Learning loss is unfortunately not a new subject, just a new label that reminds us how important every minute is that we find ways to educate our scholars. As a 30 year veteran educator who worked in large urban school districts, I have seen first-hand the anxiety educators, families, and scholars have about the issue of learning loss following summer breaks. This year, that concern has been compounded by the disruptions to academic learning from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the lessons I’ve learned about how important it is to ensure opportunities for learning, enrichment and growth are more crucial than ever.
I also learned more about a very important factor, one that has made the biggest difference in my journey, and has helped me become an even stronger bridge-builder for youth, families and communities: Community Partnerships! I finally discovered that educators do not have to do this work alone. It actually was never meant to be done alone. The world is full of so many resources, gifts, talents and abilities—we just need to make the connections with them. For example, my school worked very hard at creating a summer school program, but no matter the time or effort students spent, it was lack-luster and robotic. Although our scholars were engaged in creating the program, they were not empowered—and that was the missing piece.
To foster empowerment for the scholars in our program, I began to reach out to local businesses, retail, leaders, politicians and CEO’s to collaborate with us on how we could make our summer learning more enriching. In short, we were able to partner with over 50 different community businesses to support our summer school program. Together, we were able to provide art, dance, music, storytelling and photography. Every scholar was given a new book to read each week while we gathered in literacy circles to discuss the plot, characters and the tone of the narrative. The scholars acted out the stories and came up with various alternate endings. These program enhancements took our literacy goals to another level and we had 100% attendance every day. Our scholars were now engaged and empowered to learn and grow together.
Following our successful summer program, my team and I identified a few strategies and best practices that helped us to replicate this work each year that I hope will also work for you. They are called the “five P’s”: People, Passion, Purpose, Partnership and Product.
- People: We realized that it was up to us to reach out to local businesses, cultivate community partnerships and ask ourselves, “Why not?” It was a matter of embracing many people, ideas and perspectives in developing a rich summer school program. We needed to focus on co-creating, reimagining and retooling ideas with our community partners. By having other community stakeholders at the table with us, including leaders, CEO’s, families and parents, we were able to provide books, backpacks, workshops and enrichment activities to empower our scholars in their learning journeys.
- Passion: We unleashed our passion as part of this work! We truly had a passion to provide a memorable summer opportunity that would provide learning at optimal levels, as well as fun! When community partners felt our passion, they saw our vision. Not the other way around. They said our passion was infectious and that made them want to get involved in our summer vision planning. They were empowered to share their ideas, resources and even their budgets to make an impactful summer program for local scholars.
- Purpose: In order for us to truly engage potential community partners, we had to have a clear purpose, or a North Star, if you will. We surveyed our school community of students, parents and educators to help us determine what we wanted to offer. We needed to engage our school communities to hear from them, as well as use our data to determine what our goals were. Crafting our purpose took some time, but we invited parents, community leaders and even scholars to be involved in brainstorming and planning.
- Partnership: We had to come to the mindset that working with community partnerships was the best option. We were limited with resources and opportunities. We needed thought partners who could help us think bigger! These partnerships were all around our school. We had been driving by local businesses and offices as part of our routines each day, and now we just needed to take the time to find out who they were and introduce ourselves. In order to do this effectively, we gathered a committee to engage in daily strategic outreach. We identified 5–7 businesses to call each week until we got a yes! In fact, we were surprised to learn that businesses were actually excited we reached out to them first.
- Power: It was important to us that our scholars and parents were not only engaged, but empowered! We wanted them to leave summer school wanting to learn more and feeling happy. We wanted our summer school to be an experience that uplifted our youth and families, and our community partners helped to make that happen. Our community partners provided a variety of programs covering subject areas including the arts, music, dance and sports. We had debate classes, parenting workshops and technology classes. These opportunities were empowering because our scholars and their families asked for them. They owned their own learning.
In addition to following the “five P’s”, we developed a summer school committee that included our current community partners. This took the heavy load off of us as a school and we opened our doors to as many interested parties as we could. Our students’ academic achievement grew each year and our summer school attendance grew as well. Parents came with their children because our summer school was broader and more relevant to their interests and lives.
The “five P’s” approach to community partnerships helped my school become bridge-builders and be more innovative when it came to our summer school planning for our youth and families. And now with everything we do, we must continue to ask ourselves, why not? The possibilities are endless!