Tag Archives: school districts

#PandemictoProgress: Lessons for Districts to Carry Forward on Community Outreach and Operations

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 2021-22 school year ahead. Read our summary and see the video of Part 1: Policy and Planning, here.  

Since first shutting their doors to in-person learning in March 2020, school districts and community partners have had to work harder and smarter in order to communicate and collaborate with students, families, and other stakeholders. Even as more schools transition back to in-person learning this spring or fall, millions of students nationally may have had minimal or no engagement with virtual learning over the past year. What has the 2020-21 academic year taught district and community leaders about family engagement, and how might school operations change as students make a safe return to classrooms? 

Part 2 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on operations and outreach to tackle these fundamental questions. Panelists included:

  • Amanda Fernández, CEO and Founder of Latinos for Education and Partner in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, Massachusetts. 
  • Peter Hilts, CEO, District 49, Colorado.
  • Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim Union High School District, California.
  • Facilitator: Mary K. Wells, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Bellwether Education Partners.

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

Takeaway 1: Districts should recognize the essential role community-based organizations can play in connecting schools with families and communities, and in expanding district capacity

The pandemic, “Unmasked the illusion of independence,” within Hilts’ district that stretches across suburban and rural communities near Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We thought we operated pretty independently…but in a crisis we needed to increase the tempo of our collaboration,” and work with neighboring school districts and community organizations to execute on initiatives like a regional free meal distribution strategy, he noted. 

Similarly, Matsuda highlighted the value of community partnerships over the past year, which have helped his district build relationships with families in new settings and get the word out about community public health initiatives such as COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. “We need our faith-based communities, our nonprofits, and our schools working together to build trust,” especially with communities of color and immigrant communities, according to Matsuda. He noted that these new partnerships shouldn’t just be temporary, “And will make us much stronger as institutions.” 

Fernández saw these dynamics play out from a different angle in Boston, where her organization is one of the leading partners in a community-based effort to launch more than a dozen free, in-person, small-group learning pods serving mostly Black and Latino children. “The pandemic has surfaced a need for equal partnership at the table between families, community-based organizations, and schools, which will contribute to better outcomes for students.” 

Each of the organizations in the Community Learning Collaborative built trusting relationships with different groups of families over the years. These existing relationships served as a foundation for recruiting families into the pods and providing a safe, supportive learning environment. According to Fernández, “Trust, collaboration, and centering students and families have all been consistent in the approach we’re taking,” to running the pods.  

Takeaway 2: Inclusivity and equity are essential to successful outreach efforts

As learning conditions and district offerings evolved rapidly over the last year, it was essential to keep families in the loop and informed. However, traditional venues for communication like parent-teacher nights, flyers in backpacks, or in-person conversations were off the table. Successful communication strategies in this new environment prioritized inclusivity and equity, multiple modes of communication to reach families wherever they were, and a focus on listening to families’ needs and priorities. 

Matsuda noted that families in his district speak more than 40 languages. Beyond translating communications, his district also worked to anticipate and facilitate two-way conversations with families in their preferred language. 

One of the ingredients for success in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, according to Fernández, was intentionally recruiting mostly Latino and Black educators and staff to supervise the pods. These team members often came from the same communities as the children they served and were well-positioned to quickly build communicative, trusting relationships with students and families.

Takeaway 3: What families and students are looking for from school may have shifted permanently

Experiences of the past year, both positive and negative, have changed many students’ and families’ goals and expectations from schools. Panelists were optimistic about near-term opportunities to bring a renewed sense of urgency to educational innovation. They also agreed on the importance of partnerships among districts, higher-education entities, employers, and community-based organizations to meet students’ needs in new and better ways.

For example, Hilts anticipated that an increasing number of districts would offer, “A mix of online learning and flexible schedule options, because it serves our students, their life circumstances, and their personal preferences,” especially at the high school level. “We have to be better about providing culturally and technically responsive learning options that provide access to more students.” Matsuda was also excited about this possibility, adding, “It’s not going to be easy to innovate, but the comfort level among families and students [with online learning], particularly at the high school level, has grown.” Both Hilts and Matsuda agreed that well-designed, flexible academic learning environments might increase student engagement in learning and develop deeper life skills such as self-directed time management. But they underscored that policy barriers in many states could be an impediment to these kinds of innovative offerings.  

Each panelist noted that the isolating and traumatizing effects of the pandemic have made students’ mental health and social-emotional learning urgent priorities. “Families are concerned about social, emotional, and mental health,” said Matsuda, and are looking to schools to help assess, monitor, and meet those needs. Fernández reported hearing from families that mental health is a top concern and urged districts to, “Continue that kind of support and balance it with any academic support that might be needed.” All three panelists agreed that, by keeping community partners at the table, districts can deepen the web of academic and non-academic supports for students and families. 

Find a video and summary of Part 1 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series by clicking here, and stay tuned for a summary of key takeaways from the Part 3 discussion on academics and instruction.

#PandemictoProgress: School District Leaders Reflect on Four Key Policy and Planning Takeaways Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how school districts do their work. Navigating sudden changes in large school systems is not easy but, as we’ve seen in our work across every layer of the education system this year, leaders have pushed forward innovations, created interventions, and learned invaluable lessons to reshape how districts and schools operate in the future.

In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss district-level planning and the pandemic’s impact on students in the upcoming 2021-22 school year. 

Part 1 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on issues in policy and planning. Panelists shared what they’ve learned about planning and adaptability this year, their plans for next year, and how policies and funding like the recent federal stimulus package might affect those plans. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Adrienne Battle, Director of Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee.
  • Dr. Tony Watlington, Superintendent, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, North Carolina.
  • Facilitator: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, Policy and Evaluation Partner, Bellwether Education Partners.

The discussion (video above) revealed four key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Plans for 2021-22 must be adaptable and include contingencies for different modes of operation

As Drs. Battle and Watlington plan for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, both emphasized the need for flexibility, adaptability, and contingency planning built into any operational or learning plans. “We still don’t know where we will be by August 2021, so all of the contingency planning will continue,” said Battle. Creating nimble, adaptable plans for tens of thousands of students is no easy task, and Watlington compared it to, “Turning a supertanker around in a small lake.”

These plans will include options for students and families who prefer to continue learning virtually. Although both Nashville and Rowan-Salisbury had virtual schools before the pandemic, lessons from the past year will reshape existing offerings. Watlington noted changes in how his district plans to recruit and train teachers for virtual instruction and support students to be successful in virtual learning environments. The virtual school offering in Nashville, “Will look very different than it has looked in years past, because we’ve learned a lot about educating our students in a virtual space, through the lens of equity, academics, and social-emotional learning,” said Battle. However, she went on to caveat that state policy in Tennessee prevents her district from offering hybrid or virtual options for students enrolled at traditional schools once the pandemic state of emergency concludes. 

Takeaway 2: Districts are looking for ways to maximize their time with students and to use time in new ways

Both district leaders discussed how they’re reframing and refocusing efforts to spend meaningful time with students. After a year in which in-person and virtual time was scarce, how can schools and districts more effectively support learning and build stronger relationships? Potential strategies to increase learning time include summer school, tutoring, and before/after school learning opportunities, all of which might involve new collaborations with community-based organizations and partners. 

As a state-designated Renewal School District, Rowan-Salisbury Schools have greater flexibility over their calendar and curriculum than other North Carolina districts, and are moving towards a flexible competency-based learning model to emphasize student mastery. According to Watlington, “We are thinking differently about time and these artificial beginning and end points of 180 days per year in each grade,” and are instead considering ways to overhaul their approach to student time in a class or in a particular grade level.

Both leaders also spoke about allocating time to intentionally focus on social and emotional learning and student mental health as school communities cope with the disruptions and traumas of the past year. According to Battle, “If there’s anything that I’ve taken away from this pandemic and what our parents are demanding from us, and what our staff is capable of providing, it’s making sure that every MNPS student is known, that they’re cared for, and that we’re serving their needs properly.” Echoing that theme, Watlington said, “I am certain that this pandemic is going to fundamentally change our orientation to be more focused on social and emotional learning, and not to see it as ‘fluff’ or less than ‘academic’ learning.”

Takeaway 3: Federal stimulus money offers opportunities to fund innovative approaches or amp up resources for work already underway

K-12 school systems stand to receive $123 billion in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan. Of that, at least 20% of the funds allocated to school districts must be dedicated to addressing what the federal law calls “learning loss,” especially for subgroups of students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

How to use this money effectively for both pandemic recovery and educational innovation was top of mind for panelists. “We’re not going to go backwards. We’re not going to be status quo. We’re going to continue a culture of innovation,” said Watlington, adding later on, “I think it’s really important that we not squander these resources away and do the same thing we’ve done for 100 years, just because that’s the way we’ve done it.”

Federal stimulus funds will allow districts to expand and continue pre-existing programs aimed at accelerating learning, such as summer school and tutoring, and could also provide resources for big bets on innovation.

Takeaway 4: School systems must engage students, families, and educators in new ways, through an equitable lens

Panelists emphasized the resiliency of students, families, and teachers and described methods of student and family engagement that they plan to continue in the school year ahead. 

For example, Nashville’s Navigator program groups students into small cohorts led by a teacher or a school/district staff member. Each Navigator maintains frequent communication with their cohort, builds relationships, and connects students to in- or out-of-school supports, as needed.

Panelists discussed ways in which the pandemic revealed inequities among students and families. Home circumstances such as internet/technology access, access to reliable health care, and parent flexibility to supervise remote learning intersected with race and class, impacting students’ opportunities to learn and engage. 

District leaders pledged to carry these equity lessons into the year ahead. As his district embarked on a new strategic plan, Watlington asked himself a series of equity-related questions, including, “How do you make sure that equity is hard wired into policy? Do we have a common definition of equity? And how do you know when it’s occurring?” Similarly, Battle emphasized understanding and meeting each students’ individual needs, “We need to be able to adapt and adjust our services our supports specifically to the individual needs of our students, and the various communities of students that we serve.” 

Stay tuned for additional summaries and videos of Parts 2 and 3 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series, focused on operations and outreach as well as academics and instruction.

To Keep Cuts Away from Kids, Districts Must Use These Two Financial Levers

On top of immense public health and learning challenges, school districts are grappling with  critical questions about their financial future. What are the magnitude of state and local revenue shortfalls? What is the cost to fund new public health measures, social-emotional and mental health supports, and necessary academic interventions? Will there be additional federal stimulus funds to support education?

Even amid uncertainty, districts need to carry out proactive planning processes that ensure their spending remains aligned to their long-term (three to five year) strategic priorities, especially the initiatives and services that support students with the highest needs.

From our work supporting schools through earlier crises, we observed that that “urgent” budget cuts sometimes resulted in focusing too much on finding smaller short-term savings within district budgets. For example, if a district has a long-term goal around improving early elementary literacy outcomes, making cuts to literacy coach staffing may save needed dollars in the immediate term, but will put long-term outcomes at risk. By considering budget cuts in the context of strategic priorities, leaders can minimize the adverse impacts of funding shortfalls on students while maintaining momentum towards their desired future state.

Yesterday, my colleague Jenn answered common questions about whether and how changes in state revenue will impact school funding. If those changes in state revenue do have negative impacts, districts will likely need to make cuts to their operating budgets. Today we propose that districts need to both consider reductions to ongoing spending and adjustments to strategic investments. Leaders can combine the set of options outlined below to mitigate financial loss in a way that minimizes adverse impact on students, especially those with the greatest needs.

1. Reductions to Ongoing Spending

Districts will need to consider spending reductions that minimize the negative impact of COVID-19 on their strategic direction. Continue reading

What’s Next in School District Reform? Five Leaders Share Their Visions

Across the span of three decades, several large, urban districts, including those profiled on our site EightCities.org, pursued reform strategies centered on autonomy, accountability, and family choice. In recent years, some of these districts rolled back their signature reforms or shifted their focus due to leadership change or backlash. Other districts are building off of past models to develop new district improvement strategies. And now, all of these districts are grappling with the challenge of serving students and families during a global pandemic.

The school systems profiled at EightCities.org all have different contexts, successes, and challenges, which we captured in our original 2018 site — now updated for 2020. To mark the site’s relaunch, we reached out to five prominent education leaders and asked each of them:

  • What is the outlook for innovative, ambitious district-wide reform strategies in 2020 and beyond? 
  • What are the biggest lessons state and local leaders should learn from the districts now facing headwinds in pursuit of these strategies?
  • What should education leaders do to advance reforms in partnership with families and community stakeholders?

Their responses range from calls for activism, to community and employer engagement, to renewed focus on curriculum and instruction. While the advice is varied, it’s clear that no education reform strategy is ever finished — it must adapt to build on successes and address new challenges.

Howard Fuller

Former Professor, Marquette University; Former Superintendent, Milwaukee Public Schools

The search for the “new best practice” or the critical “proof point” continues in the struggle for education reform in the United States. New theories and reworked old theories about what must be done abound. In fact, many “reformers” no longer want to use the term “education reform” to characterize their efforts. Some of us continue to make the mistake of committing to new institutional practices as opposed to being committed to the needs and interests of our children. This commitment to method as opposed to purpose has put many “reformers” on the road to becoming the new status quo.

One thing that is sorely needed to have any hope of breaking this pattern is to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of the people being affected into the process prior to the real decisions being made. We must take seriously the notion of giving “power to the people.” Too many of us “reformers” still think the way to bring about lasting change is to get a lot of so-called smart people in a room to make all the key decisions and then inform the parents and students about those decisions as a way to keep them “engaged.” Continue reading

As More Districts Create “Autonomous Schools,” They Need a Balanced Approach to District-Wide Services

We have written multiple posts in recent months about the spread of “autonomous district schools,” which occupy the middle ground between traditional district schools and charter schools. These models allow district schools to use some of the same freedoms as charter schools, while also remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services, like access to district facilities, transportation services, and enrollment systems. 

But, as we explain in our new report, “Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools,” districts vary widely — and confusingly — in their approaches. Some districts mandate which services their autonomous schools must use, while others create a structure for these schools to opt into or purchase certain district services. This can lead to a complicated balancing act between easily accessing these services and preserving schools’ autonomy to make decisions about how to best serve their students. 

three women school leaders sit around a tale with colorful writing and markers

Autonomous school leaders in San Antonio, TX: Regina Arzamendi (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Delia McLarren (Head of Schools, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Andrea Pitts (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy Primary)

Below are three lessons from our research that policymakers should consider when crafting autonomous school policies to improve the ways that districts relate to and support these schools:

Accessing district facilities can be a powerful incentive for autonomous district schools.

Facilities are a substantial cost for charter schools, which often lack access to taxpayer-funded facilities and, on average, spend about 10% of their per-pupil funding on facility space. Autonomous district schools, meanwhile, are typically housed within district-owned facilities. This arrangement eliminates one of the most important barriers facing school leaders who want to establish and operate a school with more decision-making power. However, accessing district facilities can also limit school leaders’ ability to make decisions about where their schools are located and whether a particular building provides an ideal setting for educating students. Districts interested in autonomous school policies, especially those involving external partners, need to consider how autonomous schools will be matched with facilities and what impact their location might have on other elements of school operations like transportation and enrollment.

Continue reading