Build, Excel, Sustain: Bright Spots from a Challenging Year in Education

In communities across the country, committed leaders and their teams are working to deliver on the promise of an excellent education for every child, despite the countless obstacles brought on by COVID-19 and a widening opportunity gap.

Since this time last year, BES has provided virtual coaching and support to 175 leaders across hybrid, fully remote, and in-person learning communities. Through this, we’ve had the privilege of seeing countless bright spots, gleaming like candles in a dark room.

During each spring semester, we typically share state assessment results from BES Fellow-founded schools. Though these assessments did not take place in 2020, we’ve seen leaders turn this into an opportunity to focus on alternative ways of measuring academic growth and student progress, possibly more than they ever needed to before.

Despite difficult and ever-changing learning models, 75 BES Fellow-founded schools took the fall Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment. Though the methods of administration were mixed – some virtual, some small group in-person testing, etc. – many schools felt that it was in the best interest of their students to continue to assess learning in this way.

One such school is Ethos Classical, led by Founder Emily Castillo Leon, a 2015 BES Fellow. Emily told us, “In a school year unlike any other, it has been more important than ever to have an acute understanding of how scholars are learning and where they need support. We’ve invested our time in ongoing STEP assessment over the past year to have a realistic picture of our academic impact so we can plan with intentionality and confidence as we move into the next school year.”  

Despite the extra-ordinary school year, many BES Fellow-founded schools across the U.S. received accolades at the national, state, and local levels – accolades that this year include how schools showed exceptional dedication to serving students and families during COVID-19, in addition to outstanding performance and leadership. 

  • Milwaukee Excellence (WI) was praised for quadrupling the number of Black students taking the AP Computer Science Principles exam in the state.
  • South Bronx Classical Charter School I (NY) was named a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School. 
  • Elsie Urueta Pollock, 2013 BES Fellow and Founder of Tulsa Honor Academy (OK), received the inaugural Lynn Schusterman Award for Excellence in Leadership from TFA Greater Tulsa.
  • Vega Collegiate (CO) was named a 2020 Colorado Succeeds Prize Finalist for its work “serving a high number of students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch and a diverse immigrant community.” 
  • Akeem Brown, 2020 BES Fellow and Founder of Essence Prep (TX), was named San Antonio Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Man of the Year for 2021. Additionally, Purpose Prep (TN) founder, 2011 BES Fellow Lagra Newman, was named a 2021 40 Under 40 honoree in the Nashville Business Journal
  • Dr. Chris Manning, 2018 BES Fellow and Founder of Buffalo Creek Academy (NY), along with Joelle Formato, 2016 BES Fellow and Founder of Persistence Prep Academy (NY), were recognized in Buffalo Business First’s “Who’s Who in Education 2021” list. 

As part of BES’s commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist organization, we’ve redefined student outcomes to include multiple measures of student success. While strong academic results are a critical component of an excellent school, BES believes that character and human development are equally as integral to preparing students for success in college, career, and a lifetime of opportunity. 

Given the longstanding inequities and racial injustice that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19, it’s more important than ever for school leaders to prioritize equity, justice, ethics, and character in order to support and protect our country’s most cherished resource: our children. That’s why, as part of the Build Track of the 2021 BES Fellowship, BES is seeking two leaders who are particularly interested in founding schools that will be deeply rooted in character and committed to equity. These schools will have character development at the core of their models (rather than curricular or programmatic add-ons) and will be responsive to the needs of their communities. 

In our annual impact survey sent to BES Fellow-founded schools, 38 schools reported that character formation is a significant element of their curriculum and/or school model at one or more of their campuses, while 40 BES Fellow-founded schools reported the same for social-emotional learning (SEL).

One such school is Purpose Prep in Nashville, which was recently featured on Soledad O’Brien’s Disrupt and Dismantle series currently airing on BET. The episode highlighted the school’s work to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline. This work includes monthly Identity Days where students can celebrate their cultures, backgrounds, and what makes each of them unique.

Purpose Prep students and staff celebrate Identity Day at school prior to the pandemic (via Facebook).

Creo College Prep, founded by 2017 BES Fellow Ben Samuels-Kalow in the Bronx, began its second year of operation virtually. Since schools went virtual in March 2020, Creo has provided its students with 30 minutes of small-group advisories each morning and a daily health and wellness class focused on mindfulness, guided breathing, and yoga practice – especially important during a year when many students have experienced trauma. Students also took part in a social work class, where they met with a social worker, giving each student a safe space to explore their own identity and issues impacting their community.

Creo students safely practice yoga and mindfulness led by Founding Dean of Wellness, Colin Lieu (via Twitter). 

At Memphis Merit (TN), founded by 2017 Fellow Lakenna Booker, students participate in daily character development classes to develop social emotional resources and express their emotions in a healthy way. 

Leaders of diverse-by-design schools often cite the academic, social, and emotional benefits of an intentionally integrated model. Four BES Fellow-founded schools identify as diverse-by-design, including Springfield Lyceum College Prep (MA), an autonomous, in-district school led by 2019 Fellow Robert Acosta. Despite the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, the school opened in September 2020, ensuring that its approximately 380 students would benefit from an intentionally integrated and dual-language model.

This work continues through 2020 Fellow Phillip Hon, who is the founder of Unbound Stockton (CA), a proposed diverse-by-design school in his hometown. Phillip says, “It’s important to me that students learn to celebrate differences among their peers and unpack ideas of division in order to learn and live in an integrated world. This involves helping students develop their personal identity and an understanding of how that relates to broader society. Our school will be an intentionally diverse, welcome, and equitable learning environment reflective of the community we wish to see in the future, ensuring students will experience long-term success in their lives.”

We’ve been energized by the resilience and tenacity school leaders and their teams have shown throughout this year. Though the remaining months of the 2020-21 school year still may not be what any of us had imagined, we are grateful for what has been accomplished to this point, and hopeful for the work that lies ahead.