Prioritizing Adult Learners on the Path to Attainment

Sheryl Hart, David Drennon, Diane Ryan

While discussions about educational attainment often focus on preparing students to pursue degrees or certifications after high school, the fact is, there aren’t enough students in the K-12 pipeline alone to enable us to reach our postsecondary attainment goal. We must also focus on adult learners. More than 600,000 Arizonans over age 25 don’t have a high school diploma, and more than 1.2 million have some college and no degree. With many people looking to reskill or upskill due to the pandemic, now is the time to find strategies and overcome challenges to bring these adults back into higher education.

Sheryl Hart is the Deputy Associate Superintendent for Adult Education at Arizona Department of Education.

David Drennon is a Workforce Strategy Consultant at Arizona Commerce Authority.

Diane Ryan is the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Interim Vice President of Instruction at Yavapai College.

What are you and your education colleagues talking about now that was previously not discussed in education?

Sheryl Hart: One of the primary purposes of adult education under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act has always been to help parents obtain the education and skills that they need to be full partners in the educational development of their children. But since the pandemic, what it means to be involved in your children’s education has changed. Parents, even those with advanced degrees or who are educators, are struggling with this new role right now. We really need to find a way to support parents, especially those who are learning English or who have limited academic experience.

David Drennon: The number one thing right now is digital access. The state was making some inroads on increasing broadband access statewide, but that was disrupted by COVID. At the same time, the pandemic has also helped light a fire on the process of increasing broadband access statewide as soon as possible. Response to the crisis will bring forth innovation to really help people for the long term.

Diane Ryan: Right now, we are talking about short-term programs. We are trying to figure out what we can teach in a semester or less. We want to understand what in our current courses could be delivered over a weekend, for example, to help current working adults reskill or upskill as quickly as possible.

What have been the main challenges adult learners in your community have faced as a result of the pandemic?

Sheryl Hart: The adult education student, generally speaking, is a person with barriers to employment. They may lack a secondary diploma, have low academic skills, are English-language learners, or have low employability skills. That means that these adult learners are probably some of the most vulnerable to job loss, which usually comes with loss of healthcare and can result in homelessness and food insecurity. This can lead to a disruption in their educational process. When people get thrown into survival mode, it becomes difficult for them to make forward progress and work on developing skills they need in order to get ahead.

David Drennon: Folks are having to pivot from where they thought they might be going because the pandemic has impacted so many industries. Adult learners are trying to figure out which industries have the most in-demand jobs. The majority of Americans enrolling in higher education programs today are looking at non-degree and skills training programs. Then, there is the added layer of what to do with their kids, when they need to be both parent and teacher’s aide on top of juggling their current job and training. We need to develop strategies that support these “non-traditional” students who need flexibility and help re-entering postsecondary education.

Diane Ryan: Adult learners are dealing with a lack of time and many unplanned challenges that have been brought about by the pandemic. We are very fortunate at Yavapai College to have a foundation to help our students, and we need to make sure that our students know we have resources to help them. Whether they need help with rent, technology or meals, these unforeseen challenges are impacting the lives of our students. We need community resources and support systems so that adult students can focus on learning without having to worry about necessities like childcare, food, and housing.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities for adult students?

Sheryl Hart: There have always been educational inequities for adult learners. Before the pandemic, there were adults with transportation issues, childcare issues, or irregular work schedules. When we moved everything online, some of the barriers changed. Many of our students have limited or no access to technology or an internet connection, or poor technology skills. These students struggle in this virtual environment.   

David Drennon: Access to broadband has always been a challenge, but it’s even more accentuated during this time. One of the great things the state has been able to do with its broadband initiative is to get access to personal Wi-Fi hotspots.  It’s just part of a robust, multi-faceted solution underway at the Arizona Commerce Authority that will help Arizonans overcome technology barriers.

Diane Ryan: The average age of residents here in Yavapai County is 54. One of the issues no one has talked about is the impact of the social isolation on our adult population, paired with the lack of broadband access and the fear of getting to know technology. At Yavapai College, we have one of the nation’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, and quickly realized online learning was not working for so many of our students. We had to figure out how to get older, adult students online, by overcoming barriers to broadband and computer access. 

Given the economic instability right now, how do postsecondary institutions help graduating students prepare for what comes next?

Sheryl Hart: Adult education programs work closely with community colleges and other training providers to make sure that students have seamless connections to their next steps even after they leave adult education. Our adult education system is investing heavily in partnerships with postsecondary institutions. For example, our students can work toward earning their secondary diploma or improving their English language skills, and at the same time work toward an industry-recognized credential. 

David Drennon: We have worked closely with Maricopa County Community College District to identify skills within the hospitality industry that are transferable across industry sectors where there is demand. Even with our current outlook, the insurance, IT, software, and banking industries have had growth. The number one ask across all these industries is customer service, and you can’t get a better candidate for that than someone from the hospitality industry. So, folks in the hospitality industry need to understand that they bring a really valuable skillset to the table.  

Diane Ryan: Typically, when unemployment goes up, our enrollment goes up, and our enrollment hasn’t gone up. We saw a decline.  We had an uptick in the summer, but we had a decline in enrollment this fall. So, how are we preparing students? I think what we need to focus on is short-term programs, semester or less programs that will lead to some type of employment for adults.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect adult education?

Sheryl Hart:  The adult education system is impacted because, as unemployment rates go up, the need for adult education goes up. But at the same time, state budgets get tight and resources get strained. What may happen, although I hope it doesn’t, is that we have a need to serve more students and we end up with fewer resources to do so.

David Drennon: I think there will be more demand for adult education. We’ll see a wave of people wanting to increase their skillset, wanting to transition to new industries for their future, and with that comes quite a bit of training.

Diane Ryan: During the 2009 Great Recession, the school I worked at put picnic benches in classrooms, because we didn’t have enough seats for students. We’re not seeing that this time, and it is concerning. The uncertainty is causing fear for too many people.  

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Sheryl Hart: The adult educators in the local communities who are committed to meet the needs of their students. I know of teachers who are printing materials and then dropping them off for students who don’t have access to online instruction, and, at the same time, they are teaching other students via Zoom. The level of dedication from these educators are has been very inspiring.

David Drennon: I would say probably the person who inspires me the most is Sandra Watson, President & CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority. She has remained so strong through this entire pandemic. She has kept the focus on what the Arizona Commerce Authority does well – strengthening  businesses and creating quality jobs, important to moving Arizona forward. 

Diane Ryan: I’m inspired by our K-12 faculty. In higher ed, we scrambled to get a plan together, but fortunately we did. And it hasn’t been easy. But I really have felt for the superintendents in our K-12 system here in Yavapai County. They were provided very little direction in the first five months of the pandemic, and have really had to figure it out themselves.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality?

Sheryl Hart: We can’t reach our Achieve60AZ goal without factoring in the impact adult learners can make towards helping us reach our goal. Adult education and the adult learners are a forgotten system. There’s K-12 and there’s postsecondary. People just want to think that there’s a seamless pathway from K-12 to postsecondary. But the fact is, there are a lot of people in Arizona who do not take that seamless pathway. They are no longer in K-12, but they are not yet able to participate successfully in postsecondary or even in employment. That’s where adult education fits and can be part of the solution.

David Drennon: There is going to be an increase on the training side, I think. There is no better time than now to encourage people to pursue credentials and certification, thereby elevating skillsets in Arizona’s workforce, and to hit fast forward on our efforts to drive toward that 60 percent. We need to remove the hurdles that prevent adults from going back to school, and encourage employers to support their employees in working toward credentials or certifications that could be valuable to both individuals and the organizations they work for. 

Diane Ryan: Short-term programs, flexible schedules, eight-week classes, weekend colleges. We’ve never had a huge workforce training or development program, and I think that’s why the board has made it our priority now. Connecting those short-term programs into some kind of practicum or paid internship for those students once they’re finished with their semester class is going to be critical. 

Exploring the Impact of the Pandemic on Students with Disabilities

Wendy Collison, Marcela Delgado, Aaron Foster, Karla Phillips-Krivickas

Throughout this blog series, we’ve discussed how the pandemic has brought to light the inequities in education among different segments of the population. Students with disabilities face unique and varying challenges, even in the best of circumstances. With remote instruction, some of these students are losing ground on the progress they’ve made socially, emotionally, and academically, while having to adapt to all-new learning models. Experts serving postsecondary students with disabilities, and in the area of special education discuss how issues of accessibility and the switch to online learning has impacted this population of students.  

Wendy Collison is Director of Exceptional Student Services at Phoenix Union High School District.

Marcela Delgado is Director of Operations and Strategic Affairs, SALT Center at the University of Arizona.

Aaron Foster is Director of Consulting and Education at RI International.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas is Senior Director for KnowledgeWorks and the parent of a child with a disability.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities for students with disabilities? 

Wendy Collison: There is something remarkable about the specially-designed instruction that special education teachers deliver to help address academic skills or behaviors. Certain aspects of that instruction are really hard to provide virtually, like physical therapy, braille instruction, even aspects of reading, writing, or mathematics. Despite a lot of effort, creativity, resourcefulness, and collaboration with families and outside agencies, there are just some services that we have not been able to adequately address. We know that some students are regressing and will require compensatory services.. The opportunity for students with disabilities to interact with students without disabilities through inclusive programs like PEOPLE PE, Best Buddies  and Special Olympics has also been further inhibited.

Marcela Delgado: The pandemic is threatening to negatively impact students with disabilities in more ways than one. Depending on the severity of the disability, the required levels and types of support and intervention can vary drastically. The challenges instructors have faced in the transition to remote learning have been significant.  We remain hopeful that the continued professional development offered to instructors through the University of Arizona will increase the likelihood that instructional methods will support all learners and, in doing so, lessen the educational inequities facing students with disabilities.

Aaron Foster: It’s shown that we as a society have not moved forward fast enough to make competing in this new technology world accessible to everybody. Wi-Fi could be available for everyone very easily, and it’s always been put off because people want to debate about it. I think we’re finally making headway in the last six months, but we still have so far to go, especially for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) with disabilities. This is huge.  

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: The pandemic has raised awareness of the educational inequities that have long existed for students with disabilities, and exacerbated them. People are seeing it like never before. One of the issues facing schools is that none of the requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have been waived for COVID. Therefore, they still have to meet all of the procedural requirements and deadlines, which is tough. And the issue of doing some student evaluations online is something that schools are really struggling with. Many of the components of these evaluations are really hard to do over Zoom. Almost impossible. Even the idea of virtual IEPs is a huge source of frustration in the disability community. 

What have been the main challenges students with disabilities in your community have faced as a result of the pandemic?

Wendy Collison: Some of the biggest challenges for students are the lack of executive functioning skills that most developing teenagers don’t have, compounded with a disability. These students have a hard time with task initiation, planning organization, time management, motivation, and resiliency, and now they are learning remotely. The social-emotional aspects — anxiety, depression, social isolation — are also tough. When we made the switch to remote learning, many of our students did not have access to technology or consistent Wi-Fi. While we now provide a device to each student, some of our students still do not get stable internet support. Students are also missing out on the inferential learning that happens inherently in a traditional classroom as they often keep their cameras off and may or may not respond in the ‘chat.’ We must continue to evolve in having truly inclusive and accessible formats.

Marcela Delgado: Adjusting to the new modalities of learning at the University of Arizona has been challenging and intimidating for many of our students. They are working under a completely new structure, which can include issues with adapting to new technology, delayed response times in communicating with instructors, distractions in their new physical spaces, and the loss of community and inability to study in-person with peers. In addition, the unpredictability of the situation can undermine students’ confidence — already challenged by being away from home and familial support.

Aaron Foster: Our students are mainly people who live with serious mental illness and/or substance use, or are in recovery. These people have come from a place of marginalization and stigmatization, and they’re scraping things together just to survive. Now, in order to participate in class, they have to have access to and knowledge about computers and the internet. It’s a huge barrier. On the other end of the spectrum, we have students who live with anxiety or social phobias who had difficulty getting to class before, and now they come to classes all the time virtually because they feel safe in their home environment. 

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: Schools are clearly better equipped than they were in March, but one part that we cannot solve for is the social-emotional interaction that our kids need. And for kids like my daughter, who has Down syndrome, it’s tragic. She’s already developmentally delayed, and not having those peer role models right now is having a detrimental effect on her speech and social progression. 

What are you and your education colleagues talking about now that was previously not discussed in education? 

Wendy Collison: Not only are the ways students engage different right now, but the ways and means to address growth, grading practices, and achievement look different. I think we’ve always had conversations around grief and loss, about healthy choices, healthy responsibilities, healthy habits. But it’s significantly compounded in terms of the depth and the understanding of what’s really going on in the kids’ lives. We have seen an amazing amount of collaboration, creativity and resourcefulness to keep students engaged: YouTube videos, positive posts on social media, and even contests that student clubs and groups put together and stream. Our PXU Expo —an in-person event for future freshmen— was fully virtual this year. And, we had more online enrollments for the 2021-2022 school year! Relationships and connections are critical, now more than ever.

Marcela Delgado: The unique challenges of learning to navigate a university environment are magnified when a student also has learning or attention challenges, whether that be from increased technological demands, remote instruction, or feelings of isolation/confusion. We are particularly focused on working individually with students, ensuring they have the tools they need for academic success, paying particular attention to their mental health. 

Aaron Foster: The conversation has shifted around how we continue to offer apprenticeships, internships, and hands-on skill building in a virtual world. How do you change what has been the system for decades? This is the way it’s done, and now we are thrust into a whole new system and way of doing things. Now we have to figure out how to maintain competency-based learning objectives, how to proctor tests, and how to keep students safe.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: The work I’ve been focusing on nationally since all of this has started is providing schools flexibility to meet the needs of students. Governors signed executive orders and state boards provided waivers to get us through the start of it all, and now we’re hoping that states can begin to shift and see these as long-term changes and not just temporary fixes.

In the shift to remote learning, what have been the outcomes for students with disabilities? 

Wendy Collison: We know for neurotypical kids, the academic regression is real, and we know that for students with disabilities, it’s even harder. We are recognizing that the student achievement gap is increasing, and student engagement in the online setting is a challenge to maintain. The ability to support oral language development, peer-to-peer interaction, and literacy skills has been significantly hampered in a remote setting. At the same time, we have also seen that some students are actually interacting at a greater rate and growing in confidence. It further emphasizes why the “I” in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) matters. I do feel that everything we’ve learned since March will forever change teaching and learning. We are far more equipped now to close the digital divide and teach our kids the skills they are going to need for career, college, and life. 

Marcela Delgado: Most of the support services on campus are 100% virtual. Working and navigating these challenges will help build technological proficiency and confidence. We have also heard from students that they feel more focused and make the most of their time when they are in virtual meetings because they don’t have to worry about hurrying around campus. Many of our students are feeling encouraged about the flexibility in accessing on-demand support like tutoring, educational technology, and psychological services.

Aaron Foster: Outcomes aren’t the purview of the student, they are the purview of the school and the instructors. Outcomes have only shifted as much as we have shifted our ability to serve students in a new way. For example, we are teaching students how to communicate with other people. Some of my instructors didn’t believe they could teach human interaction in a virtual environment, which just put limits on which student outcomes were possible. Now, I’m proud to say every single one of those instructors has turned around — and students are more excited about learning, too.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: If you have little ones or children with disabilities, it’s not remote learning, it’s parent-facilitated learning. Someone has to be there, next to them. One of the interesting outcomes of the whole journey over these past 6 months is that parents have gotten a bird’s eye view of school that they never had before. On the one hand, we dramatically appreciate teachers all the more. But also, I think we’re seeing more clearly the problems that we didn’t know existed. 

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why? 

Wendy Collison: Our teachers are inspiring me every day. Some teachers fought the technology at first and are now so amazing when you see them online. They come to life in a whole different way. They’re really stretching their bandwidth. They’re working tireless hours to come up with any way to connect with kids. My sole focus and my goal is to help them be the best teachers they can be and have the resources they need to do their work and connect with our kids.      

Marcela Delgado: The resiliency we have seen from students and their supportive families has been very encouraging. The unpredictability faced by our entire community can be overwhelming and daunting. When you see students work through their emotional and academic challenges because they tap into their support systems, it is very powerful. We’ve also been inspired by our donors and partners who have recognized the unique challenges SALT Center students are facing right now and are providing the resources to ensure that we can extend our reach. 

Aaron Foster: My teams and the students; I get so inspired when I virtually enter a classroom. There is just so much going on. We had this vision in our head that it was going to be difficult to engage with students and it’s not. That inspires me. 

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: Every mom I know. It’s been hard for all of us to try to juggle work and parenting, and now to try and facilitate our children’s learning. Every mom is a superhero right now in different ways.   

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality? 

Wendy Collison: We’re really trying to teach our students — all of them, but especially students with disabilities — the skills of a Phoenix Union graduate: to be flexible and adaptable, to understand the value of communication and teamwork, and to really persevere through the difficult times. I think if we’re able to build our students up, to teach those soft skills along with academic skills, and then to expand our business community partnerships to be more inclusive and to work alongside us, that would help. We continue to be an innovative district with a portfolio of schools and programs inclusive of students with disabilities. Students can enter our START program at Metro Tech, experience authentic work-based learning in the CityScape towers as part of our Upward and Onward program, take a college course, or continue with our Transitioning Learners to College Program at Phoenix College. By continuing to work with our students to understand their hopes and dreams, engage parents as partners, and work with our schools and business communities, we will get there!

Marcela Delgado: I want to be optimistic that the economy in Arizona will recover in the next few years. A stronger focus on workforce and business development in conjunction with offering more affordable postsecondary education options could move the needle in the right direction. Our students amaze us every day — there’s no doubt that the goal can be reached if we maintain high expectations, provide the kind of support students need, and then step back and watch them shine.

Aaron Foster: There are two ways to look at people when they have extreme challenges with mental health or substance use. You can see them as needing to be fixed and know that statistics say only about 80 percent of them will recover. Or, you can think that while the probability of recovery is 80 percent, they have a 100 percent possibility of achieving that. You can see this person as a whole, I say. I think if we all keep in mind that reaching the goal is 100 percent possible, then yes, we will achieve the goal.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: For the system as a whole, I think Arizona could do well to start thinking past the pandemic. Start thinking about how we can build a system that’s resilient and can weather storms. We need to start thinking past just this immediate crisis and about what schools need for the future. 

Black Leaders Give Their Take on Education in Current Times

Channel Powe, Denise TrimbleSmith, Larry Johnson, Erica Maxwell

Important issues like systemic racism and the lack of equity have been put on the back burner for far too long, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought them to the forefront. We spoke with Black/African American education and community leaders about the issues students face and how the pandemic has affected society as a whole. Though there is a long road ahead for all of us, knowing what needs to be changed is the first step in the right direction.

Channel Powe is a Diversity, Equity, Governance & Inclusion consultant, Governing Board President of Balsz School District, and former President of the ASBA Black Caucus.

Denise TrimbleSmith is Coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Northern Arizona University and CEO of Courageous Conversations, LLC.

Larry Johnson is President of Phoenix College.

Erica Maxwell is Associate Superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for Arizona Department of Education.

What are you and your education colleagues talking about now that was previously not discussed in education?  

Channel Powe: For starters, we are talking about meeting virtually, personal protective equipment, social distancing, following CDC guidelines, face masks, temperature checks, staggered classrooms, online vs. in-person learning, and becoming an Arizona Online Instruction school district to name a few. The pandemic has disrupted traditional teaching and learning and has forced districts to adapt with little concrete guidance from the federal or state level.

Denise TrimbleSmith: The problem is that there was not enough communication for so long. In our state of crisis, there was a lot of talking at and information sharing, but there was no communication. Even at an institution of higher learning, it felt like no one was asking any questions. And when you’re having a conversation with yourself, 99.99% of the time you’re right. And that’s where we fall into trouble.  

Larry Johnson: One of the topics that we are all struggling with is closing the digital divide. When COVID-19 hit, we sought out plans and strategies to provide our students with laptops, just like our colleagues at other institutions. But once students were connected into laptop loaner programs and now had a device, then they did not have access to WIFI or hotspots. We found that the students whom we serve were primarily from first-generation, underrepresented, economically disadvantaged communities. And now they were at a greater risk to not succeed, because they were trying to complete course work with no access to the internet. 

Erica Maxwell: The main issue is the digital divide. There are some districts that can provide students with equipment and devices to combat this, but there is also an issue with technological infrastructure in rural areas across Arizona. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s Tech Task Force is looking at how other states are tackling the digital divide issue in order to help students across our state.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of the pandemic?  

Channel Powe: Our pre-COVID challenges are now exacerbated, hitting our low-income, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and disabled communities the hardest. Speaking from a Title I school district perspective, implicit bias and funding inequities that have longed plagued our system are at an all time high.

Denise TrimbleSmith: What bothers me most about this situation is, why did it take all of this for us to get ourselves together? You cannot rationalize what has happened to us in 2020. I’ve had to have serious and courageous conversations with my daughters about both the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial unrest that our country is experiencing. But this had to happen, because it forces us as human beings to confront the issue and to be courageous.

Larry Johnson: We are taking our most vulnerable students — for example, first generation or economically disadvantaged — and we are now teaching them online. Many of those students originally attended a face-to-face campus because they needed hands-on support. So, the challenge has become, how do we provide tutoring? How do we conduct orientations about applying for financial aid? How do we engage these students with the services they have traditionally accessed on a physical campus?

Erica Maxwell: Schools had to plan for online instruction and a future with a variety of potential scenarios beyond that. With distance learning, schools are still grappling with how to ensure access to technology and online instruction, providing necessary special education services, and meeting the needs of working parents, simultaneously. These uncertainties are not only impacting my professional life, but as a parent and as a member of the black community, which has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, they impact me personally as well.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities for Black students?  

Channel Powe: The pandemic has intensified ongoing systemic educational inequities such as systemic racism; the need for more administrators and teachers of color, who are trauma responsive and share the lived experiences of their students; funding formula inequities; access to learning devices, broadband, and hotspots; school sanitation priorities; food insecurity; researched-based curriculum; increased need for janitors; increased need for bus drivers and routes; school safety; salary inequities; and new roles in districts to address the impacts of the pandemic. Our school district responded with racial equity resources on our webpage, culturally relevant curriculum, and approving a Resolution on the Commitment of Balsz Elementary School District Governing Board to Black Students and Black Lives.

Denise TrimbleSmith: When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, some students had to choose between going home to a very toxic environment or staying on campus to risk being exposed to the virus. Underrepresented students — primarily students of color or students who are only able to live and walk their authentic self at school — are already marginalized. This pandemic put their physical health at risk, and now they have to make decisions to support their mental health as well. 

Larry Johnson: This pandemic really amplified the need for us to think about how we serve our most vulnerable students, who may not have access to digital resources. Our communities of color have certainly been disproportionately impacted. If you look at the national data, it’s typically those students who lag behind other ethnic populations in terms of college readiness when graduating from high school, and readiness to transfer to a postsecondary education. There are noncognitive barriers that impact their success. We saw all of that amplified when we forced students to move into this online platform. 

Erica Maxwell: I am so grateful in so many ways that Superintendent Hoffman had the foresight and the commitment to create my position for a time such as this. In the best of times, we definitely had inequities in outcomes for students of color. Now with COVID-19, those inequities have been magnified, exacerbated, and combusted. We have to work internally as an agency and externally to address the continued inequities and outcomes for students of color, and students in urban, rural, and remote areas across the state.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current graduating students prepare for what comes next during a recession?  

Denise TrimbleSmith: We need to let students know that we don’t have all the answers. Yes, we are the “adults,” and, yes, we are supposed to have this all together. We don’t. I think that more than anything this is a life lesson that can never be forgotten. Our students are going to discover that they are just as resilient as the people that they call mentors or people they look up to. We’re all in this together. Coronavirus is affecting us all in some way, no matter how old we are or how long we’ve been in this game.

Larry Johnson: It is imperative that we as higher education leaders have a close relationship with industry partners. We must know job market projections so we can begin to modify our curriculum. We have to provide the students who are in the pipeline to commit to this academic year with the competencies and training they will need to be prepared for the new workforce. And I do believe that there is going to be a new workforce.  

Erica Maxwell: Getting students college and career ready is still the focus, and that includes providing dual skills to prepare them for income instability that may be a result of the COVID-19. Career exploration is really important so that students can be thinking, “Okay, what does the future look like? What skills will I need? What jobs and what careers will be available for me?”

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect adult education? 

Channel Powe: I’m worried that students will opt to quit school to take care of siblings or work multiple jobs in order to take care of their family’s basic living needs. This will have a negative ripple effect on our local economy and could pose a potential barrier to adult educational opportunities. Experts predict that homelessness in Arizona will increase by 29%. 

Denise TrimbleSmith: This recession is  going to force folks to gain new skill sets in order to open the door to more opportunities. Folks are being laid off, and, while the increase in unemployment insurance helps, they want to go back to work. The pandemic has ultimately given us an opportunity to be more courageous to go back to school, to go get that certificate, or to start a new business. 

Larry Johnson: Typically, when there’s an economic downturn, we see more adults return to school for retooling. They come back to school because they’ve lost a job, they need to obtain a new skill, or maybe because they just want to build upon some of the competencies they’ve already gained from their current career. I believe our adult students will be looking for ways to build upon their current skills or look to another industry that may be in demand. So I would venture to say that we will begin to see an increase in our adult student population because many of the jobs that they’ve worked over the past 15 to 20 years may be phased out in the digital age.

Erica Maxwell: There might be a shift in career paths, and the need to complete a GED or postsecondary education certifications and/or coursework may become greater due to the projection of the types jobs that are going to be available or in demand.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?  

Channel Powe: I’m inspired by my faith because I know that systemic change is possible. Both my son and my grandson are at the center of my heart and inspire me to strategically align my work and my purpose around gaps for the community. Balsz students also inspire me because they “have the juice” to thrive in our society. It’s our job as a system to bring out the very best in them, academically and beyond. Lastly, I’m inspired by how far our governing board has come out for the advancement of our students, like hiring our new superintendent, Dr. Arleen Kennedy.

Denise TrimbleSmith: My kids are inspiring me. My kids are showing me resilience and they’re showing me that, together, nothing is impossible. That, with our faith and our hard work, we can persevere. But we have to talk about it, we have to communicate, and we have to share in each other’s victories.

Larry Johnson: The students are inspiring me because they are so resilient. We grappled with the fact that we would not be able to provide our students with an in-person graduation ceremony. We decided that we would do an all-day, drive-up “car-mencement” instead. Over 300 students showed up with their kids, with their families, with huge groups in multiple vehicles. Those students would not let a pandemic stop them from celebrating their moment.

Erica Maxwell: My kids inspire me. I’m grateful because I have kids in the school system, and I’m in a position where I get to see it. I don’t just go to work and talk about it and say, “This is what we need to do.” I see it.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal, given our new reality?  

Channel Powe: I take pause in answering such a broad question because of the immense complexities. We need to start with holding ourselves accountable at every level of government. This means we need to stop staring at the data and do something bold! School districts should adopt the community school model within our local districts. The education funding formula needs to be overhauled to include equity weights with a 10:1 counselor ratio. There should be major investments in a 21st century livable wage, affordable housing, free public transportation, access to free childcare, free community college, paid internships, and ongoing outreach to families living below the poverty wage.

Denise TrimbleSmith: We can’t lose sight of our goal. 60 percent is not just a number. It represents people. So we cannot be dismayed, discouraged, or deterred. We need to, like brother John Lewis, make good trouble. The pandemic and racial unrest is bringing about the necessity to make good trouble. We needed to shake some things up in order to show ourselves as a strong community that can together overcome these horrific situations for the better.

Larry Johnson: We need to have more courageous conversations in Arizona. We often refer to the various metrics and dashboards to build individual strategy, but we need to begin to disaggregate that data to take on larger work. We need the state to come together regularly throughout the year to review the data and then give charge to the various organizations to act. K-12, nonprofits, postsecondary, workforce—they all have to take on a piece of the pie.

Erica Maxwell: Well it’s definitely going to be a collaboration. We need to support students to make sure that they have the resources to pursue certifications and college degrees. Everyone in society, in this state, will benefit from us meeting our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal. I have to want the same quality of education, not just for my kids, not just for my youth, but for all students in Arizona. We have to have that mindset and think about our role in it.

Businesses Helping Address Issues in Education

Monica Villalobos, Shelley Watson, Julie Engel

Moving the needle on educational attainment is vital to Arizona businesses. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce. Equity in education, school to career pathways, and upskilling and retraining prepare businesses and individuals for future prosperity and success. We asked some Arizona business leaders to share their thoughts on today’s education landscape.

Monica Villalobos is President & CEO of Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Shelley Watson is Vice President of Southern Arizona Leadership Council and serves on the Achieve60Az board of directors.

Julie Engel is President & CEO – Chief Economic Architect of Greater Yuma EDC.

What are the main challenges educators in your community are facing as a result of COVID-19? How is your community managing those challenges?

Monica Villalobos: One of the biggest issues has been lack of access to technology hardware and internet. So many children of color don’t have the equipment necessary to continue their education online. TheArizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is working with the Black Chamber, the Asian Chamber, and the American Indian Chamber to collect hardware donations to help our students of color and ensure all students have internet access. 

Shelley Watson: The only thing that all of us really know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure when it comes to COVID. Educators are concerned about not only their health, but the health of their students and of students’ families. They’re grappling with all the changing guidance, and also finding ways to clearly communicate an uncertain path forward with families.

Julia Engel: The biggest issue has been technology and the lack of broadband access. Rural teachers and students are inadequately served and can’t connect to each other. Navigating all of this has been very challenging. We don’t have the capacity to warrant investment by the carriers, so we don’t have good service.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? How does the business community support new ways to address educational inequities and challenges moving forward? 

Monica Villalobos: Our entire perspective needs to shift to helping K-12, especially students of color. As we find solutions for teaching and learning during the pandemic, many of those options simply are not available to communities of color. Solutions for the majority are not always solutions for minority groups. Business owners need to look at K-12 as a talent pipeline and invest as part of the succession plan for their future workforce. 

Shelley Watson: There are inequities around access to technology devices and the internet. Schools that were already pretty cash-strapped now have to purchase things like PPE and extra sanitation services. At Southern Arizona Leadership Council, our member businesses are engaged at the local level. For example, Cox Communications has opened up 750 hotspots in Tucson, and is in the process of providing free home equipment to people in the community while other members have been providing PPE for schools. 

Julie Engel: This digital access gap is just one more disadvantage that our community has to deal with, through no fault of their own. The business community is suffering too, as their internet service isn’t any better. Solving this problem is going to require a partnership between the public and private sectors, and more government support.

How can high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for work given a recession? What effect will this recession have on career choices for the Classes of 2020 and 2021?

Monica Villalobos: High schools and postsecondary institutions are helping current students by providing vocational options. I’m really encouraged by the work that Phoenix Union High School District is doing, particularly around the Academies at South Mountain High School. Students can earn a medical assistant certificate or apprentice as an engineer and then earn a livable wage while they go to school. The business community needs to invest in vocational opportunities, whether it’s something like the Academies at South Mountain, apprenticeships, or internships. 

Shelley Watson: More than ever, high schools and postsecondary institutions are going to have to engage with industry and find out what’s needed. They need to really keep their pulse on what the current skills are in industry and directly teach those skills. There can’t be a disconnect, because technology is moving too fast now. Jobs of the future are going to look very different than they do now.

Julie Engel: Schools are definitely trying to institute pathways that are pointing students toward careers where there are actually jobs available. They’re being mindful about offering skillsets, certificates, and training that are focused toward careers, and not so much institutional educational knowledge. Schools are even encouraging certificate-type programs in partnership with traditional education.

How will a recession and unemployment affect opportunities for adult education? In what ways can the business community help support adult learners?

Monica Villalobos: Entrepreneurs tend to be lifelong learners. They’re constantly upskilling and learning new ways to adapt their business, their service, their job. I think the business community is a really good example of how to implement lifelong learning to stay current in any given industry. To keep the economy moving forward, we need adult learners with a lifelong learning mentality.

Shelley Watson: Most adults these days realize that education is no longer this linear thing. You don’t just complete your education and then you never need to look back. One of the major things that the business community can do is support Arizona’s community colleges as they offer high quality, cost-effective continuing education for adult learners.

Julie Engel: Our employers who are looking for employees are working very closely with workforce groups to help guide training so that people aren’t spending money on an education that isn’t going to end up benefitting them in a career or a job. They’re also finding ways to help offset the cost of this training.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Monica Villalobos: I am fascinated and inspired by the steadfast commitment of educators to teach anywhere and evolve. I am also inspired by the philanthropic community, which has found a way to make a significant impact on the whole educational landscape. The philanthropic community does a really good job of finding the pain points in a particular community and providing the support system to optimize resources. 

Shelley Watson: As I’ve mentioned before, students are so resilient and adaptable that they’ve really inspired me throughout this. In my own home, it was really gratifying to watch my kids come home from college and just buckle down with a new paradigm to really finish their semesters strong. Students and educators have inspired us all with their amazing resilience and ability to quickly pivot to meet the challenges we face.

Julie Engel: Our education leaders and our healthcare leaders are both on the frontlines. It has been an honor to see the bravery and the efforts that both groups have put forth. It is truly inspirational to see how they’re putting everything to the side and doing what has to be done, and they’re doing it in a way that is efficient, safe, and providing results.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our current reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Monica Villalobos: Because we’re a small business state — 98 percent of all jobs come from small business — business owners must buy into the value of education. They must see that direct impact of any kind of education, whether it’s K-12 education, traditional post high school education, vocational education, internships, or apprenticeships. They must buy into the value of that for the success of their business. 

Shelley Watson: We can’t just speak about achieving 60 percent simply for education’s sake alone. Education has to be meaningfully tied to something for it to truly resonate, and for people to understand why it’s important. So that means highlighting how achieving that benchmark is going to provide more prosperity and quality of life for everyone in Arizona. Julie Engel: We need a lot of adults to earn their credentials in order to meet this goal. In spite of what’s happened in 2020, I am seeing people take advantage of the time to learn new skills, and our community colleges are trying to get training to those who have been affected by the pandemic. There is a real opportunity now to reskill and reeducate so many people

What Latinx Education Leaders are Doing to Help Their Students and Communities

Amanda Aguirre, Marla Franco, David Verdugo, Vince Yanez

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an indelible impact on education. It has forced us to take a hard look at how we deliver education, and highlighted the inequities that exist in terms of access to technology and resources. We spoke with four Latinx education leaders about these challenges, and how we can meet the basic needs of all students so that they are ready and able to learn.

Amanda Aguirre is President & CEO for the Regional Center for Border Health, Inc. & San Luis Walk In Clinic, Inc. and Former Arizona State Senator.

Marla Franco is Assistant Vice Provost of Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Initiatives at The University of Arizona.

David Verdugo is Superintendent of Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

Vince Yanez is Senior Vice President of Arizona Community Engagement for Helios Education Foundation and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of COVID-19? How have you and your colleagues managed those challenges?

Amanda Aguirre: At the Regional Center for Border Health, first, we had to educate ourselves on COVID-19 to be ready to educate others, while also finding a way to protect our entire campus community. There was a lot of fear in the beginning, so our priority was making sure we all had accurate information, and figuring out how to quickly provide community screenings and culturally sensitive educational materials to our community.

Marla Franco: In March, The University of Arizona had to quickly switch gears to support distance learning. That immediate pivot didn’t allow for adequate planning  to provide the highest quality of learning that our faculty and staff are known for. Many students lacked access to broadband Wi-Fi or the technology to engage in online learning. Others lacked reliable food sources, were laid off, or found themselves in unsafe environments as essential workers. We really had to force ourselves to have a collectivist mindset, and to think about the ways our university could share its resources.

David Verdugo: The challenge has been to meet the needs of all of our students, not only in academics, but also from a health and social-emotional standpoint. We needed to continue to feed 3500 of our students on a daily basis, , which we did by maintaining our school food service program including delivery to students and working with local produce houses to divert excess produce to families. We also had to find ways to support student language development, especially for our youngest students, which we did by helping teachers build relationships with their students online.

Vince Yanez: The overriding challenge related to impacts of the pandemic is uncertainty: How do we provide safe schools for students and staff? How long do we educate remotely? How do we prepare teachers to instruct students in a virtual environment and what systems need to be put in place? How will families manage the new demands this places on their time? There aren’t clear answers to any of these questions – and so many others. We all need to do our part to support our schools and higher education institutions as they navigate these challenges. At Helios we are trying to do our part to by providing emergency financial asstance to college students, and supporting efforts to provide training for teachers as they transition to online instructional models. There’s much more for all of us to do.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Amanda Aguirre: We can now give students options for course delivery: either to stay home and participate in the class via Zoom or to come in-person. We worked with the Board of Nursing to adjust students’ requirements and help them graduate in time under these current conditions.

Marla Franco: We were always concerned about the well-being and safety of our students and employees, but definitely not to this degree or at this sense of heightened urgency. Just like all colleges, universities, and K-12 schools, we’re grappling with quickly identifying a game plan that supports ongoing learning and takes into account safety and public health concerns, while being mindful that systemic inequities have resulted in our Latinx communities being disproportionaly negatively affected by COVID-19.

David Verdugo: The pandemic forced us to look at different learning models. Our district has worked hard at providing individualized learning for each student, but we are now talking about giving students even more options. For our students who have found greater success working from home, how do we continue to meet their needs going forward?

Vince Yanez: As schools shut down and we were forced online, the inequities we’ve been talking about for years were made even more apparent. Perhaps the most prominent issue has been the lack of access to internet connectivity or devices. And, it’s not a new issue. But, now a large portion of the population is being left behind, and that’s just unacceptable.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently, given the recession? From your perspective, what effect will this have on career choices for the Class of 2020?

Amanda Aguirre: Our local nursing homes had to stop hiring, so our graduates couldn’t find work. Since we are also a clinic, we hired as many of our graduates as we could. Unemployment is going to continue impacting Yuma County, especially because we already had the one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Compounded by the pandemic, it just feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel without a vaccine.

Marla Franco: Our university surveys its graduating students to get a better sense of their most immediate plans after graduation. Because we anticipated students would have greater challenges in securing work because of COVID-19, we tried to proactively strategize and provide career resources. We are exploring how to provide ongoing support so our students know that we’re here for them.

David Verdugo: The market is changing drastically, and Santa Cruz County already had high unemployment rates. We’re trying to help our students prepare for new opportunities within local industries. For example, at our agriculture farm, students can learn to become inspectors. We’re incorporating engineering, technology, and logistics to teach students about the autonomous driving industry. We’re starting to teach welding because there is a need at the new zinc mine.

Vince Yanez: At this point it is difficult to anticipate how the recession will impact career choices, but we do know that students who earn a degree or credential fare much better during difficult economic times. Unfortunately, we also know from experience that getting students to graduation during a recession can be extremely challenging. This is something that requires our attention and action. Now, more than ever, college students need to be provided the assistance they need to stay enrolled, persist, and graduate.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Marla Franco: For adults, we need to be mindful of the ways the economy has shifted and make sure we’re cognizant that adult learners have different needs. They might be looking for very targeted short-term learning opportunities, like specific skill-building or certifications that allow them to be more competitive in the current job market.

Vince Yanez: A big part of reaching the attainment goal will involve adults having to upskill, learn new trades, or just be nimble in a changing economy. One effect of the recession will be a need for individuals who have lost their jobs to gain some sort of postsecondary education to find a new place in the economy. That’s a big part of what we’ve been talking about at Achieve60AZ since the very beginning, and that need is heightened in a time like this.

What have been the biggest issues, challenges, or educational inequities highlighted by the pandemic? In what new ways do you think we will address these gaps moving forward?

Amanda Aguirre: Hispanic and Native American students are experiencing higher exposure to the virus and are more likely to lose members of their families. The safety net is not as strong as we need it to be, so our agency is providing food, education, access to healthcare – all the things people in rural communities need to survive. It takes a village.

Marla Franco: As university leaders, we need to be thinking holistically about the needs of students, because they can’t be successful learners if they are having to worry about meeting their families’ most basic needs. What do messages around handwashing and staying at home mean for communities who have challenges accessing reliable, clean water or groceries? Our campus food pantry has had a consistently heavy flow of students, staff, and faculty over the past two months.

David Verdugo: I talked to other superintendents who were trying to meet the academic, language, food, and social-emotional needs of their students. They were trying to make sure not to lose track of their students, especially those without a home phone or device, who may have moved in the early days of the pandemic. We need funding to do these things, and to make sure that we are providing necessary professional development so teachers can work with the entire student, helping them to function and be successful.

Vince Yanez: My daughter is getting ready to start kindergarten online this fall. We’re fortunate to have the tools at that are necessary for her to do the best she can in that world. But many families don’t have that access. If you’re a family with multiple children, each of those students now needs a device. And many parents need one to work. The issues are complicated, and the pandemic just made them more apparent. If we expect our students to learn in an online environment then we – as a state – have a responsibility to make sure those students have the tools they need to be successful.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve the 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Amanda Aguirre: It might take us a long time to get back to the way we used to run our lives, but we’re still working toward the goal. We have an incredible workforce of teachers who are always so innovative and thinking outside the box. The challenge is, we need the financial resources to make it happen.

Marla Franco: If we’re going to remain committed to the goals of Achieve60AZ and the outcomes that we anticipate from this collective effort, then we have to be all in as a state – as teachers, as higher education leaders, as employers, as local government leaders, as legislators, and as the governor. There needs to be real commitment to resources and funding to account for all of the unintended expenditures related to COVID-19 and preparing schools to reopen only when it is safe to do so.

David Verdugo: It goes back to equity – we need to provide students with what they need to be successful. We tell our students that we are a strong community, that there are no excuses, that we can do anything. Our students just need equitable opportunities so we can move toward that goal.

Vince Yanez: This time has given us the opportunity to think about all of our systems a little bit differently, whether its pre-K access, K-12 funding, or success metrics in higher education. When Achieve60AZ was formed and the attainment goal was adopted, it was with the knowledge that we were not going to reach 60 percent unless we do things very differently. There is a lot right with our system, but we also need to make significant investments across the educational spectrum and be willing to think outside the box to find new solutions to old problems.

Addressing the Education Challenges for Native Students

Serena Denetsosie, Karen Francis-Begay, Jim Larney, Charles Monty Roessel

The novel coronavirus pandemic has affected many students, but one student group that may be affected more dramatically than others is Native Americans. Many of our tribal reservations across the country, and here in Arizona, have been dealing with the digital divide since long before schools closed in March, hindering students’ abilities to complete their coursework. On top of that, many tribes were hit hard by the virus – often due to a lack of resources, like access to grocery stores, or even running water. We spoke to four Native American educators about what their students have been experiencing and the steps we need to take to help Native students and all of Arizona.

Serena Denetsosie is Deputy Associate Superintendent in the Office of Indian Education at the Arizona Department of Education.

Karen Francis-Begay is Assistant Vice Provost of Native American initiatives at the University of Arizona and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

Jim Larney is Director of the American Indian Institute at Mesa Community College.

Charles “Monty” Roessel is President of Diné College and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of COVID-19? How have you and your colleagues managed those challenges?

Serena Denetsosie: At the onset of the pandemic, we needed to take care of our Native American students by ensuring access to food and mental health resources. At the same time, there was the digital divide. Our teams at Arizona Department of Education came together really quickly to come up with a plan for our students. Our team immediately collaborated starting with ADE and federal food programs and moved on to other state agencies–collaboration we hope to continue on behalf of students.

Karen Francis-Begay: What has been really challenging is reaching students and making sure they’re okay. The transition to online learning was quick and disruptive in so many ways.  It was important to let our students know we were here for overall support and to remedy any issues so they could continue with their courses.  

Jim Larney:  The biggest challenge we faced was the disruption to our normal lives. Right in the middle of the semester, we had to shut down campusand turn everything that we do to a remote style of learning, while still trying to meet the needs of our students.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: The first challenge was just putting everything online. An issue we faced was that our online learning platform did not support the Navajo language, so we had to quickly switch platforms. Once we did get everything online, we realized that too many students couldn’t access their classes due to a lack of broadband, data, or devices. Some of our professors uploaded lectures online, but watching one lecture would use up all of a student’s data and then they couldn’t access the next week’s materials. We had professors who provided instruction four different ways for students that had different issues with their technology. We provided open hotspots at our colleges to meet the needs across our community. Students not only from our college, but also from Arizona State University, University of New Mexico, and Harvard University, who were now at home, would drive to our hotspots and access their classes.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Serena Denetsosie: We all know power structures and systemic inequalities have existed prior to this pandemic. We can’t ignore them any longer. What are we going to do in terms of holding each other accountable and working together for change? We have students from all different backgrounds relying on us, and so how do we learn from this going forward? It is important to have students who are in the education system at the table, so we can create sustainable change that works.

Karen Francis-Begay: My colleagues across the state and nation are having to come to grips with the fact that our Native students are definitely underserved. These students lack access to internet, running water and electricity in their homes, don’t have food security, and are dealing with the pandemic with underfunded healthcare services. We need to take those issues into account and commit ourselves to doing all we can to support students who come to the university with their basic needs unmet.   

Jim Larney: We can do everything remotely – moving everything to a remote style of learning, remote style of communicating. Now we can set up virtual meetings from anywhere, at any time; however, we lose that in-person touch that many Native students need by connecting with people face to face.  

Charles “Monty” Roessel: The education community is talking about the opportunity this pandemic has forced upon us. I look at it more as a responsibility to all students. Because the pandemic is growing, our responsibility is not just to our students, but to other students as well. We owe our responsibility to the people — the students — that have passed as a result of COVID-19. Their dreams were cut short. How do we make sure that new students can be safe and continue to achieve their dreams? It’s much larger than ourselves and it’s much larger than the pandemic.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession? How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Serena Denetsosie: We have a tendency to overlook how often schools are centers for economic stability, and some of the largest employers in communities. So how do we work together to ensure our communities can thrive through education? By balancing Indigenous knowledge systems and Western ideology within our own communities and schools, children can thrive and become lifelong students who are successful at navigating tribal and community colleges, universities, or trade schools.

Karen Francis-Begay: There are learning opportunities and training for adults to learn a new skill and expand their professional portfolio. With classes online, there is an opportunity for people who are already in the workforce to take advantage of this. It may sound counterintuitive with many of the tribal communities having little to no access to the internet, but it also challenges the equity paradigm when students want to access and achieve an education without leaving their home community.

Jim Larney: One thing we’ve been doing to help our students prepare for entering the workforce is collaborating with the Career Services Department to hold live workshops on subjects like how to fill out applications or how to write a resume, and to hold mock interviews. I think there will be a shift to career technical education opportunities with our current state of affairs.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: College used to be about just learning a skill to get a job. But now, colleges need to be engaged in the economy of their communities. Colleges have a larger impact. This is uncharted territory when we look at how we plan for the future, so we have to plan with what we know.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? What have been the biggest issues or challenges related to the education gap? 

Serena Denetsosie: The pandemic exposed a number of inequities, from broadband challenges to cultural lens challenges and the way we come together for our students. This time has shown how we have to overcome the digital divide by educating on cultural literacy and meeting our communities where they are. This takes trust and flexibility. We will all grow from this pandemic and hope to continue to put in the vital work needed on behalf of our children.  

Karen Francis-Begay: Our students are dealing with broadband capacity, financial challenges, and working from home while taking care of children, siblings, or elders at the same time. For many reasons, our students can’t be 100 percent engaged in their coursework. Such issues and concerns have been elevated to university senior leadership and they are taking notice and are making it a priority to find ways to support Native students and the communities they come from — and that’s a good thing.

Jim Larney: This pandemic has shown that the gap in access to technology is an equity issue. Some students don’t have the necessary devices or internet at home to work, while other students are sharing one computer with their whole family.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: One of the biggest things we‘ve been talking about is that everyone—students, faculty, staff, the community — needs access to quality mental health services. And for us, that also means access to our cultural health services so that we’re able to access healing ceremonies. Beyond healthcare, we’re wondering how we are going to increase graduation and retention rates when 30 percent of people on the reservation are worried more about washing their hands because they do not have running water.

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Serena Denetsosie: This pandemic is hitting a lot of our elders in our tribal communities and the desperation and hopelessness is sometimes too overwhelming to acknowledge. But knowing our ancestors and tribal communities are resilient and have overcome a lot in history for us to be here today gives me hope.  The sacredness of protecting our languages, our cultures, and our elders who are our knowledge holders is important for the future for Indigenous education.

Karen Francis-Begay: I am really inspired by our Native students. I’m hearing that some of our students are driving to Wi-Fi hotspots that are two hours away, sitting there and getting homework done, and then driving back home another two hours. That’s a huge commitment from students, and it makes me want to do even more on their behalf.

Jim Larney: As a father, I am drawing my energy from my own children. Despite all of the setbacks and cancellations, my kids are just resilient. They are not letting this get them down.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: In the early days of the pandemic, we had a student who tested positive, went to the hospital, and then Zoomed into class from her hospital bed. The professor told her she really didn’t need to do that, but she said, “I want to stay, I want to learn.” Now, if that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what does. There are so many other stories of student resilience. This pandemic has forced us to listen to our students, to hear their voices because they matter, to hear their stories because they matter, and to hear and feel their hearts because they matter.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Serena Denetsosie: We as people all have some type of power and we need to exercise it. We need to walk the talk and put forth funding, change the system, create new policy. We need students, we need elders, we need all different people at the table. We need to acknowledge that the dominant society’s way of doing things was set up for a certain group of people, and that hasn’t worked for everyone. So, what will we do to change the power dynamics for children and communities so we can grow together?

Karen Francis-Begay: The best way to continue pushing toward our goal is to continue to advocate for students at the state and national levels, and to bring to light the educational inequities that exist. My greatest hope coming out of this pandemic is that we see more investment in education across the board.

Jim Larney: What’s the best way to reach our students? In order to achieve 60 percent attainment, we’re going to need to be innovative, yet practical, in our way of thinking. Sometimes we’re stepping over dollars to get a dime and forgetting about what we can actually do to reach our students. We need to start there.

Charles “Monty” Roessel: We need to change the way we view access to education. We look at K-12 as being a right, and then it stops there. So, if our goal is postsecondary attainment, we are running a 100-yard dash and stopping at 80. We need to finish the race. By doing so, we bring more in. And the more people you bring in, the bigger your circle gets. The bigger your circle gets, the more people you can bring in. That is how we achieve our goal.

The Steps Community College Leaders are Taking to Help Arizona

Lee Lambert, Stacy Klippenstein, Darcy Renfro

Community college is a crucial piece of the education system for learners throughout Arizona, and an important tool to drive Arizona’s economy. As unemployment numbers continue to rise, more people are looking for ways to reskill and upskill. Community colleges become especially important in helping people prepare to enter the post-COVID workforce. We spoke to three community college leaders from across the state to hear what they and their institutions are doing to help students and communities during this time.

Lee Lambert is Chancellor of Pima Community College and serves on the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

Stacy Klippenstein is the President of Mohave Community College.

Darcy Renfro is Maricopa Community Colleges’ Chief Workforce and Economic Development Officer and chair of the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education?

Lee Lambert: For me, it’s the intersection of things that really have not been talked about: pandemic, industry 4.0, and race. The key is how these three actually come together and lay the groundwork for reimagining education, not only now but for the future of education, teaching, learning, and work.

Stacy Klippenstein: I think everyone is talking about the use of different modalities to teach via distance education. How do you Zoom? How do you do synchronous and asynchronous education? And, how do we better allow for virtual competency-based education, especially in career and technical education?

Darcy Renfro: We are learning that digital divide issues are more prevalent than previously understood. The pandemic has underscored deeper disconnects that are felt across a large range of learners from early grades through adults. Removing brick-and-mortar options for the entire population hits the less affluent and most vulnerable among us. While the new economy continues toward more reliance on technology to keep Arizona’s economy competitive, we must be thoughtful to ensure that we do not create even more gaps for populations where educational attainment is much lower than our state and national averages.    

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms? 

Lee Lambert: What we do comes down to people. The people piece will not change. What’s going to have to be rethought is how we as humans interact with technology. We need to make sure the human and the technology elements are fully integrated into the learner’s experience so that we can give students the optimal learning environment to succeed.

Stacy Klippenstein: Student services. How do we continue to support students in new ways online, through the application, registration, tutoring, student success, and advising process? Some of this will be done virtually, like how healthcare is moving to telehealth. 

Darcy Renfro: From the workforce development perspective, what has changed is the focus on short-term training and skill credentials that can help somebody either move to a better a job or get a job more quickly.

How do postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession?

Lee Lambert: Today’s graduating students are not just living through a pandemic, they also lived through the Great Recession. They are living through an era approaching Great Depression levels, the reality of what happens when inequality persists and is not fully addressed in society. So this graduating class is actually in the best position to make the most sense of all of this because they’re living through it. As long as we help facilitate learning around this current reality, these students will become better leaders going forward, having lived through some of the most difficult challenges in recent memory.

Stacy Klippenstein: The people who are losing their jobs right now often do not have a postsecondary credential or degree. This is why we support the Achieve60AZ goal. There are industries waiting to pick back up once the economy begins to recover, and people are going to need a postsecondary education to get those jobs.

Darcy Renfro:   These are unprecedented times where we are seeing entire industry sectors practically decimated over a period of months. We have record unemployment, and job growth has been impacted unevenly across industries. Postsecondary institutions have an obligation to help students understand those shifts in the job market and direct resources toward areas where students will most likely find employment even in economic downturns. We know that a postsecondary degree or credential is valuable currency for all individuals in the job market. Working together to help support Arizona students and advance educational attainment needs to remain a top priority for all of us.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Lee Lambert: Pre-COVID, there were lots of conversations occurring around the future of work and the need for individuals to skill, reskill, and upskill. We are talking about digital skills, social-emotional skills, higher cognitive skills, and the ability to be adaptable and flexible. None of that has changed because of the pandemic.

Stacy Klippenstein: Adults are looking at what their plan is for the future during a time of great uncertainty. Some adults now have an opening in their schedule because they are suddenly unemployed. Some just need more adult basic education services to get their GED. I think offering those types of opportunities now is critical.

Darcy Renfro: It’s very hard to tell right now. Historically, when the economy is good, our enrollments go down. When the economy is bad, our enrollments go up as people look to gain new skills and credentials. This recession seems different because of the pandemic and lack of clarity around safety and health. We’re not seeing the same patterns we have in the past.  At the same time, we are seeing more employers focusing on improving learning and growth opportunities for employees with an increased emphasis on specific skill credentials that are transferable between jobs. 

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? In what new ways do you think we will address educational inequities and challenges moving forward?

Lee Lambert: The pandemic has really shined a spotlight on the flaws of our system, and George Floyd’s murder has sparked a new level of race consciousness. So many people were already struggling pre-COVID, and now we’re seeing that struggle on television. The question is, what are we going to do now? Are people going to step up and address these inequities that have been happening in our society for a long time? It takes dollars and leadership to make a difference to inequities like closing the digital divide.

Stacy Klippenstein: One thing we have recognized is the work we can do for adults with no higher education and adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We are also focusing more on our Latino students. We’re making some new changes to the ways we teach, and the ways we connect with and serve all students. 

Darcy Renfro:   Access to technology is underscoring the resource divide for low-income individuals and families. We have a lot of students with food and housing insecurity that are doing everything they can to make a better life for themselves. Not having a physical school or resource to go to makes it much, much harder.  Entire communities need to face these hard truths and work together to close these gaps, coordinate supports, and align resources that will give everyone the chance to succeed. 

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality?

Lee Lambert: If our K-12 system and our higher education system could come together and really reimagine what the students’ experience ought to be, and we build a system around the learner, we could go a long way in terms of skills acquisition, closing educational attainment, and really getting to that goal of Achieve60AZ.

Stacy Klippenstein: We need to find new ways to get people industry-recognized credentials, certificates, and degrees necessary for the new workforce. We’re concentrating on adults because we think that that’s going to move the needle in our community. We’re always going to go after the high school market, the traditional student age market. But we have not been planning for the adult student market in Mohave County, and we need to fix that.

Darcy Renfro: There are two areas that seem most urgent. First, ensuring that high school seniors continue their education, and putting resources and energy into that transitional time. Second, supporting adults that have some college and no degree, particularly those who’ve been in the hospitality industry as that’s been hit the hardest. How do we help them transition into other fields, industry sectors and jobs, and get them the skills training and, in some cases, degrees that will enable them to do that?

How College Students are Feeling about Changes to Education Surrounding COVID-19 Pandemic

Roxana Figiel, Celso Bahena Jr, Betsy Muñoz

Students in every sector of education have been affected by the pandemic – having to transition suddenly to online learning, and many university students having to return home, sometimes with only a few days’ notice. Like many of us, these students are worrying what next semester will look like, and they’re left wondering if this will affect the job market they’ll enter after college. We spoke with three current college students from around Arizona to get some ideas on what they’re thinking about right now and where they are finding hope for Arizona’s future. We believe strongly that student voices need to be heard and valued – so we wanted them to be the first people we spoke to for our Road to Attainment series. We also wanted to ensure we were getting a wide range of voices and opinions, so we spoke with 3 students from different backgrounds including an adult learner– a critical population to reach for the achievement of our 60% educational attainment goal.

Roxana Figiel is a student at Arizona State University working toward a bachelor’s degree in public service and public policy.

Celso Bahena Jr is an adult student currently studying Logistics at Pima Community College.

Betsy Muñoz is a first-generation Mexican American college student studying public service and public policy at Arizona State University.

What have been the main challenges you or other students in your community have faced because of COVID-19? 

Roxana: When we suddenly moved to online classes, I could see that my professors were struggling. One class ended up using Zoom, which was a completely new tool for that professor. At first, with the constant adjustments and new online programs, it was overwhelming to figure out how the requirements for the classes had changed. 

Celso: Communication is more subtle than it was before. But there are some positives – email and online methods have made it a little bit easier to get in contact with professors. At work, I’ve been in contact with more people because, instead of only interacting with my direct supervisor, I have to email others, and have gotten more acquainted with the chain of command.

Betsy: One of the greatest challenges for my peers and me is being disconnected from each other and not being able to learn, study, or be together. Video chatting does help provide part of that connection, but it is not the same as communicating in-person. Another challenge has been accessing jobs, internships, or career experiences since these have become more limited and their formats have changed. 

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Celso: There’s been a lot of talk about virtual hangouts and virtual classrooms. The availability of virtual learning means people can learn from anywhere. The future will be heavily technology-based. 

Betsy: We are talking about remote learning and what that means. There are students who do not have access to a computer or digital device, and this has affected their learning beyond the inequities already present in the education system. The future of education will need to address these challenges and identify strategies or innovative solutions toward closing this gap in ways we haven’t done before. 

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms?

Celso: Online teaching methods are being honed in and perfected. The kinks will be worked out. When schools re-open, these methods will be implemented into the mainstream public school system. 

Betsy: The use of technology and the increased use of digital learning. The use of technology will continue to increase, and students will need to be prepared and have technology resources available to them.

How do current students need to prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession? 

Roxana: Honestly, I am worried about what the future will hold for graduates. This recession won’t be over anytime soon, and the consequences will affect future graduates as well. They will be going out into a world that has new rules. Our internships were canceled, jobs weren’t providing enough hours, and businesses were closing, leaving us without the necessary experience companies look for in potential employees. 

Betsy:  Students will need to think about options they may not have considered before, because their education and career pathways may look different. This recession may discourage students from enrolling in courses that require hands-on training or encourage students to continue their post-secondary education beyond a bachelor’s degree. It would be beneficial for all students to try to gain career-related experiences wherever possible to better prepare themselves for the workforce during this recession.   

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Roxana: I think everyone has been an inspiration in these times. Seeing how each person decides to help themselves or others provides insight into what we value as individuals and as a society.

Celso: One of the people that continues to inspire me is the author, Christopher Hitchens. He always spoke about humanitarian values, how we must oppose aggression amongst each other, and instead look for the good in people, while enabling others to achieve that as well. 

Betsy: Seeing my nieces, who are between the ages of 6 and 9, continue their education from home and adapt to their new reality has been inspiring to me. I am also in awe of all the parents who are working from home and are trying to teach their kids at the same time. Or the parents who are working from home with little ones. Seeing all the teachers and my peers adjust to this new environment has been incredible to watch. Teachers made adjustments to their classes in such a short amount of time and students pushed themselves to continue their learning.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Roxana: Many people don’t know that they qualify for help and support in obtaining a degree. Providing that information allows them to make long term decisions for their future. COVID-19 has brought many underlying issues to the surface with no way to sweep them under the rug. Inequities need to be addressed and adults will need to reconsider education.

Celso: Social media is now more indispensable than ever. Arizonans will hopefully be helped by social media and nudged in the direction of education.

Betsy: My greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19 is for our education community to have the ability to provide more resources, identify strategies, and create solutions toward addressing the longstanding inequities in our system. There is no “one-size-fits-all” option for students.

The opportunity to rethink Arizona’s education system is now

Rachel Yanof, Executive Director, Achieve60AZ

Originally published on AZCentral.com

There is a lot of talk about “returning to normal” and what that means, post-pandemic.

Over the past few months, in the scramble to move to online and distance learning, the challenges of our education system have been exposed like never before. As a former teacher, principal, school-system leader, and now head of an organization that supports the statewide goal to see 60 percent of Arizonans have a certificate or degree by 2030 – I propose that we can never go back to “normal” in education.

I laud educators for their tremendous work in this moment. They have shown that the system can be nimble and responsive, and make big things happen.

Now, we need to scale that change and build for the future, designing a system that addresses the most underserved and, ultimately, meets the needs of all students.

Arizona’s educational system has been wildly disrupted. It’s time to reimagine it. 

In my career, I’ve had to fit into the existing education box, then find ways to think outside of it. With that in mind, Achieve60AZ is launching a new blog series, “Road to Attainment,” expanding on what we’ve learned during this time from education, business, and community leaders, parents, and students.

We hope you’ll engage with us as we explore the possibilities, including:

Early start. What if school starts at age 3? Research shows an early start would position all students to achieve more through extended opportunity for play, access to healthy food, and learning social skills. Parents with stable childcare are able to work more and attend school to better their family’s economic status.

Year-Round Calendar. Other countries see better performance from students when they go to school year-round. As a teacher, I remember spending the first six weeks of every year reteaching from a summer off, exacerbated for students who are less likely to go to camp or without consistent access to books and computers. With a year-round model, students have stable access to food, counseling, and infrastructure basics like air-conditioning or heating, and internet. 

Extended school day. Right now, working parents must rely on family or pay for before- and after-school care in order to accommodate a 40-hour work week. A longer school day could integrate activities kids need: outside time or more recess, longer lunches so they really eat the veggies, regular art and music, and longer class periods for deeply-engaging projects and experiments.

Achievement-based learning. Currently, rules say a learner is “ready” when they have been in each class for a prescribed time. Why not, instead, create competency-based classes, work-based learning, and meaningful apprenticeships worth credit for high school and postsecondary students, at scale? This pandemic has taught us that learning is not a function of time, but mastery of content.

Employers as education leaders. Employers must rethink how they are investing in their workforce. Now is the time to push for innovative career training, expanded education benefits, and rethinking employees as lifelong learners – all changes that serve employees as well as the current and future needs of the workforce at large.

Taken individually, each of these changes helps increase opportunities for learning. The larger task is integrating many changes and designing a system that has the potential to dramatically change educational outcomes.

In the old normal, African-Americans, Latinx, and American Indian students still trail in all academic areas, as do students with special needs. Most distressingly, income is still the main determinate of educational success.

Big shifts are uncomfortable, but, if we all can forge ahead through the discomfort, and support our leaders when they do things differently, even bigger successes are the reward.

Our kids’ future will be defined by COVID-19 response 

I have spent a lot of time with my three young kids lately.  A lot. Their generation will be defined by our society’s response to COVID-19.

We must use this moment to lay the groundwork for a better future. Achieve60AZ exists to keep Arizonans focused on the ambitious education goals we have set for all learners.

Going back means we will not meet our Education Progress Meter goals — metrics that were set intentionally to get students on track for academic and career success.

Together, we can write an Arizona story that starts with a pandemic, but ends with every student achieving, every adult working, and our state thriving.  

Join the conversation at Achieve60AZ.com/RoadtoAttainment. Let’s seize this opportunity and create a better normal, where Arizona is a leader in education and economic prosperity.


Rachel Yanof is the executive director of Achieve60AZ, an initiative of more than 150 organizations committed to achieving the goal of 60 percent of Arizona adults obtaining a postsecondary credential or degree by 2030.