At Phoenix International Academy, a charter school in South Phoenix, we’ve been continuously asking ourselves throughout this year, “How can we operationalize LOVE?” It’s a difficult question to answer in the best of times, and right now, it has become so much harder than I ever imagined. The health and safety – both physical and emotional – of our students, families, and staff members are part of that love.
Physical distancing is essential right now, but emotional closeness is more important than ever. We’ve delivered meals, provided counseling, computers, and helped connect our families with much-needed resources. But we also strongly believe that loving our students means making sure they continue to make academic growth. If we don’t continue to expect and insist that our students demonstrate significant learning, I don’t believe we can genuinely say that we love them.
I don’t say this to diminish the challenges we are facing with mitigating the spread of COVID-19, and what they mean for schools and parents. This is hard for all of us. But we must acknowledge the stark and sharp contrast that always exists between wealthy and non-wealthy communities. We can’t pretend that school interruptions and emergency learning plans impact students in these two communities in the same ways. Moving to distance or even hybrid learning significantly impacts a student who might already be a few grade levels behind or whose parents cannot work from home because they are an essential worker. We need to provide additional support to families who are experiencing financial instability while at the same time fulfilling our responsibility to make sure that our students are getting the instruction they both need and deserve.
It is a disservice to students to suspend academic expectations when the demands of the next grade level – and life – are becoming more rigorous. Right now, our students are watching us respond to this crisis, and they are learning. When we react to a crisis by lowering the bar, I fear we are inadvertently teaching them a lesson that will be difficult to unlearn.
We must leverage data and assessments to make sure we know what our students need and where they may have fallen behind. At Phoenix International Academy, we worked hard to monitor students’ progress every week, and we have a clear picture of where we are successful – and where we need to adjust. This is a new territory. None of us has ever done this before. Abandoning assessments will make it impossible to know whether our students are learning and what we – as schools – need to change if they aren’t. Our communities deserve the best, and we can’t give them that without accurate data. If we don’t track our students’ progress, they will have little chance of being prepared for the next grade.
We know the future is uncertain right now, but our team at Phoenix International Academy continues to be deeply committed to our community and our students. We often talk about our core values: Awareness, Belonging, Boldness, Curiosity, and Innovation. This is our opportunity – ALL of us – to lead with our values as we build the future for ourselves and our children. We hope to serve as a great example to our students and our peers to respond with love, rigor, and integrity during challenging times.
Ivette Rodriguez is Executive Director of Phoenix International Academy.