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School Choice, Adaptability, and Sainthood: Lessons from Cleveland

Almost exactly a month ago, schools across the nation shut down as part of a nationwide effort to “flatten” the coronavirus curve. Today, fully five weeks into the school shutdown, many of the largest districts have struggled to adapt their work to meet student needs in an era of remote learning.

Yet, schools of choice–Catholic and charter chief among them–have been more nimble, able to meet diverse community needs even in this complicated moment.

Of course, nobody has this fully “figured out” yet. Earlier this week, an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer discussed some of the challenges that Catholic and charter schools there have had launching distance learning. But while many Catholic and charter schools have gotten into the game, too many public schools–the Cleveland Metropolitan School District among them–are “still stuck in planning stages.”

Unfortunately, five weeks into a near-nationwide school shutdown, we need to be past “planning” and well into implementation if we’re going to have any hope of stemming the learning loss that will otherwise result from this crisis.

To that end, while the strategies so many Catholic and charter schools are adopting may feel new and uncertain, their nimble ability to adapt does provide lessons that are well worth heeding. As the Plain Dealer article indicates, three moves stand out for these responsive organizations:

Play #1: Get going

When it comes to responding to a crisis, thoughtful action is definitely better than perfect planning. And that is certainly true when it comes to serving students throughout the coronavirus shutdown.

As the Plain Dealer explains, the Cleveland Catholic Diocese serves 108 schools in eight counties–with wide disparities in online access. But learning is moving forward–online to varying degrees and on paper when needed.

Play #2: Get personal

One reason choice schools may be better able to shift their work in a crisis is that they are–and must be–responsive to the communities they serve. Their enrollment, revenue, and very existence depend on families’ continually choosing these schools, so service is essential to their survival.

For Catholic school leaders, both our institutional viability and our personal salvation are wrapped up in our treatment of others. This may be why so many Catholic school leaders demonstrate an ethos of service. In Cleveland, “St. Stanislaus Principal Deborah Martin is continuing her usual practice of visiting students’ homes if they skip school or parents do not call for a few days. ‘I just knock on the door and say hi.’”

Martin’s personal approach is exactly the kind of resourceful, relationship-driven strategy that makes the Catholic school advantage happen–and practices the fundamental dignity of every person, even persons with problems, that our faith preaches.

Connections matter and are worth preserving, even amid challenges.

Play #3: Evolve

As David Osborne from the Progressive Policy Institute wrote this week, “we need swift boats, not ocean liners,” to respond to the educational needs of this moment. Those of us running schools, regardless of sector, must summon the will and demand the structures that enable us to change course quickly to give students what they need.

The Plain Dealer recounts the example of one charter network that initially anticipated students would take classes online, but has found in subsequent weeks that a mix of paper and online work seems to be the right one. And Cleveland Catholic School Superintendent Frank O’Linn notes that schools are adjusting teaching and routines constantly.

If Catholic schools–perhaps not well known for their ability to adapt to change–are humbly and ambitiously learning and adapting, distinguishing essentials from accidentals, and trying new things, then surely there is hope for us all.

Catholic saints and education reformers have one thing in common: they don’t wait for perfect conditions to act. They act precisely because conditions are imperfect. Seizing every bit of flexibility they have to act in the midst of formidable constraints is a mark of heroes. So maximizing the flexibility educators have to meet students’ needs seems like a priority policy makers might do well to honor in these days.