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When schools suddenly closed in March, The Opportunity Trust quickly pivoted to meet the needs of students and educators by launching the Remote Learning Innovation Fund. After an initial sprint to shift to distance learning, education leaders now face daunting decisions about how to educate children in a safe, just, and adaptive way during the ever-changing reality of school during a pandemic. The Opportunity Trust has supported this work by directly funding innovative approaches developed by local teachers and nonprofit partners, sharing national best practices, and connecting system leaders to each other and renowned consulting support to help plan for a return to school that is more relevant and resilient. What follows is a summary of what we’ve learned through this crisis and an update on our partners’ plans to ensure continuity of learning this fall.

Addressing student needs with urgency and ingenuity

We launched the Remote Learning Innovation Fund to offer immediate assistance to individuals and teams with innovative solutions to make remote learning engaging and accessible for children in the St. Louis region as schools closed this spring.

Over two months, we awarded 26 grants to educators, innovators, and leaders working to ensure all children in St. Louis had access to vital learning opportunities and support. Grants focused on creating opportunities for experiential learning beyond the computer, supporting students’ mental and emotional wellbeing, and increasing access to technology in targeted ways.

“The grant we received made it possible to create relevant content for black and brown families that reflects their experiences, promotes early literacy, and sparks a love of reading,” said Julius B. Anthony, President of The St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature. The organization launched a literacy-based children’s show, The Believe Project, now airing on the Nine Network’s and the Missouri History Museum’s YouTube pages. They have also provided 600 children in the region with copies of the five books by local black authors featured in the episodes to stem summer learning loss.

Teach Like a Champion and KIPP St. Louis collaborated to create virtual professional development for remote instruction that has been shared nationally as an example of best practices. “Thanks to the Remote Learning Innovation Fund, our work with Teach Like a Champion has greatly enhanced our ability to do effective online instruction,” said Kelly Garrett, Executive Director of KIPP St. Louis.

The inspiring innovations supported through the Remote Learning Innovation Fund addressed the immediate needs of students but will have a lasting impact beyond today’s crisis.

Creating a shared framework for 21st-century learning

Schools across the country closed out the 2019-2020 academic year remotely, and leaders began to shift their focus towards reopening schools in the fall. Unlike the early, immediate shift to remote instruction, summer has provided leadership teams with time to reflect and create intentional plans to not only restart but to reimage school altogether.

To catalyze the work of reinventing school locally, we teamed up with Transcend, a leader in the national conversation on how best to respond, recover, and reinvent school during the pandemic, to host the virtual event Recovery to Reinvention. The event aimed to build a shared language and framework for how schools can collectively navigate the COVID-19 world, and inspire the work of reinventing school this fall to be more relevant, resilient, and equitable.

Sujata Bhatt, Senior Fellow at Transcend, introduced The Leaps for Equitable 21st-Century Learning, a framework for making the changes needed to move from inequitable, industrial-era learning to learning that is equitable and responsive to the demands and opportunities of today’s world.

“The Leaps give a common language to the ecosystem of St. Louis so we can talk about where our schools are trying to get to,” stated Bhatt during the discussion. The event also provided a space for school leaders, educators, and community stakeholders to reflect on remote learning and begin to brainstorm possibilities for how to move from reinvention to recovery this fall.

To further support schools in building bold plans for equitable and responsive learning opportunities this fall, The Opportunity Trust launched the Reinvent Grant Fund to support transformations that align with Transcend’s Leaps at the classroom, school, and district level. The application window closed July 31, and grants are now being reviewed and processed so schools can act on their proposed visions this fall.

Working collectively to re-start school strong

In late June, The Opportunity Trust teamed up with Attuned Education Partners to facilitate Re-starting Strong, a program designed to assist school leaders with the urgent and rigorous work of developing the policies, practices, and strategies that must be in place this fall to optimize education while promoting health and safety.

Re-starting Strong built a community of practice with leaders from City Garden Montessori School, Eagle College Preparatory Schools, Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls, KIPP St. Louis, Consortium Partnership Schools Network, Kairos Academies, and Premier Charter Schools. Together, they participated in weekly workshops and collectively engaged with critical questions and considerations as they planned for three possible scenarios – fully remote learning, hybrid models with strict social distancing and capacity limits, and in-person instruction for all students.

“Being part of the Re-starting Strong cohort has made the behind the scenes planning more manageable and easier to process,” said Carol Mendez, Dean of Academics at Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls. “The cohort support has provided us with a clear, thorough outline of all aspects that need to be assessed, a space to brainstorm with other schools in the city, and one-on-one support from an Attuned partner.”

Re-starting Strong cohort members will continue to receive support as their schools implement their plans and mitigate risk throughout the school year. Attuned is also facilitating transformative strategic planning in local districts Normandy Schools Collaborative and The School District of University City.

Continued support

During this time, when the very format of school continues to change, The Opportunity Trust is committed to supporting educators through the unknown to reimagine school for our most vulnerable children in St. Louis.

“While incredibly challenging, this crisis is a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally rethink school. We are working diligently to provide the support school leaders need as they move from recovery to reinvention,” said Mia Howard, Partner of Schools and Talent. “We are inspired by the innovation we are seeing from our partner schools. I am optimistic that their work will enable our region to emerge from this crisis with more equitable, just, and relevant learning experiences for students, families, and communities.”