Why Schools Should Embrace Flexibility and Innovation Beyond COVID-19

More options for learning can benefit all students, especially working teenagers

October 26, 2020

In many families where parents have lost jobs to the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers are helping out where they can: working or earning money under the table, watching younger siblings so parents can look for work, or taking on other responsibilities beyond their years.

But even before the pandemic, many young people were already contributing to their households.

“Young people are fundamentally a part of their family economy,” said Molly Scott, principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “Sometimes that means working…sometimes it’s trying to hold down the infrastructure of the family so other people can work.”

Doing so, though, might cause students to miss classes and fall behind. Traditional education isn’t built with their needs in mind.

“A lot of our systems are built with a middle-class mindset where young people don’t have to earn money or take care of adult responsibilities,” Scott said. “And if students struggle with school because they’re also working or helping out at home, we brand them as bad or not promising, and that seems incredibly unfair.”

Some schools and programs offer innovative options to support working students. Those options can also support those with personal challenges—bullying, illness, problems at home—that can make it hard to be in school or on a rigid schedule. Scott and her coauthors compiled best practices from several innovative schools in Making Education and Employment Work for High School Students, a toolkit of policy and practice recommendations to support young people with adult responsibilities.

But it wasn’t until COVID-19 that these options became more mainstream. Overnight, schools had to explore new education strategies, such as online classes, self-guided learning, virtual check-ins, and a greater focus on demonstrated proficiency rather than time in class, as Scott described in the toolkit. Although these changes have not been perfected and are not ideal for many students, this pivot speaks to schools’ capacity to change course and give students more control over their time.

Can schools retain these options for students who need them, even after the pandemic? Can they learn from existing efforts to support students with adult responsibilities? Doing so could benefit all students by offering greater flexibility, valuing demonstrated skills, and better aligning education with work.

Greater flexibility and more options for how to learn

In fall 2018, her sophomore year at Maryland’s Richard Montgomery High School, Karla Hernandez Martinez worked full time as a McDonald’s cashier so she could save money for college. On weekdays, she would go to school during the day and then cover a 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. shift; on weekends, she worked overnight from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Her schedule left little time for sleep, homework, or any break. She found herself skipping meals because she had no time to eat.

When she became pregnant the following February, the pressure and motivation to earn money grew but so did the risks of her unhealthy schedule.

Through TAWS, Karla Hernandez Martinez focused only on the credits she needed to finish high school, allowing her to graduate a year early while staying home to care for her son David.

Through TAWS, Karla Hernandez Martinez focused only on the credits she needed to finish high school, allowing her to graduate a year early while staying home to care for her son David. Taking classes online “helped me a lot because it gave me some time to be with my son while I was in school and without having to worry about who could babysit.”

Fixed school schedules, seat time requirements, and the pressure schools face to meet four-year graduation rates can work against students who support themselves, help support their families, or need flexibility to handle any number of challenges. Even if a student only needs two classes to graduate, from a traditional standpoint, they would still need to carry a full class load.

“The idea of being in school for seven periods a day—I think it’s a little outdated,” said Dynesha E. Brooks, a counselor at Maryland’s Wheaton High School.

Schools in neighborhoods with lower incomes may have the greatest number of students who need to work or need to contribute to parents’ work effort, but those schools are often under the most pressure to meet attendance targets tied to funding—and therefore have the least amount of flexibility to offer. The funding model magnifies inequities for students with lower incomes, who are also disproportionately students of color. 

"Give [students] more power over their time.…I know a lot of students who need to work because they need to help their parents or are on their own."

Karla Hernandez Martinez

Instead, as Scott’s report says, schools could consider spreading classes out over a full year; offering more options for ways to learn, including online; flexible scheduling; giving academic credit for on-the-job work and other real-life experiences; doing away with attendance-based school funding models; and measuring learning through demonstrated proficiency or competency rather than hours of seat-time.

“Give [students] more power over their time,” Hernandez Martinez, now 17, said. If students have “the option to go to school online, give them that option. I know a lot of students who need to work because they need to help their parents or are on their own. Having that option is a big relief.”

But it’s not only working students who could benefit. COVID-19 has forced all schools into a nationwide experiment with remote learning. And though the transition has been difficult for many students—perhaps most—some have thrived. When done right, students can work at their own pace. They may get more sleep or be less distracted by the social stresses of school. Some schools don’t require that students attend classes remotely if they get work done on their own time. Although online classes and self-guided work are not ideal for all, having options could be a game changer for some.

“Going to school is ideal for many, many people, but some people just really hate it,” said Ellen Fellows, a counselor at Maryland’s Seneca Valley High School. “They would prefer to be online, and we didn’t have a lot of online opportunities” before the pandemic.

How one Maryland school district supports working students

Knowing how difficult it was for Hernandez Martinez to juggle work and school, her counselor suggested she join a Montgomery County Public Schools program called TranZed Academy for Working Students (TAWS). Launched in fall 2018, TAWS is not a separate school, but rather a case management program that works with the county’s high schools and students to create flexible schedules for students with jobs (whether they attend classes in school, online, or a combination), offer online learning options, and provide one-on-one coaching. TAWS also covers community college tuition for students who want to earn college credits that also count toward earning their high school diploma.

In TAWS’s first year, only a handful of students joined, but as Program Manager Demetra Crawford made inroads with school counselors, participation grew. The following year, 70 students participated.

“We’re more an expansion of a support circle than an independent program,” said Mikkia Cordle, a TAWS career coach. “Most of [the students] need to know that there’s someone who cares. They’re good students, with all these other distractions in life.…They really just need someone to support them along the way.”

TAWS career coaches also work with students’ employers and mentor students on job skills while preparing them for life after high school—whether that’s college, an apprenticeship, or a career. When COVID-19 hit, TAWS staff were a support line for students who were feeling isolated and uncertain. Cordle said she would call or FaceTime with students frequently, even just to remind them to go out for a walk.

Roderick Dreher, who attended Maryland’s James Hubert Blake High School, was part of the program’s first class in 2018. Dreher took online classes through TAWS his senior year and worked part time. Doing so gave him the flexibility to walk his younger sister to the bus stop in the morning, allowing his mom to get to work on time and his stepfather to care for Dreher’s older brother, who lives with a disability after an accident years ago.

“My mom, she just really trusted me,” Dreher, 19, said. “She just really counts on me.…There’s a lot going on right now with my brother, so I help her when she needs help.”

In his last year of high school, Roderick Dreher worked as a server at Riderwood Village, a senior-living community in Silver Spring, Maryland. He’s now a sophomore at Coppin State University.

In his last year of high school, Roderick Dreher worked as a server at Riderwood Village, a senior-living community in Silver Spring, Maryland. He’s now a sophomore at Coppin State University. “When you have a job, you become more financially aware of things. And I don’t think school really teaches you that.”

TAWS is one model for offering flexibility and support in mainstream schools, along with dual-enrollment programs and other innovative models. But breaking from the traditional way of doing things can be met with resistance.

“These types of programs can be incredibly beneficial for a lot of kids,” said Burke Oleszewski, a counselor at Maryland’s Springbrook High School. But “a lot of the school districts in this country are still working on that traditional, seven-classes-a-day…all four years of high school. They may not be as willing to change or provide these options for kids, even though it can work wonders for them.”

For a program like TAWS to work, counselors and teachers must be able to identify which students need extra support. But many school systems have too few counselors, a punitive focus on truancy, and no clear coordinated strategy to identify and support stressed students before they’re at risk of dropping out.

Solutions such as monitoring chronic absences and intervening early, strengthening the relationships between staff and students, establishing support systems outside of school hours, and partnering with nonprofits and government agencies can help identify students in need, understand their challenges, and stretch a school’s capacity. Ultimately, solutions at the school level also need to be supported by federal and state policy reforms (policy recommendations are described in more detail in Scott’s toolkit).

Valuing job skills and preparing teenagers for adulthood

When Cristal Lopez-Chaupard was in 7th grade, she wanted a job—and not just a job but all the adult responsibilities that come with a job. She dreamt of building her credit, filing her taxes, and giving her first paycheck to her mom. Her mom raised six kids alone, cleaning office buildings and working at restaurants, and Lopez-Chaupard wanted to help pay the family’s bills.

“I knew that being in high school and being a kid wasn’t going to last forever, and I wanted to be prepared for that,” Lopez-Chaupard, 18, said.

As a high school senior, Cristal Lopez-Chaupard worked full time as a legal assistant and took classes at Montgomery College at night, with help from Montgomery County’s TAWS program.

As a high school senior, Cristal Lopez-Chaupard worked full time as a legal assistant and took classes at Montgomery College at night, with help from Montgomery County’s TAWS program. “My mom is a single mom of six kids and I just wanted to lift the burden off of her.”

So she turned to YouTube. She watched videos about 401(k)s and W-2s and budgeting—financial education she thinks should be mandatory in school. When she was 17, she started applying to jobs at retail stores, restaurants, day care centers, and doctor’s offices, hoping a hiring manager would see her potential in a résumé listing little more than her AP classes and a summer volunteer gig in middle school.

One of those attempts paid off. Lopez-Chaupard applied for a paralegal position in Gaithersburg, Maryland—and though she didn’t have enough experience for that job, the law firm offered her a job as a legal assistant. She began working full time in summer 2019, before her senior year at Clarksburg High School. Through TAWS, she continued working full time during the school year and took dual-enrollment classes at Montgomery College at night.

“It’s hard going to school and working full time…but at the end of the day, I just kind of think, ‘I’m supporting my family and I’m getting an education’…so this is good,” she said. “And that’s just kind of what I kept in my head day to day.”

“They have so much to contribute and are so hardworking and so stretched beyond their years.…It would be great to value them for that and not just see it as a handicap.”

Molly Scott

Students who juggle work and school—like Lopez-Chaupard—demonstrate qualities that schools and employers should be encouraging, Scott said, like responsibility, initiative, problem-solving, resilience, time management, and adaptability. Work-based learning could be better integrated in requirements for a diploma, signaling that schools value those skills.

“They have so much to contribute and are so hardworking and so stretched beyond their years,” Scott said of these students. “It would be great to value them for that and not just see it as a handicap.”

Not all students work to contribute to family finances. Some work to save for college; some want a head start on their careers; and some thrive better in a work situation, learning on the job instead of in school. Schools could do more to connect education and work and help teenagers find paid work and apprenticeships.

“Elevating the role of work through the school lens is a significant shift,” said Duane Arbogast, chief of strategy and innovation for The Children’s Guild Alliance and TAWS’s founder. “[Schools] don’t really ask kids if they work. They don’t ask kids where they work.…All of the accountability and all of the identity culture of school is ‘Kids have to go to college.’…There are very few incentives for schools to elevate the work experience as valued.”

Some states offer promising examples of how to equitably scale paid youth apprenticeship programs and work-based learning. For example, Maryland makes it easier for students to access apprenticeships and jobs by allowing them to release certain test scores to employers as they would to colleges and the military.

An opening for change

In Lopez-Chaupard’s embrace of adult responsibilities are flashes of the teenager she still is. Her YouTube videos are a creative outlet, confessional and chatty, like she’s talking to an old friend. Under the guise of hair and make-up tutorials, she talks about her job search struggles, racial equity, and what it’s like to grow up poor.

Six months into her job at the law firm, Lopez-Chaupard was promoted. She’s on track to finish her associate’s degree a year early and transfer to a four-year university, with law school in her sights. Roderick Dreher, now a sophomore at Coppin State University, is studying biology and has plans to go to medical school. Karla Hernandez Martinez, who lives with her partner and their son David, is attending Montgomery College and plans to study nursing.

Their successes were hard fought, and not fought alone, but every student could benefit from the same options they were given.

Scott hopes the options and flexibility schools have offered in response to COVID-19 creates an opening for change. Even once the pandemic has ended, Arbogast from the TAWS program expects that maybe 10 percent of students will never return to school, having realized that remote learning is a better option for them. It’s also possible that more students may have to work because their parents are now unemployed, making the need for solutions more pressing.

“The pandemic has really put the need for greater innovation and flexibility in the spotlight,” Scott said. “Hopefully, the will and capacity to explore new ways of learning will carry over into more permanent reforms once schools emerge from these extraordinary circumstances.”