By Jack McCarthy
Public education is largely set up to deliver on four promises:
- Educating and preparing young people for their futures;
- Providing a common place for socialization;
- Providing opportunities for enrichment and exposure to our world; and
- Custodial care so families can work and know their children are in a safe place.
The pandemic essentially broke at least one of, and in some cases, all of these promises. What turned into an intentional decision — sending students home in March 2020 — had deep, unintended consequences: families lacked custodial care for far too long, enrichment and exposure to the world was nonexistent, and social isolation was rampant, and virtual learning led to deep learning drops.
This is more likely to be true for families with students with disabilities. The state of special education long before the pandemic, nationally and right here in DC, has meant that families of students with disabilities experienced a failure of the four promises, often just getting custodial care at school. As one parent put it, “My experience with school is that I am the primary person responsible for my children’s education—not the schools, not teachers—me.”
What schools must reckon with is that many families (of those with students who have disabilities and those who do not) could not wait for schools to be “back to normal,” and instead made other arrangements, ones that often were more personalized, higher-quality, and more reliable.
Now schools face conflicting expectations around what school is and how to connect inside- and outside-school experiences. That’s particularly true in early childhood education, where DC’s universal pre-K has for a decade been an outstanding option, but now families want to make other choices.
Moving forward, schools can focus on three things for students to begin to redeliver all four promises to families, and in some cases deliver the promises to families for the first time.
Onboard your educators: Over the last three years, schools have seen significant teacher turnover and teacher burnout. Schools should re-onboard their teachers to the joy, expectations, and “way” of your school. Veteran teachers likely need support in resetting after a tumultuous few years and new teachers (including teachers hired in 2021, 2022, and 2023) need to be properly onboarded. It’s likely that onboarding during the pandemic was faulty at best, and it’s our job to spark the joy, warmth, and rigor of teaching again.
Support mental health: At AppleTree, we developed a partnership with the Georgetown Wellness Center to provide support for students, teachers, and families. We know that challenging behavior has increased and students are coming to school with new experiences we never anticipated. Providing teachers with knowledge, coaching, tools, and skills to understand and address challenging behaviors makes it more likely that schools can meet children’s educational needs while supporting teachers more effectively. Schools must use city funding — albeit funding that is not nimble enough — to address these challenges with access to more clinicians in schools. Schools can create their vision for a warm, nurturing environment for all students and use funds to create that in every classroom, for every student.
Align the charter way to special education: Charter schools have the flexibility and innovative spirit to achieve big goals. Now it’s time to do that for students with disabilities. With a plan and focus, school leaders can reimagine schooling for students with disabilities, deliver on the four promises, and see academic and social-emotional progress for students with disabilities. At AppleTree, we are looking to reimagine our self-contained classrooms to better serve the students in them and help them be a model to the city. We’re rethinking how to adjust our instructional model, curriculum, progress monitoring, and professional development so every student is ready to thrive in Kindergarten.
It’s time for us to provide all four promises to families and this is where we are starting.
Jack McCarthy is President and CEO of AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation