What post-pandemic schools could be


Meghan Ensell

The pandemic upended nearly every aspect of education. Schools closed, parents were forced into an educator role without adequate training and educators scrambled to envision teaching during a pandemic. This time of uncertainty has led many in education to re-examine existing practices and use the moment as an opportunity for change. In an effort to help educators build on this momentum, Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, through their work on Learning Futures, collaborated with What Schools Could Be to launch Project Springboard: Reimagining School Post-COVID. Twenty-two educator teams from across the U.S., Canada and Australia — totaling 160 individuals — were selected to participate in the project. Over 50 teams applied to be a part of the project. 

The participating teams included educators and others representing a variety of roles, such as superintendents, school board presidents, curriculum directors, principals, assistant principals, teachers, students and parents.

Jennifer Stein, director of strategy of Learning Futures says, “As it turns out, the name we originally gave the event — Project Springboard: Reimagining School Post-COVID — was overly optimistic about the timeline of the pandemic and how soon we would be moving into a post-COVID environment. And yet, the value of reimagining school, and more specifically, of carving a path forward by engaging a wide range of school community members to define a vision for what school could be and to make progress toward that vision, has been made clear by the pandemic.”

The series of five 90-minute, live online working sessions took place from April through August and were led by Punya Mishra, associate dean of scholarship and innovation, together with author Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. Several other leaders in education were featured guests at the sessions, including Valerie Greenhill, vice president at Battelle for Kids; Christina Kishimoto, superintendent of the Hawaii State Department of Education; Pasi Sahlberg, professor of education policy at the Gonski Institute; and Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington.  

The interactive sessions combined short presentations, open discussions and working time in breakout rooms. During the time between sessions, the teams continued their work. “Based on the presentations and discussions at the final session in August, many of the teams made significant progress in defining their ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ for how they plan to prepare students for their futures,” Stein says. A “Portrait of a Graduate” or “North Star” serves as a collective vision that articulates a community’s aspirations for all students. 

Elizabeth McCoy, assistant superintendent of Dover Sherborn Public Schools in Dover, Massachusetts and a project participant says, “In 2019, our Academic Innovation Committee created the Portrait of a Dover Sherborn Graduate. We watched the film “Beyond Measure,” interviewed Ted Dintersmith and met with Tony Wagner. We began to argue change over complacency, innovation over excellence. And then came the pandemic. In an instant, the box outside of which we were trying to think disappeared. Project Springboard allowed a subset of our team to revisit the initial research, capture the best practices of remote and hybrid learning and develop a model that launches us 10 years forward in achieving our vision for 21st-century schools.”

Janet Parlato, another participant and principal of Watertown High School in Watertown, Connecticut, says. “There was great value in hearing the experiences of districts from across the country and throughout the world. We were all unified in our mission to create inspiring and innovative experiences for our learners. Project Springboard also provided the fortunate opportunity to interact with some of the most noteworthy thought leaders in the field of education, who guided our thinking with research-based practices and suggestions.”

Her team walked away with definitive action steps that they could begin implementing on the first day of school, including “the development of robust professional learning communities, more consistent use of powerful instructional practices for deeper learning, and aligning our classroom instruction with our Portrait of a Graduate.”

Many groups spent time engaging their communities in developing and advancing their vision, says Stein. Through Project Springboard, “they were able to articulate their guiding principles, and the critical skills and competencies they want their students to develop while making plans for better aligning curriculum, assessment practices, and professional learning toward their vision.”

In the final session, each team shared its milestones and accomplishments, and plan to continue building on their Project Springboard experience. The Learning Futures team is conducting follow-up interviews and analysis during the academic year to gain a better understanding of the broader impact of the project, including the learning that occurred and changes that were implemented.

“This was an exciting opportunity for our college to work with Ted [Dintersmith], Tony [Wagner] and an amazing group of educators and education thought leaders on what is critically important work,” says Mishra. “We already knew, before COVID, that education needed to be more future-oriented, community-driven and learner-centered. The last year-and-a-half has shown that need ever more clearly, and this project was one way that our college could partner with educators from around the world to support them in this work. This is important work and speaks to the commitment that ASU and MLFTC have in improving educational outcomes for all learners.”