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Reimagining the Future: Convening Conversations about Whole-Learner Education in Pennsylvania and Michigan

At the end of October, America Forward hosted two events, as part of a series of conversations with policymakers and education leaders about the critical importance of whole-learner approaches to education. Both events were moderated by America Forward Advocacy Director Nithya Joseph.

The first, focused on Pennsylvania, was held on Friday, October 23, 2020 and featured Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan (PA-06); Miles Wilson, President & CEO of EducationWorks; Dr. Crystal Loose, CEO of Plant the Seed of Learning; and Virgil Sheppard, National School Partnerships Senior Director at America Forward Coalition member City Year, Inc. The second, held on Tuesday, October 27, 2020, featured Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-05); Peter Spadafore, Deputy Executive Director for External Relations, Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators; Adrián A. Pedroza, National Director of Strategic Partnerships of Coalition member Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors; and Amy Wassmann, Whole Child Programs Director, Saginaw Independent School District.

During the two events, participants’ shared their personal connection to education and whole-learner work, and how that experience informs their perspective. Topics of conversation included education policies that center the whole learner; the role that the Federal government must play in supporting holistic, student-centered approaches to healthy learning and development; and what policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and education leaders can do — in deep partnership with communities — to create strong cross-sector relationships, help build capacity, and foster an intentional focus on the wide range of skills students need to succeed.

Participants across both events agreed that inequities have long been present in our education system and in communities across our country. The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened these disparities and highlighted the critical need for holistic approaches to education that help every student develop the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and creative skills they need to thrive, in the classroom and beyond.

During the Pennsylvania event, Congresswoman Houlahan spoke about the need for holistic approaches to education: ”There’s just so much going on, so many dimensions to those children’s lives and experiences that, if you’re not addressing all of those issues, including…mental health or safety, food accessibility…you’re not going to be hopeful and helpful in advancing that child’s life.”

“Here in Congress, what I’ve translated that to is a focus on the whole child,” she added. “Again, I think the essence, the key to this, is making sure that you’re focusing on the key skills that a child needs, but also the support system that they need.”

Virgil Sheppard echoed the Congresswoman’s focus on taking a systemic, collaborative approach to learning and development.

“[The response we’re seeing now] is also relevant when we’re not in our COVID environment…The need to make sure that we’re getting feedback from our families and communities…So, as we think about reimagining, I really think elevating student voices, elevating the voices of the folks that are on the ground will be important for us moving forward,” said Sheppard, the National School Partnerships Senior Director at City Year, pointing out the importance of carrying forward critical innovations happening in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along the same lines, Dr. Loose advocated for seizing the opportunity to move beyond a sole focus on academic achievement, as determined by standardized testing: “I’ve been so fortunate to be out in the schools right now…and it has been wonderful to see how the kids have adapted… It is so nice to see kids in classrooms, there’s hands-on learning happening …and less testing. So one thing that I’ve taken away from this is we don’t need a lot of tests to know that kids are thriving in our schools.”

Miles Wilson emphasized the need to center equity, and recognize the tremendous strength that exists within communities of color, in both the short- and long-term: “[We have to] change our mindset…Absolutely, this idea of less testing is imperative, particularly for Black kids…A lot of times, our young people are labeled [as unintelligent] when they don’t do well on standardized tests and they have the world against them. They’re worried about food, clothing, and shelter and here we are hitting them over and over again with standardized tests. As practitioners, we need to accept genius. We need to meet genius where it lies, versus working as colonizers in a neighborhood or in a school and defining what intelligence is.”

Many of the same themes were reinforced during the Michigan conversation. Congressman Kildee reflected on his experience working with an agency that supported children who experienced severe childhood trauma; he saw that much of each child’s success was due to the fact that the support they received addressed their holistic needs.

“All kids have incredible capacity, imagination, all sorts of natural gifts. And what makes me hopeful and optimistic is that I’ve seen it firsthand,” the Congressman added. “We should not give up on these kids because we think the problems are too big…It doesn’t take much. It just takes a commitment and it starts with this premise that no matter who you are and where you’re born, there are certain basic opportunities that [you ought to be afforded]…We ought to be trying to unlock your imagination. If we do those things, it’s amazing to see how kids take to it and how their trajectory goes so much higher.”

Adrián Pedroza of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors spoke about the importance of key partners working together to advance holistic approaches at scale: “The solidarity that we’re seeing now between systems – between schools, teachers, families, communities – to support families is really something that we should take as a potential set of solutions moving forward…these solutions that are happening across our systems right now in this crisis, it’s really about how we take these things, systemize them to ensure these inequities that we’re currently seeing don’t continue moving forward, and that we are able to build those systems stronger so that in the future we’re building an education system that ensures equity and that is supporting the whole family.”

“Every child has a unique story and we’re zooming into their living rooms and seeing this and experiencing it firsthand in a way that we never have, so hopefully those lessons that we’re learning right now will give us an opportunity to reimagine the entire thing and understand that, even though there are some incredible opportunities, we have a lot of areas where we need policymakers to focus in on and understand that…it’s not a formula to educate every child, every child is different and the law needs to recognize that,” said Peter Spadafore.

Amy Wassmann added that, in her district during the pandemic, there’s been an intentional focus on providing comprehensive support to students and families: “When the pandemic first took place and we were all scrambling, our administrators worked hard at sending out surveys to parents [asking], What are your needs? What are your [child’s] needs? And really worked hard to meet families where they’re at.”

Collectively, the policymakers and leaders who joined us for these conversations highlighted the critical importance of whole-learner approaches to advancing equity and providing every child the breadth of skills they need to thrive. They also spoke to how, today, we have a unique opportunity to capitalize on innovation that has taken place in the context of COVID-19 to make meaningful progress towards broad-scale whole learner approaches once the pandemic has abated.

America Forward will continue to work alongside policymakers, educators, nonprofit leaders and experts to develop and advance policies that set the stage for high-quality, evidence-based whole learner approaches.

You can find a full recording of the Pennsylvania conversation here, and a full recording of the Michigan conversation here. You can also learn more about America Forward’s whole-learner work by visiting https://wholelearnereducation.org/.

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