The rich rewards of holistic learning

As schools move through and beyond the pandemic, one of the best strategies they can use is holistic learning. 

Holistic learning is “a powerful approach to teaching and learning because it acknowledges that academics must be paired with non-academic support to help students thrive in and out of school,” the Rennie Center says in its new Condition of Education report, which cites City Connects as an example of holistic learning in action. 

Understanding and responding to students “holistically reflects the reality that each learner comes into the classroom with a unique set of strengths, challenges, aspirations, and life experiences,” the report, which was released yesterday at a virtual event, explains. “Overlooking these distinctions means that too many students—particularly students of color—do not receive the support they need to thrive in school or beyond.” Holistic learning, in other words, “seeks to break down barriers.” 

Here at City Connects, we couldn’t agree more: removing barriers from each student’s life is essential to helping them succeed — and essential to creating more racial equity. 

Providing and expanding holistic learning is even more important now. As Rennie tweeted from its event yesterday, there will be pandemic-related learning loss and a great deal of social emotional work to be done with students.

And as Jessica Boston Davis, the Somerville Public Schools’ Director for Equity and Excellence, pointed out at the event, the pandemic could also create opportunities for innovation. “What if,” she asked, “when this is all over, we go back to schools that are even better than before?”

Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser struck a similar note at the event, saying there are “important lessons to be learned about how to do education better, not just to get through a crisis and disruption, but to improve access and outcomes on an ongoing basis. We need to identify those effective practices and embed them in the new normal… including the strategy of partnerships between schools and their communities across a range of academic and nonacademic supports.”

At City Connects we’re building on our 20-year history of holistic learning, or, as we call it, integrated student support, by learning from the challenges of the pandemic and looking ahead. We will remind students about how resilient they’ve been in navigating the pandemic. And we expect many of our coordinators to continue using Zoom and other video conferencing tools because it has proven to be a great way to engage families. 

We will also continue to share our model beyond the schools we work in. This includes the Systemic Student Support Academy, also known as S3 Academy, which is run on behalf of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by the Rennie Center and the Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development — home to City Connects. Educators who enroll in the academy learn a number of strategies for providing coordinated student support services. One technique is to modify existing district databases so that they can be used to review and monitor individual students. 

In addition, the Center for Optimized Student Support will host a virtual panel discussion — “A Framework For Supporting Students During #COVID19 And Beyond” on Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 4 p.m. Eastern time — to provide schools with more insight. 

Reminding schools that these kinds of modifications are within reach is crucial. As the report explains: 

“Rather than adding one more item to schools’ to-do lists, we hope this guide helps schools and districts reframe (and refine) work that has already been taking place amid the pandemic. Schools have already been tasked with coordinating the distribution of critical resources (e.g., school meals, devices, tech support) to families—how can they think about systematizing the process of connecting families to community resources?” 

The report also wisely points to two other vital pillars for education. The first is the importance of shared leadership among “family members, students, school- and district-based staff, and community members that strengthen relationships, inform school and community services, and build social capital among all members.” The second pillar is intertwining school and community resources to create multiple pathways for students and families to explore “affirming and uplifting careers.” 

We think applying this vision of holistic learning across generations promises to help build a much stronger state and a much stronger country. As Chad d’Entremont, Executive Director of the Rennie Center, says: 

“The events of the past year have been painful reminders of the increasingly critical role education plays in addressing a number of issues beyond academic learning, such as food security, mental health counseling, and wraparound services. Building strong bridges between schools and communities is an essential step in ensuring students have access to the full range of community assets, opportunities, resources, and services they need to successfully enter adulthood.”

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