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A group of six multi-ethnic elementary school students running outside the school building, carrying backpacks, and wearing face masks. They are back to school during the covid-19 pandemic. The boys and girls are 7 to 10 years old.

An Unprecedented Moment in an Unprecedented Time

December 17, 2020
Key lessons we have learned over the past five years

Like no other moment in my 25 years as an educator, American public education is in upheaval. COVID-19 has pushed a system with persistent opportunity gaps deeper into crisis. No one should be surprised that disadvantaged students, for whom school is both a ladder and a safety net, have been impacted disproportionately.

All the while, the racial inequities in society have been further exposed and brought into even harsher light by the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Significant turmoil at the federal level has escalated tensions, increasing the divide in our nation.

In addition, the bedrock American belief that individuals can get ahead is being tested in new ways. Security and stability in the future will belong to people with the preparation to adapt, to think critically, to keep learning new skills, to thrive on teams and lead them.

These times challenge us at the Walton Family Foundation to look back at the last five years as we plan for the next five. As much as we are in awe of the courageous and tireless work of our grantees and partners, as well as all students, parents and educators across the country, we are also humbled by the scale and scope of the challenge that remains. We are still falling short of seeing the day when all children attend a school that puts them on a path to a lifetime of opportunity.

Here are some of the key lessons we have learned these past five years.

Equity must remain front and center.
For more than three decades, the K-12 Education Program has worked to ensure that all children, especially the most disadvantaged, have equitable access to schools that prepare them for a life of opportunity. Among our biggest contributions has been helping to seed and launch thousands of new public schools across the country, including more than 750 over the last five years. Moving forward, we will continue to make our commitment to equity the driving force of our work.

Innovation isn’t optional. Closing achievement gaps will take breakthrough change, and we have worked to support and inspire it. But COVID-19 is upending school and learning as we know it. While the future remains uncertain, the pandemic has underlined a greater need and desire to support innovations that can unlock the unique potential of all learners. The more than 250 grant recipients from the VELA Education Fund are starting and scaling inventive and ingenious ideas to better serve children and families during this tumultuous time. Over the next five years, we will learn from and work with a range of researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators to address critical challenges in education.

Change must be community-demanded, community-driven and community-led. We believe in the power of individuals and communities to shape their futures and recognize that there’s no single answer to the education challenges communities face. Visionary community leaders like Maya Martin Cadogan in Washington, D.C., Keri Rodrigues in Massachusetts, Lakisha Young in Oakland, Reverend Brawley in Brooklyn and Mike Gecan from Metro IAF have helped us learn and change. We will do more to foster the ingenuity that lives within communities and to support efforts rooted in locally-demanded, locally-designed and locally-driven change.

We won’t stop challenging lines of division. While it often feels like we are more divided than ever, our work does not bear this out. Since COVID-19 paralyzed our systems and schools, partners across the country have put aside traditional divisions to do what is best for children. We aspire to build on this momentum and support a new generation of partners and coalitions to usher in the future of education. We must strive to challenge traditional alignments and divisions and transcend a worn and predictable national debate on what it takes to make meaningful educational change.

As we look to the next five years, we want to come together to move beyond a vision of school designed for an age that’s already behind us, and bring fresh ideas to what learning looks like. In cities, in rural communities and everywhere in-between. Children need better pathways to the careers of the future and to secure and fulfilling lives, especially those who live in low-income communities and communities of color. Making that happen requires new thinking and new partnerships around a singular goal: improving opportunity for our children.

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