The Pandemic Has Shown Us What Must Change


Today’s blogger is Dr. Megan P. Brock, a Lecturer and Academic Coach in the Division of Academic Enhancement at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.

The pandemic has changed our lives forever. And I am glad about it.

I remember my last day of “normal.” We were having a faculty meeting in our building, which overlooks the quad where students, faculty, and staff are often seen meeting for a little sunlight, with lunch, frisbee throwing, and more. The sun shines over the football stadium and into the room. A cracked window in the spring and summer offers a light breeze and a good waft of pollen. If the walls could talk, they would tell tales of rich discourse on supplemental success initiatives, supporting our emerging scholars. They would share the moments when we agreed to simply disagree, and tell of so many poorly delivered jokes.

On this day, the director of our unit shared updates on the protocol for maintaining sanitary standards—a bit odd for a faculty meeting. However, the coronavirus had successfully taken over the headlines and made its way onto our agenda. Hand-sanitizer dispensers appeared at multiple points on every level of our building. A colleague emphasized the severity of the coronavirus disease—they’d been personally witnessing a family member’s battle.

We left the conference room having no idea what would occur over the weekend. We were mandated to quarantine in our homes under the assumption that restrictions would be temporary and we’d be back to “normal” by summer. However, after months of empty tissue aisles, rumors of Lysol re-stocks, hit-or-miss homemade meals, coaching students (and their parents) through remote learning, a civil insurrection, and more, the global pandemic persists.

I liken this experience to a sifting of humanity.

Now, as a baker (pre-pandemic, when flour was readily available and everyone wasn’t at home making sourdough), I sift my flour to remove lumps and catch unwanted debris (such as husks or seeds). The debris that remains in the sieve gets thrown out; it hinders the baking process and compromises the final product. Sifted flour helps me to get more accurate measurements so that I have consistent, tender cakes and biscuits.

As the pandemic sifts the nation, great things remain. Dedicated educators, passionate first responders, and brilliant scholars are just a few of those for whom we’ve developed a deeper appreciation. But systemic barriers remain as the debris in America is sifted and separated by this pandemic; barriers that have plagued educators for too many generations remain inhibitors of effective teaching.

Food insecurity, a major barrier for young learners in high-poverty areas, prompted the buses to continue running, with boxed lunches replacing the students in the seats. Inequalities in technology led major companies to offer low-cost internet service, while many students had to complete coursework in the parking lots of closed restaurants with free Wi-Fi. Students who are victims of abuse were suddenly required to spend more time in toxic homes. Standardized measures could not ethically capture any learning at any level.

For years, teachers have advocated for education reform. They witness the child who sleeps in class because they go along on the nightshift with a parent who can’t afford childcare. They witness children saving lunches to share with their siblings for dinner. During recess, they help students complete the online homework they can’t do at home due to a lack of internet access. They love on the quiet, battered child and get them to safety, security, stability. They tutor students for free to help them advance to the next grade. Teachers have first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing the children who will become the leaders of tomorrow.

Some parts of society have been stunned by these new revelations of the domestic and economic challenges that today’s youth face, but the educators’ experience has been validated.

Now, change can happen. Change must happen—or, I argue, we will have to acknowledge that we are complicit in allowing these systemic inequalities, and willfully extinguishing the spark that is the potential of underserved students of America.

When we can return to that conference room for the first post-pandemic, in-person faculty meeting, we will likely still be cautious and sit far apart. We’ll welcome the breeze from open windows for ventilation and scent of blooming flowers around the building that we missed. There will be post-pandemic jokes (and they may still be bad).

However, we will be forever changed, knowing what the sieves caught. But we can bring the debris to the table, identify it, and begin having real conversations about practical solutions.

We can go from societal sift to societal shift.

Bridging Social Capital in a Full-Service Community School

Today’s blogger is Xiaoxia A. Newton, an associate professor in the College of Education at UMass Lowell. She reflects here on a research article she and her colleagues recently published in The Educational Forum.

Sofia Vargas (a pseudonym) is a 17-year-old sophomore attending the Advancement Academy, an alternative urban high school in the Northeastern United States. Like her peers at the school, multiple factors place Sofia at risk: poverty, a history of high-level behavioral referrals each year, multiple course failures due to her inability to meet course expectations or refusal to complete course work, and an ongoing mental health condition. Two years ago, the Advancement Academy began the process of transforming itself into a full-service community school (FSCS) with the support of multiple community partners and funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

The FSCS initiative is transforming Sofia’s life by providing opportunities for bridging social capital, a scholarly concept that describes the connections or relationships between individuals in various social groups or networks. Prior to receiving any FSCS services, Sofia had an average 20 to 30 behavioral referrals each month. Since her involvement in the FSCS services, Sofia’s behavioral referrals have been drastically reduced, and she has not had any referrals in many months.

Most important, Sofia’s outlook on school has become more positive and self-regulated, as she is often asking teachers for her progress reports and course credits.

Sofia’s teachers commented on how she is like a new student, and they unanimously nominated her for a teacher-student award. Despite still going through periods of behavioral and emotional distress (often related to out-of-school events), Sofia now has a support network of school staff and community partners working together to address her holistic needs.

My colleagues and I showcased Sofia’s story and the Advancement Academy’s FSCS initiative in a peer-reviewed paper in The Educational Forum (Newton et al., 2017). The empowerment evaluation approach we chose allowed us to move beyond focusing solely on numeric indices but instead on engaging key program stakeholders in building our understanding of the problems they try to tackle and prioritizing our evaluative inquiry.

We chose the Empowerment Evaluation (EE) framework to guide our evaluation work because of the fit between the program design and the key features that characterize EE. The program attempts to address a complex social problem and therefore adopts a whole-child approach that engages multiple community members and is at the very beginning stage. On the other hand, EE focuses on improvement and empowerment, emphasizes collaboration between evaluators and stakeholders, and employs both quantitative and qualitative methods. Given the program design, its context, and its stage, EE offers an ideal framework guiding our evaluation effort.

Several lessons emerged from our work that invite more questions than answers. For instance, are numeric indices adequately capturing the richness of individual stories (like Sofia’s) as the school is transforming some if not all of its students’ lives? How do we think of scale in this context? As university researchers, the empowerment evaluation approach has forced us to move out of our own methodological comfort zone and wrestle with conceptual, methodological, and logistical challenges when doing this line of evaluation work.

Meanwhile, Sofia’s story is an example of the opportunities for bridging social capital that full-service community schools can offer students placed at risk.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Xiaoxia and colleagues’ research with the education community. Access their article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through November 30, 2017.