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Building public education back better: Could learning hubs and micro-schools be the foundation?

The consensus is becoming clear: families and district leaders want a return to in-person learning as soon as possible. But in a growing number of communities, that does not mean a return to normal. 

“Normal” wasn’t working for historically marginalized students who have suffered from unequal access to high-quality, rigorous instruction. It wasn’t working for stressed out high school students whose schedules were loaded up with AP courses designed to get them into colleges their parents couldn’t afford. It wasn’t working for students who lacked any career guidance or mentorship. And it absolutely wasn’t working for those who faced racial alienation or discrimination at school. 

Add it all up, and normal wasn’t working for most kids. As we return to something more closely resembling the pre-pandemic mode and manner of instruction, we can and must do better.

The same kids who were underserved for years now face unprecedented academic, mental health, and social-emotional needs. Schools will be hard-pressed to meet those needs if they pursue business as usual. We must do things differently.  

Surveys make it clear that there is widespread support for a deep reimagining of K–12 education—not just tinkering—particularly among parents. In a national poll by the Echelon Partners (conducted for the National Parents Union), 55 percent agreed that “Schools should be focused on rethinking how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach children moving forward as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.” Another nationwide poll conducted by Beacon Research and Shaw for the Walton Family Foundation showed that most parents see the influx of federal education dollars as a critical opportunity to make bold changes. In particular, they want to see more investments in work-based learning, meeting students’ emotional and mental health needs, and upgrades to digital learning. 

District and community leaders also say they want to change things up. According to the American School District Panel, a RAND/CRPE research partnership, one in five district leaders say they will offer virtual learning into the future. The Great Hearts charter network is starting micro-schools that combine the flexibility and “family togetherness” of virtual learning with additional support and a sense of community. During the pandemic, hundreds of city and civic leaders stepped up to respond to student needs with community-driven learning hubs. 

I recently wrote a blog post with TNTP’s Dan Weisberg arguing that learning hubs could be an important opportunity to test dramatically different approaches to schooling with the influx of federal dollars. The basic idea is that small, nimble hubs or micro-schools allow educators to join forces with community organizations, businesses, and social service providers to create student-centered learning programs that are unbounded from past assumptions about what school has to look like.

CRPE and TNTP are working closely with six school districts to experiment with this idea, but it’s one that could be pursued by mayors, civic leaders, and even states across the country that are looking for innovative and responsive ways to use their federal ARP funds.

To help people visualize the possibilities, we’ve developed a list of learning hub prototypes. Some are being tested out and some are new ideas. Here are some thumbnail sketches. A more detailed list can be found here.

  • “Career pathway hubs” that focus on serving students in flexible schedules so they can develop their career interests while still finishing high school.
  • “Home learning hubs” that serve students (and their families) who are educated primarily at home or in pods. Community maker spaces, performance stages, curriculum and counseling services, and tech support could all be available to support high-quality learning co-produced with families.
  • “Affirmation hubs” that focus on racial identity and culturally relevant curricula. The many successful educational pods or hubs designed by parent or community leaders for Black and Brown children, like the Oakland REACH virtual hub, could continue to operate inside or outside districts. Students might choose to attend for a semester or longer, for all or part of the school day. 
  • “Connections hubs” that focus primarily on social development and mental wellness. The hubs might be run in meaningful partnership with social service providers who’ve had demonstrated success supporting kids who struggle with friendships, for instance, or are bullied in traditional schools.
  • “Hybrid learning hubs” that allow students to take some courses online and some in-person within the same space and with a strong community of learners.
  • “Core learning hubs” that scale down the school day to focus just on excellent college prep instruction, allowing students more time to pursue internships or particular talents, like music or dance, in partnership with community organizations.
  • “Health and wellness hubs” that specialize in medically and psychologically healthy environments for students, piloting how schools of the future might be physically designed and creatively staffed (with telehealth, community volunteers, etc.) to limit illness and maximize wellness.
  • “Community resource hubs” that leverage tutoring and mentoring supports for students who work best with individualized or small-group instruction.

These are just a few of the possibilities if we free ourselves to imagine how we might rebuild school from the ground up. Students might attend one hub or mix and match. Communities might host a “hub and spoke” model of hubs, as Edgecombe County Public Schools is designing. Hubs could be placed individually or grouped in repurposed office buildings or in under-capacity school buildings. CRPE is developing a more detailed set of such prototypes and welcomes additional ideas for communities to test and refine. 

Imagine what ideas might emerge if civic leaders collaborated with the wide variety of constituents who have become more engaged or concerned about public education during the pandemic—asking what students and families, educators, and community leaders want going forward. Imagine if teachers could design and apply to open the hub of their dreams.  

The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for people. When it came to education, many saw clearly that the core function of schooling has to be about seeing the child as the ”x” to solve for and flexing to quickly respond to diverse needs. We discovered or remembered how critical to a child’s education are powerful student-adult relationships, identity formation and affirmation, pragmatic skill building, community, social bonds, and most simply: joy.

These simple attributes need not be at odds with public education, or even traditional school models. Communities can find ways to compliment existing public school options via learning hubs and slowly grow the things they like over time. At the end of the day, great and engaging instruction must be at the heart of any student experience. These new structures can, and should, help facilitate the shift to a new normal that’s defined by its diversity, nimbleness, and relentlessly student-centered approach.

We cannot afford to recreate the rigid, one-size-fits-all school systems that so badly failed students during and before the pandemic. The goal for recovery and rebuilding should be to leap-frog, not simply catch students up. In the future, every student should have a set of flexible options or pathways that fully prepares them to solve the challenges of the future. Learning hubs could evolve from a pragmatic solution in a pandemic to a sandbox for educational innovation.

We want to stay in dialogue about new school solutions and learn what’s happening on the ground. If you are thinking about this too, email us at crpe@uw.edu.

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