Our DC Public School Partnership Program creates and guides partnerships between DC public schools and local law firms and businesses, which provide tutoring, mentoring, and other much needed educational services and support. Through its 56 partnerships, this program benefits more than 12,000 DC public school students, and focuses on public schools serving students of color and students who are low-income. This program is a critical piece of our work to fight for education justice and to close the gaps in learning opportunities so all students can thrive. It also is an opportunity for law firms and businesses to learn about the many persistent inequities in the school system, and work with school communities to advocate for systemic change.
The closure of the schools due to COVID-19 in the Spring of 2020 and inadequate plans and uneven execution for remote learning from that time and throughout the 2020-2021 School Year widened the educational opportunities gap and could have generational consequences for Black and Brown students. The racial wealth gap and income disparities in the District, and the high rates of poverty among families of color, mean that students of color are much less likely to have access to computers or other devices at home and a high-speed internet connection necessary to make remote learning meaningful. In addition, Black and Brown students are more likely to have parents who are essential workers who must be out of the home during the day and are less available during school hours to provide assistance, and often older students will have child care responsibilities for younger siblings and/or may be working significant hours weekly in order to help their families try to make ends meet. Food insecurity and housing instability caused by the COVID-19 recession compounded learning challenges. The District physically closed its schools in March 2020 and for most of the 2020-2021 school year, and did not have plans in place to ensure that its most vulnerable students were served. Parents with means were able to purchase laptops, have strong Wi-Fi, and hire tutors or form home schooling pods, keeping their children’s education on track. Low-income families in Black and Brown communities did not have those options. A lost year of robust learning opportunities will impact these students’ success in school and limit their future options.
As access to virtual learning resources became even more vital for students, our DC Public School Partnership Program remained a critical way for students to gain access to education. Many of our partnerships worked to fill persistent technology gaps for their schools, purchasing at wholesale prices more than $65,000 worth of laptops, tablets, hotspots, headphones, cases, keyboards, and related equipment for schools who needed them. While the pandemic limited what our partnerships could do in-person with their school communities, many partnerships working with established literacy, law, civics, history, geography and other academic programs were able to continue tutoring, mentoring and coaching through online meeting and other platforms.
In this time of crisis in our schools, where students of color are much more likely to attend schools in historically disinvested neighborhoods with fewer resources and significantly less access to health care, the School Partnership Program has prioritized getting needed supplies and supports in the hands of teachers, parents, and students. School Partnership firms Hogan Lovells, Faegre Drinker, Holland & Knight and Beveridge & Diamond supported back to school events in Ward 7 and 8 that provided school supplies for students and teachers, and just as importantly, also provided vaccinations and immunizations for families, including answers to questions and information about the shots. The two Ward-wide events were coordinated by DC State Board of Education representatives and DC Councilmembers.
The School Partnership Program, in conjunction with Georgetown University Law Center’s Street Law program, also introduced a new way to introduce civil rights education to young people. As part of its 12-year Public School Partnership with Garfield Elementary School in Ward 8, Paul Hastings worked with Georgetown Street Law to provide civics and civil rights education to Garfield students in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades during Garfield’s Summer Acceleration Program. Throughout the three-week program, Georgetown Street Law volunteers Professor Charisma Howell and Teaching Fellow Mia O’Dell led discussions with the students about fairness, rights and responsibilities, with assistance from Paul Hastings volunteers Ian O’Keefe, Kristin Roe and Constance Stallings. The children were able to engage with these issues via age-appropriate materials, including stories, arts activities and lively class discussions. The program was a great success and gave students, volunteers and teachers some much-needed in-person interactions around important issues of social justice in and positive way. Garfield’s Principal, Kennard Branch, is excited to continue this kind of project-based, learner-centered education for all of his students going forward at such a critical time.