In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing greater academic, social, and emotional challenges than ever before. Schools can’t address these needs on their own — and families need options. As families, caregivers, and schools look for ways to assemble a range of education options to meet students’ needs, Bellwether sat down with Filling the Gap cohort participants to discuss how assembling a more flexible educational ecosystem can be responsive to students’ needs. Stay tuned for more Q&As in this Bellwether blog series as March continues. To learn more about Filling the Gap and to read more in this Bellwether blog series, click here. Posts have been edited for clarity and content.
Colorado is a hotbed of innovation in the education sector. I recently talked to two leaders in the state — Shannon Nicholas at Colorado Succeeds and Amy Anderson at RESCHOOL Colorado — to learn more about how their organizations are helping students and families access supplemental learning options. Nicholas is the chief of staff at Colorado Succeeds and works with business leaders and policymakers to support innovative programs in and out of the classroom that improve outcomes for students. As RESCHOOL’s Executive Director, Anderson’s work supports families as they navigate the education system through initiatives like learner advocate networks and programs that provide learning dollars directly to families.
Paul Beach (PB): Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of work Colorado Succeeds and RESCHOOL do in the state?
Shannon Nicholas (SN):
The Colorado Succeeds team focuses on a systems-level approach to this work and we use public policy as a lever to make the system equitable and more student centered. We work with the Colorado business community to create advocates for change for all learners in Colorado, from early childhood through career; business leaders should care about school quality and economic outcomes of the community for their current and future workforce needs. We put students first in all that we do to tap into Colorado’s homegrown talent to create change.
Amy Anderson (AA):
I started RESCHOOL, in partnership with the Donnell-Kay Foundation at the time, after coming to the realization that my work in state government enabled me to tweak but not transform the system from within. I wanted to do more for Colorado students. RESCHOOL was co-designed with parents and communities. We work in partnership to design solutions to meet the needs of families and students, particularly those from marginalized communities. We support families to navigate Colorado’s education system, run learner advocate networks to provide access to resources families can turn to for their children, raise money and reinvest in community-based organizations that intersect with youth, and raise funds for learning dollars that parents can use to supplement their children’s education outside the regular school day. Part of our advocacy work includes partnering with Colorado Succeeds to leverage public funds to make this a reality for young adults across the state, so they can be in the driver’s seat to make decisions about their futures.
PB: What’s the current education landscape like in Colorado? And how have families, students, and schools weathered the COVID-19 pandemic?
In large measure, what we’re seeing here isn’t that different from what’s happening in other parts of the country — or world for that matter — in terms of the interruption in kids’ education and the aftereffects from the pandemic that we see now. There’s a significant focus on stronger mental health supports for kids and we’re working with families and community organizations to help kids who’ve fallen behind academically to make up for lost learning in the pandemic. Those are the big education conversations here in Colorado right now. RESCHOOL’s working on providing resources for COVID relief directed at addressing these concerns. We’ve also seen people leaving the system and making other choices like enrolling their children in private schools, participating in microschools, as well as home-schooling.
We’re hopeful from a silver lining standpoint: Many leaders in Colorado schools and systems recognize the need to change and keep pace with what’s going on in the world. Some of the forced-hybrid models born of the pandemic are a manifestation of that. Learning happens everywhere and the pandemic forced change that we continue to push at Colorado Succeeds. Now, more educators and school leaders can engage in creative conversations about how to make that happen. Those conversations are happening more frequently because of the pandemic.
I’d add that we have an ecosystem of people outside the formal K-12 education system who are much more organized and collaborative now in Colorado. For example, we are partnering with local nonprofits on an ecosystem-mapping project to figure out where kids are going when they’re not in public schools and how to ensure that different entities alongside public schools provide equitable and accessible learning opportunities for kids furthest from opportunity.
PB: What’s the Early High School Graduate Innovation Program and how does it work?
This policy passed two years ago to create a more student-centered experience statewide, including building career-connected opportunities for low-income young people who graduate high school early. Legislators came around to the idea that if a student graduates high school before their fourth year, they should retain access to per-pupil revenue their school would have received. The legislation passed gives a percentage of that money back to the school system to recognize that they’re doing right by students to graduate them early and to disincentivize schools retaining students just to retain students (and funding). Students on this path can use some of that money to pursue their academic ambitions in college or workforce programming — a multiple-pathways approach that gives these kids a “scholarship” of sorts.
PB: What’s Path4Ward and how are Colorado Succeeds and RESCHOOL partnering on it?
At first, Path4Ward was a branding and communications strategy. This was a piece of the legislation, and we knew that students, families, and schools wouldn’t recognize or track bill numbers and find out what they’re entitled to. We knew we wanted to start our partnership on implementation with a communications approach alongside the Colorado Department of Higher Education to support outreach for the program. And a foundation was eager to support our work on amplifying the concept of students’ transition from high school to a pathway. It led to our partnership with RESCHOOL and work that supports students with utilizing their scholarships, working with Zero Dropouts to provide navigation support and connecting regularly to ensure we can do this work at scale with different communities.
Another piece of what we’re trying to do is serve in an advisory capacity with the Colorado Department of Higher Education to bring information back to them about real-time barriers students face as they navigate through the program. That work highlights how the structures the department has created at the state level can be set up to be more student friendly.
PB: What’s an example of a barrier?
The biggest barrier is getting money to the student. It’s a very slow process to get the state Department of Higher Education and institutions to sync up and find out who’s enrolled and how money flows through postsecondary institutions or workforce programs before it gets into the students’ hands. We have students who enrolled in Path4Ward back in September who’ve yet to receive funds six months later. So, what we had to do was leverage some of the learning dollars that RESCHOOL had raised to provide interim support to students and families while the department is trying to figure out their cash flow. These learning dollars have prevented many students from getting frustrated and walking away from the program.
This is a moment of humility for public policy organizations like mine. Sometimes policy is the creator of a barrier, but it’s a barrier that was necessary to create as a concession for passage of the legislation. As a policy organization now working on implementation, we’re seeing this challenge firsthand through access to more information and student stories. It demonstrates how the pass-through model isn’t the best way to support students. It’s eye-opening.
Age is also a barrier. Most kids graduating aren’t 18 yet. With that comes a host of challenges around privacy agreements that districts are requiring and that must be signed by parents or guardians. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that parents or districts have to do more than they would for an 18-year-old student. And some workforce programs won’t let a student start until they’re no longer a minor for liability reasons — requiring some students to wait six months or longer, after graduation, to enroll in a program through Path4Ward.
PB: How does Path4Ward help families and students navigate the Early High School Graduate Innovation Program?
One of our realizations over the past year and half is that the counseling and support a young person gets throughout high school is what sets them on a path to graduate early. What we’ve seen from that is most early graduates are pursuing a traditional path into a college program, and there isn’t necessarily awareness of other options, like workforce training programs. Part of what Path4Ward is doing is trying to reach students earlier in the high school experience to talk about regional workforce development programs and to build awareness with in-school counselors and support teams about the many options students have. The first class of young people that went through the program were already on track in large part, but now we’ve been able to re-engage students who didn’t think about these opportunities initially. We’re building earlier learning and resource development in kids’ high school journeys.
PB: What’s one piece of advice you’d give an organization that is supporting the implementation of an early graduation incentive program?
There are two things I think about a lot. First, try to get dollars to students directly and as efficiently as possible — and trust them on how to use it. We have flexibility built into how students can use the funds through the policy development, and I’m proud of our state partners for not creating more barriers. Second, the technical assistance we provide is supported by private philanthropy and results in public-private partnerships that benefit implementation. This is because legislators didn’t put dollars aside for that implementation work directly. It impacts how we think about maintaining a level of support through the next few years of the pilot in terms of who will actually implement this work. It’s a vital consideration.
I agree with what Shannon mentioned. The one thing I’ll add is that we’ve run funds over the years in lots of ways, including using a platform, putting money on a debit card, or structuring like the federal child tax credit model that sends cash directly to families. But we’ve come around to the debit card (with a few controls in place) as the best model. It gets money to students, allows for controls that prohibit use in certain places, and is easy to audit for fraud. The idea of platforms that many organizations set up was a well-intentioned “be all, do all” unicorn, but it was impossible to build in a way that could be kept up with the provider landscape and was hard to get providers to engage with. The debit card approach works.
PB: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention or put a finer point on?
It’s clear for us that the kids we work with who graduate high school (whether early or on-time) and haven’t enrolled in any postsecondary option are in a state of limbo. No one is responsible for them except families, so it’s hard to figure out next steps in that gray area. It’s increasingly clear that we need to focus on supporting that subset of students to figure out a better way to ensure their success.