Leading with Learning: COVID Series

C!E has always believed that learning, partnership and responsiveness were key characteristics of effective education leaders and systems.  We have learned more in the last two years about HOW leaders driven by a sharp stance on systemic inequity learn, partner and respond.  COVID has brought even more stark contrast to patterns we see among types of leaders and the core behaviors of other adults in the education systems they serve. 


Our initial response to COVID has been to open and facilitate dialogue among people in different seats: families, learners, educators, system leaders, non-profit intermediaries, and policymakers about what is happening and what they are feeling. We have been listening long enough to begin sharing insights.  But we also plan to continue to  listen and learn over the next several months.  We hope to elevate themes from these conversations to inform the regional and national processes of re-envisioning the future of schooling.  In this series we ask: which ideas, insights and perspectives should determine the core characteristics of post-COVID equity seeking school systems.

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Updated: Aug 24, 2020

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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Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Download a PDF version of this blog post here.

A new and unusual school year begins. Over the summer, teachers reflected on many complicated issues as they prepared for an uncertain year ahead. How do we teach learners who are in many different places physically, academically, and socio-emotionally? Will the technology be more available and reliable than before, and how can we provide equitable opportunity to each of our students? Are we adequately prepared to onboard new students and, if necessary, to teach at a distance over a prolonged period? What am I learning that makes me think differently about my practice this year?

I know several things about teachers. They are some of the most dedicated and caring professionals in this nation. They know the needs of students better than any administrator or policymaker. As a former chief, I know they can lead the way if we provide them opportunities to do so. No doubt, this past semester has been different, difficult, and intense: many teachers and school systems struggled to adapt to distance learning technologies, adequately support English Language Learners or students with learning differences, reach younger learners, address students social and emotional needs, and communicate with families. Yet many teachers have responded to these challenges with creativity and enthusiasm. Their stories can guide our thinking about what happens next.

I recently had a conversation with a small group of Kentucky public school teachers as they were finishing the year supporting students from a distance. I wanted to know how they and their students were doing. I wanted to know what they could teach us at this moment in time to inform how we think and talk with others about re-opening. I do not pretend to presume all teachers’ experiences are similar to the ones in this interview, but each of their stories is important and, collectively, they offer insight and stimulate new ideas. We will continue to listen to and learn.

Throughout our conversation, I was struck by each teacher’s disposition toward problem-solving and growth as professionals. Their lives had dramatically shifted from the predictability of school schedules to “being on call” 24x7 at home. They desperately missed their students and being able to “look each one in the eye” and make sure they’re alright. Many were challenged to support the learning of their own children at the same time as their students. Yet there was no “woe is me” in the conversations, but a genuine embrace of the responsibility to maintain connection with and support every learner. 

The teachers noted teaching at a distance intensified their efforts to “meet each learner where they are” and help maximize their learning. While anchoring student work in the state standards and being more deliberate about how to sequence and emphasize critical standards, they discovered new ways to give students choice in how they learn, what they learn, and how they demonstrate their learning – taking advantage of individual interests, students’ cultural identities, and out-of-school learning environments in ways that stimulated students to be more engaged. They relied heavily on formative assessment as part of instruction to ensure that each student made progress toward outcomes. Although it posed new challenges, they appreciated the fluidity of learning at a distance, noting that they understand now the 8am to 3pm, brick and mortar learning environment is not the best learning environment for many students and their families.

Breaking from old patterns of school made space for the teachers to get to know their students on new levels. The teachers developed more awareness of and respect for students’ personal lives. They also felt much more aware of how individual students identify, which is not necessarily the identity attributed to them by others as a member of some social group. They feel that because they know the children better, they and the students can be more successful in the long term. It was interesting that some are beginning to wonder about following the same students into the next year of learning if this situation continues, rather than passing the students and their families along to others. That question also raises important issues in their minds about how, as a group of professional colleagues, they can appropriately share information about students’ interests, strengths and identities with other teachers who will support them.

Along with stronger relationships with students, to a person, the teachers report having developed greater appreciation for the importance of direct and frequent personalized contact with individual families. Before COVID-19, all of these educators recognized the importance of parental/caregiver engagement and had communicated with families to some degree. Now, they have expanded those relationships and report greater empathy for the circumstances of the students’ home environments – as one teacher said, “life does not get more real than what many of them are going through right now.” The teachers say that many parents and caregivers are overwhelmed and need assurance that they are doing the best for their child. For some families, teachers are becoming a source of stability in times of incredible stress.

The teachers view these new relationships as critical and have worked to earn the kind of trust with families that ultimately benefits the student, and feel it is important to continue even if they have to give up something to do so. I was impressed with the degree to which the teachers are holding themselves accountable for going above and beyond the traditional expectations for “parent conferences” and to simply support parents as one human responding to the needs of others. One said “I thought I had strong relationships before, but what I have now is what I really want.”

The teachers pointed to several pre-existing supports that they felt were critical to navigating the challenges of this past semester, including Kentucky’s investments in educators as professionals and their participation in already-robust professional learning communities. The teachers noted that strong support from principals as learning leaders was critical to maintaining the culture of community, open dialogue and collaboration. To a person, the teachers had stories of engaging in and benefiting from the emotional support of peers.

In addition, each teacher is teaching in a district that is a part of Kentucky’s Non-Traditional Instruction Program (NTI), a legislatively authorized innovation that encourages the continuation of academic instruction on days when school would otherwise be cancelled, such as snow days. While not all districts had signed up for NTI prior to COVID, the innovation is rapidly being adapted across districts and communities with support from the state education agency to help support children and teachers in these extraordinary times.

Of course, engaging in NTI as the “new normal” exposed ongoing issues of unequal access to learning. Each teacher supported at least some students with no in-home access to technology and varying degrees of parental/caregiver support. Therefore all of them utilized paper packets to some extent, especially for very young learners. But they quickly identified the insufficiency of paper packets, which must be quarantined, delaying feedback and, predictably, resulting in less frequent communication. The teachers say the students completing paper packets are also much less likely to ask for help. They found creative ways to maintain connection with these families last semester but felt that any continuation of NTI next year would benefit from more widespread accessibility to online engagement – which the teachers felt was more immediate, transparent, interactive, and effective.

Nothing this past semester has been easy for this group, and their words say so much: “I am constantly second-guessing myself, have I done enough? What else should I be doing”, “I miss them and it hurts my heart not to be with them”, “It just hurts”.  As challenging as it has been, however, they also appreciated being pushed out of a comfort zone and into an opportunity to reflect on what they should keep, improve, or cease in their practice.

In this spirit, we have pulled from this conversation a few essential questions for education leaders to consider as they prepare for the new future of education:

How can we create environments in which all teachers are empowered all the time to be creative, to assume the agency to be innovators, and to be supported in constant learning and professional growth? How can states and districts invest in educators as professionals, fostering professional learning communities whose ideas and learning are treated as assets that inform the system as a whole? 
How can we elevate the importance of building teacher-student and teacher-family relationships as priority elements of our future success? How can we commit ourselves to enriching relationships and partnerships with families in order to make meaningful impact on student engagement and learning?
How can we preserve all that teachers are learning in this unprecedented time and take the time to observe, listen, and amplify stories of challenge and insight – particularly from diverse voices – to improve ourselves and our systems?

As a last reflection, it’s rather stunning to notice how our individual and collective capacity to believe in and act on what we previously thought impossible continues to expand. We prepare each day for a future that is uncertain and will be full of surprises - some welcome and carrying promise, and some extremely painful. Nevertheless, as educators we must pursue what we believe is best for the students we serve through individual practice and leadership, resist the temptation to trade what we have learned during this crisis for a rapid return to the stability of what we once knew as “normal,”  and use our voices and those of our parents and communities to insist with new intensity on changes that will work for equity based on what we now know is possible.

Gene Wilhoit with Linda Pittenger


Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger thank the following for a remarkable act of generosity - sharing their stories with us and being candid about their own learning as educators: Danielle Cooper, 7th grade ELA at Conner Middle School, Boone County; Sarah Hamm, 5th grade at Flemingsburg Elementary School, Fleming County; Bethany Dages, 8th grade Math at Ramsey Middle School, Jefferson County; Megan Gwinn, Biology at Marshall County High School, Marshall County; and, Kandace Holder, Kindergarten at Newton Parrish Elementary School, Owensboro Independent.

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Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Updated August 14, 2020

Like the rest of America, we continue to learn about barriers to equitable outcomes for learners and the ways in which systemic racism is woven into our ways of schooling. We are learning from families who we have helped facilitate in partnership with educators in a number of places across the country. We are learning from members of the ALP community who are responding differently to what they learned in the spring and the constraints and opportunities of the fall than some of their peers. We are learning from intermediary organizations who are playing new and expanded roles in responding to needs of local school systems. And we continue to learn by maintaining the reflective behaviors we committed to in our statement of solidarity.

It felt important to capture that learning in an update to our organizational declaration. As we said when we first shared our declaration, we do not profess to have things figured out nor are we seeking to tell others what should guide their decision-making. We do feel we should be transparent with partners about why we do what we do. And we meant it when we first shared the declaration:

The declaration is more than just a living document for us, it is a document that guides our practice and learning as a team and organization. We continually use it to check ourselves as we make decisions about partnership, resource use, initiative design and use of internal staff time.

We have been checking ourselves. We have been making different decisions about the work we do, partnerships we seek and whose voice we amplify. And we will continue to learn and change in response to that learning. We offer the updated declaration in an effort to be transparent about our learning and our stance as an organization.

Click the image below to download C!E's Declaration of Intent.

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