Prioritizing Community and Belonging in Distance Learning: The Oakland REACH’s City-Wide Virtual Hub

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I came to the Oakland REACH as Chief Program Officer in August 2020, backed by 18 years working in the public school system. The youngest child of Azorean immigrants, I was the first in my family to attend college (my parents had a third-grade education). Though I majored in molecular biology, my passion for social justice and educational equity steered me toward teaching. As a lifelong resident of the Bay Area, I am intimately familiar with the community I serve, and the disparities Black and Brown students face. 

Throughout my career, I yearned to get more involved in systemic education reform. It was in my role as a leadership coach at Educate78 that I initially collaborated with Lakisha Young, the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Oakland REACH. We built the “Literacy for All” campaign, motivated by families voicing concerns about their children’s reading levels; roughly 25% of whom had disabilities. We worked in partnership with the NAACP and several other organizations in Oakland, including the mayor’s office, preschool programs, and the Oakland school district itself to pass a policy ensuring all children through 3rd grade would have access to systematic literacy instruction. 

Three weeks after the policy around literacy instruction passed, the Oakland REACH was planning a summit with teachers, school leaders, and parents across the city. Then, COVID-19 hit. We remained determined to continue having parent voices and needs guide the Oakland REACH’s work; the City-Wide Virtual Hub was born.

“That’s kind of the vision that we have: bringing historically marginalized families out of silence and closer to power and agency in these spaces.”

A Community-Centered Approach

COVID-19 school closures had a dramatic impact on our families. On top of worrying about housing and food stability, parents were concerned about engagement over distance learning (particularly access to quality literacy instruction,) and a lack of community connectedness. Leveraging, and in response to, the rapid normalization of distance learning that happened in the spring of 2020, the Oakland REACH launched a City-Wide Virtual Hub in June 2020 to address these concerns. Our team worked to create a powerful online community where people feel connected and inspired in order to provide a sense of social stability during a particularly fractured time. 

When we started our City-Wide Virtual Hub, the Oakland Unified School District was reporting a 35% attendance rate in their distance learning programs, and we hoped to change that through the virtual learning hub. We wanted to create our program based on the vision of school being organized around the family, rather than the school system or individual students. We put our families front and center in our approach, engaging families in each step, from design to advocacy.

Phase 1 of the City-Wide Virtual Hub consisted of a five-week summer program with over 200 students. The Hub served families and students in K-8 grades across three centers: the Literacy Liberation Center (LLC), serving our K-2nd grade students, the National Summer School Initiative (NSSI), serving 3rd-8th grade students, and the Family Sustainability Center (FSC). The Family Sustainability Center provides parents with socio-economic and academic workshops and resources so that they can thrive and not just survive. The LLC and NSSI are disability-agnostic, meaning having or not having a disability was not a criterion for the programs. 

The Oakland REACH leveraged relationships and knowledge from the Literacy for All campaign to design intentionally community-centered and culturally sustaining instruction. We hired primarily Black and Brown local educators for our programs, reflecting the populations we serve, and conducted daily morning meetings to build relationships with students. We closed each day with a read-aloud book featuring a protagonist of color, written by an author of color. Our programs are done in small groups, with six or fewer students, oftentimes less. The teachers are able to really understand individual students’ needs, and design instruction to meet them in a different way than when you’re in a classroom with 30 kids.  The opportunity for that specially designed instruction, which often is only available to students with disabilities, was something we were able to offer to ALL of our students.

Harnessing the Power and Potential of Virtual Learning

The Oakland REACH used Google Classroom and input from families to design our City-Wide Virtual Hub, reaching over 200 students via live virtual instruction during the summer of 2020. We implemented programming based on what families need, and as a result, we generated high satisfaction ratings—when surveyed at the end of the summer, 93% of our families shared that they felt their kids were learning.

COVID-19 underscored what our community already knew about inequities and power dynamics within education, especially for students with disabilities. We saw an opportunity to bring the community together while shifting fundamental power dynamics. Recently, we had 125 families show up to our virtual community event, which would have been an impossible number just two years ago. We’ve normalized this very powerful online community where people feel connected and inspired. During a recent meeting of 120 parents, a mother expressed her worry that her child with a disability would fall behind on his reading this summer. It takes courage to share like that and be vulnerable—we created this space for people to ask and share and to be their whole selves.

“You cannot just focus on the big systemic issues, and not address that Johnny’s not getting taught how to read tomorrow.”

Leveraging Their Seat at the Table

As the Oakland REACH prepares for the return to in-person school in the fall of 2021, I plan to look closely at developing internal metrics for student growth within City-Wide Virtual Hub. Analysis from our K-2nd grade program last summer was promising: 2-3 months of growth, on average for every student, and no massive opportunity gaps between groups. By next year, we hope to have 100 parents as literacy teachers in our schools teaching their babies how to read and running their own reading centers in their communities. A year from now, we hope to launch our math and technology training institute to focus on internally developing our own core teachers in programs.

I hope to translate the Oakland REACH’s online community to physical neighborhoods, by connecting families who live near each other and providing space for them to engage outside the organization. I recognize the impact the Oakland REACH has had both on individual families and at City Hall. Before COVID, we were a parent advocacy organization working for policy changes, asking for things we thought we might get. Now, we’re in a position where we can create the programs we’ve been hoping to get from the system. We create them so well, now the system is inviting us inside as leaders and models for the programs our children need. 

There is a delicate balance between system-wide policy shifts and the urgent needs of the students who fall behind the longer these changes take. If we think about individual students, we know every day of instruction matters. As much as we want long-term shifts in systems and policies, our City-Wide Virtual Hub has an immediate impact for families. It completely changed the experiences families and students have around literacy instruction and student engagement. In Oakland in particular, there are leaders really focused on system-level issues in education, and some of those people are totally disconnected to what’s happening tomorrow in John’s class—and to be honest, most people don’t believe that what happens tomorrow even matters. Some people only focus on large societal issues like poverty and economic inequality as the only issues that matter, which we do believe are so important to address. But, you cannot just focus on the big systemic issues, and not address that John’s not getting taught how to read tomorrow.  


What We Learned/Big Takeaway

Back in the day, we were in the boardroom arguing for what we wanted, and now the superintendent meets with us every two weeks. We’re in six schools, and every committee you can think of at the district level. We are the model for parent advocacy and parent agency in this city because we designed what we knew our community needed instead of waiting for someone else to design and build it. The mayor knows who we are—we are a major power broker now. That’s kind of the vision that we have: bringing historically marginalized families out of silence and closer to power and agency in these spaces. It’s not because we’re asking for things, it’s because we have a seat.

What We Are Still Figuring Out

We want to be more intentional with the programs we design and supports we provide. At first, we were trying to get really great programs across the board that would serve any kid regardless of their needs, but with more kids joining, we need to be more intentional to design programs that meet our community’s specific needs, such as students developing their English proficiency. One such need that we heard and reacted immediately to support concerned the rights of families in the special education process. See the accommpanying video to learn more about how we are helping empower families as they navigate the special education process for their child or children.

What I Would Tell Other Leaders

 Prioritize creating a sense of belonging and community for families.


A literacy advocate supports or speaks out for someone else’s educational needs or rights in reading, writing, and language. As a family member, you know your child best. You have seen your child’s literacy skills progress over time. You can embrace your role as an advocate and learn how to work together with your child’s school toward common goals.
The Toolkit of Resources for Engaging Families and the Community as Partners in Education is a four-part resource that brings together research, promising practices, and useful tools and resources to guide educators in strengthening partnerships with families and community members to support student learning. The toolkit defines family and community engagement as an overarching approach to support family well-being, strong parent-child relationships, and students’ ongoing learning and development. The primary audiences for this toolkit are administrators, teachers, teacher leaders, and trainers in diverse schools and districts. Part I is designed to guide educators into building awareness of how their beliefs and assumptions about family and community engagement influence their interactions with families and the community and how knowledge about the demographic characteristics of the families in their schools can. inform educators about what might support or hinder family engagement with schools.
How to connect with families, build partnerships, and establish strong communications.
When it comes to literacy instruction that fosters students’ word recognition and language comprehension skills, the need for strong organizational and instructional school leaders is greater than ever. Research shows that principals and other school leaders are integral to improving student achievement and retaining quality teachers. Effective school leaders use a continuous improvement process to evaluate, build, implement, and sustain evidence-based literacy practices.

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