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Our students endure pandemics, economic disruptions and trauma. Can schools acknowledge that?

Your State Department of Education faces its biggest test. A three-headed hydra won’t pass it. A hero will.


This fifteen-part series introduces you to the heroic partners you and your community will require to survive and thrive during pandemics and economic disruptions. The articles also provide tips on avoiding the three-headed hydras of apathy, envy and fear, those people in positions of power who are fighting to keep a broken status quo.

Your State Department of Public Education

Who’s in charge of public education? Not only are parents confused, but even state lawmakers can find it difficult to know who has control over the quality of public education — the feds, the State Department of Education, school boards or principals. To reform education, we need to know how a state’s cabinet secretary of education (focused on K–12) can impact the quality of public learning and the communities around them.

About your State Department of Education

Some departments are actively involved in making sure no student is marginalized due to a disability, hunger, lack of survival resources or other challenges. But, some have simply looked the other way as health disparities, trauma due to adverse childhood experiences and social adversity have left large segments of the student body behind. As of this writing, no state department of education or school district has been funded to turn schools with student populations facing health disparities into environments where all students get the resources and support they need to be healthy. What’s most important to note is that if a governor has appointed a cabinet secretary with a track record of data-driven and result-focused work in the education system, your state has a chance to make good strides toward creating local school environments where students not only have the teaching they need to learn, but also have access to services that address health, education and opportunity disparities.

Where real power lies with the school system

It should be noted that school boards really control the functions and standards of a school district. A State Department of Education may have some clout because of testing and federal mandate, but the real power they have is to inspire, motivate and engage — and that’s important. So many state education departments shy away from bold ideas and even talking about experiments. This goes back to the old fear of landing in the news with an unpopular idea, suppressing innovation. We are suddenly in a new era, and if there was ever the time for paradigm-shifting proposals for reinventing school, we have arrived.

A model we need now. Everywhere.

One idea for each state department of education to consider is asking their students and parents to what degree they have access to the services for surviving and thriving. Imagine if schools had the data that indicated a third of students’ families can’t access medical care, behavioral health care, food security programs, programs to help with stable housing and transportation to vital services. Now imagine each school board reviews this data together with school staff and together commit to working on a plan to increase access to vital services.

That plan already exists in the form of what is known as the “community school” model. This means that each school is funded to have a full time director of community schools, a school-based health center with medical, dental and behavioral health care, extra tutoring for students and a liaison to support parents. Add in a food bank and clothing bank and you have radically improved access to the services for survival.

With the community school model, educators get to teach, not work as social workers and crowd control. In the aftermath of a public health crisis, access to timely medical care becomes one of each state’s biggest priorities. The state department of education can take a bold leadership role in making each school across their state a hub for health care and family supports. This will mean healthier students who have the best chance at improved school achievement and graduation rates.

I will discuss your relationships with school boards and local schools in other parts of the series, but to be clear, we believe in the power of public education and therefore see the State Department of Education in a bold activist role. This department can act as an engine to ensure that every student is allowed to spend a school day without hunger, solvable health issues or housing insecurity. There is a long history of education disparities and health disparities awaiting to be remedied by forward thinking state education leaders who believe every school can be fully resourced to address both academic and health care needs. The tested models are already in place. The time for redesigning schools to empower all students is here.

Challenge: Online, engaged and no digital divide

Public education must learn to embrace online options. From kindergarten courses delivered in a home school format to a full PhD program, many learning institutions suddenly found themselves thrown into the deep end during the last global crisis as schools and campuses were forced to close, yet the education process needed to continue. Some schools and universities were prepared and gracefully transitioned their classroom instruction to existing online infrastructure.

However, most were caught off-guard. Many teachers were forced to delay transitioning online for weeks due to a lack of planning, an absence of online instruction infrastructure and a dearth of relevant institutional guidelines. Some sought out and received help from online education experts and were eventually able to rise to the challenge. Many educational programs collapsed altogether, locked out due to a lack of everyday technological solutions and poor administrative leadership. In the post-pandemic reality, children, parents, schools and college students at all levels cannot afford a repeat of the interruptions seen during the COVID-19 crisis.

Video conferencing, both one-to-one and one-to-many is now a well-established commodity that requires no greater technology than a cell phone, a school Chromebook or an old computer. In one-to-many conferencing, such as a teacher presenting to students, only the teacher needs access to a video camera, making real-time, teacher-led instruction accessible to most, but not all students.

Individual schools, school districts and higher education campuses must have plans in place for online instruction and keep educators trained on the latest technologies and methodologies. This not only saves a curriculum from collapse during a crisis (whether from a virus, natural disaster or terrorism) but also allows for expanded educational opportunities every day. Gone are the days when kids who are at home because they are considered contagious but still bouncing off the walls with energy need to miss days of instruction. We need state and local systems in place to support students sitting down, logging onto the virtual classroom and keeping up with the class. The technology is there and is ready to be utilized.

But what about the kids and families who lack even the most basic access to internet technologies? With some creative thinking, even that doesn’t mean education needs to stop. Some rural communities during the COVID-19 crisis worked out how to distribute meals, printed lessons, textbooks, pencils and paper to students either living completely off the grid or close to it.

As details about the most successful of those strategies spreads, it will not only help other remote communities plan for the next crisis, but also help them rethink what were once considered limits to what they could accomplish on a daily basis. If a school district can get meals out to the home of every needy student during a crisis, what’s stopping them from delivering to the same children when they are home sick? And if it works for food, why not learning materials (and postage-paid return envelopes for completed worksheets if necessary), basic needs packets (think toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, band-aids) and more. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Challenge: Aligning education with real jobs

As I mention often, the concept of “alignment” isn’t new. It has been a popular buzzword for decades as leaders in education and workforce development have strategized on how to ensure that all courses and programs can lead to the jobs of today and the future. With massive shifts in job availability and job trends just a crisis or economic downturn away, public education must keep in touch with what is happening globally, nationally and on the local ground in order to effectively act as a matchmaker between employment supply and demand.

This means that the responsibility of educators does not end when students complete their last day of class. Tracking student success in the job market and feeding that data back into a responsive system is vital to understanding whether or not certain classes or degrees are springboards or dead ends. This requires continuous contact with local and regional employers and researching where their industries are heading.

How do I get in with state level education folks and what can they do for my county?

Your work on the county level will mean getting connected with people in education across many levels. First, to work in alignment with the state department of education, you will be connecting with school principals, district supervisors and the staff at the state department of education.

Each state operates public education differently. It should be noted that some states fully understand the importance of a continuum of education through three phases: early childhood education, public education K–12 and higher education. In these enlightened states, when the three department directors are in alignment, a comprehensive system of learning is strengthened.

As with all state agencies, some are data-driven, committed to solid research to inform all proposed policies and practices. Others, less so. As with all state bureaucracies, you will need to find your way to management, sharing with them your local work in education focused on job training and placement. Persistence will be key as you need to connect with a manager who will fully understand and appreciate the work you are doing with the 100% Community initiative.

Bottom line: Vision and a Data-Driven Strategy

The state department of education can promote a vision and strategies to ensure that every student is empowered to succeed. Leadership within the department can advocate that all schools become hubs for community health, safety, resilience and economic development. This is not some dream, it is happening in states and school districts across the country. You need to make sure your schools are part of the evolution.

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or three-headed hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Any questions? The future awaits:

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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