Category Archives: School Leadership

Five Strategies for Serving Students with Disabilities: A Visual Primer

As the pandemic rages on, it’s increasingly clear that students with disabilities are not getting the services or educational supports they need. And as educators across the country continue to navigate uncertainty for the fall, it will be easier than ever to let minimum compliance with rules and regulations stand in for the deeper work necessary to serve all students well. 

I want to offer five strategies school leaders can use to ensure they integrate support for students with disabilities into their organizational culture and mission — during the pandemic and beyond. Alongside a series of other toolkits that my colleagues and I have released in recent months (the latest is here), these five strategies provide a starting place for giving all students, including and especially those with disabilities, an opportunity to learn together as part of a community.

The five strategies are available in a new visual one-page PDF

  1. Establish and reinforce adult culture and mindset
  2. Teach and encourage problem-solving in the classroom
  3. Represent students with disabilities in leadership and decision-making
  4. Align data systems to the school’s mission
  5. Know and address students’ contexts 

These strategies are based on my work with dozens of school leaders across the country, in which questions around culture, staffing, and operations inevitably intersect with the school’s approach to special education. These five strategies are not at odds with legal requirements for schools to provide a free appropriate public education, individualized education plans, and least restrictive environments. But they recognize that compliance is not enough. 

I hope more school leaders are able to “zoom out” of the day-to-day minutiae and embed their approach to special education within their school’s wider organizational culture and mission.

Read the new resource here.

Tips and Tricks for School Leader Decision Making: A Tool

School leaders are faced with a variety of decisions each and every day, from the most fraught and challenging decisions navigating COVID-19, to day-to-day decisions pertaining to operational management. Some decisions feel easy and minor, informed by past experience and quality data. Other decisions are more daunting, requiring leaders to make difficult calls with incomplete information in a context that is rapidly changing.

This is especially true today. For instance, a decision about whether to buy devices to support remote instruction could go off-track if the manager of the I.T. department and the school executive director both think the other has the final say on which devices to purchase and how many are needed. And it’s not hard to imagine a well-meaning leader soliciting input from a multitude of stakeholder groups about how best to make meals safely available to students, and then feel overwhelmed by the volume of conflicting viewpoints. 

I’ve created a simple tool to share how to tackle strategic decisions for your organization, and offered some details and examples to support you and your team as you build your decision-making muscle. You’ll note that the process I map out is deeply aligned with a couple of planning toolkits my colleagues and I have shared over the past several months. I’ve chosen an example that is likely familiar to many school leaders for the sake of clarity, but the recommendations below are especially applicable in the current moment. In addition to the details and examples below, you can also download a simple, printable version of these steps here.

Continue reading

Adapting Schools to a New Normal With Decentralized Power

The scale, speed, and severity of the coronavirus crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen in our nation’s history. In a matter of a few weeks, schools across the country shut down and most won’t reopen their physical campuses this academic year. No school system was completely prepared for what seemed like a near-impossible challenge: shifting to a fully remote model of education while simultaneously coordinating key student support services and adapting to evolving public health guidelines amidst a global pandemic. 

We won’t know the full impact of the choices school leaders are making for quite some time, but some school systems may be better positioned than others to navigate the challenges posed by the current pandemic. School systems that already embrace more decentralized decision-making, either by supporting more autonomous district schools or charter schools, seem to be better adapting to the complex challenge of educating kids in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

empty office boardroom with laptop on meeting table

Image by Jo_Johnston from Pixabay

We’re starting to see educators take action – often without clear guidance from central offices – to use whatever tools they can to reach their students. We know that there are vast inequities in students’ access to education during this crisis, so some teachers have been handing out Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots. In other communities, teachers are using print packets, telephones, and television broadcasts to reach students without access to technology. There are countless stories of individual teachers moving faster than their districts’ central offices, meeting with their classes on Zoom, offering supplemental instruction from a student’s porch, or leaving math problems in chalk on students’ driveways

While it would be impossible and unreasonable to expect every teacher to figure out how to meet the needs of every student during this crisis, we’re also seeing how top-down decision-making by districts can go terribly wrong for teachers and students. One need look no further than affluent Fairfax County (VA), which had a disastrous roll-out of their virtual learning platform. Marred by poor planning, testing, and vendor management, it’s clear that whatever process Fairfax used to develop their plan, it wasn’t driven and tested by teachers.  Continue reading

COVID-19 and Higher Education: A Q&A with Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—Camden

Earlier this year most colleges and universities shuttered and moved to virtual classes. Dormitories closed, study abroad programs were canceled, and graduation moved online. 

For many college students, campus closures created significant challenges. Some don’t have personal access to the technology needed to engage in virtual courses. Others don’t have a home to go to or a way to get food outside of their dorm. And after such a significant disruption, some first-generation and lower-income students may not make it back when schools finally reopen.

Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—CamdenI recently spoke with Howard Marchitello, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University—Camden to get a sense of how the school is responding to the crisis and meeting students’ needs. (Full disclosure: My colleague Max Marchitello is Dean Marchitello’s son.)

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

COVID-19 moved from a potential problem to a full-blown pandemic fairly quickly from mid-February into March. What were your initial reactions and concerns when it became clear that Rutgers would need to close its campuses? 

While we knew the Coronavirus would be an issue, it wasn’t immediately clear how big of an issue it would be. But once we knew we needed to take drastic measures, there was shock and disbelief across the campus, since we have never encountered anything of this magnitude before. Chief among my many worries was how we would keep everybody together, even as we dispersed students and faculty back to their homes. And sending folks home was not as straightforward as it sounds, because some of our residential students don’t have homes to go to. This was a big concern. 

How did you help those students who couldn’t go home once the campus closed? 

We had more than 100 students who had to stay on campus: international students who couldn’t go home and students who didn’t have a home. These students were able to live on campus. And since Camden is a bit of a food desert, we coordinated with the corporation that provides dining services to provide meals. We had a contingent of staff, some from the dining halls and some who had been reassigned from other areas, delivering meals to the residence halls. Nearly half these students have since found housing options in the city or surrounding areas, and the remaining 50 students are still living on our campus. We continue to provide dining services for them, as well as other supports, including our food pantry and our Wellness Center [a comprehensive health center], which has remained open and serving students throughout the semester. Continue reading

Getting Strategic — and Practical — About Reopening Schools in the Fall

Planning to reopen schools in the fall is going to be complex, but it does not have to feel defeating. It should not mean spinning through a million different scenarios nor getting bogged down in abstract hypothesizing about the future of schooling. 

While many remain stuck intellectualizing about the 2020-2021 school year, leaders know they need to move forward now in order to support their staff, students, and families. Bellwether’s Academic Program Strategy team has worked closely with districts and schools since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, and we bring our practitioner lens to planning for reopening. We know that thousands of school leaders nationwide need practical support and clear processes to start planning — rather than thought pieces and ad hoc ideation. 

Drawing on our experiences as school founders, network leaders, and classroom educators and our work supporting clients, we have pulled together Essential Questions For 2020-2021 Reopenings: A Planning Workbook for Education Leaders

Our workbook simplifies the scenarios into three primary, high-level buckets: school occurring with every student learning in-person with social distancing guidelines in place, school occurring with every student learning at a distance, or a hybrid scenario with a subset of students learning at home and a subset of students learning in-person simultaneously. Continue reading