This week, we’re speaking with Christian Rhodes, Chief of Staff for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the Department of Education, to not only hear about his own personal journey, but to get a better understanding how the government can fulfill its role with nonprofits and intermediaries doing this work. We’ll also be talking through some recent developments and what the Cradle to Career field can expect in upcoming years.
Hi, I’m Josh Davis from StriveTogether, your host for today’s episode of Together for Change. Here we share expert perspective on what’s possible in communities and how we can work together to build to last. In our previous episode, we spoke with Denise Forte of Education Trust, and Jeff Moore of independent Sector to hear more about the work of equity on the ground. This week, we’re speaking with Christian Rhodes, Chief of Staff for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the US Department of Education to not only hear about his own personal journey, but to get a better understanding of how the government can fulfill its role with nonprofits and intermediaries doing this work. We’ll also be talking through some recent developments in what the cradle to career field can expect in upcoming years. But first, let’s get started. Christian, welcome to together for change.
Hey, thanks. Thanks for the introduction. I’m surprised y’all got me with Denise and others, man I’m honored to even be on the on the list. I appreciate it.
Absolutely. Denise and Jeff were fantastic, really giving us perspective of what it looks like along the pathway of policy development, and advocacy on the outside. And with the recent partnership, that StriveTogether has taken up along many others across the country, along with the Department of Education, for the summer learning and enrichment collaborative, we are really, really appreciative of the time to speak with you today. And think about what the inside what that work looks like when nonprofit sector is conjoined with the public sector for an inside fashion. So before we dive into this, Christian, when you and I first met back in the summer, I believe that there was a sharing of our coming up in the South. And I wanted to first ask you, how does your lived experience, your childhood, where you come from your path, how does that inform the way that you take up this role that you currently have now with a high degree of influence and ability for impact in the federal system?
Ya know, if you’d have told me the 10 year old version of myself that, you know, I’ll be having this conversation and working at the Department and getting a chance to travel with a secretary and kind of see firsthand across the country, what’s happening, I would have said, you’re crazy. And secondly, I would have said it’s not, it’s not possible, because where, where I call home and where those who I love and care about have lived and have toiled the soil literally, these opportunities just did not come to us. We didn’t have the familial pedigree of Ivy League and really any higher education broadly. We had great role models and hard workers. Those attributes are kind of what I believe is the secret sauce to success, you know, in this country. So you know, for me, you’re right. I had a small caveat. I actually am a military brat. My father was in the army. He’s from Brooklyn, New York. My mom is, she claims North Philly as home, although she was a military brat as well. So you know, I have northern parents who were born to southern parents. So my grandfather is from Florida. And my grandmother was from Alabama. So, you know, we ended up, what I call home is North Carolina. And I call that home because that’s where we stayed the longest as my dad was in the 82nd airborne and, just got a chance to, you know, reflect on his service as as we just past Veterans Day. And my grandfather did 28 years, you know, I was the only one in the family, they told me I wasn’t good enough to make it to go to the military. So they told me to go to college. You know, I didn’t make my bed up right. So they told me to go to college, but um, you know, I called North Carolina home and Fayetteville, North Carolina is where my dad was stationed at. He was an 82nd airborne, jumped out of airplanes for a living. And, you know, my background, how I grew up was really taking all the experiences and the places that the military took us to Kansas, to Germany, to New Jersey, to North Carolina, to Texas, those experiences, I never went, I went to school, no more than three years in one location. And I did four elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools. So for me, you know, I took all these different experiences and I put them in a backpack for me and everywhere I went, you know, I’m unpacking, briefly, those things, experiences, the locations, the communities that we lived in, the churches that we participated in. And I think all, you know, my journey academically and professionally and even personally, is really kind of attributed to these, this backpack full of experiences and locations. But the truth is that one consistent in all these different locations, that, that outside of the military bubble, outside of the protections and supports at the US Department of Defense provides military families and their, and their dependents, you know, we as a family wrestled with the expectations, the assumptions of prejudice, in some cases, even the racism, that, you know, when my dad took that uniform off, what it looked like, particularly in the south. And I still remember the most vivid, I was reading an article, what’s the first time you experienced racism and I was like, you know, I didn’t experience it personally, my mother did. And it was at, it was in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And she went to a store, I was four years old, to a store, and she gave the clerk a check. On the check, on the back of the check, the clerk wrote “b-l-k woman” on the back of the check. And I still remember it because my mother was a person who did not take too much mess, she still doesn’t. And she said, why did you write black woman on the back of the check? She said, oh that was store policy. So we’ll talk to your manager. Well I am the manager. Okay, well, great, well, let’s talk to the corporate, and before we knew it, she had a lifetime supply of whatever it was, at the time. But that was my first real experience of, like, this is how we’re viewed. This is how we’re seen and I don’t blame the clerk, I blame the system in which we, the clerk was operating in. I blame the institutional and structural processes in which that that commercial enterprise was operating in. And that was the community in which I had to live and went to school. So you know that, that is what shapes my, you know, that’s what forms my thought process. It forms the decisions that I make. It forms the conversation that I choose to be a part of, and those that I choose not to be a part of, the company I keep are those that want me in their company. I’m looking through the lens of, you know, the experiences I’ve had, but also recognizing that, you know, for me, despite being well educated and being well supported, and going to top tier universities, there’s still inequity there. And how am either viewed or perceived as a Black man in this country. And now as a father of two Black boys, I’m, that’s the lens in which I’m, you know, I’m operating. It’s just the two Americas is real, you know, for many of us, and it’s not to try to make anyone else feel bad. It’s just to be truthful about my experience of what, what I bring to the table, as I’m thinking about others who look like me. Others who have similar experiences, whether racially, whether geographically, whether socio-economic status, you know, it’s, it’s the underdog mentality, it’s one that I think I take the one full hearted.
Christian, there’s so much the resonates with me about what you shared from your own personal experience, you know, before we even dive into how you take up your role, and then the institution of the US Department of Education. But I’ll tell you, one of the things that I have had conversations with previous guests about is the mentality of a zero sum, solution orientation, and a zero sum mindset. And I’m strikingly curious about your philosophy, or the way that you hold empathy for others who have not had this experience as a, as a black man in this country. And apprehension or the inability to see what, sometime invisible, and reconcile that with your experience and the role that you hold, and the ability of the Department of Education to make redress on some of the things that you spoke about, right. The, in the example that you gave with your mother, what you seem to, to highlight as examples were interpersonal racism, and institutional racism, right, which is sometimes very invisible. So, you know, I’m curious man, like, what, how do you approach this?
Yeah, no, it’s, it’s good. One, you know, as I’ve gotten older, and as you get a chance to experience people across the country, across the world, and recognize, you know, what is ultimately common, which is humanity. And I think it can sound cliche-ish but I think it’s true that if we were to strip down all the isms that we place on others, or those that placed them on us, you know, and we see people for who they are, we can, we can address and take on any obstacle. I am not an idealist at heart, so let me be clear. I’m pragmatic in my approach, but I recognize that the times that things have worked, and I’ve seen real progress be made, is when we have stripped down all the adjectives and adverbs placed on others and to say, what are we trying to accomplish? And how do we get there? And, you know, for me, when I, as I come to the work, you know, I’m, I’m, I said before, I’m thinking about those who don’t have the opportunity to sit at the table I’m sitting at. There’s times that I still even question how did I get to this table? And, you know, I am uniquely aware of the turtle and, and the fence post syndrome of it. I know that I didn’t get to the top of that fence post without some additional support. Somebody picked me up and placed me there for a reason. And my dad, after he retired from the army, he preached a little bit. So every now and then you get a, you get a, you know, a scripture or a Southern Baptists saying, but you know, for such a time as this, as a model in which I live by. But you know, when I come to the work, you know, I’m thinking about those that don’t have. And I’m thinking about how can I best educate those who just don’t see it. I can assume that everyone, you know, has the same lived experience, or even understands what I’m talking about when I, when I give the example of institution or interpersonal racism, or when I say to you, listen, I still have challenges today, as I walk in 7/11, I know that there is likely going to be some type of assumption about who I am based off of what I dress, or how I dress or what I looked like. Did I get a haircut this week? Or do I got my glasses on? But what I’ve learned in working in different environments is that I spend time communicating directly. And listening intently. I think we could do a lot more listening to understand kind of where people are, and then informing, you know, and educating people, and not being, this is tough, especially in an environment where it may not always lend itself to time and patience, but it is important, I truly believe it’s important to, you know, to be 100%, your authentic self, in every conversation, and for that to be the expectation. And it took a long time for me to realize that. But I appreciate that moment now. Because when you’re, when you are your authentic self, then people can inquire and ask questions, can educate themselves. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in spaces where that, that can, that can happen in a real way where there aren’t any cameras. Where there isn’t any worry about whether or not they fit it right or wrong. It’s to be honest with people and ultimately learn from their experiences and learn from ours.
Those are strong words. And again, as you were first, what resonated with me is, as you were thinking about the the population, the community that many of us have left behind, and it reminded me of Wes Moore’s book, The Other Wes Moore, and I had a chance to talk with Wes in his office when they, he was with Robin Hood about three years ago, about that survivor’s remorse, and like what propels us as particularly Black men, when we quote unquote find ourselves making it and easily have, within our families, in our community, the logs of folks that we know, should have had the same types of supports that may have been given to us because of whatever perception of special was placed upon a number of us and, and the perception of a potential that was placed upon so many of us that were able to beat the data curve and, and the predictor of place and race. And so I, I appreciate you naming that and sharing that and say that that also is something that resonates. You know, I’m really excited. And one of the things that we’ve talked about on this podcast is the current administration, President Biden’s administration, has named race equity is one of the four priorities, and we can’t talk policy without politics. And I think the question that I want to ask you about, that you touched on just a little bit, is this tension between right now, and what’s tolerable? And I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that tension and the implications on the work that you have enroll, and within the department of administration and how it is carrying out the administration’s path forward.
Yeah, you know, if I’ll be honest, and I think I’ve said it’s been a few private conversations, but I’ll say it publicly, you know, my decision to accept the appointment to join this administration was primarily squared on whether or not I believed that the promise of what they were talking about was something that this administration was actually going to try to put in action. You know, I know it wasn’t 100% of everything that was said or done, you know, can be the part of the nature of politics, the, the moment of COVID and the reality that COVID likely would extend much further than all of us could imagine that the recovery will take longer than we could imagine. But it was really the, you know, this moment is one that I couldn’t say no to, and I, and I could have, right? You know, this, this wasn’t just you choose to serve, you choose to take up that, that mantle. But around race equity, I mean the, you know, the good thing about this moment is that, you know, when you’re in crisis, and it’s weird to say the good thing about crisis, but the the opportunity in crisis, is that the light shines brighter on the gaps and the deficits and the faults, which then requires everyone to see it. You know, the data was clear on those who are most impacted by COVID, then you can question why certain communities were more impacted by COVID. But you couldn’t question that they were, if you think back to the early days of the pandemic, and the early days, March of 2020. You know, every time I went, you know, I’m sitting at home after, you know, getting the same news everyone else got that, you know, the school district that I served in prior was going to be shutting down just for two weeks. And it ended up being a year. You know, I’m watching MSNBC, like everybody else, and I’m hearing the gentlemen, I forgot his name, he’s a reporter that was in the Bronx. And he was there every single day. And every day outside the hospital, he was talking about the sirens that were just blaring in the background and the number of people who are ultimately succumbing to this thing that we didn’t even know what it was. The data showed that that’s what was happening, in particular Black and Brown communities, they were being disproportionately impacted by COVID. And then afterwards, as we rolled out testing, and even the vaccine, we saw just systemic challenges to those same communities getting access to what ultimately will be what leads us out of this, which is, you know, quality full wraparound supports for those communities. So crisis allowed for us to see that. And the same can be said in education, you know, the same communities that were still most impacted by COVID, who were contracting and dying from the disease, were also those who had the limited access to broadband, those who had limited access to technology, those had already challenging circumstances at home, and were, you know, challenged, were losing their jobs or, so all that was there and is there. And I think that where we are now is recognizing, I think, nationally as a country and as an administration, that there’s a reason why all these things happen in certain pockets. The race in place, isn’t just something you say in a policy speech, but it was happening and it’s happening in real life. So then if we know that if we see it, we can’t deny it. Then what do we do about it? And I think, you know, the early parts of this administration recognize that we have to name it. We have to be explicit about the recovery, particularly in those communities most impacted. And I don’t think too many people argue with that. And that’s not just you know, our Black and Brown communities, which were disproportionately impacted, but it’s our rural communities, it’s our tribal nations who, who struggled and were challenged with the resource. So now, not that the crisis has demonstrated that, I think we have an obligation now to address it. And it’s going to be pulling back some layers that people may not want to acknowledge or, but the truth is the truth and I think we have an obligation to not just expose it but also provide some real solutions that can shift that, you know, that arc towards negative outcomes to more positive ones so that’s the, you know, that’s how I, that’s how I view it. I recognize that you can insert any policy debate, any, any buzzword, any political commercial and there is different sides of both, all issues. But, you know, the enemy, at least from my perspective over the last 19 months has not been the left or the right. Or, you know, the vaccinated, unvaccinated. It’s been COVID. And COVID has really created an opportunity. The question is whether or not we as a country have the fortitude to address those issues, so that we don’t find ourselves either laboring longer into this into this pandemic, or the recovery is so uneven, that it’s only created more haves and have nots and not closing the gaps that we all know exist.
Christian, I appreciate you sharing your your thoughts and articulation on that. One of the hopes that we have for this podcast is that the audience, first of all, has an openness to considering a multitude of perspectives that may or may not be similar or congruent to those that they share. And another goal and hope that we have for this podcast is that there is a broader understanding of how to articulate and talk about what many of us experience and know to be true, but often find that for equity to be achieved, the perception of belief that others will be harmed, have to be harmed. And so I think that you have added to the place of many of us who are thinking about this language, and, and, and how to how to have these conversations that move us closer towards equity, in the pursuit of all things that people want and the opportunities that must be addressed at the individual, personal role and within a systems of government and community.
You know I think, Iet me just call that out though, I just want to say it out, you know, one additional thing to that, which is, the opportunity as I laid out before, is to look at the data and to make, you know, policy decisions and supports based off the data. But I think it’s also, you know, I would not be doing my job, if I didn’t call out that, you know, this administration, you know, there is there is an abundance of resource that is touching, you know, the majority of the residents of this country, and the American Rescue Plan was just not for only one set of people. It was for the entire country. And there are pieces of it that, you know, it’s always difficult when you have these big policy debates and arguments around kind of small things, because, you know, there are pieces of this of the American Rescue Plan that we still haven’t even touched a surface on. You know, I was telling someone the other day that the child tax credit, that is dropping into the banks accounts of, you know, mothers and fathers and guardians across the country right now, you know, there are people who still don’t know where that money came from. They look in, honey, we got $350 in our account today, who it say? Some US, us Treasury? I don’t even know who that is. The US Treasury, you know? And that is all because there was some forethought about well, how do we, you know, ease the burden for those who are dealing with childcare challenges, and those who have children who are in their home. You know, school districts across the country, receive more money in a fusion of resource, more than they’ve ever had before at the federal level from the federal government. And it goes to all children, and this isn’t just in low income communities, or in the big cities. This is suburban areas, rural communities. You know, if you have a, if you have 1000 kids in your district, or 1 million kids in your district, you’ve got proportionately more money than you ever have before, to make investments in the infrastructure. For me, I believe the investments in the infrastructure to support recovery long term, not just short term, but long term. And I think that is the part, that is, is the promise, but also the frustration of the debate being so micro in the who’s a R, who’s a D… This country is benefiting from smart policy. Can we take it further for smart implementation, and think about everybody. You know, my hope is that we can and I think there is a real opportunity with the Build Back Better agenda to not just, you know, put the building blocks that I think the American Rescue Plan did, but we have a unique opportunity, different than the Great Recession and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act where, you know, ARRA was dealing with the immediate potential depression that the country was teetering on the cliff on. Difference between that and now is that the American Rescue Plan was our version of ARRA. The third one, if you think about it. Where CARES 1 and CARES 2, and then ARP, and now you have some policy changes that could attach to that, to the Build Back Better agenda for the larger infrastructure package that was just passed. Now, if I’m a district leader, if I’m a municipal leader, if I’m a state leader, I can string together, not just the investment, but now the opportunity to sustain this. And I think that is what the promise of this moment is. You just have to be ready and willing to seize it.
I can tell you that that is absolutely the direction that the 70 communities in the StriveTogether network are taking as both a challenge and experiencing the bumps and the bruises that come along with finding a meaningful way of being a part of that local implementation. We have a number of the communities within the StriveTogether network, who have found their way and been invited into this process to make meaningful deployment in ways that are measurable and impactful. So that is a strong role that we feel like the network has been built for over the last decade, setting up this type of infrastructure, so that in time of crisis and need, in those times when there are targets that are set for a third grade reading outcome at the population level, or high school graduation, that they still have infrastructure that can be moved around and pointed at different goals, and be effective. There are just over 12 million children in the StriveTogether footprint. And little over 6 million of those children and youth are of color. And our network was really interested in some recent executive orders. Both were initiatives on advancing educational equity, excellence in economic opportunity. One initiative was specifically for Black Americans, the other for Hispanics. You know, what can you tell us that will give us a little bit more context on these executive orders? You know, what specific changes might result as these orders move into implementation? And how can they ensure that some pathway towards sustaining equity is also a part of what’s accomplished?
Well, yeah, I mean, these executive orders that you mentioned, we also have another one on Native Americans that are, you know, formerly housed within, well the President had a number of executive orders that he announced, the two Hispanic, and it used to be called African American, but it’s now for Black Americans. And it’s not just around education. It’s education and economic opportunity, which I think is important, because it really shows, I think, intentional collaboration. And I think intentional focus on ensuring that the pathway, right, the pathway to economic opportunity, and I might be overly reading into this, and what the White House meant, but the pathway to economic opportunity starts with advancing, you know, excellence and equity, advance the educational equity and excellence. That’s how you get to the opportunities that, you know, we want to see for all Americans. And naming out that there are likely different pathways and different journeys and different supports that might be needed to be put in place for different demographics based off a, the historical context, even current day situations. So just for, so that’s one. I think it’s important to name that the goal here is slightly different than what it’s been on previous administrations. I think, also it’s important to name that, you know, it was, it’s important that these, these executive orders were done within his first year as it because it also kind of lays out the expectation of the agenda, moving forward from administration. These things oftentimes get very little attention on the big headlines, and they’re not on the ticker, on the news stations. But, you know, for those of us who have now been part of the work and see how executive orders operate, you know, within agencies, it shifts the body of work to focus on what the President had said when he signed his name to what this administration is stating, for Congress, for the public, for the world. This is important, and it’s important enough that we’re going to move on it now, not wait for legislation and not wait for, you know, a piecemeal approach, but it really lays out some, I think, clear expectations. One, I think is, you know, probably also important name out that these executive orders also were very explicit about, kind of, why they’re needed. And at one point, you know, it even speaks to increasing the general understanding of systemic causes of educational challenges faced by many Black students. And it worked across all the executive departments to address those challenges. So it, it names out as one of the first bullets of the executive order that, you know, we need to name why, you know, these challenges are but then what are the solutions within all the executive departments to address them. And if you continue to read the orders, both for Hispanic Americans and for Black Americans, you can see some very clear tangible examples of the work that the President in the White House expects for agencies to do. Now, the good thing about it is that these EOs sit within the Department of Ed, but because they have multiple department, multiple agencies are represented, you know, and has to be the convener of these different agencies to address these issues and to address ultimate solution. So in just some some early conversations, I think it was important for the administration to demonstrate it early in the administration. Secondly, I think it was really important for the these, these EOs, as we call it in the department lingo for these EOs to live within the department. And then I think, for the Secretary of Education, he’s made it a top priority of his to not, so these EOs don’t get bogged down in the bureaucracy of government, but that they are front and center, and their bodies of work penetrate all the different offices within the office. So it’s not just a K-12 issue. It’s not just, you know, career and technical education or higher education but how all these operate, which I think is important. Lastly, there’s another idea that you didn’t mention on historically Black colleges and universities. And I think, when you start looking at the different EOs that are pulled together, you recognize, okay, here’s some, we’re trying to change how government approaches these groups through the lens of educational equity, which means additional attention, additional support, additional resource, but the first line is important. Why? Because we’re recognizing that there were, and have been, and will likely continue to be some systemic challenges that have limited our ability in these different subgroups to achieve the ultimate goal, which is, you know, equity in this country and having the opportunity to access to live, you know, some would say, the American dream, so.
That is really clear. And Christian, you lifted up a community that on my journey towards understanding what serves as impediments and what are the historical reasons why certain groups have had and certain groups have not, I’m also growing my own understanding about sovereign and tribal nations. And I was gonna raise back to you, how is the department also thinking about the partnership and the ways of being in good citizenry with tribal nations?
One, I think is, is by being intentional about educating ourselves around, you know, who they are, and what they, and what they mean to this country. And, you know, we did that. It’s, you know, of all the things that happen, right, the administration is doing a lot of stuff, we’ve been busy, we’ve been on the road, and we’ve been, you know, focused on school reopening and obviously, implementation of the American Rescue Plan. But there’s also an education component for many of us who haven’t sat or, you know, in the seats long or, you know, are coming to Washington for the first time, formally on the federal level. So we visited, I remember, just to kind of give a tangible example of like the department’s intentional collaboration and focus on tribal communities, you know, as part of the Return to School Roadmap, the Secretary embarked on a bus tour. And we went to five states in five days. And we saw, you know, 21 different stops, literally on a bus, like traveling all over the Midwest and went to Michigan. Went to a tribal college in Michigan. And, you know, we did a lot of stuff. But that probably was the most impactful visit that I’ve participated in my nine months in this administration. And one of the things that I’ve noticed, well, ultimately, whenever I leave, this administration will stick with me, because this tribal college was serving their community, not just, you know, Native Americans in that community, but the broader community in which it served and they were doing so with such limited resource, with such limited access to the same level of technology, or even just the facility. And we got a chance to sit down and talk to students and say, well, why would you choose here compared to even the four year institution down the street? Or the newly renovated community college down the road? And they said, because they understand me. That’s what, that’s what one of the students said, they understand me. And if you can, dig a little bit deeper, they talked about, these students talked about seeing themselves in the curriculum. Seeing themselves and the teachers who were teaching them. Knowing that the care that they provided was something that they couldn’t duplicate in other settings. And I remember the Secretary getting back on the bus, and as we were going to, you know, a major institution not too far away, and I wish the cameras would have saw that, because we knew the camera’s gonna see us later. Could they see this? This is what we and, you know, what I learned is that similar to HBCUs, similar to historical Hispanic serving institutions, similar to other minority serving institutions, whose core mission are the people, the students they serve. We are better on understanding it and what are the right supports that we can provide for them that they can continue to do the work that they’re doing. That’s critically important. And that we can raise the awareness of what’s happening in these communities and provide the appropriate support. I mean, it’s been a, that’s, that’s an area that if you would have asked me, you know, 10 months ago, before I joined this administration, I would have given you what the campaign line said. But this was, this was such an impactful visit. And you know, since then we’ve, we’ve doubled down our efforts and engagement to find out how we can be more of a support.
I’m so glad that we both have the platform to be able to lift up the types of activities and what it looks like to just step towards this place of conciliatory collective movement in a common direction, and what that takes and what it looks like that, I think part of my own learning and the implications for policy, as I have tried to better understand, work with, and determine how, from my role in our organization, we can at least, do no harm, and at best be a strong ally, and a strong partner with sovereign nations. Calls for a better understanding of the priority that within these communities, community and family are at the center. And the ability to apply a federal agencies compliance, competitive grant language and those sorts of things are, are some things that we still have a way to go. As I understand from my my friends, my colleagues, that are helping me to better understand how we can all work together. And so I do want to voice that that is, that is something that I promised I would be able to at least share and continue to learn more about. But there is some work that is felt to still be needed, and the ability to more properly apply federal resources and the compliance efforts with what are the familial and cultural priorities within tribal communities. So let me ask you, Christian, it sounds like your schedule changes, often, not by your own, your own doing. But if you look out, let’s just say towards spring break in March of next year, that’s about a four, four to five month time frame, man, what are you most excited about along that horizon? What do you, you know, what did you think about a couple of times during the week and feel proud about and an eagerness towards addressing and being able to dive into?
Yeah, you know, this is my first, you know, my first tour at the federal level for, you know, this administration, but now I’ll talk to my colleagues who have been in, and worked in previous administrations they, they talk about, you know, how they were able to hit the ground running and implementing, you know, whether it’d be the Secretary’s priority, the administration’s goals and priorities. And we just have not been afforded the same opportunity, because of the moment that we were in, the crisis we were in, and people, it’s hard, because, you know, we can spend our time, you know, we’re in November now, but even, you know, six months ago, you know, we were in May, and April, you know, schools across the country, were just starting to open their doors back to in person instruction. And the Secretary, the President and others were talking about the need for us to focus on in person instruction, because we recognize that that was going to be the, you know, one of the, it’s I think, it’s a clear signal of true recovery. But secondly, and more importantly, it was going to likely, it was the best opportunity for our students, particularly those who are impacted by the COVID to make up for the time that they lost to, to accelerate learning and to ultimately start the road to educational recovery and, you know, we’re now in November. And despite all the news and the noise, you know, 99.6% of our schools are open full time in person. Almost 100% of schools. And in March of last year, we’re at 46% or so of schools being open in person. So, you know, there’s, there’s a celebration there that the efforts, the mitigation strategy to support the collaboration between local school districts and their health departments and state leaders in chiefs focusing on like these mitigation support strategies and a lot of other noise and distractions, but we do have to acknowledge where we are now is drastically different than where we were. But that also means that we have the opportunity not to turn the page from reopening, but now we can focus our efforts on recovery. And part of recovery is, as the Secretary says, and I agree, this is a, I’m gonna steal this line as often as I can, but if our goal can’t be to go back to March of 2020, because March of 2020 was not great for many students and families and communities already. And the challenges there have only been exacerbated by, which was, and still is our common threat, which was COVID-19. But I take that one step further. I think the common, the potential threat for us, while we continue to deal with COVID, is complacency. And I think we have to continue to press the gas on, on what does reimagining public education look like post COVID? But even if COVID wasn’t here, we still have, we still had an opportunity and still do have an opportunity to make some substantial changes. So, you know, if you ask me what March and April are gonna look like, I’m hoping that we’re talking about how we redesign our public high schools to have career pathways for every high school students so that there’s a clearer and more more thorough through line from college and career through, you know, back to high school to elementary and middle. I’m thinking about social emotional learning and mental health. That was a buzzword prior to COVID but it’s now essential, is it is now part, it should be part of every single decision that a school leader administrator community is doing. And how do we how do we scale up? Because the recovery of COVID is going to take longer than, what, how long we’ve been in it, right? We’re going to be recovering for a long time. And I think it also requires us to look at what I think is probably the most transformative change of public education in generations, which our hope is passed in the next several weeks is, you know, universal pre kindergarten for every three or four year old in this country, regardless of race, regardless of status, socio economic status, is creating that additional free two years of education on the front end. Well, you know, the news clips and this, you know, the negotiations have likely, you know, squeezed out the community college on the back end of the President’s Build Back Better agenda to increase the potential of Pell Grants to completion opportunities, to teacher pipeline and diversity pipeline work for education, which was currently in the Build Back Better agenda. I mean, if we can pass that in the next several weeks, and start implementation in the new year, we’re on our way to really transforming education. And that’s what’s exciting. That’s likely going to mean I won’t be sleeping and probably sleeping in different states across the country as we talk about this work. But you know, I’ll make sure I buy some magnets for my kids as I hit that airport. But I think it’s important that we really, you know, recognize, man, like we haven’t, you know, this is, that’s what’s exciting about the work. And I think I don’t, you know, the polling is a polling. I think everybody agrees there’s no disagreement from the general American public that these are the right investments to make. And to me, if we want to think sustained economic growth in our country, we have to invest now, and I think there’s a real opportunity for us to do that.
That was rich, that was rich, that was really, really rich and resourceful information. Christian, we we definitely are gonna have to have you back, if you’re willing to at some point, on a follow up. So we’re coming down the homestretch. Here’s, here’s what I want to throw in for you. The StriveTogether network exists inside of the educational ecosystem, but by and large these are, these are not educators. They are a part of that ecosystem that enhances and helps to focus on educational attainment on the way towards equitable pathways of economic mobility. But there are many other practitioners and community based organizations and faith based organizations and parents and youth and volunteers that make up these ecosystems. And so I want you to give us your bumper sticker, which is the charge you hope that we all take? You’ve articulated what the the current administration in the Department of Education and what you as a person in your role are taking up. Give us your bumper sticker for the charge that you want us to take up as we meet the extension and, and efforts that are coming from you all.
Yeah, I, we didn’t even get into, we got enough to do this again but we didn’t get into, you know, collaborative tables across the country in the work, cross sector work and how important place based strategies is to this administration. So we definitely need to schedule me. I talked too long is what you’re saying, I know, I know. You know, what I would say is this, this, you know, I’m much better at giving. You know, I speak as a son of a preacher, like I speak in parable, or story. That’s just the nature of the work. But, but I think that, you know, if there’s something we learned from the pandemic, and I think, the crisis, the crisis of the moment was that, you know, we blur the lines of roles and responsibilities in support of children, across the country, communities across the country, had to rely on the village to support the needs of students and families. So we saw faith organizations and business leaders, and, you know, school district administrators and health professionals all serving community, every day. Nonprofit organizations being the arms and the legs of, you know, bureaucracies, who couldn’t always move as nimbly as they needed to or couldn’t get the access to students in the community they needed. We saw that all happen, almost seamlessly. It was like a symphony, if you think about it. People just play their role. And, you know, despite the the immense amount of harm, I think, damage it did, there was the beauty of it in that, in that, in that example, is that people really put down, you know, their, you know, their lanes and said, let’s focus on the common good of serving students and their families. So the charge is not to let, you know, any, you know, glimmers of hope around recovery cause us to go back to the days of our corners and, and our lanes. That requires, you know, school districts and SCAs to recognize, just say, thank you so much, but like recognize the value of the partnerships that were created. And let’s build on them. Let’s ingrain them into the regular work that we do that requires nonprofit partners, and, you know, business leaders to think about, you know, what are, what are the things the system, or the system that LEA or the SCA is working on? And how can I be an additive to that, you know, how can I just be a thought leader at the table? How can I assist in their innovation in the logistics or operational planning. So, you know, the bumper sticker is we can’t let the moment, the glimmers of recovery cause us to go back to normal. We have to focus and operate as if we’re still in crisis, because we are. It might not be COVID. But it will be academic acceleration. It will be social emotional learning and mental health supports for students. It will be continued food insecurity and other challenges. And I think that’s the opportunity of the moment and I look forward to talking more about it and engaging on it.
Yes, sir. Don’t be surprised if you get a cheesy but meaningful bumper sticker, Christmas of 2022.
I love it . Sounds good.
Hey, I gotta say from the person, from Josh, to Christian, brother, I’m really, really proud of what you represent, and what you’ve been able to accomplish, and the privilege and the responsibilities you hold in your person, in your role. I am just so, so appreciative of the time that you spent with us. And so from StriveTogether in our network, in our fields that are all taken up this work, we really appreciate what the Department of Education takes up as a priority and in the action that is taking forth under the direction of Secretary Cardona and truly value the ally ship that makes us more than anything, a little bit more inspired and hopeful as we move forward, day to day. So Christian, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
No problem at all. My pleasure.
And to our audience., we thank you for joining us today. Stay connected with us by visiting strivetogether.org where you will find transcripts of our Together for Change podcast series.