Elisa Villanueva Beard, Teach For America’s renowned chief, is taking over RHSU this week. Elisa started her time with TFA as a 1998 corps member in Phoenix. After joining the staff in 2001 to lead the organization’s work in her hometown in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, she went on to become chief operating officer, and in 2015, she was named CEO. Elisa will spend the week reflecting on what’s at stake for students in low-income communities as they head back to school amid the pandemic, sharing what she’s hearing from TFA’s network of alumni and corps members as they address this forced disruption, and describing TFA’s response to COVID-19.
We didn’t expect to be here now. When schools closed suddenly in March, our system experienced the single most disruptive moment in the history of U.S. education. Teachers scrambled to shift to remote learning, and students and families tried adjusting to a new way. But as hard as it was, we thought we would be able to get “back to school” this fall and begin the hard work to recover what our students lost.
But because of the failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic, the fall will be dramatically different from what we hoped and much more difficult for students. The country’s largest districts have announced schools will not be able to even attempt in-person education this fall.
As a mom of four boys, I’m one of the countless parents struggling with the uncertainty of what school will look like this year. And as the CEO of Teach For America, I’m also witnessing the profound impact all of this has on the students in the low-income communities we serve.
Long before this crisis, our education system failed to meet its promise to all children. Too many students were left out and left behind, denied the opportunity for a great education. Students in the communities we serve come to school with individual passions, talents, and resilience but also face tremendous historic barriers to opportunity and lack access to resources that support classroom success. This unequal access along the lines of race and class has deep roots in American history, and our students’ unmet needs stem from this systemic racism and inequity.
Our TFA corps members, serving in 3,000 schools in 350 communities across the country, see firsthand how this crisis is hitting kids in our low-income communities the hardest. Look at what happened last spring. Some districts had systems in place to support remote learning—but most did not, and, in some cases, a third of students never logged back on. Millions of students, disproportionately students of color, slipped through the cracks. Parents across the country expressed deep concern about their children falling behind academically, as a startling study showed that some students might return to school nearly a full year behind. Teachers are concerned about this gap as well: In a recent poll, 84 percent feared learning gaps would only get wider this year.
The deep systemic inequalities have been laid bare today. The question for us now is how will we respond for our students?
To start, we must put equity at the center of everything we do in education. We must disrupt the path the studies suggest our children are on right now—one that risks leaving an entire generation behind. It begins with taking a student-centered approach. Our kids lost so much learning time in the spring and summer. As they return to school, we need to assess where they are and design a learning-recovery plan for each child. This crisis has also taken a heavy personal toll on students and their families. They will need social-emotional support and support to overcome trauma and will continue to have nutritional, health, and other unmet needs.
I deeply believe that when we pair the highest expectations for our students with teaching that is rooted in love and support, our children can achieve and thrive. We need that now, perhaps more than ever.
This will require deeper investment in our schools and students. The federal government must step up with funding for districts and schools, especially as state and local revenues plummet in this recession. But right now, emergency federal funding for education during the pandemic is five times less than what our education system received in the Great Recession. And since more schools will depend on distance learning, we must ensure every student has the resources to learn remotely, including access to broadband internet and technology, and all teachers have the training and support to effectively teach remotely. Our digital divide will become an unbridgeable chasm this fall if we do not close it now. We are out of time for talk—we need action.
Our immediate needs are so great it can be hard to also look to our long-term issues. But our country can’t wait any longer to take on the major systemic problems holding kids back. We have to create a fundamentally different experience for our students. We have an opportunity—and obligation—to act now to support our students and to begin to bring about a different future for them, one that is more equitable, more just, and more fair.
When we look back 10 years from now, I hope we can say that in this moment we stood tall for equity—and that in the face of great odds, we helped create new possibilities for kids.
I have reason to be hopeful about the future. I’m inspired every day by our students and by our teachers and leaders in education who are responding with an unwavering commitment to kids. Later this week, I’ll share more about how the extraordinary leaders in our own network are meeting this moment for their students and how TFA will work over the next decade to expand educational opportunities for all.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.