In this extraordinary moment, with tens of millions of children out of school, educators around the country are looking for answers about the best way to ensure that students don’t lose months — or even years — of learning.

The cruel fact is that there may not be a best way. Even if something works one place, it might not elsewhere. COVID-19 has plunged us into a vast unplanned experiment, and educators must simply scramble as best they can.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to learn from what is being done in this difficult moment.

In ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Karin Chenoweth, Education Trust’s writer-in-residence and host of the popular ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast, interviews expert educators about the problems they face, the solutions they fashion, and what they hope will come out of this time. Following each interview, Karin and Tanji Reed Marshall, Education Trust’s director of practice, discuss what they have just heard and how it fits into what they are hearing from other educators around the country.

Each of the educators featured will be leaders of schools and districts that serve children of color and children from low-income backgrounds and have been high performing or rapidly improving. Some have been part of the ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast. Others led schools that were recognized by Ed Trust as “Dispelling the Myth” schools. Still others have been featured in Karin’s books, published by Harvard Education Press.

Join us as we check in with leading educators around the country as they struggle with obstacles facing all educators as the nation learns to stay physically distant and socially connected.

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Season Four

ExtraOrdinary Districts – Season 4 is Coming!

In our first two seasons we provided in-depth profiles of school districts that are breaking the correlation between race, poverty, and academic achievement. Before we could even choose the next districts to go to, the pandemic hit.

So for season 3, Ed Trust’s Director of Practice Tanji Reed Marshall joined podcast host Karin Chenoweth in talking with school and district leaders around the country with a proven track record of leading improvement about how they handled the sudden shutdown of schools in spring of 2020 and how they were planning for the fall.

Well, it’s fall, and we are getting ready to reach back out to educators to find out how things are going in these extraordinary times.

Stay tuned and we’ll be back soon with more ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times.

Episode One

“As soon as we’re back to normal, we’ll have to accelerate our kids.”

In this inaugural episode of Season Four of The Education Trust’s podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts, Sergio Garcia, principal of Artesia High School in ABC Unified District in Los Angeles County, is joined by two teachers: William Napier, chair of the special education department and Stephanie Palutzke, acting dean. Napier and Palutzke are also the school’s teacher union representatives, and they and Garcia joined Karin Chenoweth (@karinchenoweth) and Tanji Reed Marshall (@Remarsh76) for a wide-ranging discussion of what teaching and running a school is like during a pandemic.

Episode Two

“We have a third of our kids in every day. But one hundred percent of our students are learning every single day”

In this episode of Season Four of The Education Trust’s podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts, Nicholas Stirling, superintendent of Valley Stream 30 in Nassau County New York, is joined by assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Jennifer Lewner and three principals, Christopher Colarossi, Erin Malone, and John Singleton in a wide-ranging discussion of hybrid learning with Karin Chenoweth (@karinchenoweth) and Tanji Reed Marshall (@Remarsh76) for a wide-ranging discussion of what teaching and running a school is like during a pandemic.

Episode Three

“We keep using that word hard.”

In this episode of The Education Trust’s podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts, Corey Miklus, superintendent of Seaford Public Schools in Delaware is joined by principals Carol Leveillee and Krissy Jennette for a wide-ranging discussion of what it’s like to lead schools during a pandemic with Karin Chenoweth (@karinchenoweth) and Tanji Reed Marshall (@Remarsh76).

“It’s hard every single day, but we know what we have to do as a district to keep moving us forward,” Miklus said.

To learn more about Seaford, listen to Episode 4 of Season 2 of ExtraOrdinary Districts and Episode 6 of ExtraOrdinary Districts in ExtraOrdinary Times.

Episode Four

“Something that was already a yeoman’s job has become even greater.”

In this episode of The Education Trust’s podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts, Jennie Black, principal of Washington Elementary School in Junction City, Kansas, is joined by third grade teachers Jennifer Fallin and Shanae Hentzen to talk about schooling in a pandemic.

“There are quite a few routines we have had to put in place to minimize the spread,” Black says about preventing coronavirus infections. Students go to the bathroom on a regular schedule so they can wash their hands for 20 seconds; they grab sack lunches so they don’t breathe on the buffet line; they eat breakfast in their classrooms and play in designated playground areas so that they stay in their class bubble.

“I don’t know if any other organization out there has been turned upside down just to run,” Black says. “We’re just taking one day at a time and creating the processes that need to happen.”

Episode Five

“It’s amazing how much kids adapt and learn.”

After a fall of flipping between opening and closing school buildings, Godwin Heights Public Schools in western Michigan responded to a huge spike in community spread of coronavirus by deciding to close before Thanksgiving until at least January 19. Part of the decision rested on the fact that it had become difficult to fully staff schools as bus drivers, janitorial and office staff, as well as students and teachers either got sick or had to quarantine because a family member tested positive. Also, the constant changes were confusing.

In a far-reaching conversation about building relationships, delivering instruction, and making instructional schedules, the Godwin Heights educators said that one of the good things that are coming out of this difficult time is that teachers and parents have gotten to know each other much more than ever before.

Episode Six

“We’ve probably gone through more change since March than I did through my entire career.”

Steubenville City Public Schools had as its goal operating as normally as possible this school year, so educators spent the spring and summer learning computer programs, putting lessons online, buying computers and hot spots, and clicking together plexiglass desk dividers. “We’ve probably gone through more change since March than I did through my entire career,” Superintendent Melinda Young says. One example: A teacher who began the pandemic not knowing how to attach a document to an email is now certified as a Google Classroom teacher.

Episode Seven

“It’s not an ideal situation. But we’re making the best of it.”

Pandemic schooling has been difficult at Malverne High School in Nassau County New York, but social studies teacher Brian China says that his AP social studies class is only four days behind last year. “Under these circumstances, we’re making it work.”

At Malverne, a little more than 30 percent of students are fully remote, and the rest of the students attend school on alternate days. When teachers teach, they are teaching both those students who are in the class as well as those learning remotely.


Episode Eight

What kind of school produces hundreds of top African American scientists?

One where educators take responsibility to help students thrive, excel, and be intellectually curious.

More than 30 years ago, Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III began a small program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. With a core set of principles that include high expectations and collaboration, UMBC’s Meyerhoff Program has since produced hundreds of scientists, professors, and leaders, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, one of the lead researchers on the new mRNA coronavirus vaccine.

“Everybody talks about high expectations,” Hrabowski says. “It’s not just about high expectations of students; it’s high expectations of us as professionals.”

In this wide-ranging discussion in which he shares his “zest for learning,” Hrabowski talks about how he structured the Meyerhoff Program and used its success to not only to inform other programs at the university but also inspire other universities to adopt the same principles and structures.

Episode Nine

“Kids Are Still Learning Things”

At University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, no one questions that the pandemic has been terrible and the remote school year has been difficult to navigate. “Remote school is not as good as in-person school,” principal Dan St. Louis says flatly.

“But we’re learning, we’re growing, and when we go back we’ll take our instruction to an even higher level.”

UPCS, like other schools in Worcester, is preparing to return to the school building in March, depending on where community spread of the disease is at that point. Despite some hesitancy, teachers are hoping they will be vaccinated by then, and the school is installing air ionizers and buying PPE and voice amplifiers for teachers.

Episode Ten

Finding the “Missing Kids”

When schools closed abruptly in March 2020 because of the pandemic, it was reported that 8,000 of Baltimore’s students had not logged into remote schooling. Roger Shaw is the district administrator whose responsibility it was to find them and find out what was keeping them from school. But the number was daunting, and he began with a strategy that included redeploying counselors and social workers and an outside contractor to do what they called “wellness checks.” The idea was not just to connect to students but to quickly solve whatever problems they might be having, from technology to time management.

In this conversation Roger Shaw, head of Baltimore City Public School’s re-engagement center; Taiisha Swinton, principal of Digital Harbor High School; and David Heiber, president of Concentric Educational Solutions, talk about the systems and routines that the district has put in place to find and re-engage thousands of students.

Episode Eleven

“Managing COVID-19”

Junction City, Kansas (USD 475 Geary County) re-opened school buildings in September after a summer of planning and a myriad of mitigation measures, from closing down water fountains to ensuring that students face in the same direction whenever possible—as well as making sure every school has a nurse or nurse clerk and putting in equipment to change the air in school buildings three times a day. “We tried to be smart,” says Deb Gustafson, executive director of student services.

Gustafson worries about the students whose families have chosen to keep them remote. Although some students are thriving with on-line learning, many are not, she says. Still, “the preparation and the planning to reopen schools is incredible,” Gustafson says. “And managing the implementation is incredible. I understand districts are saying, ‘We don’t have anybody to do this.’”


Episode Twelve

The State of Reading in America

Recently the organization representing state education superintendents issued a statement urging their members to make reading instruction a core focus.

During the rest of this season, we will have an ongoing discussion of why the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) took such an unusual step and the implications of its statement.

To kick off this series of discussions, noted reading researcher Dr. Alfred Tatum talks with Karin Chenoweth and Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall about the state of reading in the United States, including how difficult it is to know with certainty how well American children read—and how much they read. Tatum talks of the need to ensure that all children learn to read not only at a basic or proficient level but at the kind of advanced level that will ensure that they are able to access the kinds of texts that allow them to learn about science, social studies, math, and the arts.

Episode Thirteen

“Opening a School Building in the Time of Covid”

Jennifer Robbins, principal of Ladd Acres Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon, talks about the many things that have had to be done in order to start welcoming students back. Mask requirements are just the beginning. She and her team have had to think through how to build a master schedule for the limited time students are in school, how to teach students new recess games that keep them socially distanced, and where to paint circles on the sidewalk outside the school so that students don’t bunch up. One problem that Robbins woke up worrying about one night is that turning off the drinking fountains means students will have to bring their own water to school. But bringing water in the same backpack as their Chromebooks could jeopardize expensive school equipment.

No matter how much they try to anticipate everything that can go wrong, however, Robbins says she and her team know there will be things that come up that they never thought of. The motto Robbins says she tells her team is, “We’re brave, not perfect.”

Episode Fourteen

“School Leaders REALLY Matter”

The education field has long understood that improving class instruction was the key to improving student learning.

But for the past two decades, the focus of national and state policy, as well as the efforts of education practitioners, has been almost exclusively on teachers and their practices.

The new report, “How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research,” by Jason Grissom, Anna Egalite, and Constance Lindsay, reviews decades of research and recalibrates what we know about the influence of principals. “It is difficult to envision an investment in K-12 education with a higher ceiling on its potential return than improving school leadership,” the report’s authors say.

This week’s episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times features a wide-ranging discussion of this new report, its implications, and its possibility for affecting state and national policy in the future.

Episode Fifteen

The Right to Read

The right to be taught how to read is a birthright of all Americans, argues attorney Mark Rosenbaum. And schools have a responsibility to teach them, says reading expert Nell Duke. They are allies in a series of legal cases to try to establish the “right to read,” and they join podcast co-hosts Karin Chenoweth and Tanji Reed Marshall in this second installment of a series of podcasts about reading instruction. (The first was a conversation with reading researcher Alfred Tatum.)

Episode Sixteen

The “Science of Reading” 

The last results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed no progress and some indicators even declined, meaning few children are reading at an advanced or proficient level.

Partly because of those disappointing results and partly because of a series of podcasts by American Public Media’s Emily Hanford, a growing number of educators, parents, advocates, and policymakers have become interested in incorporating the “science of reading” into reading instruction in hopes of improving the reading ability of American children. And the science of reading forms a large part of the call of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to state superintendents and commissioners to focus on reading instruction. The CCSSO especially asked state superintendents and commissioners to ensure that teachers understand how to incorporate the findings of the National Reading Panel Report, published in 2000. That report said that research supported teaching five elements of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies.

But this is a complicated topic. The science of how people read, which is the province of cognitive science and neuroscience, doesn’t always translate seamlessly with the science of reading instruction.


Episode Seventeen

“High-Quality Materials”

Most elementary schools teach reading with either a basal reading program, a teacher-developed curriculum, or a balanced literacy program like Fountas & Pinnell or Teachers College Units of Study.

But the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), in calling for a national improvement in reading instruction, has called upon all state superintendents and commissioners to encourage schools and districts to adopt the high-quality materials that have been developed in the last few years to line up with both Common Core state standards and with the science of reading.

In this episode, experts Carol Jago and David Liben talk with Ed Trust’s director of practice Tanji Reed Marshall and writer-in-residence Karin Chenoweth about the difference using high-quality materials at both the elementary and secondary levels could make in helping students learn to read.

Episode Eighteen

What Can States Do to Improve Reading Instruction?

When Tennessee showed no progress on the last results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Massachusetts actually declined, both states were spurred to make some major changes to improve the reading instruction in their states.

In this episode, Dr. Lisa Coons, chief academic officer of the Tennessee State Department of Education, Dr. Heather Peske, senior associate commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Education, and Katherine Tarca, director of literacy and humanities in the Massachusetts Dept. of Education, discuss what those two states are doing.

Episode Nineteen

What Have We Heard? What Have We Learned?

In this episode, ExtraOrdinary Districts co-hosts Karin Chenoweth and Tanji Reed Marshall chew over what they heard and what they learned from five previous episodes that explored different aspects of reading instruction. They connect the question of reading instruction to our historical moment in which we as a nation are deciding whether to be a democracy in which all citizens are equal or an autocracy in which some citizens are marked to be members of a lower caste. If we are to be a democracy, all our citizens must be educated. At the very least that means able to read. 


Episode Twenty

Districts that Succeed

In the final episode of this season of ExtraOrdinary Districts, Tanji Reed Marshall interviews her co-host Karin Chenoweth about Chenoweth’s new book, Districts that Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement, which will be published May 25 by Harvard Education Press.