The products of a prototype: ReSchool Colorado’s efforts at systemic change writ small

The folks at ReSchool Colorado have big changes in mind for education in the Centennial State. In the works since 2013, this project of the Donnell-Kay Foundation aims to imagine a new education system that “pushes the boundaries of current thought and practice, and better prepares learners to be happy, productive, and healthy people and professionals.” The group has spent the last two years searching for breakthrough innovations through small, discreet projects they call prototypes. The outcomes of these prototypes are meant to inform a redesign of the larger education system in 2016.

A detailed new article gives us a nuts-and-bolts look at one of these prototypes. In this case, the scale was very small: nineteen low-income immigrant families with young children living in Boulder public housing. The objective was to provide everything that these families might need to access high-quality educational enrichment experiences: trips to zoos and museums, swimming lessons, and the like. In short, the kinds of out-of-school activities that rich suburban parents tend to take for granted. The ReSchool team provided, among other things, funding via debit cards (mini-vouchers) to pay for the activities; detailed information guides geared to the knowledge level of the families (meeting them where they are); and readily available multi-lingual assistance (paid advocates) to do advance work, answer questions, and eliminate roadblocks at all points in the process.

The article is not about whether the enrichment activities enhanced the kids’ pre-K education, but about the systemic barriers that had to be overcome. Fees, transportation, information, Spanish-language services, technology flaws, and more all had to be negotiated in various ways to make these opportunities accessible to poor families. The takeaways can then inform a larger and more universal system that would remove those identified speed bumps—and provide more of the previously missing on-ramps—to educational opportunity.

So what were they? First, recruitment and enrollment of participants in a system must be user-centered, and the process must be built on trust among all parties. Second, information and communication must work in all directions in the system (between program leaders, end-users, and advocates) and occur at several points in the process. Third, the supply of activities must be dynamic, especially when demand is being actively courted; a low-quality activity with a vacancy is not an adequate replacement for a high-quality activity with a waiting list. Fourth, easy-to-understand guidelines for spending on activities, real-time tracking of participant expenditures, and user-focused troubleshooters are vital for the proper functioning of the fiscal aspects of the system. And finally, tools and resources for both users and system monitors/advocates must be easily accessible, understandable, and dynamic.

If these conclusions sound familiar, it is because they are similar to the structures some say are needed for successful implementation of initiatives like course choice, education savings accounts, and centralized application and enrollment systems. That ReSchool Colorado has found the same needs in a small-scale, bottom-up program is telling indeed.

SOURCE: Alan Gottlieb, “Opportunity to learn,” Write. Edit. Think. LLC, Denver, CO, October, 2015. 

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,