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An Opportunity to do Great Things

Updated: Aug 24

By Sarah Lench, Director of Learning Networks for C!E

The Washington Post recently ran an essay by Jeff Gregorich as part of the publication’s “Voices from the Pandemic” series. With heartbreaking honesty, the superintendent of a small Arizona district offers his perspective on reopening schools for his 300 students by August 17.

“I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy,” Gregorich said.

August 17 was the deadline Arizona Governor Doug Ducey set for districts to offer in-person instruction to students, or risk losing 5% of school funding. Meanwhile, Arizona has been identified as one of the nation’s “hotspots” for COVID-19.

I was struck by how Gregorich’s words capture the incredibly complex challenges all local education leaders are facing: maintaining the safety and well-being of staff and students, serving families who are struggling without the communities of care that schools provide, and navigating the national politics that divide and distort local decision-making. But I was also struck by how the tone of this essay was decidedly different from a recent conversation I had with another superintendent from Arizona.

Steve Holmes is the superintendent of Sunnyside Unified School District (SUSD). Extending from South Tucson to the Mexico border, Sunnyside serves approximately 17,000 students, of which 84% are Hispanic, 80% qualify for free and reduced-priced meals, and 17% are classified as English Language Learners.

Sunnyside started the school year remotely on August 5, with the commitment to return to in-person instruction “only when it is safe to do so,” according to a video message from Holmes made public shortly after we spoke at the end of July. Conspicuously absent from that statement – or our Zoom conversation - was any mention of August 17 or the Governor’s mandate. But when I asked Holmes and his Chief Academic Officer Pam Betten about their strategy for starting the school year, he offered the core message he’s been sharing with staff and families.

“This is an opportunity to do great things with our students,” Holmes said.

Perhaps I should pause to provide some background on my relationship with Steve, Pam, and the Sunnyside story. Back in 2015, SUSD was one of three districts partnering with WestEd to pilot a formative assessment professional learning program that was funded through the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP). As the Director of ALP, it’s my job (and honor and nerdy delight) to regularly connect, learn, and #rethinkassessment alongside grantees and their partners within the ALP learning community.

Early dispatches from my colleagues at WestEd signaled that there was something important happening in Sunnyside, something bigger than but directly connected to the formative practices they were piloting in seven schools. Holmes, who was educated in Sunnyside from kindergarten through 12th grade, had just assumed the Superintendent position the year prior in 2014. He and his leadership team were building out a districtwide coherence framework that was grounded in a vision of equity defined by student agency, identity, and purpose.

Decades of research describe the systemic failures of districts serving high-poverty communities: pervasive use of prescriptive curriculum focused on marginal test score gains rather than the development of critical skills and deep knowledge; instructional and assessment practices that subtract students’ culture and language; low expectations for student performance; and structural and cultural systems that maintain privilege and the power dynamics of the status quo. Prior to Holmes’ appointment, Sunnyside embodied much of these inequitable learning conditions and the predictable patterns of student outcomes produced therein.

The formative practices teachers were developing through the WestEd pilot were creating the kinds of learning conditions Holmes was seeking more broadly for SUSD: an intentional focus on cultivating student agency as well as an approach to professional learning that mirrors the inquiry, reflection, feedback, and learner-centered experiences of students in the classroom. A series of field memos from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) documents the powerful ways this professional learning operates within schools and across the district. Five years later, there is wall-to-wall implementation of the WestEd program in 16 of 21 schools, and formative practice is central to the Sunnyside’s instructional core and organizational learning culture. (Quick note: if the mere mention of formative assessment conjures images of boring old exit tickets and checks for understanding, go read those field memos. This is not that. This is radical, transformative work.)

In the past five years, SUSD has also become a 1:1 district utilizing OER curricula strategically selected to move away from a heavy reliance on teacher-directed instruction and toward structures where students direct and monitor their own learning. Sunnyside reimagined its graduate profile describing the knowledge, skills, and critical consciousness students need to live, work, and learn after high school. Assessment approaches that are authentic demonstrations of the graduate profile also serve to shift the narrative – once dominated by test scores – about who Sunnyside students are and what they are capable of accomplishing.

I remember a conversation I had with one of the Assessment for Learning Project’s independent evaluators who had just returned from her first site visit to Sunnyside. She was describing the quality of feedback, reflective vulnerability, and focus on learner agency that she observed there. This Stanford professor who literally wrote the book on conditions of learning stated candidly, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

So in the middle of a global pandemic, while education leaders across the country are grappling with the greatest challenges of their careers, Steve Holmes tells me, “This is an opportunity to do great things with our students.” And I believe him.

The great things that Holmes and Betten have in mind are not emergency detours brought on by this moment. Instead, they are strategies that deepen, expand, and push forward the work they’ve already been doing. Like a resilient crescendo of a coherence strategy conceived five years ago.

Developing student agency has been a core of principle of the Sunnyside vision and a central focus of instructional and assessment practices. As a 1:1 district with OER curricula based in Google Classroom, SUSD was able to shift to online learning in March more easily than many of their peers. Holmes shared lessons from the spring that proved students were more capable and more prepared to navigate this shift than many thought possible. In other words, the district was able to make the technical transition to distance learning, and students used their agency to make the move with them. Further, he believes this extended time in distance learning is an opportunity to continue to develop agency in ways that will make them better, more self-directed learners when schools reopen for in-person instruction. “These skills,” he said, “will benefit them throughout their lifetime.”

Pam Betten sees an opportunity to innovate grading practices in ways that are aligned with prior efforts to move away from teacher-centered, teacher-controlled classrooms. Distance learning means a loss of control, and for Betten that means “no more micromanaging and rewarding compliance behaviors.” She’s encouraging Sunnyside teachers to lean on their formative assessment training that helps them to elicit and observe evidence of student learning, not evidence that a student simply completed an assignment.

Building strong, reciprocal relationships with students is critical to formative practice: feedback builds trust but also requires it to be received; knowing students on a deep level allows teachers to more clearly see their growth; and students in safe space are more likely to take risks and show what they know. SUSD’s reflections on distance learning in the spring made very clear the importance of relationships. Teachers with strong student relationships prior to the shift online sustained engagement in distance learning. Teachers with weaker relationships lost much of their students’ attention online, and they tended to employ more teacher-centric practices. Another important insight was found in survey data on teachers’ perceptions about student disengagement. Teachers ranked lack of parent involvement, negative attitude toward school, or lack of wifi access as chief causes of disengagement. While “student-teacher relationship” was a survey response option, most didn’t perceive it as a cause despite evidence to the contrary.

Holmes sees this as an opportunity to take on the heavy lift of implicit bias training. Prior to COVID-19, he already knew implicit bias was a barrier to fully realizing the benefits of formative practice in Sunnyside. In simplest terms, the assumptions a teacher makes about a student distorts what a teacher is able to see about that student’s learning. Holmes noted that - while this may sound like a response to the current national conversation about systemic racism - this is local work. Many teachers grew up in Sunnyside. “The biases they carry about our students are the stories they carry about themselves and our community,” said the Sunnyside-raised superintendent.


And because he knows this community on a deep level, he knows the challenges families are facing due to distance learning, as well as the broader economic instability of the pandemic. Access to devices and wifi was an equity issue before schools closed, especially for a 1:1 district, and SUSD had a collaboration with local utilities to connect students at home years prior. As of March 2020, all Sunnyside students had Chromebooks and 85% had internet at home, an access rate far higher than similar high-poverty communities. And within a week of shifting online, Sunnyside had a fleet of 29 wifi-enabled busses set up as mobile hotspots and free meal distribution sites across the district, a service that continued through the summer.


Even the best technical solutions, online pedagogy, and virtual relationships can’t replace the physical communities of care schools provide for students. Parents and caregivers in SUSD are predominantly hourly wage earners without paid leave or the option to work from home to support their children with remote studies. In the spring and summer, many students were cared for by extended family, older siblings, grandparents, neighbors, NPOs, churches, as well as licensed and informal daycares. And weeks ago, while popular attention was fixed on the phenomenon of wealthy white families hiring private tutors for small “pods” of students, Steve Holmes was in negotiations with local government, community organizations, and commercial property owners to use empty warehouses and airplane hangars as pop-up care facilities.


I asked Steve and Pam about the great things they hope to do with students who can’t access instruction via remote learning, specifically students with disabilities.


“Those are the students who keep me up at night,” Pam said.

I was relieved to hear the honesty of Pam’s words. I am the mother of an autistic first grader who loves learning, hates Zoom, and was all but abandoned when his school closed in the spring. I am a community organizer for families of children with disabilities who are collectively concerned about what schooling will (and will not) provide this fall. Rather than the rote recital of state IDEA guidelines that many parents are hearing right now, her words signal care and compassion and a grounding that there are big challenges still ahead. Pam and Steve went on to explain that while they don’t have clear solutions, they are committed to have families and teachers share what is working and why, push in to these students’ learning experiences with curiosity, and use the power of observation to better identify what their needs are.


Push in with curiosity. Learn from families and educators. Do great things. No one would choose to be starting the school year this way - be it logged into a device from an airplane hangar or masked within a six foot square in a classroom - and none of us have the perfect solutions to the challenges we face. Yet the Sunnyside story is one every innovative, equity-seeking leader should be turning toward this season. Where are you pushing in? What are you learning? Who are you empowering in this moment? What are your most resilient practices to deepen, expand, and lean into? When faced with what feels like an impossible future, what great things are possible?

To learn more about Sunnyside's work with student agency, formative practice, and professional learning culture:

Developing A School Culture of Meaningful Feedback Deepens Everyone’s Learning

A Systems Approach to Creating an Ecology of Equity in a High-Poverty School District

WestEd's Student Agency in Learning (SAIL) project, piloted in Sunnyside

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