Usable Knowledge Where Everybody Knows Your Name The pandemic broke school relationships, but one district found a way to connect with students in ways that will last for the long run Posted October 20, 2021 By Andrew Bauld Disruption and Crises Evidence-Based Intervention Inequality and Education Gaps Organizational Change Technology and Media Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person. While a school is built with classrooms and blackboards, textbooks and desks, what it is built on are relationships. When the pandemic hit, those relationships were one of the biggest losses during remote learning and finding ways to stay connected proved to be one of the biggest challenges. But in the Metro Nashville Public School district, teachers and administrators found a new way to stay in touch with their students and families in ways that continued and will continue long after the pandemic is over. In the fall of 2020, with the help of the Education Redesign Lab's success plans framework, the district rolled out the ambitious new Navigators program. Designed to prevent students and families from slipping out of touch, the program was a way to connect with every student, through phone calls, and then help students and their families with what they needed: social-emotional support, but also access to tangible services like technology, food, and mental health resources. It was a huge undertaking, with the district deploying tens of thousands of laptops and internet hot spots, and everyone from teachers to cafeteria staff and administrative assistants acting as “navigators” and providing 360,000 check-ins for 60,000 students during the course of the 2020–21 school year. Once schools went back in-person, the program didn’t disappear. “Everyone working in a school got involved to work with kids, and we started to hear teachers and staff say that the feeling of connection and knowing you were making a difference was huge,” says Keri Randolph, who oversees the program in her role as executive officer for federal, state, and philanthropic investments for Metro Nashville Public Schools. “Navigator is here to stay, not just for the pandemic.” School leaders around the country hoped the pandemic would be a time to truly reimagine education, but as the return to normalcy seems to also be a return to the old ways of school, Randolph says she is proud of the “positive disruption” the Navigator program has made in her district. Here are some of the ways the Navigator program will continue to grow and impact students this new school year. “Everyone working in a school got involved to work with kids, and we started to hear teachers and staff say that the feeling of connection and knowing you were making a difference was huge. Navigator is here to stay, not just for the pandemic.” Keri Randolph, executive officer for federal, state, and philanthropic investments for Metro Nashville Public Schools 1. Using the language of students Last year when the program started, navigators touched base one-on-one with students and families, often through phone calls. This year, in order to help manage that workload, there is now a monthly one-on-one in-person meeting, plus an online platform where students complete a weekly check in using emojis to indicate their social-emotional levels. On the platform, they can also go into more detail about how they’re doing through a free response prompt, which the navigator can then write their response.“We found this was a texting based communication system that a lot of navigators were doing by the end of the program last year,” Randolph says, especially when kids no longer wanted to communicate through phone calls.2. Meeting the needs of familiesBesides the positive response from navigators, families also expressed how important the program was to them. That was clear from the fact that less that 3% of families opted out of the program last year. In addition to supporting academic and social-emotional needs, the program addressed many of the systemic issues facing Metro Nashville community members, with navigators helping families connect to services focused on food and housing, technology support, and counseling and social work. Randolph says the nearly 3,000 collaborative referrals made last year are a clear indicator of the importance of the program and also the need to strengthen mental health support in the school system.“Everybody knows we need to increase the number of social workers and school counselors,” she says, “and we have robust data from the many referrals to show that.”3. Knowing every student Randolph, who previously worked on success planning with EdRedesign while completing Harvard Graduate School of Education's Doctor of Education Leadership Program, admits a program like Navigator is not an easy one to implement, but while it was hard work, she says faculty and staff saw it as the right kind of work to be doing. That impact is apparent in the way schools across the district have come to know their students more deeply. “We make assumptions about a kid’s background or what school they attend and what they may or may not need,” Randolph says. Now, rather than making assumptions, Nashville schools can use data from the Navigator program to better know every student and meet their individual needs. Want to learn more about the Navigator program? Read about how the Ed Redesign Lab's success planning initiative, including the Navigator program, helped during the pandemic. Read about how the Navigator program kept students from getting lost in the system from The 74. Listen to this episode of the EdCast about the importance of family engagement programs with a former Boston City Councilor More from the Now What? series: Make Outdoor Learning Your Plan A The Kids Are Still Not Alright — But Counselors Can Help Treat Students Like Human Beings Speed Up to Catch Up Grades, What Are They Good For? 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