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, Bob Ettinger of Renton School District in Washington shares with us how district leadership prioritized both staff and student wellness, facilitated opportunities for authentic engagement through choice and voice, and tackled challenges with the support of teams made up of district personnel and students who co-designed solutions collaboratively.
Renton School District is nestled between the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, just outside of Seattle, Washington, in the face of the COVID 19 pandemic. The school district implemented a number of strategies to support their students learning in a remote environment, including continuing to focus on choice and personalization, thoughtfully embedding digital tools and engaging students authentically. 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 Renton School District about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into the 2021 2022 school year. Hi, everybody. I'm Bob Adejare, director of curriculum instruction and assessment in the Renton School District, which is just south of Seattle, Washington. We have upwards of 15000 students pre-K to 12 across 26 schools with a really beautifully diverse student body along a whole bunch of different lines of diversity. Renton School District serves about sixteen thousand students in pre-K through Grade 12 across their 24 schools in the Pacific- Northwest, four high schools or middle schools, 15 elementary schools and one Early Childhood Center. Three quarters of the Renton student body identify as people of color. Half of all students are considered economically disadvantaged, while 18 percent are emerging multi- linguists or English language learners and 15 percent receive special education services. According to their mission, the district aims to see each student graduating with options and prepared to participate fully in our democracy. As schools from across the globe move to remote teaching and learning almost overnight, and in-person opportunities for instruction were put on hold, teachers and leaders at Renton School District were encouraged to try new innovative practices that would allow for the quickest return possible to in-person teaching and learning. Renton recognized early on in the pandemic the need to support the social emotional needs of their students and staff. They addressed this need with signature social emotional learning practices such as daily check ins, calm down spaces, kicking off in-person learning with a 15 minute safe start and an entire website dedicated to educator wellness. You know one of the things that we did last spring as kind of, you know, we were looking ahead to the next school year was to do this. We called it Learning and Teaching 2020, where we engaged in diverse groups of educators and thinking about what might learning and teaching look like next year, or whether it's remote, partial hybrid, you know, that kind of thing. Parallel to that, we also engaged teachers and social emotional learning planning and came up with a pretty robust social, emotional learning plan that was both partly embedded in those teaching and learning documents. We called it both a column and a row, as well as in its own kind of like separate plan. We have also been convening people together for a while, not just because of the pandemic to identify what what we're calling signature practices. And so, for example, in grades catered to some of our signature social emotional learning practices, are greet everyone by name, class gatherings with a feelings check in and having calmed down spaces. And so this was a work that was underway before the pandemic, and now the work has been OK. How does this adjust to remote and to this return back in person? And so one of the things we've bargained is that, you know, in our elementary schools, students are either like an AM group in person or a peer group in person. If they're in-person in the first 15 minutes of that time is what we're calling safe start SEL and so that is a time to engage in these signature practices, having class meetings, engaging in feelings, check ins, and we've got all of these pieces of that. We've also built out a whole website for adult wellness and all of those resources that are teacher facing. Start with that slide linking people to our adult wellness site because adult wellness is absolutely part of this work. And so I think we're doing really cool work there and have dedicated quite a few resources to that as a district, starting by hiring Vicki four years ago and then adding to social, emotional learning, district based facilitators, as well to her team as a way to like, really kind of drive this work forward. The other thing I'd add is that we're also engaging in work around diversity, equity and inclusion, and we have kind of this year, you know, there's been work underway for a while, but we've started with a diversity, equity and inclusion steering committee that is a team of a bunch of people from a bunch of different parts, the district, you know, principals, H.R. coaches, directors, etc. And one of the things they did that I think is really smart is to really reach out to school leaders and say, you know, we know you've been engaging in this work for years. What resources, practices, partnerships, activities have been most successful for you in addressing whatever you want to call it, anti-racist practices, culturally responsive learning, etc. and trying to compile a list of those and using that kind of inquiry process to guide a multi-year strategic plan. Turning to academics, Bob and his team focused much of their work during the pandemic on mastery of learning with student engagement and prioritization of standards as two key focus areas. We've been doing a lot of work around mastery of learning, and so you know, my team, that district team has kind of named two areas of focus this year. One is student engagement, knowing how important that is, particularly during in-home learning. And the other is prioritization. Thinking about how do we prioritize what we most hope students will learn? And that work has looked a little bit differently in different grade bands in middle school, where there are just fewer teachers teaching a particular subject right like we've got four comprehensive middle schools. There are still only like eight, sixth grade science teachers. You know, it's just not that many, maybe not even that many convening them together and do a pretty rigorous process of looking at the units that are coming up, looking at the standards and thinking about what's most important that students will walk away from these units with kind of moving forward. So let me see if I can find, you know, and none of these are perfect, but starting with some core questions. But then thinking about the science example, thinking about what they call the three dimensions of science as they apply to this unit and then kind of within the unit saying, OK, within this first lesson, what are we most want students to know and understand? And what are some specific tips for getting them there? And again, it's been it's been a neat kind of way to both respond to this remote learning situation, but also to engage people in thinking pretty deeply about standards and three dimensionality and all of those things. In elementary, we've been doing a broadly similar thing, but because there's so many teachers at those grade levels and because they're all trying to teach, you know what, four different subjects, depending on how you count it, not so much convening them, but actually engaging our district facilitators in developing some of that work and really thinking about OK and leveraging guidance from like student achievement partners and saying, OK, what's the priority content? Why don't we skip? What might we put off a little bit where we can go deeper? And also like digging really deep into the mathematics and saying, OK, here's this lesson how might we teach this remotely and providing a bunch of different options for how students and teachers might engage with that? Obviously, developing feedback loops of teachers saying What's working, what's not working? Engage, and we also have school based instructional facilitators, basically school based coaches that vary a little bit school to school, but looping them into that work also as they sometimes know it better. But you really providing a bunch of resources. Instructional coherence makes it sound better than maybe it has been like the amount of agreement on exactly how we're going to teach probably decreases the older students get. And so that work happening more at the school level in high school than at the district level, but engaging department chairs in that conversation, and we convened them to share some of those resources because they've each kind of developed documents broadly like that for their buildings and sharing them with each other without saying that like, you know, what works here has to be the thing that works there. The other thing we've been doing is especially in math, really focusing on this idea of making student work visible because it's really hard to talk about math in the chat of a Zoom meeting. You know what I mean? Like just taking like just the typing. It's so hard. And so one of the things we have kind of named this as a goal, we've gotten instructional. Practice documents like what you know, I had shared about student choice and then at a department chair meeting in February, math department chairs were asked to share examples with like screenshots of how this is going in their buildings. And so these are and again, none of this is the most amazing thing ever. But like just sharing like here's how we've engaged students and using jam board to show their mathematical thinking. And here's like how they've used decimals to share their thinking. And here's how we've done this other, you know. And so just like bringing it forward to think about again, it's not about the tool, it's about the practice of making student work, not just the thinking, but actual. Like their math work visible. They're all kind of clicks towards this, this notion of of deeper mastery and deeper student engagement. And so like, you know, one of the things in some of these conversations, some principals have been like, you know, PBL would just solve all of this, right? And so like, and that's not wrong, you know? And so our work in PBL is unquestionably connected to both our work and mastery and and student engagement. And it's also not like an on/ off switch that we're going to turn right away, right? Our work around standards and student mastery and choice are also connected. Again, not like perfectly linearly throughout this, but we're trying to kind of weave the pieces as we go. High school is also like a really kind of like exciting place, I think, for the district to get involved with. Because as I share it again, we use this term instructional infrastructure, our kind of district level and instructional infrastructure is probably like the least robust in our high schools. And so like this provides a neat way to get into that work across multiple schools in our high schools as well. To continue pushing mastery based learning and personalization. Bob and his team at Renton also designed ways for students to take ownership of their learning through choice and voice around not only how they learned content, but also how they showed mastery. One of the things that we've tried to do is focus on student choice as one form of personalization. And of course, student choice means different things to a lot of different people. One of the ways that we've tried to frame some of that is thinking about both choices over input, like what kind of students are learning and how they're learning it, as well as choice over output. In other words, how students demonstrate some of their learning, and there's kind of different tools that support different pieces. This notion of choice over input, I struggle with a little bit because it kind of presumes a kind of teacher centered delivery model of instruction that I don't quite buy into. But still, this notion of like, if you want kids to learn about photosynthesis, can they choose between, you know, a video or a reading podcast, you know, that kind of thing. And then, you know, for students demonstrating their learning, what are all the different ways that students can show that? Can they record a video? Can they upload a slide deck? Can they create an animation? You know, like all of these different ways? And again, it's not completely like rethinking the model, but it's a step. We've also like really connected that work to this notion of universal design for learning, which has been a real focus of our student support team, our special education team, and how this whole thing from like end the average, right, instead of building the average pilot seat to let students adjust their own pilot seat. And so little tweaks along those ways. To operationalize this personalization, Renton has thoughtfully considered how to support their educators to facilitate such learning by modeling best practices, empowering teacher leaders to share their insights and findings, and offering choice around their learning experience as well. One is trying to model it in our professional learning for educators, right? So and we've got, you know, some sort of group of teachers and whatever it is, like learning a new math curriculum or science, whatever, giving them an opportunity to have choice and what they're doing and then matter, cognitively reflecting on that choice afterwards and also trying to kind of identify how different tools can serve some of those purposes. And so what we've tried to do is instead of saying, let's give you some resources about edX puzzle instead, let's give you some resources in this instructional practice in service of these things. And so like each of these links to, you know, there's like a video and an imagine how to use blah blah. And so forth, and so then like obviously, that's a document that exists in the ether. So now it's how do we share that and we've got people who receive an additional stipend as a technology integration specialist, these are teachers. So we shared these documents with them last week and engage them in conversation about how they might share these documents with others. We're sharing them with coaches and things like that, and also just as they come up in conversation as just a kind of way to be like here. If you're struggling with this, here's some strategies for doing that. And again, not that it's perfect, but it's not about the tool. It's about the practice, but it's a start. But I mean, again, ultimately, it's all of these things. It's like at a district level, how can we provide some support and how do we keep looping back for teachers to be like, Hey, was that useful? Like, did that change your practice? And sometimes, you know, just being honest, sometimes we create stuff that not that humble or is like solving the wrong problem for people, but it's also partly about just listening to people and saying, like, what are the problems that you're trying to solve right now and how do we help you solve those problems? That's where some of those instructional practice documents came out of it. Listening to teachers being in conversations with them and saying like, Where do you feel stuck in? How to district level? Can we provide you some concrete tools, strategies, resources, etc, for supporting that work in a way, obviously that aligns with our instructional vision? All of those trying to kind of engage in this like both and space of solving problems and building capacity. And sometimes teachers are like, just show me how to do it. And sometimes it can be helpful to just show them how. Here's one way here's like a great way to transform this experience to a Google Jam board. Here's a link like go. And sometimes it's about like, let's spend some time understanding like how this works and why it works. Renton has also strategically leveraged their coaching systems to build capacity of their educators and leaders, particularly around digital learning and project based learning. We've reorganized our district based coaches basically, so before we had, for example, six people whose full time job was called digital learning coach, and they each supported a subset of schools and digital learning. We also had people who were like the elementary math facilitator for the district, somebody who was the ELA specialist for the district. And because of some budget cuts, but also because of some kind of strategic work, we reorganized all of those people. And so we have team members who focus on either ELA and social studies or science and math and digital learning and new teacher support and English language learners support, supporting a subset of schools. The other big thing I just want to make sure to mention is we've also got an increasing focus on whatever you want to call it, PBL project based learning, problem based learning. And, you know, especially in the ELA social studies part of our work, we've got over 100 teachers signed up to do the PBL works training, and we've got interdisciplinary partnerships kind of at a bunch of different grade levels. And again, it's it's less about kind of saying this is what everybody is going to do, but provide some places to start. And again, that's also in the spirit of choice and personalization and in a much deeper way as well. Bob and his team at Renton have always been committed to embedding technology in classrooms, not as an add on, but as an integration. And with the onset of remote learning during the pandemic, this work took on a new level of importance and quickly became a part of everyone's daily life. And that's been part of the fun is like it. Never, you know, like this notion of digital learning as a separate thing, trying to root it much more fully in content and in learning and teaching. And the the idea that, like digital learning was never about the tool predates me by a lot. You know, that was Alan Dawes focus so much for so many years. And I think that this is now like the next iteration of that is embedding that work more fully in our work. And now with remote instruction, everybody is doing digital learning, whether they wanted to or not. And it becomes like this whole remote thing has just changed that conversation because it's it's just like the air we breathe for now rather than something along the side. But I do think that absolutely the learning is never going to be on the right. So we're never going to have a teacher who's been with us this year and the future is going to be like, I have no idea what you mean when you say Google Classroom. I have no idea what you mean by letting kids turn and work in diverse ways like it's literally not a possibility and beforehand, that might have been true for a bunch of teachers. And so I think that will continue and hopefully just deepen the work when we return to in-person. With the quick shift to technology utilization and remote learning. One of the oft cited challenges educators continue to face is student engagement, which Renton approached through a student centered lens. Within this personalization bucket is like this trying to dissociate between engagement and compliance, and I'm sure you're aware there's a whole national conversation about like should cameras be on or off during Zoom calls, right? And you know, our whole point is kind of like, that's not really the question. The question is, are students engaged because students can be engaged with cameras off or engage with cameras on and certainly disengaged with cameras on, you know, and so like trying to think about what does meaningful engagement of students look like? How do you do that remotely and thinking about, you know, a bunch of different strategies for enabling that that are beyond just like the chat, we've actually engaged some diverse groups of people in collaboratively defining engagement and trying to call out some of these differences. And we've looked at UDL definitions and we look at, you know, like, I don't think we've landed on a kind of perfect district definition, but what we're trying to do is to loop people into thinking critically about it and thinking about how it differs from compliance. And there's there's kind of a relevance piece there. There's some sort of like joy peace there. There's a rigor piece there and there's a like engaging and work piece, I think, and and there's an aspect of compliance to it. If you're literally checked out and doing nothing, you're probably not engaged. With the support and partnership of a networked improvement community led by "The Learning Accelerator" called the Strategy Lab, Renton tackled this challenge along with another key issue of grading in the pandemic, dealing with high failure rates across their high schools. Bob and his team brought principals, teachers and students together to co-design solutions. The other work to name is the work we're doing with Nate and Strategy Lab, but I need that because it's yet another bucket of how we're trying to navigate problems that are particularly acute right now and to yield longer term change. And so one of the things that's come up for us is high school grading has been a little bit tough. At the start of the year, we had a lot of failing grades and we've kind of through strategy lab chosen that as our problem of practice. You know, we've taken two approaches and some of that approach has been absolutely guided by what we've learned in Strategy Lab. We're calling it a systemic process where we're engaging people and kind of making recommendations that would cut across the district recommendations as opposed to mandates. And that's actually something we learned from Monterrey. And so that's one of the things that we're planning to do is can bring people together. The other part is what we're calling reimagining, which is engaging some high school teachers along with their students and going through a design thinking process to prototype specific aspects of a newly redesigned kind of grading system and then thinking about how to share the results of that design with more stakeholders in the district. All of it under this bucket of how do we move away from just grading as an exercise in compliance and towards an exercise in meaningful feedback and student master? As we wrapped up our conversation with Bob, we asked him what learnings from this past year he and his team will be taking with them as they move into the new year. I mean, I think part of that is like what I mentioned kind of earlier around, like everybody's had to try lots of really new stuff. This has caused people to really try things that they wouldn't have tried to experiment with, things that they wouldn't have experimented with. One of the things that we said, you know, last spring when, you know, schools had so recently closed and there was even less infrastructure for how schools should look, etc. was like, we are right now competing against students free time. Like students are not really like required to be anywhere in particular, they're not at school. And what we kept saying is like that means that we've got to make what we do relevant for them and matter to them and feel engaging to that. All of that, I think, will be useful as we return because none of that experience is going away. And, you know, students know what that feels like. Teachers know what that feels like. And I'm really hopeful that again, like once you kind of add to your bag of tricks, that bag of tricks does not disappear, and once you've experienced what kind of different forms of choice and kind of opportunities, I don't think those things disappear and I think that that's really exciting moving forward. I also think that so much of what we've kind of built this year will continue to be relevant for future years. And some of it is like, you know, how do you take this one specific lesson and kind of modify it to be remote and some of that stuff won't live on? Hopefully, in the same way as we kind of come back more and more to in person, but this work around prioritization and what standards are most important for students to learn this work around student choice and kind of tools to empower that? This work, certainly around project based learning and building capacity in that area, will continue long after. We're a and not to mention this work around our grading and high school, where that's the explicit idea as how to kind of build more resiliency for the future. So I think that all of that is exciting. Looking ahead to what's coming moving forward. And lastly, Bob shared with us what he's most excited about for the future. I'm really excited to continue this work. You know, I think these kind of buckets of project based learning, student engagement, prioritization and mastery of standards are just like really exciting areas of focus moving forward. And and part of what I want to make sure we do is to kind of stay the course in some of these areas and keep pushing. Think about how we can develop hopefully longer range plans about how to move this work forward in the future and get a little bit clearer about what those goals are and how we're aiming to achieve that. And starting with hopefully kind of a better idea of what's coming, you know, there was such a mad scramble in August and September to kind of figure out how in the world are we going to even do this thing? And we sort of figured out how to do it, which is really cool. But I think, like looking ahead to next year allows us to be a little bit more eyes wide open and have a longer range plan. And again, looping the high school grading work into that and thinking, you know, like, there's a lot of work to get this design process underway, but like it's going to be wrapped up by the end of the school year and then thinking about what comes next, next school year, I think, is really exciting. And I think one of the things that's really exciting and I think it's just like really important is I can sing the praises for days of the folks I work with most closely. Right. And that's why I'm mostly talking about our district based instructional facilities, their work that I support most directly. We have people in our schools doing just heroic work and figuring out, you know, like principals and assistant principals and department chairs and all that figuring out like, how do we make all of this work in the super new context? There are just inspiring stories everywhere you look, whether it's operationally instructional, you know, all of these pieces, we have learned how to do something that I think like, you know, a year ago, I think I would have said was kind of impossible teaching meaningfully remotely out of that, I don't know, you know, like, we've got some stuff ready for our boy that's going to be hard. And of course, it's not perfect. It's very far from perfect. There are really important places where it's not working well and we're trying to get better. But like we are doing it, and that is thanks to the hard work of tons of really smart creative people solving problems. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, nearly every school across the country had to quickly pivot to new models for teaching and learning to reach students in remote settings. Dealing with circumstances never before experienced, Renton focused on student and staff wellness, personalization through choice and authentic student engagement. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast serie. For more resources and leadership stories, visit HopSkipLeapfrog.org.