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Virtual Roundtable: Education Equity in Grades K-12

The gap is widening. What can we do about it?


Communities from coast to coast are feeling the effects of Covid-19 in countless ways. At Tom Tom, we believe there’s a more pressing need for connection and conversation among peer community leaders than ever before. What specific struggles are they facing? Which of their turn-on-a-dime efforts have been fruitful? And how do we keep students engaged in this climate? Our Virtual Roundtable series assembles small groups to share struggles and exchange solutions.

Our Education Equity Virtual Roundtable brought together teachers, administrators, nonprofit leaders and more, who are working tirelessly to serve students and families in this crucial moment. See a few highlights from the discussion below.

If you’d like to join us for our next education roundtable, or a roundtable focusing on another theme related to innovation in America’s cities (justice, the arts, business, etc.), please reach out to


  • Meredith Barousse, Program Manager, YouthForce NOLA (New Orleans, LA)

  • Hilary Beard, Author, Trainer, and Personal Development Coach (Philadelphia, PA)

  • Sherry Bryant, Secondary Social Studies Educator, Charlottesville City Schools (Charlottesville, VA)

  • Mary Coleman, Executive Director, City of Promise (Charlottesville, VA)

  • Duanecia Evans, Chief of Staff, Teach for America (Washington, DC)

  • Daniel Fairley, II, Youth Opportunity Coordinator, City of Charlottesville (Charlottesville, VA)

  • Stacy Johnson, Executive Director, La Paz (Chattanooga, TN)

  • Jill Levine, Chief of Innovation & School Choice, Hamilton County Schools (Chattanooga, TN)

  • Ginger Spickler, Chief of Staff, Crosstown High (Memphis, TN)

  • Emma Violand-Sanchez, Founder, The Dream Project (Arlington, VA)

Tom Tom Foundation

  • Rachel Baker, Summit Director

  • Ben Wilkes, Program Manager (facilitator)


Tom Tom: Your work has obviously changed dramatically over the past two months—and will continue to do so. Can you share with us a little about what is working in addition to the top challenges you’re wrestling with? Feel free to position these as “roses”—positive—and “thorns”—challenges.

Meredith Barousse, Student Support Program Manager and Design Program Manager, East Force NOLA: We are an intermediary organization—an education, civic, and business collaborative that prepares New Orleans public school students for a sustained pursuit of high-wage, high-demand jobs and facilitates systems change to ensure sustained success. We have an internship program that we usually run for 250 students where we do four weeks of soft skills training and five weeks of job placement, with about 150 employers that we work with locally. Obviously, they're not going to be going into job placements. So we’ve pivoted towards online programming that’s about half the size. We’re going to do all of our training virtually and then we're going to work with local training providers on consultancies, and then again with about 30 employer partners that decided that they would be able to do virtual mentoring and have work for them as well. We have a 13th year bridge program for students that have just graduated high school, as a gap year for technical skills, and so we're working on making that virtual in the fall as well. We also do virtual learning for teachers. We're just getting everything online as much as we can.

Hilary Beard, Author, Trainer, and Personal Development Coach, Philadelphia: I educate people through writing, speaking, training, and coaching. I am engaging in an enormous amount of self-care to keep myself elevated above survival level thinking, and so that I can instead identify ways to leverage the chaos and disruption of the moment to create a more equitable society. I also think that it is revolutionary for me, as a black woman, to dream into a new society at a time when this virus is writing the lines of structurally racist policies and practices in this society, and heading right toward me, and sitting in the communities of black and brown and low-income white people. I'm trying to create a measure of justice for that privilege that I have, even as a black woman, by also doing a tremendous amount of emotional labor. I have a background as a health writer and so I've activated that and I have been bringing to my Facebook community weekly Facebook lives where I'm sharing resources to help people educate themselves about the virus. It's a conversation that's centered in the black and brown experience so that we can not just survive this epidemic, but come out better. I have been coaching a handful of leaders in education nationwide, to support them in rising above survival-level thinking in the chaos of this moment, so they can make decisions that center the needs of vulnerable children, educators, and communities, and make very difficult decisions about resources, as we now prepare for an increasingly unstable future.

Sherry Bryant, Secondary Social Studies Educator, Charlottesville City Schools: I am a social studies educator at Buford Middle School, here in Charlottesville. One “rose” I suppose is with some of my students who are maybe more hesitant to reach out in everyday normal school. They now have a direct link to me via email, a number of other online programs that we use, and our numerous Google meet sessions we have a week—I'm getting to hear from kids that I didn't previously hear from a lot. The “thorn”: Some of our communities who perhaps didn't have access to resources before, we're seeing those situations be exacerbated. These equity problems are really coming to the foreground. We're trying to figure out as a division, as teachers, as just people, like how to fix that right now.

Mary Coleman, Executive Director, City of Promise: We are a neighborhood-based, cradle-to-career organization, catalyst for community change, and conduit through which other agency partners reach the low-income neighborhood that we serve. I have two roses: Very much like after August 12, 2017, we're at heightened awareness of inequity in Charlottesville, and people’s hearts are burdened by it—and so they want to invest in what we’re doing, both in immediate emergency services type funding that's restricted for Covid response, but also in some more long-term visionary things that are going to disrupt the negative systems. I find that really overwhelming and humbling and amazing. Another is the way the situation is exposing all of the inequity that organizations like mine fight every single day, the digital divide being one of those. Some of the things that the school system in particular has been able to accept, around a lack of technology, and access to technology, and internet, and computer literacy—all of that is being forced to be addressed. I think my biggest thorn honestly is caring for my staff, and having them continue to try to reframe what was normally a very hands-on, on the street, face to face engagement with our neighbors, which now have it be virtual—with a kid on your lap. We tell our neighborhood, “you’ve got to be resilient all the time” and now it's our turn to do that. Balancing my desire for us to be as strong as we can be in this moment with the reality that my staff is facing the uncertainty that they face as parents has been a challenge. The other thorn is the disengagement that we are facing with the parents of the children that we're trying to serve virtually. We have found that where the parents are strongly engaged, the children are also engaged. Where the parents don't force their kids to get online, and get with their teacher, or get with their pathway coach, the kids don’t do it. That's risen up as something else we've got to address strongly going forward.

Duanecia Clark, Chief of Staff, Teach for America: We are navigating the multitude of the things that you all have talked about, along with facing the realities that I think many of us who come from many communities, myself included: My entire family is in New York City—Harlem, specifically. Covid-19 is something that is not only impacting low-income communities, like the one I come from, but also affluent communities, and we are reckoning with who gets services first in spaces like that. Our teacher recruitment program at Teach for America has gone completely virtual, so we are diving into the reality of training educators in a virtual environment, acknowledging the limitations of that—namely being in front of children—and needing to make sure that children and teachers have access to each other and the resources that they need. Something I've been pushing my team to acknowledge is that Covid has only brought to light the things we've been needing to deal with for a very long time. I think we see that along the lines of issues of inequity, we see that in the ways we treat each other at work, and the assumptions that we make about people in the way that they live their lives. I've also seen that play out with students, and the ways that we are supporting our teachers to support their students, mainly students in DC and Prince George's County in Northern Virginia who are mostly in first generational households. Some may be being raised by elderly parents or relatives, so it's not as simple as logging on to Zoom. The reality of a grandmother or a grandfather holding sixteen different passwords so that their children can learn throughout the day is just not very real for us right now. We're balancing that, but also the experiences of staff members. We’re trying to approach so many realities while recognizing the limitations of being in a virtual environment, but working in a people-centered field.

Daniel Fairley, II, Youth Opportunity Coordinator, City of Charlottesville: We also have a program, called PAYUP, which is the Community Attention youth internship program that has a very similar vibe [to the YouthForce Nola program]—soft skills in the beginning, and then technical training, and getting people into jobs afterwards. We also had to shift our program to being an online service, and I’m excited about that. Speaking of my job changing, I'm stacking cans of food, mostly helping the basic needs of the families inside of our communities. All of my services that I used to do in person, I’m now transitioning them virtual. [I’ve been thinking about] what are ways in which we can use this opportunity—as it's exposing a lot of the inequities that people have been talking about for a while—to actually change the world that we're going back into? This new normal: can it be more equitable? It has to make sure that we are reshaping our systems into doing that. As someone mentioned before, being a black person through all of this has been pretty challenging. Not just for the communities that obviously have been hit harder due to the past inequities that have been exacerbated by this, but also I mean, thinking about every day it feels like there's another black person killed—still having to organize and protest and fight for your right to exist as a human, on top of Covid-19. It's a part of our daily lives. That doesn't change just because of a pandemic.

Stacy Johnson, Executive Director, La Paz: We are a nonprofit working for the Latinx community. We provide social services, direct services, also a lot of engagement and educational activities, as well as consulting for organizations and businesses trying to reach the Latinx community. Everything has shifted, but our focus is to ensure that the Latinx community has equitable access to information and resources. Our workload is greater than ever before. We are working with victims of Covid-19, as well as victims of a tornado that hit about four weeks ago. We had about 50 families Latinx families that were victims of the tornado. We have small groups of women that come together, and we shifted all of those virtually. We've done a lot of interviews and we've been on the Spanish radio every day bringing speakers from the health department. We’re working with the school system, working with the city, working with the county, the chamber, anyone and everyone that is giving out information. We have been screaming at the top of our lungs to make sure that the Latino community has the same information and that means that we may have to translate, to interpret, but we are doing so free of charge for the last two months just because it is so important that the community gets this information. The “rose” is that we have seen Chattanooga nonprofits, corporations, philanthropic entities come together around the need and a large percentage of the Chattanooga community “get it” and are behind us.

Jill Levine, Chief of Innovation & School Choice, Hamilton County Schools: Prior to Covid, my job was to accelerate innovation in our school district and to expand school choice options for families. As Stacey mentioned, we had a tornado on Easter Sunday that was quite devastating. We were in Covid mode, addressing a lot of issues, and then this tornado was completely unexpected and came in and destroyed about 1,200 homes. The kids are probably traumatized extensively. So one of the things there that we did is set up a Relief Center and I spent a couple weeks there running that, and hearing people's stories as they pulled through. As many donations were being dropped off as people were picking things up; it was amazing to see how many people were going out of their comfort zones of quarantine to go and get things to help others. A big chunk of the work has been transitioning a district of 45,000 kids to virtual learning, and teachers to virtual learning, and then of course parents to virtual learning. And dealing with the inequity there when some parents can spend the time homeschooling, or have the knowledge base to do it, and others are still working multiple jobs or for whatever reason aren't able to. Or grandparents, as someone mentioned, or kids that are living with distant relatives. There's definitely just a continuum of experience and vast inequity. We realize that about 25% of our kids didn't have wireless access, so we worked with our local electric power board. We stood up 26 additional drive-up Wi-Fi spots. We stood up a television show; PBS gave us primetime airtime every Monday, so we did a live TV show that also had a phone bank so people could call in with their questions or concerns. Our superintendent was on it every week. We also stood up an English speaking and Spanish speaking hotline. Those are still running every day so that we could address concerns as they came in. Another big chunk of our work has been feeding kids, managing food distribution at our school sites, where 13,000 meals go out a day. I worry a lot about the summer and what that's going to mean for our kids. Lastly, we also had a huge issue with PPE locally. Our hospitals and ER doctors and nurses saying they had nothing—and just like you hear in the news—they're asked to wear a mask for 5-7 days. We collected all of the 3D printers in our school district and assembled a big 3D printing farm at one of our schools, and very quickly produced several thousand face shields. We have now produced 7,000 face shields for medical personnel, and even have mailed some to Mozambique.

Ginger Spickler, Co-founder and the Chief of Staff, Crosstown High: Man, y’all. I think we get focused on what is on our own plate and it's good to hear what’s on everybody else's plate too. We have 9th and 10th graders—277 of them—and we'll be adding another couple of grades in the coming couple of years. In so many ways, we have been fortunate just because the scope of our problems is smaller. It’s not 45,000 kids in a district, it is our 277 kids. They weigh on your heart just as much as a large number. The “thorn,” at least for me personally, related to our kids and our work, is just really thinking about our teenagers’ mental health. The learning, you know it's important and we’ve got to figure out how to make up some lost time, but the mental health stuff is just really hard. It’s hard to figure out. Teenagers especially. They are just wired to need to be together, and want to be together, and they don't get that right now. We're on Zoom and trying to figure out how we can maintain some of those ties over the summer. Three months is a really long time before, hopefully, school comes back into session and we get to be consistently connected with them again. Our school was founded as a response to the “XQ Super School Challenge,” a design challenge put out into the world to rethink high school. For the past five years, we’ve been trying to figure out what does a high school look like, that is truly responsive to student needs in this day and age. We launched as a purely design-based, project-based, competency-based, relationship-focused high school. A lot of that is very counter to what our public “overlords”: the district, and the state, and the national education system want us to do. All of the sudden, a lot of these things that have been handcuffs, have been lifted like very rigid schedules, state testing, grades even. So it was like all of the sudden, we had this opportunity to say okay, “how do we engage kids when we don't have to worry about all these things?” We've seen some really exciting results of being able to do things differently and certain kids, who haven’t succeeded even in our very different, in-person environment, really succeeding because they're getting to do things that are meaningful and relevant to their lives, and interesting to them, and get more one-on-one attention. While it was vexing in some ways, to have to reinvent again, rethink again for the last two months of school, it’s what we've been doing for the past few years anyway. So it was kind of exciting to get to say “alright, these things are gone, what can we do?” We've seen some kids do some really remarkable things.

Emma Violand-Sanchez, Founder, The Dream Project: The Dream Project empowers undocumented youth to access higher education. We provide scholarships, currently a hundred renewable scholarships, mentoring for seniors in high school, and family engagement and advocacy. Their “rose” this year was they access to in-state tuition to undocumented students, or to any students regardless of their immigration status, in Virginia who have graduated from high school. The rest are thorns because as many of you can understand, what's going on with the undocumented immigrant community: They have lost their jobs, they have no access to unemployment, they have no access to social services, and many of them don't have access to health services, because of health insurance. We were going to celebrate college graduation for 33 of our students and a hundred scholarships, but suddenly we had to change gears and we started an emergency fund. Fortunately, we raised about $40,000, so we have been providing some cash assistance for immediate needs, up to $1000, and now we are increasing up to $1500 by working with nonprofits to access food. Problems with food have been major, and even advocating with our school system. It's an ongoing battle to deal with access, support, emergency, to the undocumented community, families, because they have been working. They have been before in restaurants, in taking care of children, washing dishes, cleaning houses, and suddenly that stopped. This has impacted our college students because in the past they were also helping their families, so we are advocating and I ask all of you to continue to advocate, especially for those who have been left out from all these emergency access, which includes the undocumented community. We are advocating at the local level, at the local government, we are collaborating with nonprofits because they have been helping with food, with assistance of rent, but really the major problem: We have students and families with the coronavirus, and they don't have health insurance. Some families stay at home, but then they infect all the other ones. So we are advocating again for some of our students, as for emergency funds to get tested for Covid, so you know it is very, very hard to face on a daily basis the need of the undocumented immigrant population, our youth, the children in our schools, and also the family. I just ask for your advocacy and support to please keep this population in mind.


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