First of all, a big thanks to Andy for trusting us with the keys to the Eduwonk Cadillac for a week. We don’t fish and aren’t as witty as he is, so he may come to regret the decision. But we’ll try to keep things interesting.
Longtime readers may know us from our time at TNTP. We were colleagues there for 14 years before founding a new nonprofit, EdNavigator, about a year ago. Brief summary: we help families with school. Right now, we’re only working in New Orleans, where we’ve partnered with a number of local hotels to provide personalized educational support as a benefit to their employees. Each participating employee gets paired with one of our Navigators, who helps them choose schools, understand and track their children’s progress, support learning at home, and advocate for their children’s needs. Hard-working employees get help; employers get happier, more engaged employees who are more likely to stay in their jobs. Everybody wins. (At least that’s the idea. Long way to go and lots to learn.)
Working directly with families as they engage with the school system offers a very different view of education policy debates than working inside the system itself, which was our background. It has been an eye-opening experience. Our goal here is to use our guest-blogging perch to share a few of our main lessons and how they might be applicable to the wider education landscape.
Lesson #1: A little help goes a long way for families.
We’ll illustrate what we mean through one of the parents we’re working with, whom we’ll call Maria.
Maria is a mom, and a housekeeper at a hotel in New Orleans’ business district. She earns about $10 per hour cleaning rooms. Her daughter is a rising fourth grader with long black hair and a big smile.
Neither Maria nor her husband speak English. Her daughter, Ana, does. She often plays the role of translator for her mom and dad. Ana does not go to an inner city school. She goes to one of the higher-performing schools in Jefferson Parish (just outside New Orleans) and generally gets good grades. She almost never misses a day.
Sounds like a success story, right? Dedicated parents, a prime school, a well-behaved and hard-working little girl. Everything on-track.
But the truth is, Ana’s situation in school is more fragile than it looks. Although her report card showed mostly A’s and B’s when we started working with her, Ana’s test results indicated that she was below grade level in reading. She told us she was having a hard time following her teacher’s fast-paced instructions in class, and had recently gotten a string of C’s in social studies. She’d also developed some worrisome study habits, often falling asleep while doing her reading homework. Maria wasn’t sure how to help, because she couldn’t read English herself. All of this raised concerns among our Navigators, who knew that third-grade reading proficiency is a critical milestone for future academic success.
This is a good example of how we get involved. After reviewing Ana’s academic records with Maria, we helped arrange a meeting at school. Ana’s teacher agreed to slow down when she provided instructions, and to send home translated versions of homework materials so that Maria could help. We asked Maria about Ana’s workspace at home and learned that she often did her reading alone in bed at night, leading her to fall asleep. We suggested that Maria get a small table and chair where her daughter could read instead, to help her stay awake and focused.
Within a week, Maria had done everything we recommended. We followed up by helping her find more books for her daughter to read at home and teaching her how to use flashcards to help Ana practice social studies and science vocabulary, a simple strategy that she told us has been working well. This spring, we gave her a summer learning packet to keep Ana going at a time when many kids fall behind. These sorts of adjustments helped put her daughter back on track in reading by the end of the year—and led to an A in social studies in her last quarter.
For Maria and Ana, a few well-timed interventions went a long way. They had a lot going for them, for sure, but their experience also illustrates the challenges that so many families face in navigating schools: Language and cultural barriers, contradictory information about how students are really doing, uncertainty about how to support learning at home, a tendency among school systems not to respond to learning challenges until they become five-alarm fires. The list goes on and on.
How many families out there are in similar situations? Too many to count. Families tend to think that school has everything under control unless they hear otherwise, and schools tend to think that families aren’t concerned about their children unless they show up, in person, to school on a regular basis to ask how things are going. Meanwhile, little problems with students like Ana become big problems that cost more money and take more time to address.
There isn’t a neat and tidy policy solution. The solution, ultimately, is to strengthen the social fabric that connects families and schools and empower parents in the educational process. In our view, that starts with making sure that families get the sophisticated support they need to interact successfully with complex systems. Each day this week, we’ll share something we’ve learned about how families experience their interactions with schools and what happens when families speak up to ask the system for help.
Ariela Rozman, Timothy Daly and David Keeling are Founding Partners of EdNavigator (@ednavigate), a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization that helps families give their kids a great education. www.ednavigator.com