Where We Stand: Let's Seed a Renaissance in Our Public Schools

Photo of AFT President Randi Weingarten speaking. Slide says "Reimagine Community Schools"

We are all yearning to move forward after this difficult year. For our young people, that means being back in school this fall, in person, five days a week. With their peers and caring adults, with all the supports they need, and with the space and facilities to do so safely.

We know that’s how kids learn best and that prolonged isolation is harmful. School is where children learn. It’s where they work together and play together. It’s where they form relationships and learn resilience.

Throughout the pandemic, teachers scrambled to redesign lessons and projects, and to create virtual field trips and labs to keep kids engaged and learning from afar. Teachers also yearned to be back in school, with their students. They only asked for two things: a safe workplace during this pandemic and the resources they and their students need to succeed.
Creating safe conditions in schools during a public health crisis is not an obstacle to reopening classrooms; it is the pathway to going back, staying back, and creating trust throughout the school community.

But we must do more than physically return to schools: we must also put in place the supports to help students recover—socially, emotionally, and academically. And we must reimagine teaching and learning to focus on what sparks students’ passions, builds confidence, nurtures critical thinking, and brings learning to life—so all students reach their heights, preparing for college, career, civic participation, and life.

We can seed a renaissance in America’s public schools that will change young people’s lives and change the course of our country. We can make every public school a place where parents want to send their children, educators and support staff want to work, and students thrive.

Recently, I gave a speech chock-full of research-based ideas and real-world examples from AFT locals for how we can accomplish this; you can watch or read my speech here.

And this issue of American Educator features in-depth discussions of a few of the keys to this renaissance: instruction that is both culturally responsive and based on the science of learning and development, social and emotional learning that centers equity and excellence, and community schools that provide wraparound services to students and families—and free teachers to teach.

Students will enter our schools this fall with an array of social, emotional, and academic needs. And schools must meet those needs. (The good news is that President Biden’s American Rescue Plan provides the necessary funding.)

There was an epidemic of anxiety and depression among young people even before the stress and isolation caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has intensified the existing inequities in the United States, with people of color suffering higher rates of infection, serious illness, and death from COVID-19, and anti-Asian hate incidents surging after being stoked by the last administration. And let’s be honest: inequity and bias are built into our education system—from history textbooks that glide over oppression; to the systemic underfunding of inner-city, tribal, and rural schools; to the over-representation of Black and brown children in special education, and their under-representation in gifted and college-track programs. All of this is traumatizing.

Culturally responsive practices, social-emotional learning, and community schools are not add-ons. Culturally responsive education values the knowledge and skills students bring from their homes and communities, and it develops students’ agency as powerful learners and problem solvers. Social and emotional learning—especially when grounded in project-based learning that combines positive identity development with intellectual development—is fundamental for all youth. And community schools help level the playing field by integrating academics, enrichment, nutrition, and medical and mental health services.

I truly believe we have a rare chance to seed a renaissance in American public education—a time of a flowering in culture and learning, as in the Harlem Renaissance and the European Renaissance. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to reopen and recover, but to reimagine our schools so they are anchored in the daily life of their communities and enable students, families, educators, and staff to thrive. This is our moment.

American Educator, Summer 2021