By Dr. Laurynn Evans, Superintendent, North Kitsap School District
I often tell my team that vulnerability is at the heart of strong leadership. And so, I will begin by being very honest and vulnerable about our experience with continuous learning. We were caught squarely behind the 8-ball when March 13th came along. We were nowhere near ready to stand up learning at a distance or a virtual continuous learning model. While our voters supported us in 2018 with the passage of a Capital Levy, much of which has been devoted to technology improvements, we were digging out of a very serious technological hole. The prior ten years had seen year-over-year cuts to technology, which had left our district short on devices and devoid of instructional technology integration/implementation.
In the days following the Governor’s directive to close all schools, we stood up childcare for our front line healthcare workers and we set up grab-and-go meal service, ultimately serving well over 10,000 meals/week, to ensure we met basic needs for our families. Fortunately, we had devoted a significant portion of our 2018 capital levy dollars to purchasing student devices, which meant we were able to issue almost 1,000 devices out to students, meeting every single request we received. This significantly helped ensure that all students had the opportunity to continue their learning at home. We partnered with our utilities district and internet providers to establish access to broadband services for all families who identified this need.
Like so many other schools across the nation, we had to adapt on the fly and adjust course to accomplish a comprehensive continuous learning plan. Our faculty and staff stood up an entirely new way of learning, from the ground up, in a matter of a few short weeks. We worked with our faculty members and principals to set up a weekly schedule for teachers to deliver instruction that included synchronous and asynchronous delivery, a focus on student social-emotional well being, and maintaining academic progress. We met regularly with our bargaining groups to ensure we were communicating well, setting up fair and clear expectations, and delivering on our commitment to serving our students and families.
We adopted a mantra in our district in regards to our approach to student learning during the pandemic: We will be merciful, minimal, and mastery-based. Merciful meant that we would focus our efforts through a lens of care and compassion for our students and families, many of whom were grappling with job loss, economic security, and health concerns. Minimal meant that we developed agreed-upon essential standards for all grade levels and content areas, and we focused our instructional delivery on those standards. Mastery-based meant that we sought out ways for students to demonstrate their mastery (understanding) of the essential standards in a clear, straightforward manner, choosing high-quality integrated assignments over several smaller assignments.
Our elementary teachers banded together by grade level group across the district to ensure consistent instruction was provided in the core areas of literacy and math. All students in each grade level received similar instruction and pacing, and we provided paper packets to support families who were struggling with broadband access. Specialist teachers worked together to push out videos and instructional segments that were consistent across the district. The creativity they have demonstrated to date has been inspiring! Also, all of our elementary harnessed social media to enhance information sharing, content delivery, and family communication in addition to the traditional email newsletters.
Secondary schools also undertook extensive use of social media to share important information about events, key dates, and offers of assistance for students. Secondary faculty primarily used our Office365 suite to deliver instruction to students, but also used online resources that were part of our adopted curriculum. For many faculty, it was their first time accessing these tools, and many have since discovered that these digital resources are high-quality and very useful instructional tools.
After a few weeks of our continuous learning model being in operation, we surveyed students, staff, and families about their experience. We used that data to surface trends regarding what was working and what needed improvement. Feedback indicated that while communication was generally good, it needed to be more consolidated to avoid overwhelming amounts of email. We heard our community praise our faculty for their care and efforts to connect with students on a weekly basis. We also heard that we needed to refine our instructional platforms to be more streamlined and accessible. Given that we had started with no clear plan, we were pleased that we were generally meeting needs, and we agreed that we needed to continue focusing on improving our delivery model for students.
Following the survey, we invited faculty and staff to participate in a workgroup to help us refine our processes for the coming academic year. We now have a highly involved group of 35 principals, leaders, and faculty that are “working the problem” of how we might better deliver on distance learning moving forward. Regardless of what the start of school might look like, we know that the likelihood of another closure remains a real possibility. This team is focused on ensuring that we will be well-positioned to seamlessly move between in-person and distance learning so that we meet the needs of all students in NKSD.
While being pushed into the deep end of the technology pool has been challenging, it has resulted in us taking a quantum leap forwards in terms of technology integration and instruction. Our staff have become more confident in tackling new technology-rich instructional approaches and methodology, our students have found new ways to produce evidence of their learning that are innovative and creative, and our district has found new ways to operate and continue providing essential services remotely. In short, I am proud of how our community has risen to the challenge and not just met expectations, but exceeded them. Because of the efforts we have undertaken this spring, we are looking forward to the start of the 2020-2021 academic year not with fear, but with excitement and hope.
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