By Lizzeth Mancilla
Engagement and Policy Intern

Students at Summit Atlas Public School

In this webinar, we partnered with the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP) to assemble a panel of principals from across Washington state to discuss how the 2020-21 school year is going, how they would reimagine education based on what they have learned from this unprecedented school year, and how principals can be better supported at the state and district levels. They also answered your questions. 

Panelists included:

  • Jason Smith, Rogers High School, Puyallup School District
  • Tricia Kannberg, Regal Elementary School, Spokane Public Schools
  • Carlos Gonzalez, McFarland Middle School, Othello School District
  • Nathan Plummer, Sultan Middle School, Sultan School District
  • Cindy Cromwell, Kelso Virtual Academy, Kelso School District
  • John Belcher, Mount Si High School, Snoqualmie School District
  • Justin Hendrickson, South Shore PreK-8, Seattle Public Schools

How is the 2021 school year going? 

Although each principal has their own systems to set in place at their school and their own students, the process is still a shared experience. A common theme among these principals is that they all feel incredibly humbled to be a principal during this time and are continually inspired by the resilience of their students and staff, as Jason Smith from the Puyallup School District shared to start off the conversion.   

Carlos Gonzalez from the Othello School District has enjoyed seeing how the students, staff, and community have come together to show their resilience despite all the changes. He found that preparing for online learning over the summer and intentionally building relationships with students has been vital to their success this school year. 

Tricia Kannberg from Spokane Public Schools shared a unique experience, having been a part of the state reopening committees back in March 2020. She stated that these conversations last year felt overwhelming, but is inspired by how far we have all come. She is amazed at the way educators rose to the task and have tackled every problem they came across. However, one challenge is seeing how students have returned to school whether remote, hybrid, or in-person with a lot of burdens, including homelessness, food insecurity, trauma, and loss. “We are definitely working towards balancing learning with the social-emotional needs of our students and seeing that that has to come first for us to make gains,” she added. 

The shared experience of navigating through this school year has allowed principals to feel less isolated. John Belcher from the Snoqualmie School District values being in contact with other principals on a daily basis because it reminds him everyone is in it together. “It is the first time our principal’s association… central office… everyone [is] all in on one focus,” he added. Despite these highlights at an admin level, John finds it important to address the disparities and systematic problems that have worsened during this COVID-19 period. 

Nathan Plummer from the Sultan School District echoed John’s point about addressing the growing disparities in schools. The current situation is “daylighting inequities that live systemically in each one of our districts and that expands to race, special education, and identity,” he said. 

On what has worked well, Nathan shared that the persistence of these educators has shown their hearts in doing the best they can. The collaboration between the local teacher union, nursing staff, Department of Health, and communities allowed the Sultan district to be the first district in Snohomish county to have PreK-12 back in schools. 

Despite the challenges Cindy Cromwell from the Kelso School District faced going from a 30 student grade 9-12 program to a 1000+ student K-12 program, she appreciates the creativity, resilience, and optimism of the staff. In addition, she emphasized that even though it is easy to focus on the negative impacts COVID-19 has had on schools this past year, we should also focus on what is going well. “The future’s still bright for our kids and our staff right now because they’re doing their job. They’re getting things done. And students are learning.” 

Similarly, Justin Hendrickson from Seattle Public Schools is looking forward to conversations about what we can take away from this learning situation. He revealed that SouthShore PreK-8 has seen incredible growth in students’ literacy and math skills. Therefore, he hopes to take what has been working well this school year and apply it to future school years and implement additional systems in place so all kids can flourish. 

“Good teaching is good teaching whether you’re on the screen, in-person or hybrid. The connections, the relationships, the love of kids, your passion for what you’re teaching…those will translate,” Justin added. 

Based on what you’ve learned from this unprecedented school year, how would you reimagine education?

Nathan started off this prompt with a series of questions to consider. “Our system was broken and riddled with inequities and imbalances. Are we really going to rebuild the system that we had? How can we piece it back together to approach and address those inequities? Are we really going to build the same old special education system? Are we really going to continue to marginalize the historically marginalized population? How are we going to elevate those voices? How do we create more inclusionary practices? How do we center race in a sense of finding strengths in each of our differences and cultures?”

Building off of Nathan’s questions, Jason believes it would be academic malpractice to go back to the ways we used to do things before the pandemic. In his perfect world, we would continue to be standards-based in our grading. He wishes it didn’t take a pandemic to get rid of deadlines and make school more about learning rather than completing assignments. 

Carlos would transition to a flipped-classroom approach if possible to teach students about self-advocacy. On top of this, he hopes we can find a way to balance required classes with electives so students can explore their interests. 

Tricia is big on the idea that one size doesn’t fit all. She would love to eliminate the grading system so students are placed based on their needs. An example she provided is an 8-year old is placed in 3rd grade simply because of their age when in reality they may not be there yet in terms of reading and math skills. Therefore, she says we need to assess them and provide them the support they need. In addition, she’d like to change the way elementary schools are structured. For example, we currently place students with one teacher who is “expected to be the jack-of-all-trades” rather than placing them with multiple teachers who are experts in a specific subject. 

There are several practices and opportunities that Cindy would like to continue in the post-COVID world. One is centered around teacher engagement practices. She hopes teachers can continue finding ways to engage students so they want to return the following week despite all the challenges they face. She looks forward to future professional development opportunities through zoom which allows teachers to meet at a district, state, and nationwide level. Lastly, Cindy would appreciate Governor Jay Inslee and State Superintendent Chris Reykdal continuing to keep principals/teachers involved in strategizing/problem-solving conversations. 

One of John’s main ideas revolved around learning from this past year. John believes we need to learn from the fact that remote learning works for some students, including migrant students, working students, and students dealing with anxiety. In addition, as parents have been even more involved in their students’ education this past year, John says we should be leveraging those conversations and learning from their experiences. 

Justin also believes we can grow from parents’ opinions and experiences. They are involved in their students’ learning every day so “How do we capitalize on that? How do we capture their thoughts on how we can make that better? How can we utilize some of the strengths and skills they’ve built over this last year?” In moments like these, he finds It important to build a system to keep engaging with these families.  

How can principals be better supported at the state and district level?

Most principals shared areas where they would benefit from additional funding. Tricia wants to see districts maintain sustained and reliable funding in order to continue supporting students with food insecurity, homelessness, counselors, behavioral specialists, and social workers. Jason would like to see funding allocated towards providing teachers with higher salaries to recruit and retain them and funding smaller class sizes. Aside from these, Carlos wants to invest funding in continuing to support technological needs, including expanding bandwidth to rural communities, distributing laptops to each student, and providing accessibility to hotspots. A main priority for both Cindy and Justin is for districts to continue funding counselors, mental health services, and social-emotional support for both students and staff even after the pandemic ends. Justin believes principals shouldn’t have to decide whether to fund a classroom or a counselor. 


Watch the full LEVinar recording here (Closed captioning is available in English and Spanish)

Read the audio transcript (PDF)


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