One of Our “COVID Keepers”: Putting Communities First in Public Charter Schools

One of Our “COVID Keepers”: Putting Communities First in Public Charter Schools

This blog post was written by Joanna Hightower and Shira Woolf Cohen, Founding Partners, Innovageous. 

In March 2020, brick and mortar public charter schools were suddenly forced to operate as virtual schools. 

Despite the incredible challenges, educators embraced their “new normal” by aligning to new virtual learning platforms, integrating asynchronous learning, and finding unique ways to meet their students not only academically, but emotionally and physically. With grace as a mantra, educators, alongside families and students, have spent the year redefining what it means to educate and meet students “where they are”—all during a global pandemic. 

The concurrent pandemics of COVID-19 and our ongoing racial reckonings have spotlighted the overwhelming inequities in our schools and how we systemically educate our children. While public charter schools have been working overtime to address the many adversities that have surfaced, they now must also confront an incredibly thick residue of trauma and rising social and emotional needs in students and families. 

As schools head back to in-person learning, many are grappling with how to reimagine teaching and learning to meet the exasperated academic needs of each student. Leaders and staff are searching for the best ways to integrate purposeful and sustainable frameworks to support students socially and emotionally. Schools are also seeking ways to tap into the agency students have learned during the pandemic, to help them apply this agency to their learning experiences in school and in life.  

Schools have learned so much over the past 15 months. Many of these learnings are ones to hold on to: the “COVID keepers.” There are lessons learned at the systemwide, classroom, and individual levels that should be examined to determine their impacts on operations and outcomes. 

At Innovageous, we have engaged schools in analyzing the landscape of these lessons. Through focus groups, interviews, and 360-degree community surveys, we are supporting schools to answer questions such as: 

  • How equitable are our schoolwide instructional practices? 
  • Do concurrent hybrid structures allow greater levels of differentiation? 
  • What benefits are surfacing for students who are thriving in a virtual learning space?
  • What ongoing supports are needed for our community to meet the social and emotional needs of students?
  • How can we carry blended learning into the future of our school?  

By engaging school communities to give input on these important questions, schools can make informed decisions about how they are going to reimagine, reinvent, and reignite in-person learning. Of all the lessons learned this year, none of them include going back to exactly where schools were in March 2020. 

Our work has impacted schools by centralizing parent and student voices around topics that influence planning and practices. One Philadelphia public charter school sought out voices of staff, families, and students through surveys to inform the school’s ratings of Criteria for an Equitable School within the MAEC Equity Audit. This ensured that a full range of community voices were heard and valued within the equity audit and future action steps. 

Another public charter school collected feedback from students, parents, and teachers as it looked towards the future of in-person learning. Recognizing that some students thrived in the virtual learning setting and that some families and teachers had worries over returning to in-person learning, the school was able to shift its instructional model to accommodate a variety of options to meet each stakeholder’s needs. The school then focused on ensuring students remaining remote would still be connected to the school community, a priority identified through the survey. 

The new space of what is possible in schools opens the door for innovative and courageous solutions in K-12 education. Through intentional inclusion of all stakeholder voices, we can ensure that innovation is responsive to our communities and the incredible needs in our current educational landscape. Many charter schools are asking their communities important questions about what comes next in school choice. Some schools are even asking themselves if there is a place for school choice within our own school. Rethinking education means not only imagining what can happen within classroom walls, but what can happen when time and physical space is no longer a barrier.  

We are also thinking about how charter school authorizers across the nation can elevate school choice and spearhead city, state, and national innovation initiatives. By thinking beyond the typical parameters of brick-and-mortar schools, authorizers can allow schools to revolutionize how we educate children and not oppress innovation through a rear-view mirror of what school choice through charter schools has been. Let’s use a focused lens to elevate the role of flexible learning times, self-directed learning, and remote instruction to promote highly accessible learning for all children. 

As authorizers review plans for 2021 and beyond, our hope is that you make space for schools to learn about each other’s “COVID keepers.” Shift your role to promote collaboration and further learning, and redefine what it means to fulfill the charter of a “brick and mortar” school. It’s time to courageously make radical changes for revolutionary thinking in education for all of our children. Public charter school authorizers play an important role in supporting, not hindering, this process! 


Joanna Hightower and Shira Woolf Cohen are founding partners at Innovageous and have over 25 years combined experience as charter school leaders in Philadelphia. Innovageous is an education consulting group focused on providing continuity of learning and inclusive opportunities for all children by building the capacity of families, educators, organizations, and schools to develop innovative and courageous solutions in K-12 education. Learn more at or email [email protected]

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