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Adaptability: The Secret to Survival

“Adaptability is the Simplest Secret to Survival.”

–Jessica Hagedorn


In the last six years, as the Partnership Schools have made significant strides in closing the achievement gap for our students, there’s one thing you wouldn’t have seen much of in our classrooms: students on computers. It’s not that we have anything against them. It’s just that the research-based, content-rich curriculum that drives our gains doesn’t necessitate them in most subjects except science.

Within a week of sending students home early due to COVID on March 13, we transitioned our curriculum, teachers, and families to distance learning that necessitates more screen time than our students have ever known. Even as our educators have faithfully implemented the principles we set for ourselves–including our conviction that not all distance learning should happen online–the change in computer time is undeniable, significant, and fast.

Catholic schools don’t have the advantages of better-resourced school districts and tech-heavy networks. But it turns out we’ve developed an unlikely advantage in the last few years that is proving game-changing in this crisis: a healthy fear of closure that propels us to make rapid changes because kids–and our schools–need them.

As urban Catholic schools, we have spent decades under the existential threat of closure. Almost 1,200 Catholic schools have closed in the last ten years alone. We have known for decades that we must adapt or die; that tradition is valuable, but nostalgia for the good ol’ days can kill the thing you love; and that waiting for perfect robs you of the chance to do good now.

Indeed, any school that relies on parents’ choices for its continued existence–be it a religious, private or charter school–understands that unresponsiveness is not an option right now. We must simply adapt or die. 

This structural reality that makes nimbleness a necessity for survival is baked into schools of choice, and it may prove particularly useful these days.

Partnership Schools have spent the last six years adapting–everything from the management structure of our formerly parish-based schools to our curriculum to the ways we support and improve instruction. And we know other schools of choice have done the same.

Not everything we’ve tried in the last six years has worked. We’ve iterated fast, because, frankly, we can’t afford not to.

The same is true as we head into our fourth week of distance learning. We are adapting weekly, adjusting everything from the amount and nature of the work we assign to the settings we use on video conference class gatherings (lesson learned: the younger the kids are, the more helpful it is to have the session leader control who’s muted). 

But we haven’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. For example, our counselors and paraprofessionals continue to adapt instruction for the same students who received supports previously–but while the setting is working well for some students, it needs tweaks to maximize learning for others. We also began teaching knowing that we would figure out new approaches to assessment along the way.

But we are doing it–teaching new, rigorous content to students who can ill afford a re-widening achievement gap. And our students have adapted rapidly. If only all schools were wired for the same kind of resilience our students are showing us.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools