What Does it Take to Navigate our Education System?

September 19, 2016 by Rebecca Kisner

Photo: Cristina, a Learner Advocate, visits Alma and her son in their home in the summer of 2015

To kick off the 11th season of DK Hot Lunch, we’re hosting EdNavigator, a New Orleans-based nonprofit launched in 2015. EdNavigator supports families as they navigate and engage with the school system. Local employers provide EdNavigator’s services – personalized educational support – as a benefit to their employees. Participating employees (parents) are paired with expert Navigators who “help them choose schools, understand and track their child’s progress, support learning at home, and advocate for their children’s needs.” If this is the first time you’re hearing about EdNavigator, spend some time reading their recent blog series with insights from their first year.

One of the reasons we’re so excited about EdNavigator is because we believe they fill a particular gap in our current landscape: an organization whose primary purpose for existing is to help families support their kids, without being beholden to any single institution or ideology. As they describe themselves, they’re like “a family’s pediatrician, only focused on educational, not physical, health.” They also have a smart and creative business model, which leverages the opportunity for socially-conscious employers to improve the lives of their lower-wage employees with something that’s of critical importance to them: their children’s education. If you’re as intrigued as we are, tune in for Hot Lunch on September 16th with Ariela Rozman and Rameisha Johnson.

But here’s the thing: organizations like EdNavigator are in short supply. Most families are navigating education on their own and as we know, a lot more goes into a student’s success than what’s outlined in a lesson plan each day. Families jump through various hoops in multiple systems on a daily basis to try to get their kids’ needs met, and often times, they don’t.

Imagine having to apply for a health insurance reimbursement to cover the cost of your child’s eye exam and reading glasses, or having to prove your eligibility for Free/Reduced priced lunch in order to secure affordable internet at home. Imagine needing to request time off from work just to show up to your church on the day registration opens for a highly competitive, first-come first-served spot in summer camp. Think about the time and effort it takes to coordinate your daughter’s carpool to and from after-school tutoring, or to set up a meeting to appeal to the principal about switching your son to a different homeroom, so he’ll no longer be anxious about school because of persistent bullying.

The process of achieving any one of these tasks can be painful, and often depends on timing, luck, or superheroes who go far beyond their job descriptions to make the lives of kids and parents easier. But the point is, the system requires that sophisticated degree of navigation for people to be successful.

As these examples illustrate, effectively navigating the system to meet the needs and aspirations of learners is significantly challenging for people across the socioeconomic spectrum. Even the savviest parents with the most social capital affirm how helpful an Advocate would be throughout their journey. While all kinds of people (counselors, teachers, nurses, social workers, coaches, and many more) serve in formal and informal Advocate roles to resolve daily hurdles to success, it’s also important to hold the long view: how can we ensure we’re building the agency of learners and families over time to navigate their own learning and lives with confidence?

For the ReSchool Colorado initiative, we believe in a new age of the Advocate role. In the system we envision that’s built around the learner, an Advocate Network is integral to the learner’s life trajectory. Learners and their families choose into an Advocate Network as their initial act of joining the system, and co-design a path together that meets the learner’s unique and evolving needs across age and circumstance.

One essential function of the Advocate Network is to connect a learner with what we call their “Best Match Learning Home Base.” For the vast majority of kids, this is a school. Our current system is responsible for this task now, although a Home Base is often assigned without choice and is not necessarily the best match for that learner at that time. We believe there are vital activities that must occur before and beyond this matching, starting with a deep understanding of who a learner is and who they aspire to be.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, where we respond to the question: Is supporting success during the school day enough in today’s exciting and complex world of learning?

Contact Rebecca