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The Power of Cross-Sector Collaboration

At Education Redesign Lab convening, U.S. mayors and education funders see opportunity to fix systemic failures and address inequities.
Libby Schaaf

Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf speaks at the recent virtual convening of the By All Means initiative.

The current pandemic has changed education, forcing educators to think on their feet, quickly enacting new methods of teaching and learning. The question of whether this shift could lead to an opportunity to redesign the education system for the better — long-term — was on everyone’s minds at the recent convening of the By All Means initiative from the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Are there things we don’t want to restore? … Can [we] use this as an opportunity to pivot in a new direction?” said Professor Paul Reville, director of the Education Redesign Lab. “This is what the Ed Redesign Lab is all about.”

Launched in 2016, By All Means is a multiyear initiative aimed at developing comprehensive child wellbeing and education systems through partnerships with mayors and superintendents in leading cities. The recent convening, “The Power of Cross-Sector Collaboration to Support Children and Families During a Time of Uncertainty,” was the ninth such gathering. Held virtually, it attracted over 230 participants and illuminated how communities responded to the pandemic, while also bringing to light the many inequities plaguing the system.

“We knew we had gaps in education, but [the pandemic] surely made clear that the economy doesn’t work for everyone and the healthcare system doesn’t work as well,” says Joseph Curatone, mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, who cited his city’s issues of higher rates of virus transmission, challenges with the digital divide, and a struggle for those who cannot work from home.

Many of those inequities — access to food, healthcare, and remote learning — took immediate center stage for mayors and educators in their initial responses to the coronavirus. But as emergency responses begin to ease and shift toward both the long term and unknown future, the mayors shared concerns about how to move forward, how to make sure students can return to school, how the budget would be impacted from this crisis, and how to make greater change to the system under such constraints.

Despite all the challenges facing communities, the mayors agreed that now was a moment to alter systems and structures that no longer work.

“Education is everyone’s responsibility,” said Jorge Elorza, mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, who noted how the pandemic had provided an incentive to truly examine what educating the whole child really means, and to invest more in places children may gather outside of school, like libraries and recreation centers.

But with a challenged economy, Reville asked the mayors how they could take advantage of opportunity to make change.

“We want to preserve as many investments in children as possible,” Elorza said, adding that in his city they were guarding all youth programming funds, investing in summer programs for children, and expanding summer learning opportunities.

Still, in many communities, the uncertainty about the economy and the upcoming budget means they have had to seek out fundraising opportunities to supplement remote learning and other programs geared toward helping children and families.

For Mayor Jim Coppinger, of Hamilton County, Tennessee — who, in addition to the pandemic, faced a natural disaster when tornadoes struck, destroying over 1,000 homes — there was an immediate pivot to using the district’s wraparound services and strengthening partnerships. “It’s more than any government can do,” he said. “It’s a lot of volunteers and dollars coming from philanthropic groups.”

Those philanthropic efforts are now vital in keeping many communities afloat and may be a key link to making those bigger changes in the system, especially under budget constraints.

Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf successfully funded and closed the digital divide in schools through philanthropic efforts. Everyone needs to think of ways to leverage investments and change institutions, she said, while asking those really hard questions about structural racism.

LaVerne Evans-Srinivasan, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation’s National Program and the program director for education, agreed that this is the time to get ambitious about making change.

“It’s such a crisis that you don’t want to be opportunistic, but it is an opportunity to cut through some of the long-held beliefs that have stood in the way of making these big structural and policy changes,” she said.