One of the shared agreements and experiences amongst people globally is that 2020 has been a difficult year. So it is no surprise that this year was particularly challenging for an organization that for 30 years has worked to accelerate intentional and equitable opportunities for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, class, linguistic diversity, and exceptionality in learning and excelling. As the leader of this organization, I wish to take this opportunity to describe how the response of ISA and its partner schools during this challenging time offers promise for students to excel in the system of education that lies just beyond the pandemic and to acknowledge the herculean efforts to meet the needs of the most significantly impacted communities.

What gives me hope

  • We are finally having more consistent and urgent conversations about access to broadband connectivity. As usual, educators in under-resourced communities have moved at warp speed to find, plead for, buy, and loan out devices so that more students can participate in remote learning. Some have opened spaces for students to have access to Wi-Fi while socially distancing, purchased hot spots, and parked busses with hot spots in communities so that kids without broadband connectivity at home have access to learning. More federal, state, and local resources are being deployed to support these and other connectivity activities, but it is not enough. To achieve true equity, we will need a deeper commitment to policy and resource allocation.
  • More districts and schools are reviewing and changing policies such as grading and camera policies. Important conversations about the disparities in access to learning have resulted in scrutiny of and changes to grading and camera policies to acknowledge the data that is emerging regarding which students are missing, infrequently participating, or penalized for conditions that are representative of the inequalities in our communities.
  • ISA staff, coaches, and partner schools adapted. We learned new technologies, engaged in different outreach strategies, and found, fund-raised, and begged for the academic and nonacademic supports that our students need as a result of the pandemic’s impact on their families and communities.

What staying focused looks like in our partner schools

  • At Malcolm X Shabazz HS in Newark, NJ, the principal Naseed Gifted and his staff focused on making learning more engaging so that students would log in. The school invited business and industry representative to speak in the academic core content areas to show the postsecondary opportunities. For example, in cosmetology and science, business people talked about their work and their pathways, and a professor from a local college did a presentation on mortuary science. The students were engaged and spellbound. The school also modified the schedule so that teachers had more time to plan in order to accommodate the fact that teachers also had to manage families and children while working from home.
  • At Kensington Health Science Academy in Philadelphia, PA, principal Dr. Nimet Eren and her team worked hard to ensure that no student is anonymous. Even in the 2019–2020 school year, which was cut short by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, evidence of continued growth demonstrated the newly ingrained culture. While many schools struggled to stay in contact with students for distance learning, KHSA online attendance and participation sustained engagement at or above 85%. ISA’s school profile of KHSA highlights the hard work of establishing relationships and developing stronger support systems, which has increased participation in online learning.
  • At Trenton Central High School in Trenton, NJ, former principal Hope Grant not only partnered with ISA to improve outcomes for students with disabilities and for all students in mathematics, but she also requested support for early literacy in Trenton. ISA collaborated with ETS’s Research and Development division and its Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy to donate new books for each kindergarten student in Trenton and to supply libraries for kindergarten classrooms.
  • ISA’s virtual principal networks convened regularly, with ISA principals across the nation meeting monthly to discuss issues and drawing from their own practice to share strategies and lessons learned and to ask questions pertinent to their current work.
  • ISA’s webinars addressed pressing issues that all schools are facing. Together with our coaches and schools, we’ve hosted webinars to discuss cultural competence and virtual education; meeting the social and emotional needs of students, educators, and parents; social emotional learning and Maze Moments; designing district technology plans; managing virtual learning; and supporting English language learners.

While 2020 has been one of the most challenging years our nation and communities across the globe have experienced in nearly 100 years, the commitment, the fortitude, and the determination of educators, students, and communities to find ways to continue learning are to be celebrated as a watershed moment in public education.

There is always so much more for us to do. Because of the pandemic, we know more clearly where we stand on the trajectory of progress. May 2021 be the year we simultaneously increase our rate of change and the trajectory’s angle. The collaborative work of ISA and its partner schools convinces me of our promise and capacity to do so. Join me in making 2021 the year that public education fully embraces all of our students and promotes our absolute best in meeting our – and students’ – academic, social, and emotional needs.

To each person who never stopped advocating for each and every student, I thank you. Our nation thanks you. #Grateful #Thankful