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Some K-12 Systems Thrived During Covid-19. What Made Them So Prepared?

Some K-12 Systems Thrived During Covid-19. What Made Them So Prepared?

“What Made Them So Prepared?” is a deep look at 70 districts and schools with educational models that served students well during Covid-19.

Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Much has been written about how the During Covid-19 pandemic deepened the challenges—academic and otherwise—that have long existed in K-12 education. But what broader lessons can we learn from schools and districts whose organizational systems and cultures made them genuinely prepared for the challenges they faced?

The nonprofit Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) led a detailed effort to explore the question through a project called “What Made Them So Prepared?”

that focused on 70 districts and schools with educational models that served students well during Covid-19.

The results were groundbreaking and have applications well beyond K-12 education. The report could serve as a blueprint for any organization—from schools to companies—on how to be prepared for, resilient in the face of, and adaptable to change.

It turns out that three key factors helped these schools respond effectively to pandemic-related disruptions: 1) self-directed, forward-leaning orientation for students and adults; 2) healthy cultures, and 3) strong yet flexible systems. More importantly, the schools had made a commitment to these strategies before During Covid-19, giving them a strong foundation for dealing with remote learning and other challenges.


Beyond those key factors, the report also “spotlights the need for more learner-focused strategies and programs such as mentorship. Strong student-teacher relationships were critical for student success during the pandemic and for accelerating learning—particularly for those students most impacted by interrupted learning,” said Stewart Hudson, executive director of the Lowenstein Foundation, the project’s funder (and a funder for my organization, LEAP Innovations)

Lockett: Okay, let’s approach the three key factors for their success one by one. What do you mean by a “forward-leaning” orientation?

Calkins: Well, these schools and districts had already organized learning around a 21st-century vision of student success: resilience, innovation, collaboration, agency and problem-solving. These are the skills and traits employers say they need from workers now and will especially need in the future, as jobs become more tech-driven and complex.

Lockett: And why did that help them navigate the pandemic’s challenges?

Calkins: Students already had experience in classroom environments that asked them to take ownership and responsibility for their learning. That experience helped them adjust, amid so much trauma, stress, and isolation, to the increase in ownership and responsibility that remote learning demanded During Covid-19, including all of the subsequent hybrid variants.

Lockett: What did that mean for the adults in those schools and districts?

Calkins: While the norm for educators in many districts was “waiting for direction” (from the state, the school board, district headquarters, the principal), the schools and districts we learned about displayed agility at all levels—including with students. The professionals at each level defined their jobs as enabling their “internal customers” (principals for district leaders and teachers for principals) to do their best work. That carried over to the learning-centered relationship that teachers had with students. In this way, the learning model was the organizational model.

Here’s an example: Shelby County Schools in Kentucky wanted to move toward project-based learning (PBL) During Covid-19 district-wide while schools were closed, believing it would help keep students engaged (and advance a partially implemented district priority). The district launched a video blog called “Shelby Speaks” where any teacher in the district could post short videos of successful strategies for remote PBL-oriented instruction. It reimagined professional learning as a way to empower educators and was a hit with teachers, who really were eager to make project-based learning work remotely.

Lockett: Talk a little bit about the second key factor, building a healthy culture.

Calkins: Most importantly, it means making relationships the priority. Every school would argue that this is the case, but few bake that into their systems. Most Prepared project participants pointed to specific actions they took to support relationship-building. We could see it in the way they prioritized time—for instance, having deep commitments to student advisory programs. We also noticed it in their spending patterns, such as their investments in all-school events and interest-based activities. And we saw it in the ways they encouraged and recognized staff for building strong relationships with students and with each other.

Lockett: And this was part of their cultures before the pandemic, right?

Calkins: Educators told us in no uncertain terms that the relationships they had prior to During Covid-19 have been crucial to their ability to respond effectively. There also was a high degree of adaptability and agility baked into the participants’ cultures.

Though they had never had to face such extreme challenges before, they felt prepared to deal with them—and even prided themselves in being able to handle them. Their responses to the pandemic were deeply human and focused on making people-centered decisions, something made easier by the flexibility of the systems they had in place. Da Vinci Schools, a charter network in California, reported that the degree to which they threw away plans and drew up new ones on the fly was predicated almost entirely on the strong, trusting relationships within the school community.

Lockett: That’s a good segue to the third key factor. What about the importance of building systems that can adapt? What did the project find During Covid-19?

Calkins: Without well-designed, high-functioning, and flexible systems in place, these schools and districts wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. Their responses to the pandemic were deeply human, with decision-making that was truly people-centered, and their flexible systems enhanced this ability.

Lockett: What role did technology play in facilitating flexibility?

Calkins: Participants routinely pointed out to us that they were already heavy tech users before the pandemic since it was part of their overall forward-leaning vision of learning and student achievement. But they also told us that technology is a means rather than an end. A good example of that is how Envision Education charter network in California’s Bay Area designed its tech-enabled remote learning model around the findings of a team made up of teachers and students.

The model emphasized depth over breadth, which resulted in cutting the number of classes from five or six to three—though they added more options for varied engagement by students working from home.

Lockett: What can other K-12 schools and districts learn from the Prepared project During Covid-19?

Calkins: What we know is that these 70 institutions reported deep commitments to student-centered, whole-child learning. And they have their own “building blocks” of strong, collaborative, innovative responses to pandemic challenges to build from—many of which we have collected for sharing with broader educator communities During Covid-19.

These schools had nurtured environments that fostered 360 degrees of trust, which is something all organizations can benefit from. And that builds a culture where it’s easy to say “yes” to new ideas and approaches—and easy to look forward rather than backward. During Covid-19During During Covid-19

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