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, Dr. Tina Owen-Moore of the School District of Cudahy highlights how the district focused on proactive and open communication, feedback, and trust-building with teachers, students, and the community to accomplish what at times felt impossible – all of which allowed for continued in-person teaching and learning throughout the school year.
Speaker 1 [00:00:00] Welcome to TLA 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] In the midst of school closures and a global pandemic, the School District of Cudahy began their 2020-2021 school year with a new superintendent. With new leadership in play, the district focused on proactive and open communication, along with trust in teachers and students to accomplish what at times felt impossible. All of which allowed for continued in-person teaching and learning throughout the school year. In this episode of the Learning Accelerator's, "What Will We Take with Us?" leadership podcast series, we're going to hear from the district leader at the School District of Cudahy about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into the upcoming school year. The School District of Cudahy is a suburban district outside of Milwaukee and is home to seven schools with approximately two thousand three hundred students. Roughly 63 percent of students are white, 21 percent Latine, eight percent black, six percent multiracial and two percent Asian. Their mission as a district is to guarantee a quality education where students, staff, families and community work collaboratively to prepare all students to be productive 21st century citizens. As schools from across the globe moved to remote teaching and learning almost overnight and in-person opportunities for instruction were put on hold, teachers and leaders at Cudahy were encouraged to try new innovative practices that allowed for them to remain open and in-person for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year. Listen as we hear from a first year superintendent, about how she built buy-in from teachers and leaders in her district to help ignite change.
Speaker 3 [00:01:56] I am Dr. Tina Owen- Moore. I am the superintendent of schools here in Cudahy, Wisconsin. We are a small school district of seven schools, a high school and middle school and five elementary schools. And we're pretty much a typical Wisconsin, almost like urban-suburban town right on the edge of Milwaukee in a very blue collar community with people from all over the place. We have 25 languages spoken in our district and sometimes in our schools. It feels like a mini United Nations.
Speaker 2 [00:02:30] From the start of the year, Dr. Owen- Moore knew that keeping Cudahy schools open for in-person instruction would be a top priority to ensure students and teachers had the ability to return to teaching and learning in a way that was most responsive to their needs. As such, they reorganized their staffing model, adjusted class sizes and modified spaces to help keep their schools open.
Speaker 3 [00:02:51] It was my first year as a superintendent here, so I was coming into a new space where I didn't really know the team and didn't really know. I knew the community pretty well, but I was new to them. We were in this interesting spot when the school year started where, according to the Harvard Metrics for Pandemic Resilient Teaching, the recommendations said that we should open with all of the mitigation practices in place. We were in that orange band and so that was the plan we decided we worked to create and had to do a lot of work to get support from the board and the community, but to open with the six feet of distancing, the mask wearing the protocols for everything like we had protocols for how to make sure there's never two people in the bathroom at the same time, you know, just all of these things because we didn't know how COVID spread or what it would be like with the school year starting. So, we had really strict mitigation practices in place, and the first thing we did was we measured every classroom and figure it out. How many students would fit in that classroom at a socially distanced measure, like at that six feet and the average was 17. So, we had to completely redo our staffing to adjust to that number of seventeen students per classes and all grade levels. I think there's something exciting about that because, you know, the conversations go back and forth about whether class size matters. And I would say that this year, that's one thing I definitely saw is that class size mattered. And it wasn't just from a COVID perspective. Any behavior issues were almost non-existent this year. And I think that had to do with several things both the smaller class sizes, the pods, we had students in groups of pods that they stayed with all day, the reduced mixture of groups. There is something to that. Yeah, we just saw there was a lot of normalcy of the classroom. We were able to continue doing teaching and learning, but at the same time, those relationships were stronger. There was a calmness. The students really appreciated having their own space. I had this realization early on that we don't often teach students how to set their own boundaries, how to tell people, no, this is my space or to keep people away from them when need be. And what a skill that was that we taught them in this moment, especially for young women. I really realized that. So you saw young people saying, No, this is my space. You have to stay six feet high. And that was really healthy. They did such a good job of it. The little kids had mommy walks that they would do to to help them keep their space, and the teachers had all kinds of markers on the floor or things that the students could wear that would help them be aware of the space around them. And that was really powerful.
Speaker 2 [00:05:45] To help maintain the new structures in place within their schools, Cudahy placed heavy emphasis on routines and procedures that ensured teachers and students were confident and comfortable enough in existing structures to flexibly engage in new ways of collaboration.
Speaker 3 [00:06:00] This was a year of procedures, procedures, procedures, and we just spent so much time practicing walking in lines, practicing saying how you would turn in papers, how you would request to go to the bathroom. I'm such a collaborative learning person on all of this, but there was something that was so healthy about everybody having their space, and there was still plenty of ways for them to work in groups or collaborate with each other. But to have that designated space. So our class sizes have been pretty small, so it wasn't a big leap for us. We're going to try to keep our class sizes small. I think that the other thing that really helped was having a ton of protocols around it. I remember back in the day when I first started teaching, reading the Harry Wong book "The First Days of School," and it was all about procedures, procedures, procedures, all the things that he says are so important. And this year we did them because it made a difference for COVID. And I think we saw the impact of that a great deal, too. So it was that coupled piece and then the teachers being really intentional still about creating those group interactions. So, we started every morning with a morning meeting where the virtual students and the in-person students were participating virtually, relationship building, question of the day or story of the day, just to keep those connections really strong. And another thing that I saw happening a lot in the classrooms was students who were in-person, who were working virtually in groups. We would have guided Reading where three students in different places in the classroom were participating in the same guided reading group right where they are. And you wouldn't think that kids could put on headphones and be speaking, and it wouldn't be distracting to other people. And they just did it. It was fine. Some of our interventions were virtual because we were trying to reduce teachers traveling between different groups, so we might have a reading interventionists who was doing interventions with students at two schools at the same time or doing a one on one intervention from the school they were at with the student virtually at the other school, and the student would just sit out in the hallway and do the intervention or sit in their classroom and do that intervention, and it was fine. So we were just talking today about how we can continue to use that practice because it was, it actually created more time for interventions because there was less need for travel and movement and the students just adapted to it so well.
Speaker 2 [00:08:28] With new structures in place, such as morning meetings and a hybrid teaching model, district leadership provided schools with a basic framework for what their day should look like, but gave school leaders and teachers autonomy around how to carry out these structures. Thus helping to ensure increased buy-in as schools were able to differentiate based on their needs while still maintaining continuity across the district.
Speaker 3 [00:08:51] They probably did like a little bitty paragraph in the thing that we created that was both for teachers and for parents on this is what our hybrid learning model will look like. We really ironed it out ahead of time, and here's a sample schedule of what your day should look like, and here's what you should be doing at different points of the day. And I think everybody started out doing it in a more simplistic way, and it's things like, Well, we can't do guided reading in this model. And then as time went on, they started going, I bet I could do guided reading in this model and figuring it out themselves and then sharing it. And one of the other things, but one of the coolest things that happened and we did not tell them to do this, and the teachers figured this out early in the beginning. The elementary teachers, the grade level teachers across the district started meeting and saying, "All right, who will make the social studies lessons? Who will make the math lessons, who will make the science lessons?" And they had a shared Google classroom like a template one that everybody put the different lessons into the different parts of the day. And then each teacher would copy those into their day, into their own Google classroom, and sometimes they would adapt things or use different things, but one of the things I loved about that is it created a consistent set of expectations and learning across the grade levels across the district.
Speaker 2 [00:10:09] Another way that senior leadership at Cudahy leaned into new and innovative practices was to communicate early and proactively with different groups to redesign schedules to best suit the changes within the district.
Speaker 3 [00:10:22] One of the other things that was really cool is like with our specials, and it sounds like you've heard a little bit about this too, where they were traveling teachers going to different schools. They might have been going to five different schools in a week. Just the way the schedules worked out or the way the content worked out and the state's guidelines around how much music they should have in a week and how much PE they should have in a week. And what we did was to reduce those cohorts and to reduce that traveling, we had them there for three weeks with a group and then three weeks with another group. And so usually they would be six weeks in a school, three weeks with a certain set of grade levels, three weeks with the other set of grade levels, and they would rotate. It was hard for PE because PE is really something you need to be doing every day of the whole year. In music and art, the depth of the projects that the students were doing, or the depth of the learning that the students had was so much better. The art like, if you see the art the students did this year, it was incredible. The music development that they were able to accomplish, it didn't have that start and stop so much. And so we met with the director of instructional services and myself. We've been meeting with each of the different specials groups and saying, "All right, in your utopia, what does your schedule look like? What did you learn from this year? What do you know about how students learn best?" I think that's the other thing that really was clear this year was that the teachers all became, their already experts. But they they became not just experts in their content areas, but experts in COVID and their content areas. Like the music teachers were on top of the Colorado study that talked about COVID in the spread of the virus, and the PE teachers were experts in COVID and how to do it in this time, really pulling them in and saying, "What's your utopia? What is the research telling you? What did you learn from this year and redesigning our schedules to capture some of those things that were so strong this year that we don't want to lose?" Same thing happened with middle school, the middle school students were in a class all day the same class, same 17 students with one teacher all day and the other teachers streamed in the different content areas to them. And that was to keep those pods. And before this, there had been talk in the past of moving to block scheduling. But everybody felt like we couldn't keep students in a class for 90 minutes. They'll go crazy. This year they had the same students in the class the whole day, and the relationships were so strong and the behavior was so much better and the learning was so much better. And now we're saying, All right, what could our schedule look like? What could that ideal schedule look like? And the staff is ready to move to some longer blocks of scheduling to maintain some of what was good, and they're keeping their squads at the beginning and end of the day. They call them squads at the middle school. I've been meeting with the principals regularly and asking, All right, what worked this year? What do you want to keep? And there are some consistent things, and we started to collect those in a document. And the elementary schools especially have been the principals parents. They always align everything together. We have to all be doing the same thing to some degree. So they're already talking about things like those morning routines, the parent drop offs at different places per grade and going right into the classroom and having breakfast there first so that there's no playground drama before the school is placed. So it's been such a good start to the day, and the energy has been so much better that everybody is doing that. So I haven't said you have to do this, but what I have said is what's worked and then collected that and said, OK, can we as a group say that this is the way we're going to do it? And so I'll get that consensus and then share it back as this is the way we do it. Same thing with lunch procedures, bathrooms. The elementary teachers created this system with the kids, where they each have their own little cone by their chair, and when they need to go to the bathroom, they take that with them. And then there's a table outside the bathroom, and if there's a cone on the table, they don't go in until the other person is done. And so the other person comes out and they put their cone there, they go in, they do their hands. They wash their hands before and after picking up the cone. We grab the cone, they bring it back. And it's it's just like this routine and they are so good about it.
Speaker 2 [00:14:54] As a first year superintendent, Dr. Owen more focused heavily on regularly communicating with. Key stakeholders and on creating spaces for proactive and collaborative problem solving with her team simultaneously helping to develop autonomy and foster new and creative thinking,
Speaker 3 [00:15:10] I realized early on that what I've done is I haven't told people what to do. I've given them the principles of what are the non-negotiables and said, All right, what can you create that looks like this, right? All right. We know how cove experience. You have to have six feet of distancing, you have to wear masks, you know, these things are important, not sharing materials. And so that's why the middle school design what's so different with the streaming into the classroom and the pods look different than the high school and elementary because they all have that ability in the elementary schools just kind of came together to figure out what theirs would look like. That's been a really good strategy that I'm sure that all can singularly not make sure the principals like a skeleton. All right. Now you design. And then from a communications perspective, there was a lot of anxiety around starting school at all to begin with. I really just kept feeling like if we're following the science, if we're doing these things, we're going to be OK. But what I did was I communicated a lot about the science and the research and why we were doing the things that we were doing. And then I also solicited questions or feedback or suggestions constantly. I realized too, like with all of that fear that I needed to personally be communicating and listening. So I started doing a Zoom brief every week to say This is what's going on. This is where the numbers are in the community. This is what the health departments are telling us and answering any questions that I was hearing repeatedly. So the whole staff, like I just sent out a Zoom invitation to the whole district and I would just be there and I'd run through the things I wanted to share and then leave it open for any questions and answer on the spot as much as it could. And if I didn't know, I'd say, I don't know. And then I will come back to it next week. And then with both the staff and the parents too, I was sending out emails every week. Just like this is the context. These are the numbers. This is what we're doing. This is why this is important and the community and the teachers have been very supportive through the whole year. I think right now at this point mid-year, everybody's proud. Everybody's really proud of all we've accomplished because here we are. We're in April and we've been open the whole school year and we've never had to close because of COVID cases. We haven't had transmission from person to person in schools, and we've been doing some really cool things. Once the school year started, the teachers actually asked me to keep up the Zoom briefs monthly. So I've been doing a monthly throughout the school year and it has been really helpful. I'm answering their questions on the Zoom brave and sharing information and sharing information with the parents and the community. And even as we're having discussions about possibly closing or merging a school or doing something radically different with our portfolio of schools, there's been almost nobody at the board meetings because they're not unhappy with us in it because it's their constant communication. They know what's going on.
Speaker 2 [00:18:00] With the COVID 19 pandemic, nearly every school across the country had to quickly pivot to adjust to the rapidly changing ecosystem, dealing with circumstances never before experienced. Dr. Owen- Moore sought to bring about change in the school district of Cudahy by proactively and frequently communicating with staff, students and the community to ensure their schools remained open throughout the year, making changes and adjustments to existing structures whenever needed. 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 HopSkipLeapFrogTalk.org.