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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Episode 1

No Computer, No Wi-Fi, & No Cell Coverage While America Is Supposed to be Learning Online

John Daniel, superintendent of Cottonwood Public Schools in rural Oklahoma, talks about the challenges of making sure students don’t fall behind when many of his students and teachers don’t have access to computers, Wi Fi, or even reliable cell phone service. The one good thing that might come out of this experience, Daniel said, is a public commitment to ensuring digital access to all of Oklahoma and the rest of the country. You can learn more about Daniel and Cottonwood if you listen to Episode 2 of Season 2 of ExtraOrdinary Districts.

Episode 2

Maintaining Relationships in a Distance Learning World

On March 11, Malverne High School in Nassau County, New York, collected cell phones from their students in an attempt to help them become more mindful and focused in school. Within three days, as they prepared to shut down in the wake of Covid-19, “We were telling them, ‘connect, connect, connect,’” principal Dr. Vincent Romano says. All Malverne students were given iPads, and teachers have plunged into teaching their classes and are staying in touch with their students. But the school closure, Romano said, “is devastating,” particularly for seniors who were looking forward to the spring musical and athletic contests. “The prom is still on the table,” Romano says hopefully. But at this point it is impossible to know when it will be safe to stop social isolation, and whether Malverne will be able to have a graduation ceremony is in doubt.

Episode 3

“Let’s teach….But remember the context”

Sergio Garcia, principal of Artesia High School in the ABC Unified District in Los Angeles County, says he tells his teachers: “Let’s try to teach.” But, he adds, “let’s remember the context.” That context, Garcia says, is that many of his students are watching younger brothers and sisters at home in small houses with no designated place to study. In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, we hear how Garcia has spent his time making sure his school community is getting fed, getting wired, and staying socially distanced while ensuring that students continue to feel connected to teachers and counselors. But he is already thinking about how to ensure his students get caught up once school starts again — whenever that is. To read more about Artesia High School, read Chapter 1 of Schools that Succeed (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

Episode 4

Creating the New Normal Day by Day

We are “creating the new normal,” Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Stirling says. As his schools closed this spring, Valley Stream 30 in Nassau County, New York, phased in its response.

Building the educational system in phases, every couple of weeks, Stirling says, helped them ensure that “we were not leaving anybody out.” So, for example, they can’t teach every grade at the same time, because children in different grades need to share computers. The district has established an instructional schedule to ensure that every student is served.

Episode 5

“They are rising to the challenge”

“This is different. This is hard for some of our parents. We have to show compassion and patience,” says Faith Belle-Lucy, principal of Dr. Robert W. Gilliard Elementary in Mobile, Alabama. Parents and students are facing a brand-new world of distance learning, she said, and not all are ready. Over the past few weeks a team of 10 volunteer teachers at Gilliard distributed more than 120 computers to students, and in the next few days they will distribute even more hot spots to students who don’t have internet service. Some parents prefer that their children not use computers for lessons; the school has provided them with paper lessons, supplemented with district-provided video lessons broadcast by local television stations. But overseeing lessons, oftentimes for multiple children in different grades, is proving challenging for many parents, some of whom have posted videos to the school’s Facebook page begging for substitute teachers.

Episode 6

“There Are So Many Unknowns.”

Corey Miklus became superintendent of Seaford (Delaware) Public Schools in January. On March 13 he closed the buildings to students. “These are some challenging times, but we’re figuring it out just like everyone else is.”

Since closing its doors, the district has distributed 600 computers to families and worked with local internet providers to provide Wi-Fi for low or no cost. But in the rural part of his district there is no internet coverage available. So the district has spent $8,000 in postage to send books and materials home to students. Teachers are calling families and students weekly and more than 100 teachers and staff members recently drove through neighborhoods in parades to let students know they were thinking about them. “That has been our focus,” Miklus says. “The learning, yes, but right now it is truly keeping in contact with everyone and making sure they’re safe.”

In this podcast episode, listeners will hear how Miklus is grappling with the unknowns and the deep worries he has for young children learning to read, eighth graders learning algebra, and seniors missing their prom.

Episode 7

“Why Did We Even Think That Could Work?”

Educators in Steubenville, Ohio, have been scrambling ever since hearing that their schools might close. With no clear standards for how to operate schools remotely, they have been trying things, evaluating them, and revising. “It’s a learning process,” says Superintendent Melinda Young.

Initially thinking schools would only be closed for two weeks, teachers put together packets with review materials that students took home. As it became clear that schools would be closed longer, they moved to online instruction. They initially thought that one computer device per family would be enough, ignoring the fact that families often have more than one child and that parents also need to use computers. Looking back, Young says, “That’s kind of crazy — why did we even think that could work?”

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, leaders in Steubenville talk about how they are facing the coronavirus shutdown and how they hope it spurs needed changes.

Episode 8

“We’re trying not to overwhelm them, because they are living through a pandemic.”

Before their school building closed, teachers and leaders at Garfield Prep Academy in Washington, D.C., learned as much as they could about COVID-19 and shared that with students and parents. The next step was to gather materials and lessons that students could take home. Once school closed, says principal Kennard Branch, “the first order of business was to make sure our students would be fed.” After that, the school worked through a series of needs: student’s need for computers and Wi-Fi; teachers’ needs for supplies and professional development; and everyone’s need for connection and understanding. We are “trying not to overwhelm them, because they are living through a pandemic,” Branch says.

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Branch talks about the things he’s worried about, including that many months of being out of the school building will mean his students’ academic learning will slide even more than is normal in the summer. “My teachers may have a lot more work to catch them up.” But even more than that, “I’m concerned about the grief and the trauma and how we’re going to address that for our students, our parents, and our staff while moving them academically.”

For more about Kennard Branch and Garfield Prep, see Schools that Succeed (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

Episode 9

“We would be wrong to believe that education won’t be transformed forever”

“It hurts my heart tremendously” to know that gaps in achievement will grow during the shutdown of school buildings, says Jennie Black, principal of Washington Elementary in Junction City, Kansas.

She is most worried about the students who were already struggling in school before buildings closed and aren’t logging into school lessons during this time. She and her teachers have already begun talking about how they will assess where students are and how to accelerate their learning and get them on their way. “They’re good learners, but they’ve missed learning.”

But one of the things she is learning during this time is that “There are some kids who thrive in this environment.” Not only that, but many teachers are enjoying creating new content and new ways of teaching without having to spend time and energy on classroom management.

Episode 10

“Our schools were not built for this”

That sounds like an obvious statement, says Daniel St. Louis, principal of University Park Campus School (UPCS) in Worcester, Massachusetts. But “a big part of how we see our identity has been taken away” by the school closures following the pandemic. “One of our great, great strengths is the relationships — the social learning, group work, learning together, being with your friends all day and doing the academic work.”

UPCS has never relied much on computers, but in the last couple of years more and more teachers have gotten online and begun accepting assignments online. So, in some ways UPCS was well positioned, St. Louis says, for remote learning. But, he says, the computers haven’t changed the essence of education. “Kids need their teachers,” he says. “Especially our population, our urban, low-income population.”

Episode 11

“This is going to make our system better”

After delivering 10,000 devices, thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots, and 300,000 meals per week, Mobile County Public Schools created a hybrid system of instructional packets, online instruction, and television instruction to provide children and families choices in how continue their education.

Many systems around Mobile “just gave worksheets or busy work,” Superintendent Chresal Threadgill says, and he has faced backlash for expecting students to do more than the minimum. But he has faced down the criticism. “We have students who are already two and three years behind,” says Threadgill. “I could not afford for our students to stay out for five months without being engaged.”

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Threadgill, Assistant Superintendent of Academics Lakesha Brackins, and George Hall Elementary School Principal Melissa Mitchell, talk about the challenges of operating in the time of coronavirus — including what’s involved in holding in-person graduation ceremonies.

Episode 12

“We have the opportunity and I hope we don’t waste it”

Jennifer Robbins, principal of Ladd Acres Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon, has been collecting and studying data about which of her school’s students are showing up to distance learning classes and what they are learning. She wants to know, “What types of lessons are really working?” One sixth grade teacher, for example, says he is getting better results in math than he was when teaching in the classroom.

“We have the opportunity, and I hope we don’t waste it, to learn so much about how kids learn and what our education systems need,” she says.
In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Robbins, shares what she has learned since schools closed in March and how she is thinking about re-opening school in some fashion in the fall. “Who are we going to take care of and how are we going to take care of them?” is the question that is at the top of her mind as she considers whether the school will be able to fully open, stay fully closed, or some kind of hybrid system. An equity plan never gets more tested than in a crisis, she says.

To read about Jennifer’s work at McKinney School in Hillsboro, see Schools that Succeed (Harvard Education Press, 2017).

Episode 13

“We’ve borrowed the phrase, provide grace”

“The biggest bonus” of the remote learning that Godwyn Heights School District in Michigan has been doing is the strengthened ties between school and families, says Mary Lang, principal of West Elementary School.

Another bonus, says Michelle Krynicki, director of curriculum and instruction for the district, is that bonds among teachers have also been strengthened. She has heard teachers say, “I couldn’t get through this without my grade-level team or my department team.”

Episode 14

“This is so much of a harder task to perform”

Providing distance learning is much harder than providing an education in person, says Mary Haynes-Smith, principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in New Orleans.

Bethune is a school that runs on personal relationships and hugging, and building a culture of resiliency is much more difficult when done through computers, she said. “This is so much of a harder task to perform.”

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Mary Haynes-Smith, together with her assistant principals, Amanda Broussard and Crystal LaFrance, talk about the very real challenges of shutting school on a moment’s notice and how they think about how to re-open in the fall, especially given the fact that many of their students, most of whom live in low-income homes, don’t have access to computers and internet.

Episode 15

“We have the resources.”

“The money exists to ensure that all students are served,” says Tricia McManus, the brand-new deputy superintendent of Winston-Salem Public Schools in North Carolina. The question, she adds, is whether we as a nation are willing to spend it.

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Tricia McManus, who just left Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida after many years of leading the effort to improve the principal corps, talks about what it takes for a large district to address equity and excellence in a pandemic.

Episode 16

“Virtual learning on steriods.”

Increased costs in the face of massive budget cuts means that the already difficult task of re-opening school buildings becomes even more complicated. “It’s overwhelming,” says Vincent Romano, principal of Malverne High School in Nassau County, New York.

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Romano and Sergio Garcia, principal of Artesia High School in Los Angeles County, California, walk through some of the complications of re-opening, from providing masks and social distancing to installing sinks and barriers between urinals.

Episode 17

“Our hope is to come back as close to normal as we possibly can.”

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, Steubenville’s superintendent Melinda Young and Lynett Gorman, principal of East Elementary School talk through many of the issues facing school administrators as they think through bringing students back into the building, such as hiring additional janitors, ensuring daily temperature checks, and ordering masks and medical-grade shields for teachers. Steubenville has enough of a budget surplus that the recent budget cut from the state shouldn’t affect the educational program for a year or so, but if budget cuts continue that will mean cuts to programs and the teaching staff.

Episode 18

“Schools that already had cohesive cultures did the best.”

Dr. Sonja Santelises joins ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times to discusses the Black Lives Matter protests and the decisions she faces as superintendent of Baltimore in planning for the return of students in the fall — from what equipment she is having to buy to what changes in the curriculum she will have to make.

Surveys to gather information and ideas about the reopening from students, teachers, and community members reveal that many families already know they “want a virtual option.” In addition, she said, a full two-thirds of teachers are wary of returning to buildings, at least without a lot more information about how they can stay safe.

Episode 19

“We’ve been planning, planning, planning.”

“If we’re face-to-face, we’ll be pretty good with that. If we’re remote, we’re 80% there,” says superintendent Corey Miklus in Seaford, Delaware, about the upcoming fall semester. “The real question is if we go to a hybrid format, because in that hybrid format there’s probably about 50 to 100 different scenarios you could work out.”

In this episode of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times, first-year superintendent Miklus talks us through what he is thinking about as COVID-19 has spiked in his area and how he is thinking about the fall.

Episode 19

“What Did We Hear? What Did We Learn?”

In a lively conversation, Tanji Reed Marshall and Karin Chenoweth wrap up Season 1 of ExtraOrdinary Districts in Extraordinary Times by talking through what they have heard from school and district leaders from Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington D.C.

Over the course of 19 episodes, front-line educators have talked about managing the sudden shutdown of their buildings and how they are thinking about reopening in the fall. In reflecting on what they said, Chenoweth and Marshall bring together some common themes, including the difficulties of trying to plan in the face of uncertainty and the kinds of questions educators need to ask about how they can meet children’s academic needs moving forward.

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