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FunTimes Magazine

Dr. Penny Nixon on Access and Transformation in Education during COVID-19

Aug 04, 2020 08:00AM ● By Oga Africa

Access to education is an overwhelming issue in many parts of the world. The United States is
no exception. We are highlighting non-profit organizations that help reduce education inequality
in hopes that it will inspire more philanthropy. Universal Companies is a Philadelphia non-profit
that creates educational, cultural and economic opportunities to break the cycle of generational
poverty. Through providing resources for Philadelphia schools, their impact is immense and has
been magnified during COVID-19. FunTimes speaks to Dr. Penny Nixon, the Senior Executive
Vice President of Education and Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) at Universal Companies, to
learn about their work and explore the potential of positive transformation that can blossom from
this harrowing time.

Dr. Nixon says COVID-19 has uncovered the gravity of gaps in equality and access, and forced
communities to face them, especially in the education. “COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented
challenge to the education sector. We are truly in unchartered territory. On all levels, COVID-19
has turned a spotlight on the economic disparities of our nation’s schools and how these
disparities contribute to education and income equality in this nation,” Dr. Nixon said.


Although her mission of leading Universal Schools has not changed during the pandemic, Dr.
Nixon shares that her strategy has shifted in an unusual way: “The health and safety and the
academic achievement of all scholars have always been my priority. However, in this pandemic,
health and safety has taken on new meaning and supporting our scholars academically changed
as we moved from in-person learning to totally virtual learning. The goals remain the same. But,
the strategies for reaching those goals have been drastically different.

As Superintendent/CEO of Universal Schools, I have also had to ensure that I will continue to
make sound decisions that support the Universal Education Community as we continue to strive
to educate our children at high levels.”

Universal Schools is working to allocate resources for students so everyone can have an equal
opportunity to reach academic heights during COVID. Dr. Nixon explains the successes and
challenges of this endeavor: “Universal Schools did an excellent job of ensuring that our scholars
had the necessary technology to participate in virtual learning. Our school staff became 100%
committed to participating in professional development to enhance their skills to provide virtual
learning and supports. Schools leaders worked overtime to support school staff and continue to
lead with confidence.

“Despite our best efforts, I am still challenged by learning opportunities for all students.
We’ve always had gaps in students learning opportunities after school, weekends and in the
summer. Students in urban schools suffer the consequences of those gaps more than affluent
children, who typically have lots of opportunities to fill in those gaps. I’m hoping that we can
learn some things about online delivery of not only instruction, but an array of opportunities for
learning and support. This way, we can make the most of this crisis to help redesign better
systems of education and child development.

“I am also challenged as I think about some of our children who depend on the schoolhouse for survival. Some of our students really need the love and support that is offered at the school house and they have been unable to access some of the services that they really need.”

In light of COVID, Universal Companies launched online learning using Zoom and Google
classroom for over 4,200 students in their seven schools. Dr. Nixon explains the importance of
providing access for underserved communities: “Twenty-first century learning absolutely
requires technology and internet. We can’t leave this to chance. All of our children must
have the technology they need to learn outside of school. Some communities can take it for granted that their children will have such tools. We have been able to support our families to level the planning field and we are thankful that we are able to step up for our families.”

Now, many parents find themselves co-teaching with educators. Dr. Nixon has special advice for
these parents: “Virtually, all parents are doing some form of homeschooling, whether they want
to or not. The challenge of course for parents is that they are contending with working from
home, and in other cases having to leave home to do their job. My advice to parents is to try to
balance all of the responsibilities that have landed on your plate during this unprecedented time.
Also, use the resources that are being provided by the state, city and schools. Don’t be afraid to
reach out for help and assistance.”

A long-term strategist, Dr. Nixon wishes for this COVID shift to catalyze a great transformation
in the blueprint of education in the U.S: “It is my hope that the effects of this pandemic on
schools inspires an overhaul of the American education system. The most obvious place to start
for schools is working on equitable access to educational technology as a way to close the digital achievement gap.”

Are you a student, parent or educator with an interesting education experience during COVID-
19? Email us at [email protected], we love to hear from you!