The pandemic upended learning for students, families, and schools everywhere. But some communities—especially those who are predominately low-income and of color, such as our community at Brooklyn Laboratory High School—endured particular adversities: higher rates of COVID-19 sickness and death, job loss, housing transition, eviction, and the stress and anxiety that accompany those hardships.
Recognizing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on our school community, Brooklyn Laboratory’s educators and school leaders embarked on an outreach mission to support the needs of students and families beyond just access to technology for distance learning. Our all-hands-on-deck effort to respond to community needs has reached hundreds of school community members, and continues today. Our school community wanted to make sure that when our families needed us most, the school stepped forward, making sure they felt seen, heard, and valued.
Establishing mindsets and systems to respond to families’ needs
Almost immediately after school doors closed in March 2020, our school leaders set up an emergency fund for families who needed help with anything related to the pandemic. Job loss, quarantine, supply chain slow downs, and risk of infection combined to create significant hardship for a large number of families, and we wanted to help lessen the burden and provide families with some stability during challenging times. Our Family Emergency Fund, supported by private donations, provides real-time gift cards for families to purchase groceries and household supplies. To date, we have received requests for and distributed hundreds of emergency support gift cards.
Early in the pandemic, we also created and followed a process to help our school leaders respond to families’ needs and adapt during times of uncertainty and change. We hosted town halls, focus groups, and one on ones for our staff, scholars, and families, and recruited experts to participate in design charrettes, where a team worked in short bursts to tackle specific parts of the overall challenge. Using this approach, we quickly realized that families needed more than food and supplies. Many families also experienced mental health challenges from isolation, stress, uncertainty, and fear. And their usual sources of support, such as church or social groups, were not available.
So we enlisted Brooklyn Lab staff members to call or text families and students almost daily—including nights, weekends, and over the summer break—to check in and offer help. Sometimes, families just needed to talk. Even though we know we can’t solve everything as educators, we can always listen, and sometimes that’s exactly the support families need.
Connecting families to deeper support
We recognize that as schools we’re part of an ecosystem of support within our community. We also recognize that as an institution that interacts with students and their families on an almost daily basis, we’re often the first to see when people in our school community are experiencing hard times. At Brooklyn Lab, we viewed our role as one primary point of support, as a connector and hub to help families access support we couldn’t provide.
For instance, one of our families had been evicted from their home, and we helped them find temporary shelter and ensured the student had the technology they needed to keep up with online classes. Another family had problems with medical bills and health insurance, and we helped them navigate the bureaucracy and resolve those issues.
One Sunday night, a high school student called us in the midst of a deep personal crisis. We listened, talked through it, and explained that we’d help him get through this time. We ended up having a social worker reach out in order to follow up, which made a difference. We’ve continued checking in on this student, and he’s happier and doing better in school.
In the summer, our school leadership discussed how we could institutionalize this approach to provide every student with personal support. This led to the launch of our “success coaching” program, whereby we match every student with a primary contact—a teacher or school staff member—who helps that student with any need that arises, from problems with technology, to academic challenges, to family difficulties. Our learner identity and agency resources help to train staff to support students and families more effectively.
Embracing human-centered, participatory approaches
Our tailored efforts, combined with human-centered design and participatory approaches that sits at the core of Brooklyn Lab creates a school with a strong community. Ultimately, we believe that everyone in the larger school ecosystem—not only those directly connected to the school like students, but everyone connected in the school’s network as well—has influence over the school’s direction. We wanted to give people in our community an opportunity to support student success.
To achieve that, Brooklyn Lab regularly seeks input from students, families, members of the community, and other stakeholders. For instance, as we were thinking through the return-to-school and how to integrate pandemic-safety measures into our facilities and practices, we consulted our wider community, whose input has helped shape our school’s response to the pandemic. Our Back-to-School Facilities Tool Kit captures what we learned from this approach.
Another example is how we approached communications. Recognizing that schools everywhere can improve their relationships with families and communities through an empathetic approach to communications and listening, we created a free, publicly available COVID-19 Communications Toolkit outlining principles and practices that can help schools use communications to establish new norms of community responsiveness and a culture centered around equity.
Making sure everyone feels valued and connected
Ultimately, the pandemic puts student success at stake, and as a school community, we can continue to support their success if we connect with them at a personal level. Research has shown that students perform better academically, have higher attendance and graduation rates, and overall more positive outcomes if they and their families feel personally connected to school.
We believe that if a school feels like home, students will be more engaged. And likewise we believe that our school will feel more at home if we work to engage families and the larger community to provide feedback that helps us be a better school. This benefits not just today’s students, but the next generation of scholars too. Over time, these relationships can uplift an entire community.
In the next school year, we hope to get back to hosting events like family nights, game nights, multicultural potlucks, and art shows that give our families a chance to connect with each other and the wider community. This kind of community-building makes our work especially rewarding. In the meantime, we’ll listen to our families’ needs and serve them in the best way we know how during the pandemic. We’re all learning how to support each other at this moment. And we’ll apply what we learn in the future. It’s important because it feels like we’re working on something bigger than ourselves. We’re investing in the future.
Learn more about Brooklyn LAB and all the XQ Schools at: xqsuperschool.org/schools
Jonathan Flynn is the Manager of Family and Community Affairs at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Legal Studies from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Jonathan has worked in the charter school sector for 7 years and joined Brooklyn LAB in 2017. He currently manages enrollment and recruitment for LAB’s entire network, as well as family engagement and communications.
Cecile Kidd is the Bursar at Brooklyn LAB. She has worked with children in different capacities for over 15 years. Before Brooklyn LAB, she served as Office Manager at Lefferts Gardens Charter School for five and a half years as an administrator at the Maple Street School.