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Whole learner approach seeks to remove barriers, reduce inequity in education

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November 18, 2020, 10:40 am

Transcend Education’s Ryan Hall grew up in Longmont and is a product of St. Vrain Valley Schools and the University of Colorado at Boulder, but early in his teaching career he decided to dive into one of the toughest educational environments in the country as a Teach For America corps member in New York City in 2007.

Ryan Hall

Hall taught middle school math in the New York City Department of Education and in public charter schools — where he was a school leader as well – before leaving New York and joining the startup nonprofit Transcend as one of its earliest team members. Transcend’s mission is to support “communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.”

Much of that mission centers on what’s known in education circles these days as the “whole learner” approach, from early childhood through high school, which leans on growing scientific evidence showing learning happens in an integrated way in which cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills are all interconnected, and students thrive when they have a wide range of those skills.

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the restructuring of entire school systems and online learning is further isolating students and underscoring societal inequities, the whole-learner approach is gaining traction nationally and in Colorado.

Hall has led Transcend’s work with one of the organization’s earliest school partners – a charter management organization (CMO) called Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tenn.

“Valor has a really innovative and awesome approach to what they call ‘comprehensive human development,’ but it’s not that different from whole-child development, just a different way of phrasing it,” Hall said. “We’ve worked with them over the past four years now, going into our fifth year, on helping them to define or codify that model — essentially study it, document it, and then think about how to share or spread that to other school communities across the country.”

The best way to grasp the concept may be to see it in action in this 10-minute Valor video.

Another useful tool is Transcend’s 10 Leaps for equitable 21st-century learning, which begins with the preface, “At Transcend, we believe learning environments must prepare all young people to thrive in and transform the world. However, the traditional industrial design of schooling that is still common today — and which originated to efficiently establish basic knowledge and skills across a mass of young people — too often functions to sort, separate, and rank students in oppressive ways that reproduce the inequities and opportunity gaps of our broader society.” The 10 Leaps program spells out how best to make that transition.

Hall spoke to RealVail.com in a fall phone interview about the whole-learner approach in this unprecedented time of COVID-19 and a national reckoning around social inequity in America and the need for education reform.

RV: What are some Colorado examples of schools that have embraced the whole-child development or whole-learner approach and had some success?

RH: Some of the early adopters of the program that have taken on the Valor approach are in Colorado. Rocky Mountain Prep is one of them and Strive is another one. And then there’s something that Sean Precious, a regional superintendent at Denver Public Schools, wrote about leading for equity.

RV: Is inequity in education the major driving force behind the whole learner approach?

RH: Inequities in the current system are one of the major impetuses for whole learner approaches pre COVID. It’s true that when you ask educators, leaders about what they’re not feeling satisfied about from our current education systems, inequity comes up, oftentimes at the top of the list. Part of that is just the recognition that for many students there are just so many barriers to learning and that we really need to be supporting students to overcome those barriers.

RV: How has the COVID crisis exacerbated those inequities?

RH: COVID has both intensified some of those existing barriers and imposed new ones, and in some ways, it’s fallen along pretty similar lines of inequities for people of color, for students from low-income families. A lot of those same populations that were not well-served in the traditional model of school pre-COVID are still not well-served by the distance learning or hybrid learning approach as well. It’s just deepened and highlighted some of those inequities as well. Another connection I see between COVID and the whole child piece is that parents and families and caregivers have had to become involved in their student’s education in a very new way. A lot of family members have had to orient to their students and their students’ learning in a really different way. They’ve seen that in order for students to learn effectively there’s a lot of other things that go into it. It’s not just math, it’s not just reading, there are other things that we care about and that schools provide and that we value. What are the social experiences that students are having in school and how do we help students feel connected, feel like they belong? All of those things matter. Some of that stuff parents are realizing and seeing firsthand in a relatively new way right now.

RV: Should schools even be trying to get back to what used to be considered normal? It seems like the sort of factory approach to education needed fixing even before COVID.

RH: A lot of equity has to do with recognizing that students are all different and that they need customized supports to ensure that each student gets what they need and that we sort of leverage the individual assets that students have, that we help students overcome the barriers that are unique to their situation. And so when you have an education system that was in many ways one size fits all, it shouldn’t be surprising that we oftentimes get inequitable results.

RV: In Eagle County our schools have partnered with outside organizations such as YouthPower365, Walking Mountains Science Center and SOS Outreach to expose underserved youth to a world of possibilities and this often has led to our school system developing some impressive leaders. Is this just a matter of getting out of the classroom and experiencing life?

RH: When you think about the really memorable learning experiences that were really pivotal for you, they often happen through those types of things, but part of what the whole child education movement pushes us to think about is how can we create more experiences like that within school and facilitated by school? One of the challenges is if we rely solely on out of school experiences to develop a lot of these nonacademic skills, habits and mindsets, those are not going to be equitably available to students and families. The students and the families with the most connections and resources are going to have the most access to them. Being able to provide more of those opportunities within and through school is a really important part of this.

RV: But if you spend time and resources focusing on the “whole child”, is it possible it comes at the expense of academic rigor?

RH: There’s a false choice that’s set up … that you can either do academics or you can do social, emotional, physical, and if you do choose to prioritize social, emotional and physical development or anything that’s not academic, it’s at the cost of academics. What I believe personally, and what we’re seeing in a number of schools across the country is that you can actually do both and that they’re not in competition and they’re actually synergistic, so that when you care for students socially, emotionally, physically, they actually do better academically. And even if that means that your classes are a little bit shorter and you take some time away from academics, in the long term, having students that are safe, that are seen, that are supported, that feel connected, that are healthy, they will do better academically, because of that investment. Valor is one of those places where it’s, ‘Yeah, we spend a lot of time and we really prioritize a lot of this social, emotional learning stuff, but we also get some of the best state test scores in the entire state, and we do it with an incredibly diverse population.’ That’s some of what it’s taken for some people to see that this isn’t a choice that you have to make, that you can really do both and that when you really do whole child education well, it will actually pay dividends in the academics piece as well.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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