“Higher Achievement is my second family.” These are words I’ve heard countless times in my many years with this special organization. And they are words that represent the sacred depth of relationship among our Higher Achievement community. In this time of crisis and exacerbating inequities, they are words that drive us to do more, and nimbly figure it out in a whole new landscape.
In the weeks since our nation has largely shut down due to COVID-19, Higher Achievement has acted quickly to advance our mission. A summary of the actions taken and the work ahead are below, distilled into five steps.
Within the first 10 days of the school closures, we called all of our scholars and families to ask about their health, wellness, and how we could best support. We also called all of our school partners to ask how we could help, and we connected with our mentors as well. We listened closely. We knew we could not build virtual supports based on staff assumptions, we needed to ask our stakeholders themselves.
With that feedback, we enacted Phase I of virtual programming on March 31. Families emphasized that they were overwhelmed by the guidance on homeschooling, especially in math, and especially while many of them were struggling as essential workers with children, as newly unemployed, and with other family demands.
Our virtual program has four components:
- Virtual Tutoring: This work is led by our full-time staff in small groups and in individual office hours, aligning to the resources of our school partners and adding in supplemental learning resources from Scholastic and other sources, where needed. Our staff are frequently spending up to 90 minutes in one-on-one sessions with scholars to help them understand their math lessons from distance learning in school. As we prepare for Phase II of virtual Higher Achievement, we will be phasing in more staff-led sessions that integrate academics and social emotional learning with a more rigorous evaluation framework.
- This data- and research-driven approach advances our external research commitment, as evidenced by our previous randomized controlled trial (RCT) study by MDRC and our forthcoming RCT and implementation study – to be published by MDRC in June 2020.
- Virtual Community Meeting: This work is led by our full-time staff, and has been the most popular with our scholars. Activities include academic family feud in teams, online chess club, and even extracting DNA from fruit. Many mentors have also been engaged in these sessions on Instagram Live or Zoom, which are offered on a biweekly basis at a minimum.
- Virtual Mentoring: For Phase I, our mentoring work has been largely focused on maintaining connections, as our academic mentoring was not designed for an online platform and it is harder to adapt with our volunteer mentor workforce. As we prepare for Phase II of virtual Higher Achievement, we will run a pilot with virtual humanities mentoring, intentionally designed to learn deeply and use that data to inform our mentoring work in the 20/21 school year, which we expect to blend both virtual and live programming. We look forward to engaging more mentors in this work in the coming school year.
- Basic Need Resource Sharing: Recognizing the many new needs of our scholars and families, every week, we are offering ongoing updates on local resources for basic needs such as food, safety, housing, economic and employment assistance, health care, and technology supports. Often, the resources and those who need them are disconnected – we are serving as a broker. Of particular note, as government-distributed computer and Wi-Fi resources are depleting, we are finding ways to meet the needs of our families, as informed by a second round of individual conversations and surveys.
In total, to date, we have had 9,400+ touch points with our 1,000+ scholars and families over these eight weeks, and our more engaged Centers have reached 50% attendance virtually. For our scholars who are not logging onto virtual programming, and we are attempting to engage them via phone, text, email, and even paper mail.
Some recent quotes from our families are below:
- Continued interactions with Staff and Mentors helps my child a lot. Provides a sense of Normalcy.
- Staff have been outstanding. They call/text to check on not only our child’s needs but ours as a family. Can’t ask for anything more.
We are using a rapid improvement cycle approach to our virtual programming. Every Thursday, our Directors of Program Operations are convening to share scholar engagement numbers, successes and challenges, and to adapt the plans for the next week. One example of early adaptation was to add incentives for participation, and we have distributed hundreds of Amazon and grocery gift cards to scholars and families.
As mentioned above, we have broken down this program work into phases.
- Phase I: March 31 – May 15
- Virtual programming informed by families and led by Center staff innovation.
- Phase II: May 26 – mid August
- Distilling lessons learned from Phase I and building in more external research and quantitative data-driven improvement, including two more concrete pilots – virtual academic mentoring and virtual staff-led academics and SEL by grade level.
- We are using national resources from MENTOR, Scholastic, Youth Communication, CASEL, and more.
- We are partnering locally as well, with organizations such as Next Up in Richmond, Horizons in DC, Let’s Go Boys and Girls in Baltimore, BreakThrough Collaborative in Pittsburgh, and BellXcel / YMCA.
- Higher Achievement 2.5: in School Year 2020/21
- We expect to need to operate especially nimbly in School Year 20/21, to be effective both in-person and virtually. As schools consider reopening in waves or shifts, and as they consider whether or not after school programs can operate in the building, as more extensive cleaning and safety precautions will be needed.
- We rolled out Higher Achievement 2.0 earlier this year. See this summary. In this virtual environment, we are referring to this next phase as Higher Achievement 2.5.
- We are in conversations with schools and districts about how to best scale these resources to help serve more students than ever before – to urgently close the rapidly widening achievement gaps.
As we plan programmatically for the virtual programming through the summer and in the coming school year, we are also planning operationally and financially.
Operationally, we are focused on keeping our staff safe, informed, and supported. We will be cautious. Unlike some programs, Higher Achievement can be administered virtually, and we do not expect to reopen our offices in the near term.
Financially, we entered this crisis from a relatively strong financial position, but we see substantial revenue risk ahead.
- Examples of our relative strength:
- Faithful individual supporters have stepped up in the last two months.
- We have a carefully managed, modest reserve fund.
- We’ve raised $160K in new dollars already since the crisis hit, and we were awarded the PPP loan, which gives us some temporary breathing room.
- Examples of financial challenges:
- Most philanthropic efforts are focused on basic needs, not including education. In fact only 7% of relief efforts nation-wide are focused on education.
- Our major i3 government grant of $12 million over five years expired this year, leaving a substantial funding gap to fill, even before COVID-19 hit.
- Some government grantors have already signaled that they may need to repurpose funds for afterschool, including existing grants.
- We anticipate a substantial decline in corporate gifts.
- In-person fundraising galas and events, such as our annual Going Places event in the fall, are being forced to go virtual with mixed revenue results.
Synthesizing these strengths and challenges, we are scenario planning for the budget and plan for School Year 20/21.
We are a tightly knit community, and I am overwhelmed with the outpouring of support:
- Extraordinary staff who are stepping up to new leadership – with passion, purpose, flexibility, and discipline.
- Many alumni in high school, college, and their early careers getting in touch, offering to volunteer, and caring deeply about current scholars.
- Dozens of current and former mentors, donors, staff, and board members giving more, offering to volunteer, and helping us plan for the future.
As we adapt to these times, our anchor indicator and long-term goals are constant. We are focused on preparing our middle school scholars to be ready for and placed in college-preparatory high schools, so that they can go on to post-secondary success. We need them to be the wise, justice-minded leaders of tomorrow.
It is a privilege and an imperative to lead Higher Achievement in this uncertain time, and I am grateful and fortunate to lead with all of you, in solidarity.