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Lessons from Learning Pods for Catholic Schools—and Civic Life

The Center on Reinventing Public Education released new data this week on learning pods. Their analysis of how these alternatives to traditional schools rose in popularity in 2020, only to decline significantly this year, has noteworthy implications for Catholic schools and the broader school choice movement.

Learning pods are typically independent learning groups put together by enterprising families in place of traditional schooling. Last year, their use ballooned as large school systems delayed returning to full in-person instruction amid COVID concerns. And as both EdWeek and The 74 point out, many families had positive experiences with their children learning in small groups and a less formal setting all day. Among other findings, students participating in pods report significantly greater engagement in learning and an increased sense of feeling known, heard, and valued than they did in a more traditional school setting.

Yet “once schools reopened for in-person learning, most pods receded,” says Jennifer Poon from the Center on Innovation in Education, along with Travis Pillow and Ashley Jochim from the CPRE.

They cite several reasons; among them, that “Operating off the grid gave pods flexibility that parents and instructors valued, but it also disconnected them from broader systems of support. Nearly two-thirds of instructors reported decreased opportunities for professional development. They had no principal they could call on to placate an angry parent. They were on their own.”

Hitting on the right balance of those “broader systems of support” that many learning pods lacked is something we think about a lot at Partnership Schools.

The nine urban Catholic schools we operate have been providing an educational alternative to public schools for decades—well over a century in several cases. Indeed, our network came into existence nine years ago to ensure that families of all economic backgrounds continue to have access to a high-quality, faith-based educational option. While EdWeek notes that half of families using learning pods made over $125,000 a year—in a year when the national median income was closer to $80,000—over half of Partnership families made less than $38,000. Yet we see our parents doing what parents who formed pods did too: relentlessly, creatively, and independently navigating a landscape of school choices to find the best educational option for their children.

We also know that finding the right systems and structures to support students, educators, and families is crucial. At the time that Partnership Schools formed, in 2013, it was clear that the old model of parish-based, financially and educationally independent Catholic schools wasn’t serving our communities well; waves of Catholic school closures concentrated in neighborhoods like those we serve vividly demonstrated the need for a new, more collaborative approach.

As our network provides the kind of financial, educational, and operational support schools need to sustain excellent faith-based education, we adamantly seek to avoid over-centralizing. The pandemic tested this aspect of our model in new ways. As a network, our schools and their leaderrs were not going it alone as educators were thrust into the center of a public health crisis; yet they also retained the independence to adapt to the needs of their families and communities. That mix of central support and community-based decision-making contributed significantly to our students’ academic progress and our schools’ rising enrollment at a time when many students and schools languished.

On both ends of the educational spectrum—among radically independent learning pods, and large school systems—enrollment has declined significantly in the last year. Meanwhile, Catholic school enrollment is experiencing increases in many areas, including our own neighborhoods–like New York, where Partnership Schools experienced an enrollment increase of over 14 percent this year.

We see in that increase not only a validation of our decision to continue providing a safe in-person educational option last year, but also an affirmation of our ongoing efforts to be responsive to families’ needs more broadly—by simplifying tuition, for example, and supporting students spiritually amid stressful times. And we see something more: a hunger in American family life for the kind of civic institutions that balance independence and collaboration. Such both/and solutions aren’t always easy to identify and execute, and yet if parent educational demand is any indication, they may be just what families and children need right now.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.