While many educators this past year faced computer screens full of silent, black Zoom squares instead of a bustling classroom with enthusiastic raised hands, others — in districts like Nashville, Chattanooga, and Unity Point — found themselves on the phone with families and food banks coordinating meal deliveries or chatting with students about ways to combat loneliness. While teachers often support students and families in these ways, building this kind of connection was done intentionally and consistently through the pandemic across these districts with the help of success planning.
Since 2014, the Education Redesign Lab (EdRedesign) at Harvard Graduate School of Education has been working with a number of communities across the country to develop cross-sector collaborations and a system of 10 guiding principles for personalizing learning and connecting students with supports, resources, and opportunities using success plans. While districts already doing the work found success plans to be a promising means of reducing inequality and increasing engagement for all students, they were instrumental for continuing to do so during the pandemic and during the months of remote learning.
“We know that when schools went remote, it was so easy for kids to feel disconnected and fall through the cracks,” says Lynne Sacks, research director of the Education Redesign Lab. “Having those relationships in place made a huge difference. But we also saw some districts choose to develop this new approach or expand or deepen it to address acute needs during the pandemic.”
Success plans draw on two key concepts — that trusting relationships between adults and children are necessary for development and learning, and that providing supports to children leads to better outcomes. These plans tend rely on a “navigator” or coordinator who builds a relationship with students and their families to gather information and combines that with academic and non-academic data the schools gather like absences and grades. Having a navigator also ensures the student has a trusted adult outside of their family who can ensure the child stays connected to the school and receives support, even during periods of remote schooling.
In Nashville, the need to organize and track the needs of the 71,000 students during the pandemic was so pressing, the district quickly implemented a success planning initiative. Led by Keri Randolph, Ed.L.D.'20, executive officer of strategic, federal, state and philanthropic investments, and who has previously worked on success planning in Chattanooga, Tennessee and with EdRedesign, the district focused on contacting students and their families. 6,000 employees, ranging from teachers and administrators to paraprofessionals and front desk staff, conducted weekly check-ins based off scripted prompts.
“The navigator protocol gave us a system for reaching out to families,” says Myra Taylor, principal of Jones Paideia Magnet Elementary School. “It took a few weeks to catch on. But after that, the families knew we were going to call, that they could talk and share things going on in community we may not know about. It was this information wave.”
And with that information, the district was able to make a real impact. While there are some areas of the initiative that need to be developed further, over 90% of students were reached through the Navigator Program. Even though school is in-person this fall, the district will continue to use and develop the program with additional supports for navigators and a dashboard to support data collection.
“The value proposition [of the initiative] has been shown,” says Randolph. “It’s not even about the pandemic at this point. It’s about the school system making sure every student is known, cared for, respected, and supported because that’s critical to their social-emotional wellbeing and academic success.”
Of course, just as plans can be tailored to meet the needs of individual students, the implementation of success planning can be tailored to meet the needs of each context. Sacks notes that there isn’t just one specific model and that local communities can implement them in a way that makes the most sense. “It makes sense to start where you are,” she says. “Different communities have different partnerships and supports in place so you can build from there instead of trying to plug in a uniform model that may not work.”
As an under resourced district with high rates of poverty, the Hamilton County School District uses success planning as a way to collect data and better meet student needs. Currently, the district is building out a customized data platform that will house and track long-term metrics like academic and social-emotional learning, college and career readiness, goals, and how often students use offered services. The goal for the district, then, is to be able to identify which services, supports, and resources, are best able to serve the needs of the community.
As the program expands, the district’s customized data platform will act as a hub for stakeholders. “They’ll be able to see the kinds of needs being identified, the kinds of partners meeting those needs, and where we still have gaps all within this single platform,” says John Cunningham, a program manager for the district.
Cunningham notes that data about student needs helped advance large-scale projects during the pandemic. The district created an initiative with the Electric Power Board to provide free internet to any family with an economic need, connecting thousands of students. State and nonprofit partners helped create 40 learning centers to support and supervise students whose parents were working or who needed a safe place to do schoolwork.
“The value proposition [of the initiative] has been shown. It’s not even about the pandemic at this point. It’s about the school system making sure every student is known, cared for, respected, and supported because that’s critical to their social-emotional wellbeing and academic success.” - Keri Randolph, executive officer of strategic, federal, state and philanthropic investments, Nashville
“From the district level, it was a great method of needs identification,” says Cunningham. “It created a collusion of service providers where we were on the same page. We were able to elevate these kinds of [widespread] needs as a result.”
Districts, like Unity Point, Illinois, that had implemented success plans pre-pandemic, found that they had a structural system that allowed student advisors to support the needs of the whole child. Alongside students and parents, advisers were able to address essential issues likeisolation, loss, food insecurity, and provide access to technology or other resources.
While Unity Point educators reported that students certainly felt the impact of the pandemic, the Individual Student Success Plan (ISSP) process — their name for success planning — done during the first two weeks of school laid the groundwork for collaboration. Parents and students were invited in for a meeting with advisors to talk about needs and establish goals for the year. Together, they developed a plan of action that became the framework for student success during a challenging year. As a result, parents became partners in their students’ work at home and communication and collaboration became a necessity for that success.
“As a PE teacher, I didn’t interact with a lot of parents,” says Ron Rogers, a seventh- and eighth-grade physical education and health teacher. “Last year, that opened a door. I was talking to every parent weekly to ask how things were going. This [process] showed how we were going to work this out together.”
Because of the strong support network and clear goals established in the ISSP meetings, it was harder for students and families to fall through the cracks. Advisors met with 99% of the student body and their families over the course of the 2020-2021 school year.
But success planning isn’t just a tool to be used in moment of crisis. As schools reopen and reconnect with students, educators are presented with a chance to do things differently. Implementing a system — even a rudimentary framework —for success planning is a chance to move past a “one-size-fits-all” approach where each child, regardless of need or background, receives the same supports.
"This a rare opportunity for a major shift which, in many cases, school systems have already begun to do by reaching out to families and students over the course of the pandemic,” said HGSE professor Paul Reville in a recent webinar series presented by EdRedesign. “We need to ensure in this moment especially that every child is seen, listened to, understood, and responded to.”