Opinion: With remote learning, how can schools keep students from getting lost?

The Metro Nashville Public Schools Navigator program has helped homeless liaison Catherine Knowles, center, identify families experiencing housing insecurity. (Metro Nashville Public Schools)
The Metro Nashville Public Schools Navigator program has helped homeless liaison Catherine Knowles, center, identify families experiencing housing insecurity. (Metro Nashville Public Schools)

Credit: Metro Nashville Public Schools

Credit: Metro Nashville Public Schools

In Tennessee, a unique program provides academic help, support – and even food.

When the school year began, Catherine Knowles thought the Nashville, Tenn., school district had about 200 homeless students.

That was before the Navigator program kicked in.

The program, tracked through weekly phone and video calls, is an ambitious effort to keep students and families from slipping out of reach as distance learning extends into next year.

Navigator’s count revealed a deeper problem to Knowles, the district’s homeless liaison: Another 1,200 families had unstable housing. Some doubled up in apartments with relatives and others weren’t sure if they’d make next month’s rent.

New this fall, Navigator is what district administrator Keri Randolph describes as the virtual equivalent of talking to the students in the hallway.

The district seized on the pandemic as a chance to stay in touch with every student and devote special attention to those who needed it. Their contacts might need academic supports like tutoring and enrichment, or help with the basics, like food and health care.

Linda Jacobson
Linda Jacobson

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

“One of the great casualties of this whole pandemic is relationships,” said Paul Reville, a Harvard University education professor and former state schools chief in Massachusetts. “There’s got to be some connective tissue between the families and the school system.”

As districts across the country struggle to find missing students who aren’t participating in distance learning, the Metro Nashville district may serve as a model of how to prevent them from disconnecting in the first place.

Navigators — a broad cross section of school employees including teachers, lunchroom workers and bookkeepers — have completed roughly 220,000 calls to parents and students since school started in August. In the process, they’ve discovered that students fall through the cracks for reasons both complex and often unexpected.

A ‘promising experiment’

The idea began simply.

Standing in “a socially distanced room” this summer on her first day as the district’s executive officer for strategic state, federal and philanthropic investments, Randolph listened as school leaders spoke of a disconnect between schools and families.

That’s when she suggested Navigator, inspired by her doctoral work at Harvard, where Reville advocates for K-12 students to have personalized plans tailored to their specific needs and interests.

While calling Nashville’s effort a “promising experiment,” Reville said that getting educators to focus on students’ overall well-being can be like “trying to turn the Queen Mary.”

But that’s exactly what happened. In about a month — light speed for many school districts — Nashville formed a corps of 5,600 navigators. That’s roughly half of its entire staff, each carrying average caseloads of six to 12 students each.

For the 65 percent of navigators who are teachers, the weekly calls are on top of their normal classroom loads. The tasks involve everything from helping families avoid truancy letters to referring them to dental care.

The data shows that for every 125 check-ins, navigators identified one issue they couldn’t resolve through a simple phone call. That’s when they share their concerns with counselors and social workers.

‘An opportunity to vent’

For parents to get that comfortable took time. Initially, many were skeptical.

“The first four to five weeks of Navigator calls were difficult, to say the least,” said Myra Taylor, executive principal of a magnet school in Nashville. “Calls from school usually mean your child is in trouble, something is wrong, or we need something from you.”

In designing the program, Randolph gave staff members a script. Required questions focused on problems with distance learning and participation in meal programs, for example. But there are also optional prompts, such as “Share one thing you did that you were proud of.”

For some parents, “it’s an opportunity to vent, quite honestly,” said Candace Reynolds, a secretary at an elementary school who serves as a navigator for 20 students.

One goal of the program, she said, is to guide families through the deluge of information that’s been hitting them since school began, particularly deadlines on whether to choose in-person or remote learning.

Some issues are a quick fix.

Jennie Presson, an instructional coach at a middle school, learned that fifth-grader Disha Patel ran out of paint — and didn’t like completing her art projects with colored pencils and crayons. So Presson surprised her with a paint set from Amazon.

The gesture made Disha feel special. “I’m going to try to … use the paint to make her something,” she said.

Other check-ins uncover more serious concerns. A routine call from a navigator about technology revealed that one family didn’t have any food in the house. Before the end of the day, staff members delivered them two bags of groceries.

“We may have not known about this critical need,” Taylor said, “if we were not making contact weekly and building a relationship that provided a safe space for this mother to share her needs.”

‘What we should be doing’

Randolph and other leaders initially worried that teachers would view their Navigator caseloads as one more series of tasks to complete in an already punishing year.

And they were right.

“There was some pushback and frustration from teachers regarding this ‘extra responsibility,’” Taylor said. But the district views involvement in the program as non-negotiable. “It’s what we should be doing for all students, all the time.”

The work is time-consuming, said Eva Gaskin, an educator at a high school in Nashville and member of the Metro Nashville Education Association.

One phone call often leads to several more. She hasn’t spent as much time on her lesson plans as she would have normally.

“I decided I was going to fill this role with gusto and let the other stuff simmer,” she said of the program. “I was afraid we would have massive dropouts and failure.”

Some students, however, remain difficult to reach, particularly those among the city’s large refugee population, mostly from Latin America, Burma and Somalia.

For those students, the Navigator program is not enough.

But that hasn’t stopped Randolph from envisioning a post-pandemic future for the model.

“This is something that will persist,” she said.

Linda Jacobson writes for The 74, a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America. This story is part of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. This story originally appeared online here.

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