Opinion: Schools are Innovating Amidst Unprecedented Disruption

November 23, 2020

Opinion: Schools are innovating amidst unprecedented disruption

By Laura Mitchell
Opinion contributor

Has the pandemic eclipsed the future of education?

Our worlds have been upended. Grocery shopping, work, socializing, and yes, school, are almost unrecognizable. We manage the next urgent item on our list. Yet, in this time of historic disruption, I would argue that staying focused on the future is just as imperative.

From disruption springs innovation, and Cincinnati Public Schools is no exception. In the 191 years since our founding, we have adapted, continuously challenging ourselves to prepare our students for life in response to an evolving world.

The pandemic has laid bare vulnerabilities felt by many students and areas that must be addressed, not merely so we can "get by" in this challenging time, but to make us better educators once we are past it.

Racial and ethnic disparities, especially for Black and Latino populations, permeate our communities and our education systems. The pandemic has fortified barriers that were already high for people of color, including the digital divide.

We know that technology is critical for learning, and prior to the pandemic, CPS made significant investments in a one-to-one device program. In March, we accelerated this work, and all students now have take-home devices.

Thanks to the generous assistance of community partners such as Cincinnati Bell and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, we have provided CPS students with free internet. Without this partnership, approximately one-in-six of our students would not have access to their teachers and classmates during periods of distance learning.

But this is a short-term solution. In a future that demands education anytime and anywhere, for reasons as benign as access to homework and resources, to reasons we have yet to conceive, a significant number of CPS students face a future that is inherently disadvantaged.

As a community, we must address the urban core’s lack of access to one of the most fundamental technologies: internet. This is a more complicated ideal, and it will require the private and public sectors to come together and make a collective decision to invest in the future of our students.

At the other end of the spectrum from technology is the lesson that social connectedness is more important than ever before. There was real joy on our students' faces when they first got to see their teachers in person after weeks of working together in distance learning. There are critical social and emotional supports that cannot be provided to our students over video chat, and we can never again take these relationships and services for granted. We have learned to value them now more than ever.

Finally, we must renew discussions about educating, not simply schooling, our students. While "schooling" focuses on the protocols of the school day, "educating" means helping our students learn to use the knowledge they gain to make decisions and even change behaviors.

The trappings of school are not school, and we must stay unrelentingly focused on shaping the leaders of the future. At Cincinnati Public Schools, this has meant investing in new schools, initiatives such as My Tomorrow, which develops our next generation of leaders through career pathways, and Vision 2020, which equips students to succeed in today's world with specialized curriculum.

This pandemic has taught us that we can rebuild and reshape education, and I believe the future is bright. By doubling down on the work we've started, including taking the lead in ending systemic racism, prioritizing the social and emotional supports our students require, and shifting once and for all from schooling to educating, we will continue to prepare the leaders of the future for a world that is yet to be imagined.

Laura Mitchell is superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools.