With families and communities across the country struggling with the start of a school year like no other, COVID-19 has been especially challenging for those living in the most under-resourced communities.
For schools already hit by limited funds, teacher shortages and few online resources, COVID has shined a bright spotlight on the inequities.
Foundations like the Golden Apple in Chicago were formed years ago to help bridge such gaps in education.
Now, they too are finding today’s environment of racial unrest coupled with the economic and health crisis caused by COVID pushing the traditional educational system into a new world filled with both challenges and opportunities.
“It’s all coming together at once—a confluence of events,” Golden Apple President Alan Mather says of the unprecedented back-to-school challenges.
He sees the biggest stresses on the system as a shortage of teachers; a lack of digital devices and Wi-Fi access among low-income students; and teachers unprepared to use online teaching tools.
“The biggest part of what we do is prepare teachers to go into schools of need and have a real impact on student learning,” says Mather. “Often these schools are the hardest to staff. In the fall of 2019, long before COVID, there were 1,800 teaching positions unfilled in Illinois.”
Nationwide, pre-COVID, the Economic Policy Institute had projected there would be 200,000 vacancies in American K-12 schools by 2025.
Golden Apple Foundation, a William Blair community partner, was founded 35 years ago to award teachers and school leaders for excellence in teaching and leadership. Award recipients play an important role in preparing the next generation of teachers by providing instruction and mentorship through the Golden Apple Scholars program.
The program is designed for high school and college students to become highly effective teachers in the most challenged schools in Illinois, filling teacher vacancies. Scholars mirror the diversity of the students they are teaching. These future teachers participate each summer in the Scholar Institute—a critical component of the scholars program. Participants meet on Illinois college campuses for intensive classwork and skill development to teach in a variety of school settings—urban, suburban, and rural.
Due to COVID, this year the three-week institute went virtual for the first time. More than 800 scholars gathered online, working with over 100 instructional coaches, school leaders, master teachers and mentors. Scholars also taught students attending summer school virtually.
“As we innovated, we’re pleased that our scholars actually gave us higher marks this year than we received last year on our professional development,” says Alicia Winckler, Golden Apple CEO.
That is not to say that teachers want to teach in a totally virtual world, she adds. In-person teaching remains the most effective method to observe and engage with children.
“But there is a sense of optimism about the virtual possibilities,” Winckler adds. “There’s no question that COVID-19 is going to be a step change in how we work together, how we collaborate, how we do school and engage. The foundation is committed to evolving its teacher programs to meet the needs of students now and in the future.”
Partners in learning
Golden Apple also partners with organizations to bring the best practices and most current resources to its scholars so they are prepared to excel in today’s and tomorrow’s classroom—whether that’s face-to-face or online.
Among those partners is Chicago nonprofit LEAP Innovations, a leader in providing personalized educational tools for use in the classroom or remote learning. LEAP’s ed-tech tools vary from grade to grade, subject to subject, allowing students to work independently or in groups. Feedback to teachers is immediate so they can spot needs and progress.
“The challenge is to take those same products—if they were already being used in the classroom—and shift the practices online remotely,” Mather says. "When students are familiar with ed tech, it makes it that much easier to transition to the virtual online environment.”