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Reimagining our schools by building trust

Reimagine education: building trust in schools

To educators, parents, youth advocates and changemakers,

The pandemic experience has highlighted—perhaps more than at any other time in our history—the urgent need to reimagine, rebuild, and resource our educational system so that all students have access to positive learning environments and relationships. These factors enable young people to acquire the skills, knowledge and resilience they need to succeed after they graduate from high school. We all benefit when our students succeed.

We need educational equity, now. Together, we can make this happen. As City Year and our partners have learned over the years, reimagining our education system must include putting in place staff, resources and relationships that cultivate a sense of trust, belonging, and overall well-being in the schoolhouse.

City Year student success coach and student

Why such urgency? It’s painfully clear that unacceptable disparities in student achievement and outcomes have not only persisted but been exacerbated by nearly three years of disrupted learning, profound loss, and a growing sense of disconnection for our children and young adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report about the mental health of students in 2022 saying the findings represented “a cry for help.” Recent reading and math scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress known as “the Nation’s Report Card” showed the first ever decline in math scores and the lowest reading scores since the 1980s. Decades of progress have been erased, with lower-income children and students of color experiencing the harshest setbacks.

Together we can build a better education system

As educators, parents, changemakers, and citizens, working together with school officials and elected leaders, we can turn around these alarming statistics and make educational equity and excellence a reality in our communities, both as the nation recovers from the effects of the pandemic and longer term, as we work together to build a much stronger educational system for future generations. Our collective actions will create opportunities for growth, creativity and accomplishment that will fuel our country’s success for decades to come.

City Year, which serves students and schools across 29 U.S. cities, and our school district, nonprofit, corporate and philanthropic partners are ready and prepared to seize this moment and help make schools more engaging, responsive, relevant and joyful.

And thanks to the American Recovery Act, which includes billions of dollars to improve education, we have a strong starting point.

Here’s a three step plan that will launch this vital work:

Step one: Ensure that all our schools are adding much-needed capacity to help students learn and develop.

Our country’s leaders have already demonstrated the political will to add this capacity, dedicating a huge investment in our students and schools to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

Yet, many schools and districts are struggling to identify the best ways to spend down $122 billion in federal education aid. Our states and school districts may need support to incorporate the right supports for them. Education officials will also benefit from partnerships and agreements with elected officials, local school boards, taxpayers, and teacher unions to ensure that just when these new programs and approaches are fully integrated and starting to bear fruit, they won’t evaporate, destabilizing school improvement efforts.

Student success coaches are one such support, bringing much-needed additional capacity to systemically under-resourced public schools. As near-peer tutors, mentors and role models who are mature enough to offer guidance, yet young enough to relate to students’ perspectives, student success coaches are powerfully positioned to support both adults and children in schools. Student success coaches (SSCs) partner with classroom teachers every day and provide students with additional 1:1 support, small group instruction and afterschool programming. They welcome students to school each morning and call home to check on students who are absent.

Through building positive relationships with teachers and the students they serve, student success coaches help to build a sense of trust, belonging and caring in schools—key elements that both adults and children need to succeed.

Step two: Help schools and communities tap into existing resources and networks to jumpstart our educational reimaging project.

Hundreds of organizations have stepped up to support schools, students and families in new ways since March 2020, from education nonprofits to teacher unions to research organizations, recognizing that teachers and principals can’t do this alone.

A new entity, the National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS) has more than 100 champions who are working to ensure that schools have access to programs, expertise and materials to help them meet the growing needs of their students. Strained school systems will need quick and effective help in identifying evidence-based supports and approaches for their schools—and not enough of them know about NPSS, which could help them.

Let’s spread the word and make sure more educators and schools can access expertise from leaders in the field of education and student supports such as mentoring, mental health resources, academic tutoring, college and career advising, student success coaching, and more, from leading organizations in these fields—MENTOR, Communities in Schools, Accelerate, National Student Support, Accelerator, the College Attainment Network and City Year.

Get involved in the National Partnership for Student Success:

Learn more

Step three: Prioritize and support the creation of engaging and welcoming learning environments that promote a sense of trust, belonging and well-being among all members of the school community.

When learning environments cultivate trust, confidence and a sense of belonging for everyone in the school community—not only students but also the caring adults who work in schools as teachers, administrators and other support staff—optimal learning can happen, leading to positive student outcomes and higher teacher satisfaction and retention.

By creating and sustaining these positive environments, educational equity will expand and more students will have opportunities to succeed in college and career and enjoy choice-filled lives as adults.

Caring for our students

Whether you call this a “whole child” or holistic approach to learning or “social-emotional” skill building or simply plain common sense, we can no longer deny the crucial role of student well-being as they grow up and throughout their learning journey.

Context matters. What you see, how you feel, and how you are treated shape your reality. When students feel comfortable, seen and cared for, they are much more ready to learn and develop in optimal ways.

The science of learning and development has identified key factors all young people need to learn, develop and flourish, such as context, relationships and potential. Explore more research and papers from SoLD Alliance.

The disruption and loss we’ve all experienced during the pandemic have underscored the importance of paying attention to the mental health and well-being of ourselves and those we care about. Educators have long recognized the importance of connecting with their students and finding ways to address student needs as they emerge. But they can’t do this alone—nor should they.

Responding to the urgency of the moment

Now is our moment to put our reimagining plan into action.

  1. Add capacity to schools, especially those that serve large numbers of lower-income students and students of color.
  2. Make sure your local school is aware of resources that can help them, such as the National Partnership for Student Success.
  3. Keep advocating for equitable, engaging and welcoming learning environments where trust, belonging and overall well-being are prioritized and everyone in the schoolhouse can flourish.

It’s impossible to look away from the impact that decades of systemic inequities compounded by the recent crisis have had on millions of children, especially those who are growing up in lower income households; children of color; children whose primary language is not English; and children with learning differences.

We call on educators, parents, concerned citizens and leaders at the local, state and federal levels to work together now, in 2023, to reimagine our school systems, recognize the unlimited potential of our students, and respond to the urgency of this moment. We have a plan and the necessary momentum. Let’s go.

Learn more about City Year AmeriCorps:

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