By Darlene Wilgus | April 20, 2021, 12:09 PT
April is the post-spring break month where leaders are presented with numerous opportunities – or puddles – to navigate. I like the idea of the showers bringing flowers in May, as I’m sure you do. Executive leadership positions are starting to settle across most districts, and newly acquired responsibilities are coming into focus. Based on recent experiences in two local districts, here are focus ideas to guide April’s scheduling priorities.
What should a decision maker focus on in April to optimize May results?
When I talk with seasoned leaders, listening well is in the top three success strategies as they enter a new position or start a new program. In our current educational climate, this wisdom holds even more truth as well as potential. With a plethora of requests for a listening ear, who and what do we prioritize?
– Parent Requests
This can be a puddle to avoid or embrace. I recommend embracing for the following reasons. Parents and guardians have seen a different way to educate their students. By listening to them in at least a couple of modalities: Zoom Town Hall, short, well-crafted surveys, etc., themes will emerge that will guide your path. A likely strand will be the opportunity to stay in your district via a virtual/online learning option which will allow you to maintain and potentially expand budget capabilities with increased FTE.
– Student Needs
Not only will this open communication doors, but it will also demonstrate your desire to work for student voice and dreams. A percentage of your student demographic has embraced the remote learning option even after a truly drenching experience in April of 2020. They can have more control over the learning pace, schedule, and course path. I believe there are groups of students who just want to graduate and really aren’t enamored with being locked into a social system that doesn’t always share their values. Listening to students is a win!
– Constituent Groups
Have you identified the stakeholder groups that influence the community conversation? Setting up regular interface times gives clout to your leadership and builds trust. Even if the puddles they present seem deep and hard to navigate, at least you are informed of the locations where they exist.
– Staffing Needs
Listening well to the previous three groups and formulating priorities in response prepares you and your team to align job descriptions and postings to what you have heard vs. trying to scramble in late August to fit the puzzle together. Having a virtual/online learning option ready to launch really requires focused work now. Who on your team can grab an umbrella and head out into the showers of decision-making to guide this work? A team representing respective grade bands would really add balance and reflect the developmental needs of students.
Umbrella Shaft and Ribs (A.K.A. Nuts and Bolts)
Walking into a squall with a poorly constructed umbrella is an invitation to getting drenched. As a leader, when I have listened well to the before-mentioned groups, I want to enter the storm with the most direct path to dry and warm. Knowing where I want to head with learning options for our students helps address common questions that will surface.
Physical location: Where will we house learning options?
Looking at physical locations pre-pandemic and post is really quite different. We have learned that remote work doesn’t have to require the same type of square footage once deemed absolutely necessary. I have seen our startup program nine years ago morph from 12 students in one shared space, to a double portable with teaching offices on one side and a digital learning lab on the other, to half of a ten plex in the 2019-20 school year pre-March. From the 2020-21 view, we used little physical space for students and increased enrollment threefold.
My belief is that your team consider flex space. Are there underutilized physical spaces that can be retrofitted? School furniture companies have grants for retrofitting classrooms/existing spaces. One key real estate space in many schools is the media center/library. On a learning field trip to Clark County Nevada Schools, we saw a library, hardly ever used, transformed into an online/blended learning academy. It became a vibrant hub with SEL counseling, an assessment center, tutoring and teaching spaces, small group projects, and even a place where students ran a coffee business as part of their DECA outreach.
Quality Matters: How do we ensure academic integrity?
Choice of a quality curriculum platform provider and partnership with that team is critical in having a solid program start. Asking questions about how the provider approaches practice ethics for virtual/online courses and content is crucial. If you are unsure what to ask, check with your state education department and find out if they can provide startup guidance. See National Standards for Quality Online Learning here: https://www.nsqol.org/
There may be push back from the traditional programs that students can’t have solid content and standards-based learning experience. Having a solid response for them is a key to transparent practice. “Because some of our students want a remote learning option for the 2021-22 school year, we are partnering with _______________ to provide them a standards-based customizable learning experience.” If they want to explore the platform in-depth, set up informational webinars with the company you have chosen.
Fiscal: How much will this cost the district?
Gains and losses are important considerations in looking at the quality of your learning options and basic education program. Your school board will want a response to this question: “Why would you put time and energy into an option that may or may not generate FTE?”
With your data in hand from listening well, it really comes down to the basics. If I encumber $200,000 in seat subscriptions from a platform provider and save $1.2 million in retaining student FTE for students that would choose out/seek boundaries to other virtual schools, as a district, we come out ahead not only in terms of a progressive stance in today’s learning climate, but with our voting public in terms of levies and bonds. We listened and we responded. Providers will work with you to scale the seats you need to your on-demand needs and they will train your team.
So, if we pay attention to the April showers and avoid puddles with a listening ear and sound strategy, we will get to enjoy the month of May and the season of growth that is coming our way.
Meet the Writer
Darlene has 35+ years of experience in education spanning teaching and leading private and public schools K-12. She has also served as an adjunct professor in both education and university administrative programs for George Fox, Seattle Pacific, and Heritage. Her passions lie in student-centered practices, program development, and best practices approaches for teachers to employ. Her undergrad work was at Northwest Nazarene University, MED in School Administration from Central Washington University, and her Superintendent’s license was earned through the Executive Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University.
During her tenure in alternative learning the past 14 years, she became an NBCT, led a 10 member cohort with 80% certification in year one, and facilitated two district-level program cohorts. Her focus for the past seven years became a lightning rod for today’s educational paradigm: developing and implementing a successful district online learning program.