Galvanizing family and community action in support of children's schooling
By Yenda Prado UC Irvine PhD candidate, EdM. Harvard Graduate School of Education, BA Stanford @PradoYenda
Pandemic learning pods – intentional groupings of small cohorts of children for the purposes of socialization, education, and play – have garnered a great deal of debate. Presented as simultaneously being both an innovative and clever solution for families faced with remote learning in the COVID era - as well as a potentially problematic practice perpetuating existing educational inequities - opinions have varied depending on who is doing the podding and how the podding is being done.
This debate has been predicated on the notion that pods are a phenomenon largely centered on the behaviors of affluent, often white, suburban families in well-resourced neighborhoods. In this narrative, pods are positioned as exacerbating opportunity and resource hoarding, potentially draining public school resources, and exacerbating existing equity gaps. The positioning of pods as vehicles for inequity, while certainly a reality under specific contexts, centers one narrative at the expense of another: quite a number of these pods are being formed by historically marginalized, working class, families of color seeking innovative solutions for our children in the tradition of community organizing and parent co-op models. Learning pods are also being considered by many middle and upper class families of color as well as community-centered organizations.
Many families considering learning pods hail from under-resourced or historically marginalized communities that have a rich history of collective community organizing and resource sharing – including my own. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s ancestral farming community in the remote valleys of western Mexico: despite a relative lack of monetary wealth, inequities related to educational disparities were mitigated by collective action. My grandmother coordinated with local families to teach English to small groups of children in exchange for other tangibles including errands, light housekeeping, and companionship. The local mothers organized and took turns voluntarily providing catechism lessons to the children. These collective efforts were supported by the broader civic community. Multiple such examples, in the U.S. and abroad, of collective familial and community organization abound and predate the dominant conceptualization of learning pods.
In times of emergency and crisis, families and communities revert to collective means of survival. This instinct in part explains the current re-imagined interest in learning pods across a diverse swath of families and communities. That the onus to mitigate the potential equity gaps arising from entrepreneurial solutions, such as formation of learning pods, is being placed on individual, potentially marginalized, families in crisis is akin to blaming the victim for the flood. Systemic issues require systemic solutions and our energies are better spent considering how familial and community-centered solutions can be taken up and supported at scale by systems that have the power to mitigate systemic inequity. Towards this endeavor, organizations and employers at the local, state, and federal level, should be supporting parents in their endeavors to ensure their children’s educations by bringing innovative solutions to scale for all families.
To date, there have been several burgeoning attempts to scale the concept of learning pods at low or no cost in underserved communities. Recreation facilities, libraries, and community centers, in partnership with San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families, are aiming to serve over 6,000 school children across learning hubs stationed throughout the city. Brown University Education Professor Matthew Kraft has conceptualized the creation of a federally funded TutorCorps program, modelled after AmeriCorps, to address learning gaps resulting from school closures. In addition to districts partnering with universities to bring concepts like learning pods to scale, schools can also partner at the local level with their PTAs and local community resource centers to bring customized solutions and supports to families. California has a vast opportunity to bring these kinds of ideas to scale, for example, by partnering with district and county organizations via its 23 California State Universities, as well as the University of California system. At UC Irvine, our Community Education Fellows initiative investigates how we can equitably take innovative educational efforts – such as learning pods – and partner with schools to make them accessible to a broad range of families. We connect UCI CalTeach undergraduate students with families across our partner schools in under-resourced communities. This collaboration includes the Orange County Educational Advancement Network and local partners to implement equitable and community-driven approaches to taking alternative education options to scale. Our goal is to engage in equity work by using community-driven approaches to bring alternative developments and solutions – such as learning pods – to scale for families from underserved communities. Learning pods – when done in certain ways and contexts – can be a form of equity work that supports families and schools. When under-resourced, marginalized, working class, single parent households join forces to undertake community schooling endeavors – there is a real opportunity to proactively address inequities and for seemingly inequitable solutions to become equitable. This is especially true when organizations partner with families to offer support and infrastructure for organizing learning communities.Solutions to systemic inequities need to take root in the very systems that perpetuate those inequities. When families, particularly those that have been marginalized, come together in times of crisis to address their children’s needs – that becomes equity work. It is incumbent on all us to support their efforts by developing systemic solutions at scale to the current educational challenges. In doing so, we can honor the kinds of collective organizing carried out by my abuela and help ensure that all children have these opportunities now and in the future.