Category Archives: Back to School

Back to School Leader Q&A: Natalie McCabe Zwerger and Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz on Re-Centering Race and Equity in Education

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Today’s post concludes a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

RE-Center: Race & Equity in Education* is a Connecticut-based nonprofit that activates youth and adults to drive transformative change towards racially just schools and communities. In July 2021, Natalie McCabe Zwerger joined the organization as its new executive director after spending more than two decades as an educator and attorney, most recently serving as director of the center for strategic solutions at New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Her colleague, Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz, has been with RE-Center since 2016 and is one of the lead evaluators on its Equity-Informed School Climate Assessment team. 

I had a wide-ranging discussion over Zoom recently with McCabe Zwerger and Estrada-Peréz about how RE-Center has shown up during the pandemic, how COVID-19 made their team pivot and respond to community needs, and more. 

Melissa Steel King:
Tell me a little bit about RE-Center’s work and your roles within the organization. Who does RE-Center primarily serve?

Natalie McCabe Zwerger:
I have a unique background as a longtime educator and attorney. I was most recently with NYU’s race and equity center and often apply a civil rights lawyer lens to my daily work. The work of RE-Center is steeped in transformative change to create, foster, and maintain more equitable schools. It’s a profound mission that drew me to join the organization. 

The bulk of RE-Center’s work is in the service of children in systems led by adults. Young people can’t bear the load of transforming spaces that harm them. We focus on Black and Indegenous children of color who learn in systems led by predominantly white educators in Connecticut. We focus on supporting those educators through professional development to change the way they teach and relate to students of color who don’t look like them. 

We also work in evaluation, which enables us to make sure we have our receipts and can measure and scale impact. We want young people to feel spaces shift to be more welcoming and affirming, and to serve them in the ways they’re entitled to be served. RE-Center’s work with teachers, leaders, board members, community partners, families, and young people brings this mission into the everyday.

Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz:
I have a background in evaluation and in decolonizing work grounded in liberation and environmental justice. I joined RE-Center in 2016, initially as a volunteer and am now its research and program evaluation manager. There’s a little sprinkle of me throughout the organization’s work, to be honest, in everything from evaluation processes and facilitation to thought partnership and communications. 

Do you work with cohorts of students in addition to your focus on teachers and school leaders?

Both. It’s extremely important for us to not just have theoretical applications and observations but to be in community and relationship with young people, listening to and learning from them. We recently convened a quarantine series and pivoted during COVID-19 to focus on hearing from young people about their pandemic experiences, especially students of color who may be at the receiving end of systems but don’t have power over things like teacher hiring. RE-Center’s partnerships with students are grounded in leveraging our voice to build awareness among critically conscious adults to support those students.

How has RE-Center shown up in the past 2020-21 school year? What went well, what was hard, and how did you approach the work?

It’s often said that you can’t do this kind of relational work through a screen and that you need to be in the same room to make a difference. The pandemic forced us to do our own organizational reflection, pausing to lean into the discomfort of distance to further collective learning. We shifted and pivoted because that’s what needed to happen. Today, it feels like we’ve rewound to the past [with the emergence of the Delta variant]. But we’ll continue to be responsive and center young peoples’ voices and support staff in the school year ahead.

We also believe this work is relational. Yes, connecting in a human space is important. But the limitations of the pandemic fostered a spirit of creativity to find different ways of doing this work. Early on, we realized that different things would be needed to meet this moment of urgency. One of those ways was having our staff dedicate eight hours to community projects, events, or support of family. Recognizing the enormity of the pandemic and trying to implement responsive practices that take stock of our humanity is important to RE-Center’s work.

Are you continuing to train adults virtually as an organization? Did schools lean in or opt out due to stretched systems in the pandemic?

There’s an interesting intersection of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Early on in the pandemic, there was a moment in time when things slowed down and organizations like ours questioned what engagement opportunities would look like. The tragic Floyd murder changed everything for us. More people were energized and animated to take on this work. RE-Center had to vet partnerships and assess readiness, and in that process we learned invaluable things we’ll definitely carry forward. One key lesson learned is to have more frequent meetings with partners but in smaller dosages. Gone are the days of a six-hour training session — and we try not to make racial equity work an “event” anyhow — now, we pick up the phone and coach a superintendent to navigate this work or have shorter Zoom sessions within our networks. 

We recognize that we’re all “Zoomed out” so we try to make meetings shorter to ensure engagement. Hybrid models borne of the pandemic have enabled RE-Center to be in more spaces. Moving from meeting to meeting virtually is something that had been limiting before with geographic boundaries. RE-Center often had to defend our work pre-pandemic, but now there’s a growing and deeper level of understanding in the field. That’s been one bright spot amid the trauma and grief of the last 18 months.

I see this in my work with schools across the country: folks are grappling with dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. When you think ahead to SY2021-22, what’s on your mind? What are you concerned or excited about, and what do you want to share with schools as kids return?

I hope this is an opportunity to lean into centering young people in a humanizing way. Many students haven’t physically been together for 18 months and it makes us wonder what being “together” looks like in the school year ahead. How can we support educators to support young people with the same concerns? The Delta variant, attacks and misunderstandings of Critical Race Theory, volatile school board meetings, these are all creating a palpable fear even with educators we’ve worked with in the past. We have to keep the momentum going in focusing our work on centering racial equity.

Is there a common mistake schools make when they think they center students’ needs, or do you typically see an “aha!” moment that marks a lasting shift?

There are so many pandemic examples, especially with school-based health practices. Kids virtually learning at home are on different schedules and, in many cases, can center their own needs in ways that don’t always translate in traditional school buildings. We should afford young people the same level of trust. Scheduling and curriculum for the first six weeks of SY2021-22 are critical. Are we going to lean into new, restorative ways of structuring the school day or are we going to fall back into deficit training? Are we going to ask kids if they’re OK and if the school community can hold space for shared grief? We must ask those questions first and avoid the inclination to over-focus on deficit-based thinking like talking about “learning loss.” Instead of asking how far behind sixth graders are, maybe we should shift content and teaching approaches to respond to the collective water we’re all swimming in.

We have to recognize the loss and acknowledge that so many young people have experienced domestic violence, tragedy, grief, and more and are going to bring that into the school building with them every day. It’s important that we hold space for humanity and for the collective loss and grief we’re all experiencing. And, to recognize that systems we had in place pre-pandemic weren’t working for young people (for example, mental health supports). Acknowledging our shared humanity is the first step toward lasting change.

(*Editorial note: RE-Center is a past Bellwether client; this version carries a minor correction for accuracy)

Back to School Leader Q&A: Superintendent Veronica Vijil on Taking Risks and Leaning Into Partnerships

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Join us for a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

Fabens Independent School District* is a K-12 traditional public school system located in a small but mighty rural community outside of El Paso, Texas. Under the leadership of Dr. Veronica Vijil the district’s first Latina superintendent Fabens ISD has continued to serve as the hub of its community for students, families, teachers, and staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I recently connected with Dr. “V” as she’s known by some in the community, to discuss how Fabens ISD has navigated through the innumerable ups and downs of the pandemic and how she’s poised to lead her district in the 2021-22 school year, now underway.

Nate Geller:
Tell us about Fabens ISD and the professional path in education that led to your current role.

Dr. Veronica Vijil:
I’m the superintendent of Fabens ISD. We’re a diamond in the rough and serve about 2,000 students in a small, rural community. 99% of our students are Hispanic and roughly 91% of families are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, although districtwide, every student gets free breakfast and lunch. 

I was born and raised in El Paso, and began my 30-plus year teaching career in its classrooms. My location meandered but I’ve always been rooted in education. I taught in public and parochial schools in Indiana and Texas. I never thought administration was my path but opening a middle school and serving as an associate superintendent in El Paso set me on my way. There, I began to prepare myself for a superintendent role and joining Fabens ISD has been a dream come true. Leading a district with a rich history in an area where my family has deep roots is special — Fabens ISD neighbors a small district where my parents were born and raised. I feel honored to lead here.

What’s Fabens’ mission? What are you most proud of accomplishing in pursuit of its mission?

In rural districts, there’s often a misconception that parents aren’t involved or aren’t interested in their children’s education because we’re surrounded by farms that require hard manual labor. The fact is, we are a rural farming community and our community values education immensely. Fabens ISD is in a small enough area that we don’t have a mayor or city council. So the schools are the hub of our community; everyone counts on us. 

Our mission is to work together to create a positive and lasting impact through multiple learning opportunities. What’s the key ingredient? Leveling the playing field in whatever way we can so that students have choices and the same opportunities as their peers in other Texas schools or across the country.

We leverage what our area has available to promote opportunities for students through support from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) starting with 1) embracing the bilingualism that exists here, and 2) giving high school students opportunities to earn college credit or industrial certification. It’s very uncommon for a district of our size to be able to offer high schoolers:

  • Access to early college credits and college-level courses through our partnership with El Paso Community College that enables students to earn an associate’s degree by the time they graduate.
  • T-STEM-focused coursework in grades six through 12. Under that umbrella, we’re able to offer students different pathways like medical classes, rocket coursework in partnership with the University of Texas at El Paso which offer us access to their college students and professors, and more. One of our students recently became a certified drone pilot. 
  • P-TECH, which is also in partnership with El Paso Community College, enables students to have internships with local businesses. We even offer internships within our own school district and have students take courses for industry certifications in things like operating and working on our diesel school buses.

At the end of these programs, our students are already ahead of the game. That’s what we call leveling the playing field. 

Contextualize the great work happening in your school district in the past year and a half. As you look back on the 2020-21 school year, what were some of the wins and challenges your team experienced during an immensely difficult time? How have you maintained student engagement? 

It’s a cliché but teamwork is what’s getting us through COVID-19. It’s truly building capacity in others that enables me to advocate for the various needs of our school district. While members of my team were putting out COVID-19 fires, I participated in a recurring phone call with TEA representatives to report on what we were going through, ask for needed resources, and advocate for our community. My persistence led to Fabens ISD becoming a pilot district for rapid COVID-19 tests for eligible students and staff. We were able to make so many connections and forged partnerships that evolved into open clinics for our community to do drive-through testing, blood drives, flu clinics, and more. 

We also had to overcome an obstacle common in rural communities like ours: technology and broadband access. We don’t have fiber that extends throughout the area, so at the outset of the pandemic we were caught off guard because we were not a 1:1 device district where every student receives a Chromebook. We had to pivot and quickly figure out how to get technology into students’ hands and then issue hotspots to students in need. Our partnerships in this realm will lead to lasting change through greater access to WiFi, internet, and broadband. 

At one point, El Paso was a national hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks and was on the news for two weeks straight. It forced parents to keep children at home even though our doors were always open for those who couldn’t log kids on and had to send them to school. After the peak in our area passed, there was a lot of residual fear and anxiety. In the spring 2021 semester, we had 30% of students return for in-person instruction and about 70% remain at home for remote learning. Of the 70% who are U.S. citizens, some returned to family in Mexico and haven’t been allowed to cross back over the border. Getting lessons to those students has been a challenge but we do whatever it takes for our students even if it means handing families packets at the international bridge, which we did.

Given Bellwether’s work with Fabens ISD, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. What’s top of mind for you as you look into the 2021-22 school year? Tell us about any early wins you experienced in the first few weeks as well as continued challenges.

We didn’t know how many students were going to come back. We can do survey after survey, but we weren’t going to know until the first day of school. We moved our start date up early this year to Aug. 2 to have an extended-year calendar. Lo and behold, more than 95% of our kids have returned! Granted, there’s still a lot of anxiety and we battle misinformation on a daily basis to assure students and families that ours is a safe school district for them to return to.  

We’ve also done a number of COVID-19 vaccine clinics, which have been well attended. In El Paso county, 70% of residents are vaccinated. A few weeks ago, we had a clinic in our middle school and 140 people showed up for shots, 40 of whom were our own students. We’ll continue to promote the vaccine, so that’s a win. We had another vaccine clinic on Aug. 18 and I extended invites to two neighboring school districts in Hudspeth county. They hadn’t yet had vaccine clinics so I told them to load their school buses and come to Fabens ISD. Other districts have reached out and offered opportunities for testing and vaccines. Nothing can happen without partnerships.

We’ve also continued to give students a voice. We had “Senior Sunrise” on Aug. 18. In the midst of all the chaos and receiving notice at 10 p.m. the evening prior that a mask mandate was reactivated for all of El Paso county, on a dime we were able to not allow the politics to be a distraction and focused on safely celebrating our students. We gathered that next morning for the Senior Sunrise and honored our longstanding school traditions as a community. Senior Sunrise is a time where all high school seniors and their sponsors and administrators gather at our football stadium and wait for the sun to rise in celebration of the beginning of their senior year. It’s followed by a senior breakfast to kick the year off with a spirit of collegiality and friendship. At the end of each school year, we host a “Senior Sunset” to honor a successfully completed year and new adventures ahead for graduates. We made these traditions happen last year and this year, and I’m so proud of our community’s perseverance.

You mentioned the learning loss that happened over the last 18 months, exacerbated by a lack of internet connectivity and students moving back to Mexico. What specifically are you focused on academically this year to help recoup that lost ground?

That’s a great question. We have an academic acceleration focus for each major grade level band. There’s an emphasis on early childhood pre-K through third grade students to have a curriculum rich in setting and building foundations. Those teachers are charged with identifying skills students didn’t grasp as a basic foundation to catch them up. 

Students in fourth through eighth grade will be focused on internalizing high-quality reading language arts curriculum to ensure that we expose students to rigorous, TEKS-aligned grade level content every day and apply interventions where appropriate. 

For middle school-level math, we received a grant enabling teachers to closely examine lesson cycles to learn where gaps exist and how we can move forward with targeted, just-in-time interventions.

At our high school, our dual focus is on math and ELA. We used a portion of our federal ESSER funds to hire additional tutors and teachers to lower class sizes. It’s a challenge, because other Region 19 districts are looking within the same talent pools in their recruitment efforts. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share in closing?

I think it’s important for everyone to know that sometimes as a leader, you have to take calculated risks. For example, when I found out from the local health authority that mask mandates were reinstated, I thought I’d have an emergency board meeting and contacted my two neighboring superintendents (both of whom are female). I asked them if they were calling emergency meetings and they said, “No, it’s done. We already messaged it out, here’s what we sent if you’d like to use any of it.” My relationships, ongoing collaboration, and partnerships create a mutual trust that enables me to replicate best practices and take risks from time to time. Instead of calling the board and asking permission, I decided to move quickly and ask for forgiveness later. How can I send kids back to school when I haven’t reminded parents they need to send them with a mask?

(*Editorial note: Dr. Veronica Vijil and Fabens ISD are Bellwether clients.)

Back to School Leader Q&A: Dr. Caprice Young on the Value of Building Relationships

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Join us for a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

Dr. Caprice Young* is no stranger to the education sector. A longtime education leader and school choice advocate, Young started her career in finance before transitioning into education as a member and president of the elected Los Angeles Unified School Board for four years. She also founded the California Charter Schools Association and served as its CEO from 2003 to 2008. Currently, Young is the national superintendent of Lifelong Learning and provides advisory services to its education partners, including the Learn4Life network of nonprofit high schools, FLEX, Mission Academy, and its new accredited online private STEAM school, Stanza International Academy. Lifelong Learning offers a proprietary personalized learning model and administrative services — ranging from operations, financial, and people services, to communications, legal, compliance, and education services — enabling teachers and schools to focus solely on their students.

I recently caught up with Young in an expansive conversation on the state of play in education, Lifelong Learning’s COVID-19 plan, new initiatives grounded in trauma-responsive and relationship-based approaches, and more.

Katie Rouse:
Tell us about Lifelong Learning, your work, and your role within the organization.

Dr. Caprice Young:
Lifelong Learning is an educational service nonprofit that focuses on supporting students disconnected from traditional public schools. We serve students ranging in age from 14 to 24 who have been impacted by experiences with houselessness, the foster system, undiagnosed special education needs, physical and mental health issues, having to work to feed their families, early pregnancy, and more.

Lifelong Learning supports their diverse needs as a provider to schools. One anchor of this work is our Trauma Responsive Education Communities, our codified approach to building a trauma-informed school community that supports everyone teachers, staff, and young people. As the national superintendent of Lifelong Learning, my role is to provide educational coaching, guidance, and strategic planning to our client schools. 

What’s unique about your background in education? What brought you to your current role?

I grew up in a host foster family, so I have 36 brothers and sisters. It’s an important part of my life and upbringing. My mother was a teacher and my dad worked in the juvenile justice system and as a Unitarian pastor. My childhood was rooted in giving back, and that’s the lens and orientation I bring to my everyday work.

I spent my early career in public finance before serving as the assistant deputy mayor for the City of Los Angeles. I won a school board race in 1999 and spent four years on the Los Angeles Unified School Board the second-largest school district in the U.S. My time on the school board made me fall in love with educators and I knew I wanted to spend my career with them. I think I read somewhere that you spend roughly one-third to one-half of your life with people in your professional industry…so you better like them. I love the collective mission I share with teachers and school leaders. 

I left the Los Angeles Unified School Board to found and lead the California Charter Schools Association, then earned my doctorate and worked on turnarounds in charter school organizations, nonprofits, for-profits, and served as a foundation vice president. Three years ago, I joined Lifelong Learning as its national superintendent. 

Looking back, how did Lifelong Learning and Learn4Life show up in the past 2020-21 school year? What went well? What was particularly challenging?

The heroism of the women and men leading our schools — and working in them every day throughout the ups and downs of the pandemic — has been incredible. I distinctly remember a Friday the 13th in March 2020 because I spent that morning trying to convince a current Los Angeles Unified School Board member to allow me to move a charter school into her district. By the end of that same day, we weren’t moving anywhere — the state-mandated school facility closures forced us to shift to remote learning.

We did an amazing pivot. And I think it worked due to a few key factors. 

  • First, our educational model, which is grounded in relationship-building and a 1:1 approach to learning, meant that students and teachers had preexisting, deep relationships before the pandemic. Each supervising teacher had 25-35 students already, and so that depth of relationship and trust were connective tissues tying everyone together. 
  • Second, we made critical investments in technology before COVID-19 closed school facilities. In February 2020, we ordered Chromebooks for more than 23,000 students because we decided to go to 1:1 computing before the pandemic required it; it was already part of a planned rollout, which in retrospect felt like providence. 
  • Third, we really listened to our young people to find out what was going on with them and to plug in and support. We quickly realized that students had varying degrees of access to reliable WiFi, so we issued nearly 18,000 hotspots to get the technology into students’ hands. We also provided food and, for our 2,400 pregnant and parenting students, we supplemented diapers and food.
  • Fourth, we invested in staff wellbeing by launching health and wellness webinars and by immediately issuing 21 days of paid sick time with a more expansive sick time policy. Just like our students, we wanted staff to feel supported and prioritized showing up for them in ways large and small. We also implemented flexible work schedules for teachers.

These measures contributed to a 7% increase in our re-enrollment rate from SY2019-20 to 2020-21. 

As you look ahead to SY2021-22, what issues are top of mind as you lead through it? How do you think about systemic supports for your team and students?

Our No. 1 issue is keeping staff, families, and students safe. Period. We’ve retrofitted all of our school sites with enhanced ventilation systems, plexiglass barriers, sanitation standards, and ample supplies of masks and hand sanitizers. As we adhere to the new California vaccination and testing mandate, we will support time off for vaccinations and provide self-collection PCR test kits from the school site. 

We’ve also seen, and I expect will continue to see, a significant portion of our school communities experience profound grief, whether manifested as severe illness and death in families or even movement from dual to single incomes. A lot more of our students are in the workforce than were pre-COVID. We’re offering even more flexibility with student and teacher schedules to better accommodate life circumstances as well. We found that by training teachers to support students coping with grief, we’re also helping support teachers in their grief. These are all top-of-mind issues. 

Another critical issue in the school year ahead is how we can locate and support students who, for whatever reason, can’t return to traditional public schools. Most of our students are 17 or 18 years old when they enroll with us. They’ve dropped out for various reasons, then — once they’ve decided to re-engage — have found themselves aged out of traditional school. Without a high school diploma, their ability to get a well-paying job is slim. Providing a school option for these youth — Opportunity Youth — is critical to the student’s success in life, a thriving community, and more. We can’t separate school completion from the rest of society. It’s pivotal to a healthy individual, community, and economy.

What’s an ongoing source of unexpected heartburn for you in the pandemic?

COVID-19 has derailed our ability to track student efficacy data. We’ve had to rely on more basic measures of success (e.g., volume of students’ work completion vs. summative assessments). It keeps me up at night because the ability to provide substantial data means more funding to serve students most in need. And it’s important now more than ever after 18 months of learning loss.

In closing, I want to reflect on you as a leader and as a human being. What’s sustaining you right now as you continue to lead? 

I’m relying on female friends — we’re all leaning on each other. Personal connections are sustaining. Professionally, I’m continually making sure my team knows how important they are and how vital their work is for young people. When they ask for things, I figure out how to make it happen.

(*Editorial note: Dr. Caprice Young and Lifelong Learning are past Bellwether clients.)