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Opinion Building D.C. schools that serve all students and support all educators

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Cat Peretti is project leader of CityTutor DC. Maya Martin Cadogan is founder and executive director of PAVE. Rictor Craig is founding director of instruction of the Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys.

In recent months, many educators have sounded a call: We can’t go back to what was normal for students and schools before the coronavirus pandemic turned education upside down. Though the pandemic has been destructive, now is the time to think about a new way to “do” school.

As public education and community leaders in D.C., we see two pressures that existed before the pandemic but have been exacerbated by it. First, our students are not only learners. We must also attend to their social, emotional and mental well-being for them to thrive in the classroom. Second, because of historical and growing inequities, schools had to expand to provide everything from mental health counseling to access to food, on top of ensuring students reach standards. Educators had to rapidly create new models of learning. And they did all of this while managing the impact on their own lives and their families’ needs. Asking so much of our educators is not sustainable and has pushed teacher morale to historic lows. Even pre-pandemic, a study by the Rand Corp. found the most common reason for teachers changing careers and retiring early was the stress and difficulty of teaching.

This cannot continue. We need solutions that care for the full range of students’ needs while keeping talented educators, especially those who reflect the diversity of our student population, in our public education systems. Schools and educators must be part of a coordinated ecosystem of true partners, both inside and outside school buildings.

We don’t need to look far for examples of partnerships that support educators and students alike. Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys partners with the Center for Wellbeing in School Environments (WISE Center) at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital to provide mental health services for teachers and staff, including a full-time therapist. Statesman roots everything within the recognition that many scholars and staff are processing trauma — especially critical for Black and brown communities confronting racial violence and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color.

This deep support for teachers has shown clear results: Statesman had only one teacher leave the profession between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, compared with a pre-pandemic teacher turnover rate of 25 percent D.C.-wide.

Unfortunately, these robust collaborations are typically single-school and relatively bespoke. It is more common for external partnerships to feel like an add-on, disconnected from the central business of teaching, learning and engaging with students. We envision a post-pandemic future in which all schools exist in a network of high-quality partners integrated into the school community, backed by research, and supporting students and staff.

One promising possibility is the expansion of high-impact tutoring or extra academic support delivered by trained tutors who meet with one or a small group of students frequently for sustained periods of time — ideally within the school day. A review of nearly 200 studies found that high-impact tutoring leads to larger learning gains in math and reading than other school-based interventions. In D.C., a leading effort to widen access to high-impact tutoring is CityTutor DC, a coalition of dozens of schools, universities and community-based partners working together to ensure that every student has access to individualized academic support.

There are promising examples that can guide such partnerships. Life Pieces to Masterpieces, a community-based organization that has been using artistic expression to develop the character and leadership of Black boys and young men for 25 years, has a long-standing partnership with Drew Elementary, using the building for after-school and summer programming. Recognizing the particular needs of teachers and students this fall, Life Pieces will work with Drew’s leadership to integrate a philosophy of socio-emotional learning throughout the school day, lessening the burden on educators to triage students’ needs after 18 months of virtual learning.

This new school year, let’s think creatively about how we care for both our students and educators. Schools need the freedom to reimagine their routines and schedules to include community-based and tutoring partners during the school day, not just after school or during the summer. We must also use the influx of federal and state recovery funding to bring dedicated tutors, volunteers and other partners into the school building.

Before the pandemic, D.C. was one of the nation’s fastest-improving districts. And we know that still meant too many students weren’t well-served by our education system. It’s within our reach to build D.C. schools that serve all students and support all educators. They deserve our creativity and ardent support in bringing educational equity to life.

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