With K–12 school resources spread thin and an overwhelming amount of work to be done to face the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, HGSE responded this summer by offering school districts something equally unprecedented: the direct help of its newest graduates, in a fully funded fellowship program called the Dean’s Education Fellows program. The 12-week program, facilitated by the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) at Harvard University, matched graduating Ed.M. students to school districts in need of support on projects addressing the challenges of COVID-19.
“We knew how much our graduates had to offer the field. Having just completed their studies, they were well-equipped with the energy, expertise, and passion necessary to help the districts address their most pressing challenges,” said Dean Bridget Long. “There was a great deal of interest among students, which is a reflection of their eagerness to step in and help. This program gave them the opportunity to apply their skills and interests in a meaningful way during critical time.”
Once Long conceived the program, things came together quickly, with staff, faculty, and donor support — and, by June 11, fellows had been selected. Fellows were matched with districts based on how well their skills and interests fit the needs of the districts, and they worked on a wide range of projects, including summer development for K–12 students, educator professional development, family engagement, and analysis and planning. Throughout the fellowship, HGSE provided fellows with the ongoing support of faculty advisers, who regularly offered expertise, perspective, and encouragement.
The Dean’s Education Fellows program relied on long-time partnerships with districts, many of which have participated in other HGSE programs like PELP. As a result, fellows could be placed in some of the largest districts in the United States, including those that serve high percentages of low-income students, including Boston Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham, co-director of PELP, was instrumental in getting the Dean’s Education Fellows program off the ground and provided support throughout the summer. At the culminating gathering during which fellows shared their experiences in an online ceremony, Cheatham commended the fellows’ flexibility in working in such ambiguous, fast-paced environments.
“This was truly a call to action,” Cheatham said. “All of you collectively rolled up your sleeves and just got in there…. I really thank you and our districts thank you for getting in there and helping out.”
Long also expressed gratitude for the fellows’ impact during such a crucial time, and looked forward to HGSE continuing to aid districts in the future — even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. “I trust that our students will continue to be exceptionally well-prepared and eager to help, and I am committed to supporting them to have impact,” she said.
Below is a sampling of the important work that Dean’s Education Fellows did this summer, as well as the impact it will have on the districts and the fellows themselves:
New York City Department of Education
Coming into the Dean’s Education Fellowship, I hoped to be involved in responding to this unique and potentially transformative time in the field of education. New York City had been heavily disrupted by COVID in the spring and so my initial priority was to understand the challenges students in district are facing and the steps the DOE is taking to adapt. The district identified a need to assemble resources that will help ensure that remote learning is a continuation of in-person learning, and that synchronous and asynchronous instruction connect to create a cohesive learning experience for students.
Over the summer the curriculum team sought to pinpoint priority standards and learning goals by content and grade level that could support the continuity of high-quality instruction. My work focused on curating a repository of digital resources for each of these learning goals in math and English language arts, so that these can be shared with teachers and used to improve students’ experiences as they interact with content. In assessing these digital curriculum resources, I’ve learned that although many resources are available, there is a great deal of variation in quality, and districts like New York City also have a lot of considerations about how these resources fit into budgetary constraints.
This is a time that organizations across all levels of education are grappling with how to make remote learning accessible and effective, and I’m looking forward to continued exploration around how digital tools and resources can be leveraged to promote learning for all. Although I believe that digital learning has the opportunity to disrupt education, it will require a great deal of human ingenuity and support to ensure its effective implementation at scale.
Baltimore City Public Schools
Over the summer, I project managed the implementation of a mesh network in three City Schools neighborhoods — an initiative that connected 68 families with a low-cost, sustainable and community-based internet solution. The pandemic only exposed the long-standing digital inequity that already existed. By working with stakeholders within and outside the district, I had a chance to help shape a critical project during a critical time. I also had a chance to think deeply about how the systemic issues that impact vulnerable students can be solved, especially since gaps are widening as the pandemic continues.
My own background as an international student from Pakistan is in the non-state sector. I came to HGSE to learn more about educational entrepreneurship, and I was eager to start my own project-based school. My experience over the summer gave me an opportunity to dwell on what transformation within public school systems can look like, and in so doing, helped reorient the trajectory of my career.
Orange County Public Schools (Florida)
This summer, I supported Orange County Public Schools, Florida (OCPS) with their first ever strategic district-wide social-emotional learning (SEL) plan. My responsibilities included conducting a thorough review of best practices in overcoming common pitfalls in SEL implementation at a district level and also vetting and compiling a detailed guide of evidence-based SEL programs for schools to adopt this year. This resource will potentially augment the district’s SEL implementation plan and practice and the recommendations provided will also support school leadership to make informed decisions while selecting an SEL program that best suits their needs, thereby impacting the social-emotional well-being of more than 215,700 children. While the resource has been structured to meet OCPS’s requirements, I believe that it can be helpful to any school district making decisions about their SEL strategy, especially during this time when there is an urgent need to focus on children’s social-emotional wellness.
As an international student, this experience has been especially rewarding as it allowed me to learn about schooling systems in a completely different context. I also appreciated having the opportunity to witness how districts make decisions that cater to such diverse needs by being both responsive and flexible, and learnt that it is possible to make collaborative decisions by listening to voices from stakeholders even on such a large scale. As I recognize the need for systemic inter-agency collaboration to truly support the diverse needs of children, I will certainly be carrying this bird’s eye view to enrich my future work.
San Antonio Independent School District
My commitment to education stems from my own edification and awareness of its vitality. As a Dean’s Education Fellow partnering with system-level leaders in education, I wanted to have a multifaceted impact on school culture and students’ classroom experience.
The racial and social injustices of 2020 have had an unfathomable impact on the psyche of students. My goals were to shift those raw emotions into opportunities to educate students on the systemic issues of oppression and racism that plague America. I wanted to educate the district on the importance of incorporating inclusive and culturally relevant curriculum. I wanted my overall impact to shift the way marginalized students’ and communities’ needs were viewed at the district level. We cannot dismantle what we do not understand.
I was extremely ambitious in what I wanted this course to accomplish for district leaders, teachers, students, and families. I felt emboldened since I had earned a seat at the table and my focus was to ensure I articulated diverse perspectives. I am not too far removed from working hands on with students and families in various communities and I wanted to bring those experiences to district conversations. While supporting the district for a finite amount of time, I remained hopeful that I planted seeds to help foster change. I hope that I reshaped mindsets and encouraged others to challenge the status quo.