The next few months will demand careful planning and attention amid a flurry of urgent activity and pressure to make a wide range of crucial decisions. In fact, decisions made in the next few months may have impacts and implications that could influence education and learning in your organization for at least the next decade.
An influx of federal funds may open opportunities to engage in projects, programs, and promising initiatives not seen in a generation, depending on the demographic make-up of the students you serve. Meanwhile, students and staff are finishing more than a year of disruption, uncertainty, and challenging circumstances for learning. Learning has lagged for a significant group of students. Sadly, for some students the past year has resulted in little academic learning at all. The combination of these factors offers a great opportunity and a monumental challenge.
We may feel pressure to deal with all of the issues and pursue multiple opportunities simultaneously. However, such an approach would likely be a mistake and could be very costly. Fortunately, there is an approach that can help us to sort and sequence the issues and challenges ahead in ways that allow us to deal with the most urgent issues while designing and preparing for what comes next. Let’s explore a sequence of five priorities for action and how they can help us to successfully navigate the next several months and beyond.
Our first and most urgent priority needs to be communication. Community members, staff, students, and other organizational stakeholders are likely hearing rumors, suppositions, and speculation about what will happen this summer to support students and learning in preparation for the next school year. Predictably, they are wondering what school might be like in the fall and what they should be prepared for. And, if the school district is receiving a significant allocation of federal funds, there is likely high interest in how they will be used. Of course, there are also requirements for sharing and gaining input on how portions of the funds will be spent. Now is the time to share as much information as you have with as wide an audience as practical. Obviously, some information will apply to subgroups and will need to be targeted. Communicating now is imperative to reduce anxiety and rumors. However, it can also help to build acceptance and support as people receive timely, credible, and relevant information. (See Use Summer Communication to Generate Credibility for a more detailed discussion.)
A second and equally urgent priority is to ensure that summer learning experiences meet the needs of students and engage them in environments that inspire and motivate them despite the experiences of the past year. General content and skill review and traditional remediation strategies will likely not generate the learning needed and may leave students even more disillusioned than they are now. Students need targeted assistance informed by their specific needs to accelerate progress while rebuilding confidence and commitment to learning. They also need to experience the support and caring of educators who believe in their potential and are committed to their success. (See Not All Learning is Equal in Summer Learning Catch-Up for a more detailed discussion.)
As the first two priorities are being addressed, a third priority, designing learning experiences and environments for next year and beyond needs to be underway. Now is the time to harvest learning about what works from the past year, glean what we know about nurturing rich, deep learning from research and experience, and design learning experiences that will help students to build robust learning skills. The combination of an influx of resources and a system already disrupted and experiencing change presents a unique opportunity to engage in redesign. If you have appropriate expertise on staff, you might charge and support them to develop a new design. If you are already on the journey toward learner-centered learning, now is a good time to accelerate the work. If outside expertise and support will be needed, choose carefully to ensure that the design will be consistent with your vision and deliver the outcomes you seek. (See Designing a New Normal for Learning for a more complete discussion and design criteria.)
The fourth priority is to provide your staff with the professional learning supports, experience, and time to implement the new design as intended. The history of educational change is littered with examples of well-designed models and strategies that failed due to lack of staff capacity and commitment to deliver on them. Start this process with a thoughtful and comprehensive discussion about why a change in design and delivery of learning experiences is necessary to prepare today’s students for the future they will live in. Gain clarity about what the change in design will mean for learners and learning outcomes. Once there is clarity about why the change is important and what it means for instruction and learning, you can likely offer flexibility and support creativity as staff members engage students in the new learning model. The investment in staff capacity and commitment to changing learning experiences for students will be your most important investment now and in the long term. Failure with this priority will likely compromise your vision and risk a significant waste of resources. (See What About Summer Learning for Adults? for a discussion of key elements of effective adult learning.)
The fifth and final priority is to provide the equipment, tools, and facilities that align with the learning experiences you are committed to offering to students. While it may be tempting to start purchasing, remodeling, and constructing new supports now, until the learning model is ready and staff and students have experience with the new approach, you risk spending funds and making commitments that will not align with new practices or support the outcomes you envision.
Admittedly, this is a confusing, pressure-filled time. However, by sorting what is most urgent and important and allocating careful attention and resources to the design for learning and the capacity of staff to deliver on the promise is your best bet. While pressure to act now to remodel facilities and purchase equipment may be high, delaying until needs are defined and clear is a must.