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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Odd Couple

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

This week, Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, announced a grant program to support volunteer service by college students and recent graduates in the nation's efforts to combat COVID-19 and its sweeping social consequences. The effort identifies a silver lining in this otherwise troubling time:

  • many college students would love to defer at least the fall semester, and many recent graduates are struggling to find work

  • employers have frozen hiring and internship programs

  • travel, a common gap year pursuit for some students, remains difficult, and to some countries forbidden

  • the need for formal and informal social supports is growing dramatically as the crisis lingers

The silver lining? A major injection of talent, youthful energy and altruism will return to local communities this fall looking for meaningful growth experiences. It's hard to imagine the current US administration catalyzing this same dynamic, but one can imagine that the even deeper social need in this country and the same rush of talent into our nation's communities might find each other.

There is growing evidence that the ground is particularly ripe for it now. Two months ago, I wrote a flippant piece about the prospect for a kind of odd couple micro-school comprised of a pair of college students and a handful of elementary school kids. That scenario doesn't seem so far-fetched now. As schools have begun to announce concrete fall plans--from continued remote learning, to alternating schedules, to a full return with precautions that many deem unrealistic--as faculty and unions begin to respond publicly with concerns, and as the virus resurges in many parts of the country, parents of elementary students are seeing their earlier fears of a janky school year outstripped.

Indeed, in a recent piece NPR education correspondent, Anya Kamenetz, reports that more American families are planning to use organized micro-schools next fall, or to make their own in the form of home school co-ops. Safer, more flexible and reliable because of the small number of people involved, these tiny school communities stand a much greater chance of mitigating the disruptions that could make even well-resourced, traditional schools struggle to meet elementary school kids' social/emotional, academic and physical needs, and their parents' need to work.

It's easy to see how deferring college students could enhance organized or homemade micro-schools. When asked about their own greatest learning experiences, my newly-fledged children are more likely to tell their camp counselor or summer nanny stories than their stories about study abroad experiences, their careers as college athletes, or the swell internships and jobs they've won in the last few years. The summer after his freshman year of college, Chris quickly impressed his summer day camp supervisors with his ability to hear and see the squabbly friction of imminent trouble on the playground and re-direct kids, give them a chance to re-group themselves, or take a firmer hand if they were flying back into the flame as so often happens in August with summer camp "lifers". The summer after her sophomore year, Carlyn served the Riddick family--two very active boys, age 10 and 8, and their parents, both 60 hour/week professionals--as a summer nanny. She chauffered the boys to lessons and practices, devised cooking projects, taught them card games, played endless rounds of HORSE, competed in dance-offs, supervised their assigned summer reading, took them swimming, but more importantly, she established a sort of summery micro-school community by giving the boys opportunities to collaborate on a weekly calendar of structured and self-directed activities. The stories we heard from her the most often that summer were about the games they invented together and about the activities she'd built from her growing knowledge of the boys' interests and their relationship with each other. Anyone who's been around auxiliary programs has seen the promise in this odd couple--college kids leading young children--and plenty of examples of how of how it can flop, how important it is to be assertively selective in finding college kids with true interest in working with young students and the willingness to supply the daily energy it takes.

I believe that organized or homemade micro-schools could be the best option for parents of elementary age kids this fall. Talented, inexpert college kids and engaged parents using a reputable (even if underwhelming) online academic program, augmented by the creative energy I describe above, with the micro-school's greater potential to let young children engage actively with each other every day, all of it could be a more robust, developmentally appropriate "school" experience than the flickering transmissions (virulent and academic) of even the most well-resourced traditional school.

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