by Myron Long, Founding Executive Director, The Social Justice School
The Social Justice School, a public charter middle school here in DC, opened its doors in August 2020, right in the middle of the global pandemic.
Despite the challenges of opening a school in a pandemic and then opening it for in-person learning, our team knew we had to be true to our mission — to support our scholars-activists as we focus on love, learning, and liberation.
As we look to next year, where we will add a new grade and work to build our strongest year yet, the city must help schools sustain through the pandemic. Here’s how.
First, the city must help schools plan by giving them clear health guidance and ensure that all schools receive a baseline funding amount that they received in the prior year. Funding is based on student enrollment and enrollment is in flux across the city as families and schools continue to adapt to changing needs in the pandemic. So a “hold harmless” approach would mean that schools can effectively plan to support all students next year. Federal stimulus money can be used and is, in fact, designed to be used in this very way.
Second, schools need to provide more support than ever before. But we shouldn’t just focus on learning loss. To be clear, addressing learning loss is important, but our students are more than that. We can’t just say kids just need to catch up: we need to ensure that they are known, loved, supported, challenged, and have access to grade level curriculum and push them to mastery. We must remember that our families and students survived this pandemic, an increasing attack on the bodies of black and brown people, systematic oppression and are still showing up. They already have grit; we don’t need to teach that to them.
Instead, we need to ensure schools can foster what makes each school the place where students want to learn. DC schools have individual missions and, often, specialized programming. Whether it’s a STEM-focused school, a Montessori school, an International Baccalaureate school, or a social-justice focused school like my school, each has a specific mission and way to support students and families.
We cannot let a recovery undermine what makes DC’s public schools so special: that they can offer differing programming and perspectives, while simultaneously serving all students and families.
At SJS, even amid a pandemic, we’ve launched initiatives to support the whole family and whole student. That work has included providing healthy food for families. Because we have built strong relationships with our families all rooted in love, nearly 60 percent were vulnerable enough with us to tell us they needed food support beyond school meals.
We launched the Dream Collaborative, an interdisciplinary approach to family engagement rooted in healing, community, and liberation to support their catalyzation as designers. Because we want our students and families to know that they have agency, we created the space to do so. Through monthly sessions, our families and students focus on increasing engagement and advocating for what they need. Our school has adjusted our remote schedule based on that work and advocacy.
Also, we launched the Audre Lorde Therapy Program, a whole-person, whole-family approach to mental health support. This program was created because we were moved by the findings from PAVE about family wellness during the pandemic. The Audre Lorde Therapy Program is offered to students, their caregivers, and any other family member who might need mental health support. We offer a tiered approach to support the mental health of our community. Tier I is psychotherapy sessions that are aimed to support the development of trauma-informed parenting skills. The second tier is our group therapy which creates collective spaces for participants to receive mental health supports based on common needs. Tier III is our therapy that is tailored to meet the individual needs of participants.
To be successful, we need to continue those. That’s why increasing baseline funding by at least 4 percent and bringing funding for at-risk students and English Learner students to adequacy is critical.