Keys to concentration: Why meeting basic needs means everything for kids in school

By Melissa Rayworth

Last year, a group of girls who were A and B students suddenly found themselves struggling to pass their classes. Their public school in Pittsburgh was shuttered because of the pandemic. But remote learning itself wasn’t the problem.

These bright sixth- and seventh-graders, all from Somali Bantu families, were caring for younger siblings and doing schoolwork in stolen moments. Their parents were busy trying to earn enough to keep bills paid. There wasn’t always enough to eat, and this crisis had no end in sight.

Fortunately, Pittsburgh’s learning ecosystem kicked in: Their principal collaborated with A+ Schools Pittsburgh, which connected with the United Methodist Church Union, the United Way and the Dept. of Human Services to create a Learning Hub right near the girls’ homes.

In a safe place that they and their families trusted, these students could concentrate on learning while their siblings were cared for by adults, explains James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools. And they’d have healthy food for breakfast and lunch, relieving some of the burden on their parents.

With these immediate needs met, these students soon got back to learning.

The H.O.P.E. for Tomorrow Learning Hub provides a home base for remote learning during the pandemic. | Photo by Ben Filio for Remake Learning

Beginning with the basics

Groundbreaking work is happening in Pittsburgh to transform teaching and learning. But among the truths laid bare by the pandemic is this: Even the most brilliant learning innovations won’t amount to much if a learner’s basic needs aren’t met.

America understands this in the context of food. The National School Lunch Program began in 1946 and has fed children ever since. In fact, research conducted between 2003 and 2018 found that many kids get better quality food at school than from other sources.

“Food insecurity has doubled during this pandemic,” says Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue. Many families are facing food insecurity for the first time, so they don’t know where to get support. Schools play a big role in helping these families.

But Lizarondo points out that healthy food is just one of the basic needs that must be met in order for students to concentrate — and hopefully succeed ­— in school. They need to feel safe, accepted for who they are and represented in their school communities in order to thrive.

“There is a growing understanding of how powerful the need is for all students, particularly students of historically marginalized populations, to feel seen, heard, and valued within their learning environment,” says Kristen Johnson, intermediate school assistant principal at South Fayette Township School District.

Johnson recently connected a Black elementary schooler with a Black teacher, because she realized the boy had interacted only with white teachers. It took just a few phone calls to make this connection happen, but the positive impact could echo through this child’s school years.

Many schools aim to teach the “whole child” and develop student agency, Johnson says. More recently, they are “reexamining those concepts with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom.”

Whether for students of color, LGBTQ students or others, this shift in thinking can be valuable.

This is something Fred Rogers explored decades ago to create “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In the new book “When You Wonder, You’re Learning,” co-authors Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski cite research done in the 1970s that established a clear link between feelings of safety and the ability to be curious and learn new things.

Students who feel discriminated against have a harder time learning than students who feel accepted. Even small steps can help. Johnson says South Fayette has added more diverse picture books to classroom libraries. They’ve also begun using a series of questions to review instructional materials and resources.

“Teachers have always wanted to create lessons that support their learners,” she says, “but now there is a dedicated time, space, and process for these important conversations. They can talk to their colleagues about specific lessons: Who is represented? Who is not? Does this experience value the dignity of all community members?”

Local teens tell the Tomorrow campaign that they’re glad some districts are taking these steps. But they challenge all schools to do better.

“There’s progress to be made and I don’t think, especially in bigger school districts, that it’s sometimes even on their radar,” says Lauren Smith, a senior at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy.

Alexander Zielinski, a sophomore at Valley Junior/Senior High School in New Kensington, agrees: Although representation and acceptance are incredibly important, schools “don’t see it as a basic need. Because as long as you’re breathing and able to do some sort of work, you should be okay,” he says. “Which is certainly not okay.”

He points out that for students who feel unsafe at home, “school is their safety haven. And if their school is not going to support them, then they’re going to have to go through hell each and every day, no matter where they are.”

The expanding definition of basic needs: Learners need experiences that affirm their identity and experiences as much as they need food, technology access, and safe spaces to learn. | Photo by Ben Filio for Remake Learning.

Communication and collaboration

 Lizarondo and Fogarty, who have collaborated on projects to bring food from schools to bus stops to reach students during the pandemic, agree that communication is step one. Schools must ask what students and parents need, rather than assuming they know.

During the early days of Pittsburgh’s Learning Hubs, organizers held food truck events to help feed local families. At those events, they talked with individual parents and caregivers about what else their families needed.

Data has shown that parental engagement in learning has grown since the pandemic began. What if schools seized this moment to really forge relationships with families to make sure basic needs are being met? Schools can also communicate directly with community groups, which are often closely connected to local families and understand their needs, Lizarondo says.

Once we know what a given learner needs, the next step is helping in targeted ways.

Meeting learners’ basic needs often requires many different homegrown solutions, rather than one pre-planned, large-scale fix. If funds can be given to trusted partners for use at their discretion, Fogarty says, “we can get much more granular about addressing the needs of families and students. But it takes some digging.”

The pandemic has made the need for this work even more visible. The question is: How will we respond to it?

“Sometimes in times of crisis, leadership reverts to what’s familiar so that it’s easy to feel like we’re doing something, rather than try to do something new that’s actually going to work. It’s comfortable to go back to the same systems,” Lizarondo says. “But doing more of something that was insufficient in the first place is not going to solve the problem.”

This article is part of a series for “Tomorrow” powered by Remake Learning. “Tomorrow” will explore – through virtual events, grantmaking, and storytelling – what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Follow along or share your hopes for today’s young people using the hashtag #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning. Learn more about Remake Learning here. And read more “Tomorrow” articles published on Kidsburgh.