families to the supports and services they need.

Strengthening Staffing and Partnerships means acknowledging that teachers and principals cannot address the multiple challenges faced by students and families alone. Increasingly, in high-performing schools, we find counselors, social workers, and other personnel who create bridges for students and families to other services available in their communities. In strong schools, educators maximize their coordination and collaboration with extended-learning providers so that student learning is likely to be accelerated through summer, afterschool, or other out-of-school activities.

Making Teaching and Learning Relevant and Rigorous means teaching in ways that make every student feel that their academic success is our greatest priority. In our award-winning schools, we see teams of educators working to create lessons that will resonate with the cultures, backgrounds, and interests of their students. Teachers are constantly asking, “How can I teach this challenging concept in a way that will make sense to my students?” Similarly, we hear students at these schools claiming, “My teacher helps me understand complex concepts by showing me how the ideas are relevant to my life.” The quest for relevance and rigor is not a quick fix. Leaders establish regular and substantial planning opportunities, with high-quality support designed to help teachers build engaging and powerful lessons. It is also important to note that leaders encourage teachers to focus on the most critical concepts and skills within their disciplines and avoid trying to “cover” everything in a manner that results in students understanding very little.

Empowering Teams to Reimagine and Rebuild Systems means building collaborative structures and arranging time for those teams to work together over the long term. These teams should be assessing and refining their systems to ensure that they are in fact, centering relationships, addressing whole-child needs, strengthening staffing and partnerships, and making teaching and learning relevant and rigorous.

Over the past 16 months, blame has become a debilitating virus in many communities, driving wedges between parents and educators, school boards and superintendents, teachers and administrators, and among various racial/ethnic/income groups. In contrast, in the most successful schools, students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders are finding new ways (with and without 21st-century technology) to connect with and listen to each other. They nurture a shared sense of responsibility in which everyone acknowledges their opportunities to play critical roles in influencing the trajectory of students’ lives. Our systems must empower diverse teams that model a commitment to listen respectfully to each other and build each other’s capacity to create powerful learning opportunities for children.

Now is the time for all of us to find ways to encourage those around us to come together to focus on reimagining and rebuilding our systems of education. We must work together to construct a road map that leads us far beyond the inequities that have imperiled our society. The high-performing schools that NCUST has identified and awarded can be models that lead the way.

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