Conor P. Williams: School. It’s not just for kids anymore

Both children and parents do better when they have access to nutrition, health care and economic opportunity. Why not provide them all in one place?

(Dalbert Vilarino | The New York Times) School: It’s Not Just for Kids Anymore

In March of last year, the week before the pandemic shuttered schools in Washington, D.C., Annie Macheel’s Advanced Adult English as a Second Language class at Briya Public Charter School in Fort Totten was making plans. At one table, four women — two native Spanish-speakers, one Amharic speaker, and one Vietnamese speaker — haltingly practiced scheduling play dates for their children in English. Outside, in the hall, a group of pre-kindergartners — some of whom had mothers at that table — cheerfully burbled past the door, “caminando, caminando, volando, volando” (walking, walking, flying, flying).

This juxtaposition — family members decades apart, but attending classes down the hall from one another — is central to a “dual-generation” educational approach.

Briya has four dual-generation locations in Washington, and other such models abound across the country: The Aspen Institute’s Ascend Network includes more than 400 organizational partners implementing dual-generation approaches.

These programs have a straightforward theory of education: If children’s success is tightly intertwined with their families’ stability (and we know it is), and families do better when they have access to nutrition, health care and economic opportunity, why not address all of these needs together?

Briya enrolls infants, toddlers, and pre-kindergartners in early education programs, while simultaneously offering their parents a range of programs from English as a Second Language (E.S.L.) to parent coaching and work force development classes.

The two tracks periodically intersect. That same March week, on a beige rug in Briya’s mobile infants classroom, Rosa Rivera read in cheerful, lilting Spanish to four mothers and their children as part of Briya’s Parent and Child Together time. These lessons give families a chance to practice strategies they’re learning in parenting classes. That particular day, Ms. Rivera stopped her singsong reading from time to time to ask questions, turning to the children and pointing to emphasize words and vocabulary. She sometimes repeated lines in English, and asked the circle to practice new words in both languages. Upon finishing the book, Ms. Rivera sang “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and “Tres Pececitos.” The moms smiled and sang — a little self-consciously — while mimicking Rivera’s hand motions.

Briya’s holistic approach to education has come in handy during the pandemic. When campuses closed, the school’s educators rebuilt its support systems around the emergency — delivering textbooks, early learning materials and over 800 devices to families as they made the transition to distance learning. The four schools also helped more than 200 families get home internet access. The staff now offers daily live online instruction and contacts each family at least twice a week to check if they need help obtaining food, internet connectivity, health care, housing assistance and/or other resources. Briya teachers also converted portions of the school’s E.S.L. and work force classes into a series of online videos that adult learners could watch at their convenience. Finally, since last fall, the school has been offering in-person, outdoor pre-K classes four days a week.

Families frequently bring challenges to these classrooms. “You can look at the news,” said Christie McKay, Briya’s executive director. “If there is a war going on in a country, about a year after that, we’ll start seeing families from [there].” Consequently, Briya families originate from 56 countries, and fully 97 percent speak a home language other than (or in addition to) English — spanning 30 different languages. Ninety-one percent are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

These demographics are typical of dual-generation programs — including, for instance, “community schools” models or “Promise Neighborhoods” like the Harlem Children’s Zone. In response, many partner with local community organizations to provide families with health care, social services and other supports. Three out of Briya’s four campuses are housed in buildings with a local health clinic known as Mary’s Center, so that families can get education, health care and social services in one location.

What can other public schools learn from programs like Briya’s, which were already organized around supporting families’ well-being and treating education as a comprehensive family project?

In 2020, the pandemic prompted many schools to start providing children and families with a wide range of basic necessities. As skyrocketing unemployment numbers and the sluggish economy left more children facing stress, insecurity and trauma, and the pandemic imperiled more American families, many educators launched impromptu, ad hoc support services of their own. Schools scrambled to design socially distant means of delivering meals, mobile hotspots, laptops and assignments.

But these patchwork efforts have been largely inadequate. The pandemic hit historically marginalized communities particularly hard in both health and economic terms. For instance, Briya’s leadership says that more than 90 percent of its families lost income because of unemployment or hours reductions during the pandemic. Across the country, surveys of families suggest that immigrant families, low-income families and families of color are particularly likely to be suffering from food insecurity and a lack of access to learning technology, internet connectivity and bandwidth, deepening existing educational inequities.

It’s neither simple nor cheap to convert schools into social service delivery centers. As a charter school — publicly-funded and free for D.C. families, but operating as a nonprofit organization outside of the local school district — Briya has unique flexibility to react to families’ changing needs. After a meeting with other local educators, Lisa Luceno, Briya’s senior director of early childhood strategy, said, “I felt almost bad that I was sharing these best practices and it’s so much harder for them to implement them.”

Further, research on the impacts of these types of programs is mixed — a recent study of New York City’s community schools program found some boosts to student behavior and attendance, but limited academic improvement. According to Ashley Simpson Baird, a former Briya teacher who now helps the school measure and analyze its work, it’s not enough to provide a slate of social services — these must be tailored to meet families’ actual challenges: “All of the ways Briya has grown have been because these are things families say that they need.” DiMelsa Zelaya, an adult Briya student, said that families have regular opportunities to share ideas with the administration: “We work together. There are things that they can’t change because they’re impossible, or too expensive, but usually they can.”

Dr. Simpson Baird said that this blend of flexibility and responsiveness is why Briya adult students outperform growth expectations for English language acquisition and career readiness. And while fewer than half of Briya students arrive in pre-K classes meeting expectations for math, literacy and social-emotional learning, almost all leave at or above end-of-year expectations — that is, ready for kindergarten.

Now, more than ever, American schools are realizing that they cannot ignore these challenges as they try to reconnect students with learning opportunities. “Education is one arm in somebody’s success,” said Reena Gadhia, the former manager of one of Briya’s work force training programs. “You really cannot disregard access to mental health services, access to social services, access to child care, transportation, all of it.”

Conor P. Williams studies educational equity as a fellow at the Century Foundation.