On this episode of What Will We Take With Us?, a series featuring our conversations with education leaders across the United States on how they grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 education, Ann Ertl of Hopkins Public Schools details the innovations made by this Minnesota school district, including the use of outdoor learning spaces, inquiry-based learning models, partnerships with community organizations, and an ongoing feedback model that allowed the school to adjust new practices.
Speaker 1 [00:00:00] Welcome to TLA's Stories of Learning. This episode is part of the series, "What Will We Take With Us?" which focuses on sharing the stories of real-world education leaders as they took on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for tuning in!
Speaker 2 [00:00:19] Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hopkins Public Schools had launched Vision 2031: their district's vision of innovation created with the core belief that every student deserves a brilliant future. Crafted via feedback from the community, students, and staff, Vision 2031 outlines the district's six pillars of innovation, the traits of a graduate from Hopkins Public Schools in the year 2031, the district's core values and beliefs, and the intended outcomes of Vision 2031. With this vision in place, teachers and leaders already had innovation in the forefront of their minds, allowing for a quick pivot to support teaching and learning in the time of COVID-19. In this episode of The Learning Accelerators, "What Will We Take with Us?" leadership podcast series, we're going to hear from a district leader at Hopkins Public Schools about what they tried, what they learned, and what they're taking forward as they head into 2021.
Speaker 3 [00:01:13] My name is Anne Ertl. My title is the interim director of innovation, design, and learning.
Speaker 2 [00:01:20] Hopkins Public Schools is a suburban district outside of Minneapolis and is home to nine schools with just under 7000 students. Roughly 54 percent of students are white, 22 percent black, 10 percent Latine, eight percent multiracial, and six percent Asian, with approximately 10 percent of their students being English language learners. Their mission as a district is to create a better world by inspiring each student to reach their full potential as schools from all across the globe moved to remote teaching and learning almost overnight and in-person opportunities for instruction were on hold, teachers and leaders at Hopkins Public Schools were encouraged to try new innovative practices that would allow for the quickest return to in-person teaching and learning. One such innovation was the rethinking of how they used physical space to allow for social distancing.
Speaker 3 [00:02:06] I first want to give a very specific example, but I think it is going to have – it is already having a broader impact. So, last spring at this time, as our teachers were thinking about – or actually, no, I shouldn't even say that – it was last summer, really, as our teachers were thinking about how the school year was going to begin and, you know, what they could plan for, we had a couple of second grade teachers who, once they learned what the hybrid model was going to be for a second grade, they decided – nope, that's not good enough. We want our students to be with us five days a week, not – you know, the two days or so that we were planning for in the hybrid model. And so they actually took it upon themselves to create an outdoor immersion program, which is no small thing for Minnesota. They found the principal was totally on board, and so they actually developed a full inquiry, Waldorf-style outdoor immersion program in one of the parks that's located within the city of Hopkins. And so they had called all of the parents of their second graders, and the parents were – some were a little leery. Some were pretty excited.
Speaker 3 [00:03:25] They've been out at the park now all year, with 28 out of the 28 second graders, and they've actually been featured on our local news channels and things like that because the students are – the whole program is just so cool and they really are following really a pretty pure inquiry model where you know, the questions that the students ask on Monday will be what guides the curriculum choices that are made on Tuesday, and the two teachers who are working together have just done such a beautiful job of staying true to that model. I would say some of the conditions that allowed for that to happen from their own mouths because we've also been wondering like how how did you guys come up with this amazing idea? They described it as, you know, they weren't satisfied with the option that they were given to only be with students for a couple of days a week. So that's where they started. And like, how can we be with kids more? And one of the ways to do that in a pandemic is to be outside. And one of the teachers happened to have a background in Waldorf from a different state, and so she brought that, and the other teacher was pretty well vested in inquiry. That's where they began. They kind of built the whole thing from the ground up. They got support from leadership to figure out some of the logistical kinds of pieces. So that's been amazing. And what that has led to is that now another one of our schools, for the coming fall, is planning to do their entire kindergarten as an outdoor immersion program. Their focus will be on environmental education. And so it's a natural – it's a really nice fit. But I think – so, the the two kind of effects, in my opinion, of this pilot program or whatever, the second grade outdoor immersion art is a focus on outdoor and environmental education but also on inquiry-based learning, which now we are seeing as a model that's being employed in a couple of other of our spaces outside.
Speaker 2 [00:05:28] To increase the success of this model, the district partnered with their local community center, the Parks Department and the Audubon Society to ensure they had access to a variety of spaces, both to safeguard against severe weather conditions and to provide students with access to natural elements to inspire inquiry-based learning.
Speaker 3 [00:05:45] I do think that teachers are taking kids outside more than they were before and thinking of it as instructional time and not just recess time. And I should say, in full disclosure, that on the coldest of cold days in Minnesota, they did have a community space that they were able to use that was indoors. And so while they were outside (our second grade team), while they were outside probably 90 percent of this year, they did have community space that was accessible to them that they could use on the days when that it just wasn't possible to be outdoors. Our Hopkins Community Center had a space that had previously been used for like elderly programing and things like that. Well, because of COVID, that was not happening, so this space was sitting there empty and it was adjacent to the park that the kids were in, and so our director of community education worked with the city of Hopkins to arrange for our outdoor immersion class to take place in this park, but then also to be able to utilize that space right next door for weather inclement days.
Speaker 2 [00:07:00] Given the district's interest in innovation and the flexibility afforded to teachers to test new models, these outdoor classrooms will continue to be used beyond the pandemic and remote and hybrid instruction.
Speaker 3 [00:07:10] What we are trying to figure out right now is how to gauge that level of interest from our community, and we're looking at some different options in terms of, you know, info sessions or surveys or things like that where we kind of figure out what are the demand programs that we could offer. Because I do think that where we're at as a district in terms of flexibility and creativity, I feel like if we could get an accurate sense of what is desired, we'll build it.
Speaker 3 [00:07:45] Part of that is we are engaged in Vision 2031, which is our version of reimagining and rebuilding schools from the ground up, and as a district team, I think that we view ourselves as promoting the innovations that teachers want to do. So we are – we feel like our goal or our job is around removing barriers so that teachers can really be the drivers of the innovation and the reimagining. So, we try to not lead with "We can't," we try to lead with, "That's what you want to do. OK, well, how can we maybe figure that out?"
Speaker 2 [00:08:27] As Hopkins looks to support teachers and leaders in fostering innovation across the district, they've engaged central office staff to elicit feedback from staff around needs for implementation of new and innovative practices.
Speaker 3 [00:08:38] The strategic plan with Vision 2031 Roda brought when she joined Hopkins – this is her fourth year – and so, up until last year, we were operating very traditionally as a district office curriculum department. And certainly when I joined Hopkins three years ago, that's what I joined as an EL curriculum specialist, and there were social studies and science and math. And so, this department was the first central office department to really kind of undergo this shift in identity. We let the principals work with their teachers to design models that would work in their building, given their students. And so that also meant that it looked a little bit different. Some things were the same, but some things were a little bit different, depending on which building. And so in some ways, for me, in my role, there have been moments where I feel like if I'm not the one making the curriculum plan for everybody, then I don't know exactly what I should be doing. But I think that part of the reimagining is also trying to rethink what all of our central office roles are. And if we believe, I mean, I think research would support, and I think we believe that principals and their teachers are the locus of change, then that has to, then by nature, change how we work.
Speaker 2 [00:10:12] Accompanying these mindset shifts around what autonomy teachers and leaders should have when introducing and implementing new practices was also a more concrete shift in roles to support the personalization of schools throughout the pandemic.
Speaker 3 [00:10:26] Many of the people on our team were sort of brought up under the old model of of content expert. So I think some of the shifts that we've made more concretely are around shifting our expertise and our focus more toward facilitative versus only being able to focus on a specific content. And so an example of that – we have a member of our team who was a science specialist. Well, some of the principals decided that they don't want paras in those roles, working with the highest needs students. What they'd rather do is have licensed teachers working with those students and maybe support other kids who aren't using those services with paraprofessionals. In some ways, it's so common sense, but in other ways is like radical, especially in this environment. I think we've thought of intervention as being the realm of other different paras or title teachers or whomever, and so, some of the principals have decided that they are going to use their highest skilled teachers with the kids who need them most. So that's an example.
Speaker 3 [00:11:41] Other choices that they are making are around class size, which is always such a lightning rod, but they are deciding that, actually, there are some courses that can have more than – a higher number of students than other courses. Another thing that we are using and this is maybe more in the innovation realm, even though it doesn't even sound very innovative anymore, but we've got a lot of buildings that are exploring various types of blended learning models. And so in the old paradigm, my team and my department would have put out, "OK, here's the blended learning plan that we're going to use. Now you figure out how to implement it, or you do the implementation piece. Well, several of us on my team are supporting site teams to develop what blended learning might look like at the individual schools. We are using some common resources to do the learning, but the site teams are really the drivers of what the learning and what those plans might look like at the individual buildings.
Speaker 2 [00:12:53] To help ensure that there's continuity across the district, central office staff has introduced a set of pillars that allow for school leaders to have autonomy and personalizing their campuses to meet student and staff needs inspired by Vision 2031, Hopkins has built a learning framework to provide shared guidance.
Speaker 3 [00:13:10] It's called our learning framework. And the learning framework – I always have to picture it in my head because it's got kind of four components. One [is] student success metrics. So we are working on kind of redesigning what it means to be a successful student using different kinds of, you know, not just standardized tests, kind of information. Another one of the quadrants is around curriculum design and development, and we are focused more on conceptual and inquiry-based learning. And so that kind of provides a playing field for that. We are also, in the upper left quadrant, thinking about teacher practice and pedagogy, which is also, of course, related to inquiry and restorative practices as another key – or restorative culture, rather, excuse me – is another key element of sort of what is the teacher doing in all of this? And then the last quadrant of our framework is the spaces and places – so where, you know, we imagine learning taking place outside of the four walls, and that again has been really clearly accelerated by COVID and the pandemic. You know, what are the spaces and places and where do students engage in learning that's not just in a typical school building? So that can be anything from, you know, a blended model where they're learning at home half the time and coming to school half the time, or it can be literally they're digging in the dirt in kindergarten at one of our elementary schools.
Speaker 4 [00:14:47] It sounds like the learning framework is a definition of like what you care about – that is common, a definition of the frame for curriculum overall, a set of assumptions about practice, and then this fourth piece is almost like – what's interesting is the fourth piece sort of like encourages people to push outside or like gives a variety of design boundaries that people might not have even thought of yet, so it's both like a document, sounds like, that sets forward a vision of a set of values, but also is asking people to think about resources differently.
Speaker 2 [00:15:18] While the district has provided a set of guidelines with their Vision 2031 and learning framework, central office staff at Hopkins realized that change management at this level needed another level of support, which comes in the form of personalized principal leadership coaching.
Speaker 3 [00:15:32] Roda to keep saying doing differently with less, and so it's pushed on how can we use our resources not to recreate what was – we have to let that go because maybe it wasn't that good to begin with – but how can we use our resources to do something completely different? One of the things that we're starting to think about a little bit more concretely is more around, you know, change management. I do think that there's this sense of returning back to normal that some people really would like to happen, and then some of us are, like, really scared about [that] happening. There's been so much churn, and it's not just the pandemic, but also like our budgeting and the way that we're doing staffing this year has completely changed, too. And so there's just a lot of churn, and it's – we are feeling it centrally. The principals are getting a lot more autonomy, but along with that, a lot more responsibility, probably, than they've even had in the past on certain things. And so, the staff is feeling that – is impacted by that as well. So I think one of the things we've been trying to now figure out is when you're trying to change everything, and how can we make that manageable for all of our stakeholders when you know, like, there's all this urgency around not wanting to go back to the way things were? When we say re-imagining from the ground up, we actually really mean that, and that's overwhelming. So I feel like if we're not careful, that could collapse on itself because it's a lot.
Speaker 3 [00:17:07] We do have a role in our district called the – it's shifting a little bit for next year – but it's been, it's called the Director for Principal Leadership, and she has been functioning as a – this isn't the only thing she does, but she is a coach to all of our principles to help them kind of grow into that. I would also say, interestingly, if I look across our system again, we have only the nine schools, but we have a lot of new leaders. And so there are only a couple of veterans that have been here for a long time. What's interesting about that is when people come from outside, as I did, you know, you just have different experiences or expectations and so forth. So, what I mean is, for example, in other spaces, in other districts, other principals have always had autonomy over their Title I dollars. The fact that principals here didn't made it unique for for some of those new principals who were like, "Well, what do you mean I don't have a say?" So, I think that's kind of the balance – is to figure out how to help our principals who maybe don't have a ton of experience outside of this space, get a level of comfort that some of their other colleagues might have. And I'm not saying that coming from outside makes anybody better. It just gives them a different set of experiences to build off of because you've seen how other – how it works in other places, and I think that diversity of experience is pretty important.
Speaker 2 [00:18:35] With the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every school across the country had to quickly pivot to allow for a new model for teaching and learning to reach students in remote settings. With circumstances never before experienced, Hopkins Public Schools looked to their Vision 2031 to serve as the driving force behind creating and implementing new innovative practices to allow for their teachers and leaders to do whatever possible to bring students back in person and to continue to provide opportunities for high-quality teaching and learning.
Speaker 2 [00:19:04] Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's, "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. For more resources and leadership stories, visit hopskipleapfrog.org.