Our public education system is facing a crisis that is decades in the making. This historic neglect of investing in the critical social, digital and physical school infrastructure that supports student learning is exacerbating the negative effects of the Covid pandemic in our most high-need schools. Or, as the Siegel Family Endowment laid it out in a recent white paper: “Infrastructure, or lack of it, is partitioning society into haves and have-nots…”
Disproportionate Impact of Our Lack of School Infrastructure Investment
Physical Infrastructure: “American Society of Civil Engineers gives the condition of America’s 100,000 public school buildings an overall grade of D+…And no wonder – half our school buildings are half a century old.”1 These challenges are particularly acute in financially-strained urban districts serving many of our highest-need students.
Digital Infrastructure: “According to BCG research in 2020…roughly 30% of children in grades K-12 (15 million to 16 million students) did not have adequate internet service or e-learning devices to effectively continue their schooling from home…the digital divide disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and Native American students and those from lower-income households.”2
Social Infrastructure: “Across all student race groups, students in high-poverty schools have the least access to positive school climate”3 “Effective, experienced teachers can transform a student’s educational experience, and have been shown to improve student attendance, achievement, and long-term outcomes… Black and Hispanic students had the least access to quality educators.”4
Building 21 was honored to be highlighted in this important and timely new Siegel Family Endowment white paper, “Schools as Community Infrastructure”. Engaging with Siegel’s ideas concerning the inherent multidimensionality of infrastructure (physical, social and digital), pushed us to understand the intersectionality of some of our critical design principles, specifically the three design principles that have guided our work since we launched our first school in 2014:
Relationships. Building Social Infrastructure.
Relationships sit at the foundation of everything that we do. The research is clear – building positive and deep connections between and among young people and adults in schools leads to more positive outcomes.
Relationships, however, are not simply born out of good intentions alone. The key design elements of our schools (schedules, hiring practices, IT systems, learning models, curriculum, etc) are all oriented to support the development of these positive relationships.
In addition, we invest a significant amount of time in training and building the capacity of our adults to realize a just, equitable and caring learning environment building on empirically validated approaches, including restorative practices, trauma-informed care and cultural competency/relevance.
Permeability. Redefining Physical Infrastructure.
Operating two public district high schools means that we have little influence over the physical infrastructure in our schools as these are provided for and maintained by our district partners. Since inception, we have intentionally broadened the definition of our available physical infrastructure in our schools by adopting a “permeable” school model in which students are pushed out into the surrounding community and in which the community is brought into our school environment on a regular basis. Our young people engage with the broader world through job shadowing, worksite visits, internships and apprenticeships. In turn, we bring the community into our schools by bringing in visitors and regular co-teachers for our classes.
Personalization. Harnessing Digital Infrastructure.
Our schools have been one-to-one schools since we launched in the Fall of 2014. All of our curriculum, tasks and student information is online, and our students use their laptops as their primary textbook, learning tracker and digital creation tool. In addition, we work with our students and families to ensure that they have access to internet connectivity. Through our learning management system, our data dashboards and our data analytics engine, these investments in our school community’s digital infrastructure allow us to harness the power of providing real-time student progress and growth information that is tied directly to evidence of mastery of our competencies. All relevant data is available and organized in transparent, user-friendly ways for all of our constituents (students, parents, teachers, admins, and partners). This system is the glue that ties our “anywhere anytime” learning model together.
“Multidimensional Infrastructure: An understanding of the interconnectedness of all three dimensions for effective teaching and learning that elevates both the immediate school community and the larger community of which it is a part. Any change in one dimension has an effect on the other dimensions, and it’s important that we consider all three areas when we design and maintain our schools. By doing so, we can develop a future of teaching and learning that is responsive, resilient, and community-driven.”5
-Siegel Endowment Fund
The multidimensionality of our infrastructure strategies is best exemplified by our culminating studio performance tasks. These tasks:
- Are student-centered
- Culminate in a performance-based assessment that calls on students to apply knowledge and skills
- Provide opportunities for feedback and revision
- Are rated against a transparent continuum or scale providing individualized information on learning, growth, and progress
- Provide opportunities for students to make a real-world impact
These learning experiences are enabled through our attention to all three dimensions of school infrastructure. Specifically, these dimensions:
Rest upon our teachers’ capacity to leverage their positive relationships with students to meet them where they are and push them farther than they realize they can go.
Require students to apply knowledge and make an impact in an authentic way, often situated in authentic environments beyond the four walls of the school and involving stakeholders from outside the school.
Are powered by students’ digital creation tools, personalized by our competency tracking system and made transparent through our data dashboards.
Bringing together these infrastructure investments in thoughtful and cost-effective ways has allowed us to harness the power and impact of deeper, authentic learning experiences for our young people. Yet, we must do more. Given the accelerating pace of economic, social and technological change, as a society we need to make the necessary investments and improvements in the social, physical and digital infrastructure of our schools to effectively prepare our young people for life after school.
Our future literally depends on it.