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 two leaders at Distinctive Schools in Chicago: Mike McCarthy, Executive Director of Student Services, and Stephanie Cardella, Executive Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. They share with us how Distinctive developed a community of care, nimble practices, and targeted instructional strategies to support students in balancing their learning and well-being through a year of uncertainty as schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, distinctive schools was a trailblazer when it came to innovative and personalized instructional design. With a strong foundation of student centered learning, the school network was able to quickly pivot to ensure all students were connected and holistically supported throughout the pandemic by creating communities of care, offering opportunities for remote personalized learning and building innovative supports for their teachers to enable successful implementation. In this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series, we're going to hear from two school system leaders at distinctive schools about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into the 2021-2022 school year. Mike McCarthy, executive director of student services for distinctive schools, I sit on a leadership team to focus on school culture, social work supports, mental health supports and our special education side of the house. So I'm Stephanie Cardella. I'm the executive director of curriculum instruction and assessment for distinctive schools. And I support all things what students learn, how we can support best practices in teachers and using assessment and data driven information to ensure that we are creating learning environments and opportunities for students to become who they are and know themselves as learners as well as humans, so we can set them up for success later on in college career and life. And then contextually for us, we are a small but growing nine school charter school organization in the Chicago and Detroit Metro region, where we are evenly spaced. And I think that'll provide a lot of context for some of the support that we provide to a predominantly LatinX and black community in both cities. Distinctive schools is a network of nine K through eight schools, serving students in Chicago and Detroit. Roughly 61 percent of students identify as Hispanic, 26 percent as black, eight percent white, three percent multiracial or other, and two percent Asian. 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. 19 percent are students learning English and 13 percent receive special education supports. Distinctive seeks to support each child in becoming an engaged and curious learner, a confident self advocate and a creative problem solver by setting high expectations and nurturing a positive culture that honors diversity, collaboration and optimism. As schools from all 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 distinctive schools were encouraged to try new innovative practices that would allow for the quickest return possible to in-person teaching and learning. First and foremost, Distinctive prioritized attending to students social emotional needs by implementing a community of care alongside other various wellbeing tools, staff check ins and explicit SEL curriculum. A lot of our planning coming out of last spring was focused on. There was a NGLC article written by Jeff Heyck-Williams at Two Rivers in Washington, DC, and he encouraged schools to think about building communities of care by focusing on hope, belonging, joy and safety. And that was something that really resonated with our teams as we developed our reopening plans, as we developed our student facing experience. But also we built that out so that it was those same. Four elements were a part of how we tried to approach the work for our staff and for our teachers. And so that grounding was a great anchor for us as we continued to build all of our plans for the year and particularly from a student facing experience, you know when you go back to the idea of how if you're going to be in-person, do you bring a sense of joy to your Zoom call? How do you create belonging between your students in that area? It really, for us as a network, it helped us identify key ingredients that we wanted our teachers to then design around. And again, teacher design is inherent in all of those things. I think Steph will probably talk more about that. But like that's that's a huge piece of how we're able to do this work is to try to help identify those pieces that are going to allow our teachers to meet those and points that we've identified. So in this case, being those four components and anything and everything that we are doing for the school year. So that was like a core piece. The other piece that was actually very easy for us was a social, emotional learning curriculum adoption with Move This World. It was something that had been in the works for some time where we were looking at focusing a little bit more on shifting from teacher designed social, emotional learning work to more explicit instruction. You know, as we are growing, really finding the need to, like, have something easily accessible, usable and adaptable for our teachers to be able to implement and Move This World like was a really good match for us, and we were able, we think, to be able to knock that out of the park by doing that, implementing that alongside a program called SEL Web, or SEL Web which is an SEL competency based assessment. So this year, in the midst of all of this, we rolled out that new curriculum and that new assessment platform, and it's been really helpful for us in terms of trying to ensure that there's strong Tier one, fertile Tier one ground for social, emotional learning to grow. Beyond social, emotional support, developing communities of care also meant that school staff thought through all facets of what students needed from both an academic and nonacademic standpoint. To accomplish this, distinctive teams had to further deepen relationships with students and families to best support them holistically inside the classroom and far beyond. Each campus was, we sort of kept a tracker for lack of a better word of who is engaging in class, who is showing up consistently, and then also through conversations or text messages or emails or whatever format worked. Facebook on sort of what was happening to each family and what were the hurdles that each individual was facing so we can try to support that. If it was food, we made sure that there were meals, meal pick ups twice a week. If it was devices or hotspots we helped with that. We raised funds for things like clothing and shoes, and we had so many families who are out of work and it was really to try to find what's getting in the way and how can we be a good partner? And so it was less of those like collection type calls of why aren't you doing this thing? And more, where are you? How? How can we be supportive and how can we make sure that your child is meeting their goals? So I think that was another piece, too. And that's a mindset, and it was really making sure that we are partnering with families as true partners and respecting that each person, although we're all going through the same pandemic, is going through a very different experience and it is through those conversations and deepening those relationships with trust that we can find the best ways to move forward with a student or a teacher or a family. So sometimes it was the dean, sometimes it was the teacher, sometimes the office of the principal. It was really about who had a connection with that family. The last thing you wanted to do is have six staff members call the same family who might have four children with us in the building. So it was coordinating that effort to make sure what worked and then what was the best way to continue that conversation and relationship. Prioritizing well-being requires time and thoughtfulness, particularly during a pandemic when most interactions were restricted to video to make well-being a priority. Distinctive schools team shifted their schedules to both offer more time to teachers for planning and reflection, and to give students more flexibility and balance throughout their day. So the school day we started regular7:50 to 3:
30 in the fall, and that was a really long time to be on Zoom during the day. Our kids are tired. It just wasn't feeling effective at that point, so we reduced the school day to a six hour day and so students were released at two o'clock. And then there was asynchronous work so they could do at home. And much of it was writing some digital programs, like read a book or whatever it might be. And it was really to provide that balance. It also provided our teachers with additional plant time because this provided an opportunity to rethink every single decision they had made in their school day. And so that was a culture win for both students and teachers in that way. As many districts found shifting to providing holistic support took a lot of work. To support their teachers with the shift, Distinctive schools created additional time and space for teachers to connect, share, align and support each other daily to ensure all teachers had the support they needed to help their students reach their highest potential. But our teachers are resilient, and we started each day with a staff huddle. So the start of the school day a little bit later, only a half hour last spring, and we had a staff huddle every single day and some of our schools had a staff huddle at the end of the day as well. So modeling that same practice that we do with students, with a community gathering and that provided an opportunity for space and opportunity, for sharing an opportunity just to, I don't know, hear from other people and live in that component of what's your experience like and what are you going through so we can build that empathy that way. The other piece that is a mindset piece that we're navigating with staff is like, We love our kids, right? And we don't want to. You don't want to love them to a place where we start making excuses or less like lowering our expectations for kids. And that's the other piece here, too, is we're humans too, and we hear these stories and see these smiley faces and we know what our kids are going through. And we can't let that though take away from what that child needs to be successful. They got one shot in fourth grade, and we really want to make sure that we're giving the best of that so that they can be successful. So that is something that we're navigating through two of what it looks like from an equity perspective and ensuring that we're providing access for every student. It is a big mindset shift. It's going to take all of our principals and they have been doing that this year and we've had lots and lots of hard conversations with teachers. When they've asked, Can we reduce the number of units? Can we not do this assessment? Can we go ahead and and eliminate these priority standards? And our answer is a tough love answer of no, we can't. And the reason why we can't do that is because our kids deserve that. Our kids deserve to have an opportunity to explore this grade level content and Hunt's concepts and content. But what we can do is. We know the outcome of that unit or that goal, and we use formative assessment along the way, you design the pathway and that's most important based upon what you see. And so it's finding opportunities for teachers to remember that they're in the design, the designer seat here, and they can go ahead and create a series of lessons to meet those grade level standards based upon where those kids are. And that is something that we've had to reiterate. I can't tell you how many times this year is to remind teachers that you know how to do that. That's what that's what you do as a teacher, you design on a daily basis. But we couldn't let the expectation down and start removing units because we were just compounding the problem for next year. Beyond each school site. The central office team at distinctive schools had to ensure they were set up to navigate the unpredictable circumstances of the year in order to anticipate and endure constant changes. They created a cross-functional stay ready task force that address these challenges in a proactive and collaborative way. There's also some elements, though around like within the pandemic we immediately, like a month in, started what we called the Stay Ready task force, where it started to just monitor everything that was going on and provide updates and give space for our campus leaders and network leaders to both report out on questions, concerns, things that are bubbling up or to identify like where we think things are pointing what data is coming in that can help to set the next set of guidelines from the CDC. All of that kind of stuff. So it gave us that forum to build off of what was already those collaborative relationships and all the design work that we've done over time was now kind of like focused solely on our job is to stay ready. Our job is to be as ahead as we possibly can within a circumstance where it never feels like we're ahead and we're always learning something new. And I think that that's that's supported a mindset around that was much more. Maybe it wasn't as proactive as like we had hoped it could be at different times, but it certainly set the mindset that we needed to be proactive. And I think that that was really helpful for our teams because it then also set up our directors for much more success in terms of being able to be transparent in their relationships with staff about what was going on and what what was happening. Because there is a lot of critical decisions that could be that were made that could have been contentious, that really weren't as contentious as we anticipated, perhaps they could have been for us or that they clearly have been for other parts of the country or other parts of our cities. With regard to reopening and all that kind of stuff. So I just wanted to note that that's a thread that I think helped us help our directors be in a more more of a seat where they could see more of the playing field and be able to speak to it to their teams. Adjusting to the constant shifts, Distinctive created opportunities for teachers to pilot new structures with the intention to grow promising practices across the network by empowering educators to innovate, iterate and share. They were able to capture new strategies and also scale them across the system in authentic and collaborative ways. We believe in innovation in the design cycle, and so it's giving people space to try it out and fail forward and learn from others. So we pull together two teams of teachers, our early adopters and our trailblazers, and they were responsible for trying it out. Literally take a microphone and figure out how to make this work. What devices to use. We had Apple TV's in play. We had two devices we had, like the livelier mics on some. We had big projectors in other classrooms like you named it. We tried it and it was all based upon them, raising their hand and saying, I want to try this first and help you work out the kinks. We had the students who engaged in remote learning at school. So what we did was we use that as a pilot. And so we incentivized teachers and said we are looking for people to help poke holes in this and fill them in that way. And so families who are already engaged in school and community care sort of got to be part of this pilot. We have to try it out. And then what we did was we put together a professional development series. It was five opportunities in Chicago and three opportunities in Detroit. And we engaged those teacher leaders and trailblazers to share videos in their classrooms, do a testimonial, have a Q&A. And we went through a series of checklists for teachers of what to think about as they are preparing to transition into rethinking parts of their day of how do I create an equitable experience for students at home and at school? And so that was again teacher to teacher conversation and guidance in that way that I think attributes to one of our successes for sure in the transition to concurrent learning. While innovative teaching and learning practices ensured that there was a lot of learning that did happen throughout the year. There were also several challenges to ensure all students were getting what they needed when they needed it. Distinctive leveraged data and personalized learning opportunities, including creative scheduling to accelerate. Learning and support students with the critical content they may have missed. So part of our approach has been how do we utilize our day to that? How do we utilize every minute of the day effectively? We implemented in the fall of 2021 an intervention block called What I Need or Read solves. And essentially, it is an opportunity for kids to again work on those competency based pathways using their learner profile to determine what is it that a student needs to have. So that's been helpful as an extra time and place to support the students. But we are concerned about students who have had inconsistent schooling. We've had gaps in that way. So we are maintaining who we are and having a strong space mindset. So we're referring to next year's learning acceleration versus learning recovery in that way. So it's how do we maintain those state level grade level standards and find ways to scaffold and support and provide those mini lessons along the way to close those gaps? So that's our plan for right now, and that is not going in without support. Our teachers are struggling in that because we do have students at such a wide variety of levels right now, as well as social emotional needs and concerns too. So there's two things that we're trying to work towards and balance. We want to make sure that we're supporting the whole child, but also making sure that we're maintaining progress and growth and their academic areas because that's ultimately our promise to families as well. So we are looking at how we're approaching that for next year. What professional development is needed? What assessments do we have to leverage? And it's coming down to two things that we're noticing is we're going to have to put major effort into instructional planning for teachers and proactive planning. So anticipating mistakes and errors that we're going to see and really thinking about what small groups you might need to pull that afternoon or that they're that next day based upon your misconceptions that you've anticipated. We're really needing to double down on data informed decision making and analysis. So, so often our teams get to a certain point in that data piece. We'll look at the data and determine, Oh, Beth was here today, right? And she was in this group last week or whatever it might be. But really, it's like, what am I doing differently for her tomorrow? And how do I know it's successful? So our professional development plans right now are really focused on those data informed decision making. Using formative assessment effectively as well as instructional planning is what our current thought is right now. Now that the last school year has come to an end, Distinctive is setting three strategic priorities informed by input from both students and families around specific ways to support students holistically, accelerate learning and continue to cultivate a strong culture in the years ahead. So we've set out three priorities for next year. One is mental health and wellness. Two is learning acceleration in three diversity, equity and inclusion. So those are our three priorities and making sure that we're taking in consideration with every decision that we make and helping to support those goals. That's the first piece. I think conditions and what we need is our mitigation efforts are going really well right now. We're putting those in place. And so it's making sure that safety is our number one priority through all the decisions that we make. So our operations team has really come through and making sure that if academic has an idea, operations is finding a way to make it happen. And so we've really worked to design that what it could be. So how do we make sure of that flexible seating so happens in a pandemic classroom? What does that look like? Sound like feel like what a small group of work look like. Sound, I feel like. So it really is working, making sure that we're working hand-in-hand with operations and academics. I think the one piece that maintain that continues to be important for us is culture. Culture is important to distinctive. It always has been a strong adult culture as well as student culture. So we'll continue to do that. One thing that we started in the fall of last year was an additional student survey called Youth Truth, and it really provided our fifth or eighth grade students a real opportunity to share sort of where what their school experience was like for them and getting that straight from the child voice through empathy interviews or through surveys or one on one conversations or mentoring has really provided us to be able to do our job well. We know what the user needs and we've designed school for that. And that's I think the same thing goes with parents. So making sure there's an opportunity for voice and there is a condition that I feel that has helped us with this work and making sure what are the barriers that our students and their families are facing? And how can we best meet that to solve that? That's supported by over communication and really making sure that staff knows what our plan is, what we're thinking, why this came to be, and then we have enough time to process. As they head into the next year, the Distinctive team is looking forward to returning to in-person learning, building on the many new insights from the past year and returning to some of the key pieces that they missed. I am excited to get all of our kiddos back in the building for like high fives and hugs and all the things that we know best, like bring back the beanbag chairs, you know, into life a little bit as we know it from before. That's the one thing. What do you think? Anything to add? So the excitement around capturing the relationships that have improved over time and also the opportunity to revisit the students who maybe have been less accessible over the course of time in the next year is a really exciting piece because I think our teachers have really experienced the value of like being one on one with the student in a zoo and being face to face and eye to eye in a way that maybe they not everyone had before. And I think that there's a lot of power there that we're going to want to capitalize on for student. The student teacher relationship. So I'm excited to see how that manifests itself in an in-person setting. We've heard so many stories of kids who developed new passions and interests and skills throughout all this. And so we're going to we're going to receive a very different kiddo. Come August, with talents that they had no idea that they could navigate before. And so that would be really interesting, too. And making sure that we can design for that and maintain a strong space mindset Due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, nearly every school across the country had to quickly pivot to new models for teaching and learning in order to reach students in remote settings. Dealing with circumstances never before experienced, Distinctive schools developed a community of care, nimble practices and targeted instructional strategies to support students through a year of uncertainty. We're looking forward to seeing how Distinctive continues to learn and grow in the coming years. 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.