#PandemictoProgress: Superintendents’ Plans for Academic Supports and Relationship-building to Accelerate Student Learning

In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part district webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss the upcoming 2021-22 school year. Read a summary and see the video of Part 1: Policy and Planning, here, and Part 2: Operations and Outreach, here.  

Rigorous academics, high-quality instruction, and strong student-educator relationships must be at the core of efforts to ensure that every student is able to thrive in school and achieve success. Schools and districts making academic and instructional plans for the school year ahead should anticipate and assess new student needs, and effectively leverage new resources available through federal stimulus funds aimed at learning recovery.

Part 3 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on academics and instruction and featured:

  • Dwight Jones, Interim Superintendent and Senior Deputy Superintendent, Equity and Engagement, Denver Public Schools, Colorado.
  • Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, Superintendent, Hartford Public Schools, Connecticut.
  • Facilitator: Bill Durbin, Senior Adviser, Academic Strategy, Bellwether Education Partners.

The discussion (video above) led to four key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Strong relationships with students and families form the foundation of successful academic and instructional plans

Building relationships among educators, students, and families as the new school year begins is essential after more than a year of multiple disruptions to students’ and families’ lives. Districts should not see that relationship-building time as a loss for academics. 

“It’s really been a challenge,” said Jones, to build and maintain relationships with students throughout the pandemic, “And it’s become even more critical.” Multiple changes in learning modes, necessitated by fluctuating rates of COVID-19 infection in the Denver community, have made this even tougher. “We know that learning is best when students know that teachers care about them,” so Jones and his team are encouraging teachers to spend dedicated time focused on social and emotional learning and on developing relationships, and plan to roll out a new curriculum to guide that time. 

Dr. Torres-Rodriguez plans to build time into school days to keep students and families engaged in their school community with expanded before- and after-school offerings, and summer programs. “We don’t want to forget to create opportunities for fun and joy for our students and families,” she said, in addition to direct outreach to families to offer wraparound support such as tutoring or connections to other social services families might need.

Takeaway 2: Educators and school staff will also need care and support in order to do their best work for students

Much like students and families, many educators and school staff have endured a very difficult, exhausting, and traumatizing time over the past year and a half. If districts hope to hit the ground running in fall 2021 and implement ambitious academic plans and intervention programs, they must consider the needs of their educators and other school staff. For example, expanded summer learning programs may be difficult when teachers and staff need a break in order to mentally prepare for the year ahead.

“We have to be mindful of the level of almost burnout that our adults are feeling,” said Jones, especially with reduced opportunities for interpersonal connection in or out of work. He’s working with labor unions on revised scheduling and identifying ways to encourage self-care during the work day. 

Torres-Rodriguez agreed, adding, “We have to tend to ourselves before we can tend to others.” She described a two-part approach to supporting staff in the school year ahead. First, increased staff engagement in decision-making and planning processes will empower staff at all levels to shape the districts’ strategic priorities and professional learning plans. Second, carving out dedicated time for wellness initiatives, mindfulness, and stress management can help address the higher stress levels many educators and staff face at home and in their work.

Takeaway 3: Districts should use data to understand students’ individual needs and inform instruction

Students’ academic and non-academic needs may be very different in fall 2021 than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Districts are planning to use data and assessments in new ways to better understand those needs, monitor progress, and shape plans accordingly. 

“It’s essential that we understand new and even deeper student needs,” said Torres-Rodriguez, and her team is preparing the data infrastructure now to use multiple kinds of information about student learning more effectively in the new school year. “We’ll be looking at student learning data, attendance, and early warning indicators,” she said, and setting up rapid improvement cycles to respond to individual and group trends. For example, by using this approach in winter 2021, in response to rising rates of chronic absenteeism, her Hartford team was able to target family outreach and collaboration with community groups in order to get more students back to virtual or in-person school.

In Denver, Jones and the educators on his team are emphasizing frequent formative assessments embedded in the curriculum to guide instruction on an ongoing basis, within a framework of culturally responsive educational practices and research-based interventions to accelerate student learning. “Let’s not do the same old remediation, let’s not make it feel like students or teachers are being punished. Let’s find a way to make it fun, engaging, and feel like an acceleration, not remediation.”

Takeaway 4: The pandemic isn’t over yet, and academic plans need to be flexible to different circumstances

Both Jones and Torres-Rodriguez hope to get as many students as possible back into in-person classrooms safely in the coming months. However, they recognized that their plans will have to be responsive and flexible to the possibility of changing public health guidance as well as changing family preferences to potentially continue with remote learning.

Even with the added uncertainties of the current moment, Torres-Rodriguez identified four “must-win” areas for her district in the year ahead: 1) expanding learning time during and outside of the school day, 2) increasing support for teachers and leaders, 3) connecting every student to an adult advocate, and 4) cultivating a sustainable teacher pipeline. Across those topics, Hartford is putting extra emphasis on students in grades K-3 and 9-10, which are both critical times of transition, as well as on schools in need of additional targeted support. 

Find videos and summaries of Parts 1 and 2 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series by clicking here and here.