PHOTO CREDIT: OLESYA SHELOMOVA/STOCK.ADOBES.COM
Almi G. Abeyta knew she would face challenges when she took over as superintendent of Massachusetts’ Chelsea Public Schools, a high-poverty, historically low-performing district located directly across the Mystic River from Boston.
Then, eight months into Abeyta’s tenure, this densely populated community of 40,000 was hard hit by the first wave of COVID-19. By April 2020, estimates by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital indicated that more than one-third of the city’s residents were infected, a rate higher than that of New York City.
“Many of our students had to go to work full time to support their families, and they were in positions where they were essential workers,” Abeyta says. “They needed flexibility. They needed something different. And as a district we needed to be there for them.”
The pandemic shined a harsh light on long-standing issues — such as achievement and opportunity gaps, food insecurity, student mental health, and technology access — that disproportionately affect school districts like Chelsea. Now, with schools in their fourth year of dealing with the pandemic’s disruptive effects, there’s increased acknowledgement that a pre-COVID approach to education will not address students’ needs moving forward. That has prompted calls in some circles for a collective reset.
“The pandemic has given us a great opportunity to launch a redesign of the education system as we’ve known it,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The Superintendent’s Association. “We’ve been putting different colors of lipstick on the same pig for a long time, and we can’t go back to the way things were. We just can’t.”
Domenech and others acknowledge that the phrase “reinventing education” is not new, and that no one-size-fits-all solution exists. They also caution that a return to the strict standards and accountability movement that existed pre-COVID could slow or thwart efforts to reach the students who need help the most.
Dave Schuler, superintendent of Illinois’ Township High School District 214, says deciding to reinvent what classrooms look like and how they operate is daunting, but ultimately worthwhile.
“Some people get so paralyzed by thinking of how overwhelming this work can be, and obviously this country has been through a whole lot,” says Schuler, a former National Superintendent of the Year and 17-year leader of a suburban Chicago district that serves 12,000 students. “But we have to remember that it is our job to put new dreams in the minds of our kids and to give them an expanded scope of opportunities when they leave high school.”
Outcomes and experience
How much has the pandemic affected student learning? From an anecdotal standpoint, quite a bit. From a research standpoint, the answer is still unknown.
Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) who is examining the pandemic’s impact on achievement, says currently available information only allows her to “document trends at a high level.” She says districts that stayed remote well into the 2021-22 school year did not perform as well as those that went back to the classroom. Early data points to middle school students as the group most affected, followed closely by high school students.
“Students who are ninth-graders this fall had their entire middle school experience affected by the pandemic,” Kuhfeld says. “They are going into high school without the independence you get during middle school and chances are they don’t know what the norms are for what high school is going to look like. It may take their entire high school career and beyond to close the gaps with typical learning.”
Closing gaps has long been a struggle in Chelsea. Since the early 1980s, the district’s students have fared poorly on state tests as the population has become more transient and the city has suffered from myriad fiscal problems that have dramatically affected school funding. In 1988, the school board gave up control of the district’s management to Boston University, a two-decade experiment that ended with mixed results and only limited increases on state tests.
When Abeyta came on board in 2019, her goal was to individualize instruction as much as possible. “I want to know our kids by name, strength, and story,” she says. “I want to make sure we are connecting with every single student, that they have at least one adult they can connect with so they’re not falling through the cracks. If we have a portfolio of schools and choices, then we can better meet the needs of many of our students.”
Jenee Henry Wood, head of learning for Transcend, a nonprofit working with schools and districts in more than 30 states, says reinvention requires you to look at both “the outcomes you are pursuing and the experiences your students, parents, and communities are having.”
“Something that has been missing in the discussion of school reform is thinking about the experiences students are having along the way, and how that affects the outcomes you’re getting,” Wood says. “Students are not thinking critically. They’re sitting in classrooms and filling in bubble sheets when their learning should be deeply more hands-on and engaging. That’s at the core of what reinvention is about.”
Redesigning middle school
Mark Cantu has had five titles in the four years he has worked for Seguin Independent School District, which serves 7,000 students in Central Texas. Hired as a school improvement officer, he has been the chief of staff, chief academic officer, chief innovation officer, and now deputy superintendent.
Over the past two years, Cantu has led the redesign of Seguin’s two middle schools, which are the district’s lowest performing campuses. Using grant funds, the schools have moved to blended learning models that include “high-dosage tutoring,” especially in math, an emphasis on social and emotional learning, and expanded learning time.
Seguin contracted with Transcend to help develop the model, and the nonprofit held focus groups with staff, parents, and community members as they worked on the new middle school program. “We knew that if we continued with the typical school day as we’d always done it that we were going to have the same result,” Cantu says. “We knew we needed to create a relevant learning experience because students were telling us they were not engaged, that they were bored in class.”
This year, students are attending regular classes—seven periods, 60 minutes each—on Monday through Thursday. Fridays are project-based learning days, with 90-minute blocks focused on one of 30 classes selected by the students. In addition, on Fridays, students are taking part in social and emotional lessons using the Character Strong curriculum, an athletics or fine arts class, and tutoring.
“Everything looks different on Fridays now,” Cantu says. “Our principals worked twice as hard this past school year, running an already very tough year to begin with and planning every week for this school year. It’s been hard but gratifying.”
One thing that worries Cantu is how the new program will mesh with the state’s high-stakes accountability. “If we’re really going to redesign schools, we must look at what we’ve done in the past and experiment with ways to do things differently, and it would be nice to have an accountability pause on a new program until we can see if it’s working.
“The way it works now, if you redesign a school and it is different, but it’s not aligned strictly to the state test, you can still get an F rating and that’s not good. That will discourage some schools from even trying, because they don’t want to deal with the pushback from the community.”
PHOTO EDITOR: MONKEY BUSINESS/STOCK.ADOBE.COM
Meet them where they are
The Chelsea Opportunity Academy, a small nontraditional high school, was started by Abeyta’s predecessor. Students have individual graduation plans, which include academic credit for demonstrating what they’re learning at their off-campus jobs.
“We saw a large increase in referrals to the Academy during the pandemic, because many of our students were considered essential workers,” Abeyta says. “Now we’ve got kids who are managers of restaurants or working in construction who are coming to the Opportunity Academy and getting their high school diplomas instead of dropping out.”
Chelsea has 120 students at the Academy, all of whom were referred from the district’s comprehensive high school, which serves 1,400 students. What makes it unique, Abeyta says, is that it is not a conventional alternative school. About 25 percent of the students are assigned to the school due to behavioral issues or because of mental health/social emotional needs. The majority, she says, “just need flexibility because they’re working or are parents who are trying to provide for their families.”
Many of Chelsea’s 6,200 students—86 percent of whom are Hispanic—live in multigenerational family homes in a city that is only 2.5 square miles. Most residents work in the food service and hospitality industries; 80 percent of the workforce was considered essential when COVID hit, a reason cited for the high infection rate.
Abeyta also opened a virtual academy in the fall of 2020 for students who could not return to in-class instruction due to family or personal needs. “Everyone has different circumstances,” she says, noting that enrollment at both schools is “really on a case-by-case basis.”
Like many districts working to provide students with more mental health support, Chelsea has increased the number of school counselors and social workers. The support, which includes teletherapy, was offered during summer school this year as well.
“The pandemic was very hard on everyone, especially at the beginning,” Abeyta says. “But it provided us with an opportunity to rethink how we deliver instruction, the services we provide, and how we are meeting our students’ needs. And it is a reminder that if we want them to graduate, we must meet them where they are.”
In December 2021, AASA put together a group of superintendents with CEOs from the private and nonprofit sectors to look at ways to redesign schools. The result: A report listing 12 challenges that schools should take on, including personalized instruction, social and emotional learning, year-round schools, equity, and what 21st century graduates should know by the end of their high school experience.
“We can’t be teaching students things they can Google,” says Schuler, whose district is one of 12 identified as models by AASA. “Anyone that has a system that looks the same as it did 20 years ago is not preparing the next generation for the talent pipeline this economy needs.”
In Georgia, 12 districts have started a Deeper Learning Network, partnering with state organizations to re-examine how schools operate. Michael Duncan, superintendent of Pike County Schools, a 3,000-student district located 60 miles south of Atlanta, says the goal is to “find out what kids don’t know instead of learning what kids can do” on standardized tests.
“Two decades of high-stakes testing has led professionals in education to simply default to teaching the test, and they are not providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning in different ways,” Duncan says. “I understand why we do that, why we have a system that ranks and sorts students, because it’s important to make sure that we are providing equitable services and allocating resources where they’re needed. But if we want to fundamentally change education, we have to move away from what kids know to what they can do with what they know.”
In Township District 214, schools operate on a traditional calendar, with classes starting in mid-August and running through mid-May. High school students can take classes in 44 career pathways—a 45th coming in 2023 will focus on sustainability and renewable energy—and participate in one or more external work-based learning experiences prior to graduation.
“How many students graduate from our schools is not nearly as important as how successful they are after they graduate,” Schuler says. “Students need to have permission to dream and innovate for the future. They need to know if everything doesn’t work that it’s OK. We encourage our kids to fail forward. If something doesn’t work, we call it version 1.0.”
Schuler continues: “I’m done with the whole concept of seeing students take the most (Advanced Placement) courses, staying up until 2 a.m. to do their homework and working full time. If we’re preparing kids for adulthood, how is staying up until 2 a.m. every night just so they can collect accolades good for them? If that’s the model, then we’re not ensuring that they have experiences that are relevant and engaging, where the student feels like they have value and worth.”
Transcend’s Wood agrees. “We believe outcomes are really critical, but we must have a much broader scope in terms of education,” she says. “The key is not losing what we’ve learned from the accountability movement in terms of its deep focus on data and disaggregating that data, because those insights are critical, and we don’t want to lose them. But that’s only one part of the journey.”