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, we speak with Dr. Keri Randolph, Executive Officer of Strategic Federal, State and Philanthropic Investments at Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee about how the district created innovative initiatives to build relationships with students, reach out to families, and offer virtual support during school closures and remote learning, seeking to tackle the challenges posed by physical separation between teachers, students, and families.
In a district as large as Metro Nashville Public Schools, establishing a connection with each and every student has always been at the forefront of their vision. The district prioritizes communication and authentic relationships with students and their families and strives to ensure that every student feels known, cared for, respected and supported during a year filled with uncertainty, distance and isolation. Metro Nashville launched several initiatives to maintain these connections with students and families and to ensure that they could continue meeting the needs of their community. In this episode of Learning Accelerator's, What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series, We're going to hear from a district leader at Metro Nashville Public Schools about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into the 2021- 2022 school year. My name is Carrie Randolph, I am the executive officer of strategic state, federal and philanthropic investments at Metro Nashville Public Schools. We have about 80000 students. We have about twenty seven charter schools that we also serve about one hundred and sixty two traditional schools across a large geographic metropolitan district that's encompassed by Davidson County Metro Nashville Public Schools is the second largest district in the state of Tennessee. The district is exceptionally diverse, enrolling students who represent nearly one hundred and forty countries. The student population is broken down into 40 percent black and African-American, 30 percent Latine, twenty five percent white and four percent Asian. The district also has a large refugee population and routinely translates family communication into the top six languages represented, including Spanish, Arabic, Burmese, Nepali, Kurdish and Swahili. As schools across the country moved to remote teaching and learning almost overnight, opportunities to connect with students and build relationships seemed more difficult than ever before, especially for student populations facing barriers. The district leadership team at Metro Nashville Public Schools sought to find a way to ensure that every student felt known, cared for, respected and supported, even while participating in distance learning. They launched the Navigator Program, a communication initiative through which students received weekly phone or video calls from a dedicated adult in an effort to keep students and families from slipping out of reach. My very first day of work, I walked into a giant conference room with people seated at individual tables, all messed up doing reopening planning. I really heard this underlying theme of, you know, how are we going to know how the kids are? And this was a really, I think I felt need from March, April, May and the way the school year ended and so many students hadn't engaged in that environment. We knew this had to be very, very different and just heard this theme. I heard it from the academics team. I heard it from the I.T. folks because we were deploying hotspots and laptops for every student and family. And then I heard it from certainly from the student support team. I ended up having a meeting with Dr. Battle that day on my very first day, and she's like, Tell me what you're hearing. And I was like, I think we're all really worried about that connection and the relationships that we know are so important for learning. And we're we're more concerned about those now, right? We really we have a large number of students who are economically disadvantaged. We have a fairly large homeless population among our city. There were lots of reasons for us to be very concerned, and I just mentioned to her like, I think because of this, we have a real felt need. We can do this. We're going to open virtually. And I think I also talked about it with her and with the leadership team is, look, these are the conversations we have in the hall or in the cafeteria or, you know, where we can see a student and just make that connection. We have to have a system, a real, intentional system around those check ins in this world, right? The district set up conditions for success for the Navigator program, starting with buy-in from stakeholders ranging from the superintendent to teachers and easy starting point with written scripts translated into multiple languages and a holistic view on program staffing. They also created a simple form for capturing notes alongside a robust dashboard for ongoing data collection. Every student must have a weekly check in from a somebody at the school level, but that should not just be a teacher like we need to think holistically about the staff at the school and who can serve in this role. Our goal was to get that if you take all the students at the school as your numerator, we want to get the denominator as big as possible. So we have some front office staff. We have cafeteria workers serving in this role, really. The criteria I really pushed schools on was to think about who can form strong relationships with kids, right? That's what we need here. A navigator is on the call with a student and or a family if it's very young student, which I could talk more about. But they complete this form every time and it's checking in on basic things. This is where we really started, right? So questions around housing insecurity, food insecurity, technology, because that was such a lifeline. That was the way school was operating for a student. Also, social, emotional, mental health, academic outside of school. We also had we had some questions around kind of what you do outside of school and how that can be supported. So these were areas we checked in and not all of them, every check in and the system kind of allows navigators to take notes and so they can follow back. Up on things there, but this feeds into a power by dashboard that we created, and it's updated in real time that allows us to push in at the district level to the student level as well. So, for example, the Hero program are our students with housing insecurity. That program is under me and that staff can if a navigator clicks a box that they have some concerns that this family or student might have some housing needs, then that team can push in directly from the district level. So that was one of the big value adds for schools, right? Like, you're not in this alone. We are monitoring this and pivoting that data was so rich for us. Another key piece of data that comes to us through the dashboard is if a navigator clicks that a student is in need of a collaborative referral. So this means there is need for support. You're a team at the school level will push in there, make sure that collaborative referral is created and that those sometimes there are outside services, for example, or connected to a student. This shined a light on the fact that sometimes that system falls down for a kid. And so we've really done a lot of data tracking there and improve that system in general across the board, which I'm really proud about. What I hope is that that creates a web of support where we're not students aren't falling through those cracks, which is spend is a worry for all of us all the time, but particularly when we have students who are not with us in person. District leadership at Metro Nashville found common ground with unions and the Teacher Advisory Council during the rollout of the Navigator program, and they used the positive response as a catalyst to make the program a signature initiative in the district. The union environment differs across the country. We are right to work state in Tennessee, so we do have a union and we do. It's not called collaborative bargaining, but we do have a contract with them. And so I will mention that because I do think the context is important. You know, early on, they had a lot of questions about it and around workload. I think the way that we talked about it, that this these are those conversations in the halls, these are that this was a 10 minute check in that would normally happen during the school day. But we can't in our current situation. I do think that partially helped when we first brought this. It came up at the school board meeting early in the year. But immediately after it was mentioned, several school board members, one in particular, just talked about how her daughter had received a call and a check in and how significant it was to her. I think that set a tone that was really helpful. We had the same thing happen with our teacher at Hazari Council. So in a Teacher Advisory Council meeting, Dr. Battle brought up navigator and immediately a teacher jumped in and it was like, I can't tell you how wonderful it's been to have that connection with my students. I've been missing it so much. But when people talked about what it was meaning to them and to their students, it was really hard to bring up the things that might often come up like. But this is this is too much. You know, it was very clear that this was the work for us. It wasn't separate. It wasn't a separate thing that this was so important. But I do think it brings you back to something I said before that we did find that kind of across the board, across stakeholders that this was a felt need. Teachers wanted that connection with their students. They were missing that. Certainly families and students wanted that connection. And so I think all those kinds of things aligned to me to make it happen and in a short amount of time and at the scale that honestly might probably wouldn't have been possible without the pandemic. But now we've shown the value and so it can continue. Another innovative community support approach that the district implemented is the introduction of virtual technology support centers. This hands-on support helps families and students navigate any technology challenges they may encounter and provides valuable in-person connection with students. The district has been creative in leveraging their own staff to play a key role in these centers. One of the core tenants that we launched in January was reimagining such offices to support hub. One day a week, they run a virtual help center, so they are like the supervisor and then you have a core staff there. So we always have an I.T. person. We always have a translator there, at least one. And then we have other people who are trained to support families in whatever need they have. We are serving. We see, on average, more than fifty five families a day at that center and across the district. So we are maintaining those through the summer even and plan to continue them into the next school year. There have been five days a week during school hours. We are working for. Open a couple of them on Saturdays again. They're staffed by what I would call central office volunteers, for the most part. It's been, I think, very powerful for those of us who have worked those centers because we all feel a disconnect from families and kids right now. And to get there, to be there with them and understand the challenges that they're facing and help has been really powerful. The COVID 19 pandemic forced nearly every school to pivot to new models for teaching and learning. The physical separation between teachers, students and families presented an obstacle to authentic relationship building and posed a risk for students facing challenges. Metro Nashville Public Schools prioritized communication outreach and connection with students and families in an effort to know and support every student. The new circumstances posed by the pandemic fueled the district to implement innovative approaches such as the Navigator program and virtual technology support centers, both of which have now been established as signature initiatives that will stick around within the district in the year to come. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. 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