On this final 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 Scott Muri, Superintendent of Ector County Independent School District in Texas, about how leaders worked to make the most of the pandemic to accelerate the implementation of goals that benefitted the entire school community, ranging from expanding connectivity and internet access, to focusing on personalized professional development, to forging stronger, more meaningful connections between schools and student families.
Ector County Independent School District is based in rural Texas and has struggled through the years with both low academic performance and high rates of teacher vacancies. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the school system did not point to their past difficulties as an excuse, but rather found opportunities to make sure that learning was improving even in the most challenging of times. The district's implemented innovative initiatives that leverage technology to improve learning and build capacity for all members of the district, including online coaching for teachers and virtual outcomes based tutoring for students. District leaders collaborated closely with community leaders to make coordinated decisions and provided strong messaging for their community to ensure alignment, support and readiness for action. In this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series, we're going to hear from a district leader at Ector County Independent School District about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into the 2021-2022 school year. In our conversation, we spoke with... Scott Murphy, Superintendent, Ector County Independent School District, Ector County Independent School District is a rural district in the western part of Texas, close to New Mexico. The district is made up of 42 schools serving 33000 students. Around 77 percent of students identify as Latina, 15 percent white, four percent African-American and three percent in other racial and ethnic categories. Around 20 percent of students are enrolled in bilingual and English language learning programs, 60 percent of students are considered at risk, and 56 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged based on state defined criteria. The mission of the district is believing our students are the future, and the district aims to inspire and challenge every student to be prepared for success and to be adaptable in an ever changing society. Also, I think context matters. Let me just, you know, a couple of seconds will lay context for who we are as the district of thirty four thousand kids. Fifty six percent of us are poverty. Seventy seven percent Hispanic community, 50 percent white, four percent African-American. So that's kind of demographically who we are. Academically, I think this is important as well. There are 12 school districts in Texas. We are 12 hundred out of 1200. And so academically, we are the lowest performing district in Texas. That's why I came here. But this is a whole district that is struggling at every level. I think that context is just critically important. I think the second piece of context that helps people understand why we are where we are academically is I have four thousand two hundred employees, bus drivers, capital workers, et cetera. But 2000 and those are teacher positions. When I came in July of 2019, we had 352 teacher vacancies. We had more teacher vacancies than Dallas by any other district, so we had more vacancies than any other district in Texas, and we maintained 352 vacancies all last year. We didn't fill a single one of them. So when you talk about teacher shortage, it is real and tangible in our system and it is devastating. So those are pure vacancies. I have kids that have substitute teachers every day for their entire school career and have had substitutes every single year for multiple years back to back. And so that has created significant academic loss and our students much more than just in a pandemic. It has been kind of an ongoing challenge. And so knowing that context, I think, is important to to paint this picture. And while I'd love, it's funny to hear you say we're, you know, we're kind of leading a little bit. Yeah, in some areas, certainly. But I think academically, our story is one, wow, we have a lot of work to do. So that's context. 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 Ector County ISD were encouraged to try new innovative practices. Ector ISD invested heavily in their teachers to develop them as strong instructional leaders and found innovative ways to integrate coaches for additional focused, real time support. When you look at the elements of our strategic plan, you know we were in crisis already and had to do some significant work. The pandemic just, we shuffled the order of some of the tactics and strategies within the plan and accelerated some of those strategies because we needed to get there faster due to the pandemic. But we did not change any element of our strategic plan because of the pandemic. We were already right on with the work that needed to happen. The only thing the pandemic did was allowed us to reorganize and kind of accelerate. And it opened up some, potentially it opened up the minds of some of our folks to new ways to do work that we had talked about. And so we now, because I don't have enough human bodies, we are looking at using our federal stimulus money over the next three years. I can't lower class size. I don't have teachers. That's not a strategy for us. And so we're going to hire an inordinate amount of teacher coaches. They won't all live here because I can't bring 400 coaches. They will not move here. And so we're going to leverage the power of technology and we're already doing this in one of our middle schools. So this is one of our virtual coaches. He's actually in the school itself. This is the tool that he is using it to swivel, so he is able to completely see and understand what's happening in the classroom. The swivel follows the teacher or follows the conversation. And then this is the teacher, and that teacher wears an earbud and he is coaching her in the moment. And so when you talk about personalized professional learning, it doesn't get any more personalized than you got to a human being in your ear, helping you work with the students in the moment. So one of the coaching areas for us has been we have virtual coaches that support. Our virtual teachers, you know, I'm a 20 year veteran. I've never taught in a virtual environment, so I'm a first year teacher, you know, if you will, teaching virtually. And so we we've secured again, none of them are here. So they're all literally virtual coaches coaching from virtual environments. But our teachers have help in order to do that, and that's been a great benefit to them. Just because you're a great face to face does not mean you'll be great in a virtual world. You know, there's a whole lot of learning design that has to happen. One of our investments that we will make with our federal stimulus money is to significantly expand the amount of coaching that is happening in our system. And we know that that's an investment that is going to last far beyond the three years of federal stimulus money. It goes away. And certainly the coaches will go away. But the learning of our teachers, we're going to raise the floor quite a bit in our system. So that's one and we have to leverage technology in order to do that. So I think about the pandemic, you know, pre-pandemic, would we have been open to this type of technology uses and integration? I'm not sure. But the pandemic has opened the minds of our teachers and administrators to these possibilities, and they now see them as effective because of their own experiences and so as assist at the system level. We can now move into this work much more quickly and benefit our teachers. So kind of one one plus, if you will, of the many to the pandemic for us. Investment and staff development happened across the district, including at the level of the central office, and the superintendent himself modeled a growth mindset by building an executive coaching as a key part of his own contract. I think the the coaching scenario, again, it's part of change management. You know, I'll go back to when I came here, I hired an executive coach to coach my cabinet members and immediately they felt threatened. They thought I was trying to get rid of them. I said, no way. I said, This is a gift. Coaching is a gift. It's just the opposite. I believe so much in you and think that you're, you know, great that I'm spending district money to help you become the greatest that you can be. It's a gift to receive coaching. I myself, as a part of my superintendent contract, built in executive coaching because I want to be better. But you have to take people on that journey. And so from a teacher perspective, it is. It's the same thing. You know, first, it's like, why is this person come into my classroom? And what is that? And what are they watching and who are they? So we've got to work through the human side of coaching and help people understand this is all about investing in you and helping you become the very best teacher, executive principal, whatever it is that you can be. So from a leadership perspective, we use the Wallace Foundation body of work about principals, supervisors. So I have five full time principals, supervisors and we follow that body of research again because it is a gift to our principles to have an executive coach and every principal in our district has an executive coach. Our principal supervisors coach between eight and nine principals. So you have a, you know, you have a healthy mix. That's what the research recommends and and that's what we follow. And so from a teacher perspective, it'll be the same thing. I know that we'll have to take our teachers on the journey, you know, and which is part of it. But these coaches are not here to threaten. They are here to help and support you as a teacher, become the best that you can be. So that's part of change management. You know, just getting getting from point A to point B. Beyond building and strategic support for teachers, as a rural community, ne challenge that Ector County ISD had to overcome was the lack of internet access encountered by many families in their community. For some, there were no internet options available in their homes whatsoever. So the school system established an innovative partnership with Space X to address this challenge. There are some bodies of work that we accelerated because we could, and it made sense. I'll use internet access. We've done a lot with that in our system. I'm not a Band-Aid approach person, so we had to play the long game. Thirty nine percent of our families either had no internet access in their home or had no cell phone internet access in their home. And so that was a big body of work for us. We put some Band-Aids in place to kind of get us through for one year until we had permanent solutions. Band-Aids included modified devices, received a lot of grant money to get our families connected to our local cable providers. The challenge was our families that live in a more remote environment. And so all the money in the world wasn't going to bring the internet to a family when you don't have anything. And so that's where Space X came in. We partnered with SpaceX and brought their satellite technology, reaching our families that were unreachable. And it wasn't money. It was simply, there are no options in places in our community. And so we've put all those pieces in place, but also brought together. We've created, we call it, the connector tests where we are Ector County and so Connector Task Force. It's a group of educators, business leaders, elected officials in our community that really it's 26 individuals that are movers and shakers in our city and county, and our purpose is to solve the broadband issue for our entire community so that health care is available, education is available, business opportunities are available. And that's our focus. I said I was appointed by the governor to sit on the state level Operation Connectivity Task Force. So looking at the state level, but we're we're we're going to solve it locally as well. And the school district is kind of leading that effort and rallying our community to get to that place. We've done quite a bit of work. We have incredible maps really down to the family as to what their internet options are. So we know we've mapped every kid, every family in our community know exactly what exists and what doesn't. We've mapped fiber to every home. We cost that out. We have providers that are ready to decay cable or Barry Cable already. And of course, our basic scenario against an interesting option for for even some families again, putting a long term solution in place. So that's a body of work that has been accelerated. We had hoped to have internet in every family's home within four years. That was a part of our strategic plan. But because of the pandemic, we now have internet in every family home today. And again, some of that's Band-Aid until we can get there. But it exists today for every family. And then look, and the most permanent solutions are forthcoming. So that's operation connectivity at the state level. We're negotiating with providers right now to make sure that, you know, in communities across the state of Texas that there are cost effective solutions that provide a solution that is usable. We have some local providers seem to think 25 megabits per second is plenty for a family to be. And, you know, I'm like, No, it is not. And so we've had to create really some modeling and show our it's just a sales pitch that I've been very frustrated by some of our local providers that think they're giving a great service at a really high cost to families. And because it's all they know, it's all families know. And you know, the internet is is such a powerful tool and it doesn't need to be slow in your house. I promise it can be much better. And that's where Space X came in. We're getting 150 with Space X satellite. And families are paying one hundred and fifty bucks for twenty five. You know, that's that's just insane. And so we've shined a light on the problem, and that has really helped people see that there are better solutions. We contacted Space X early on and we were the first school district that partnered with them in the country. They had not partnered with a school or a school system or even a state education agency, and we were helping them develop. It was interesting process with them because they saw businesses and this was also still beat up. You know, they haven't even rolled out to the public yet. It is still better opportunities. So we helped them develop all of their legal stuff out for the education side, and it's been work. But but no, it's all the funding for that came from the philanthropic community. In fact, we had more money donated for the Space X deal than we needed because people wanted to be a part of that, you know, kind of exciting for us. So it's all philanthropic that has made that happen. Ultimately, it will be, and this is part of where the state comes in. You know, that will be that solution will be an option for families at a particular price point, whether it's subsidized by the state or local government, whatever that may look like. But it'll be an option for families at some point. Prior to the pandemic, Ector County ISD had also been laying down the groundwork for practices that would accelerate learning for their district. One practice they introduced that had been accelerated during the pandemic was blended learning. So blended, I'll kind of go back to the strategic plan work. When I came in again, recognizing the academic challenges that we face, we had to think about, how do you meet student academic needs when you don't have as many teachers as you need and when there are teacher quality issues among those that exist, what strategies can we incorporate that would allow more of our students to have access to high quality teachers? And so that was, you know, the premise how do we build a plan knowing that those are the factors of the situation in which we deal with so blended learning became really quickly one of those elements that we knew we needed to to leverage. So we started early on pre-pandemic looking at how we would incorporate blended learning strategies within our own system and that required that we purchase. We have certain foundational pieces. That's where the alums came from. You know, every kid needs a tool, high speed access in every classroom. I mean, all of those foundational pieces need to be in place a high quality digital content. We wanted to make sure that our teachers and kids had access to that. So a lot of those pieces, you know, we started working on from a resource perspective and then we through the state of Texas and some other organizations that. There are some interesting blended learning pilots and opportunities, and we launched ourselves into that world so that we could have some additional coaching and support for teams of teachers and schools itself to bring blended. You're probably familiar with Joel Rose and Teach to One. So we used to we used TTO with three of our middle schools again, highly blended environment for kids. I had experience with that when I was in Atlanta and saw just significant student growth in that area. So again, that type of work made sense for us given our constraints. What the pandemic has done is caused us to accelerate that body of work significantly. I can have fewer teachers and more students in a blended environment. I can have teachers working specifically on those individual student needs and a blended environment. And because of the pandemic, we have seen those learning gaps widen every single day because some kids don't have access to quality instructional environment. And we know that in August of 2021, when our kids hopefully, you know, close to 100 percent of them return. The gaps are going to be significant. And if our teachers are not personalizing for kids, you know, down to the kids' level, then we're in trouble. Ector County ISD also brought in additional assessments to give leaders and educators insight into students' needs and enable educators to collaborate with each other, as well as with partner organizations to build supports that met those needs in personalized and responsive ways. We brought into map assessment this district had not really used a diagnostic or any kind of growth tool to monitor the progress of kids. So we, in August of this year was the first time that we had administered the map assessments. So taking our teachers on a data journey. We have professional learning community, so high quality PLCS, we used to relay Graduate School of Education kind of use their model for PLC conversations and work. So instituting PLC's, incorporating the map assessment into those PLC conversations has really helped teachers unpack the learning needs of children. And believe it or not, there were folks that were grouping kids. We had the Retford Group and the Bluebird Group, and I'm like, Oh my goodness, you know, this is back in the fifties where we've already proven that doesn't work for children. Why are we still doing that? And so now teachers can actually see that, you know, different types of children have different learning needs based upon mastery of standards or skill acquisition, et cetera. And so we have these flexible groups now. Again, the TTO opportunity, you know, those kids are grouped flexibly every single day and people are learning from that model. But we've spent a lot of time in year one putting foundational pieces in place so that we can build personalization. On top of that, and blended learning is a primary strategy that we're incorporating. Knowing that some students could use extra support, Ector County ISD embarked on a project with the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research to provide these students with targeted outcomes based tutoring. The right now in at one of our lowest performing middle schools, we are working with Harbord on this one. We're doing outcomes based contracting. We have partnered with FEB Tutor, so a virtual tutoring company may be familiar with them and there are variety. So what? We just signed a contract with them that is purely outcomes based. We're targeting 40 students in that particular school. So between now and the end of the year, each of those students will have 19 hours of virtual tutoring. When it looks like this one, the school day ends. Those 40 students are taken to one of two locations on campus. So there is an adult that kind of supervises their activity, but their virtual tutor is live. It is the same tutor every single day. Everybody uses the map assessment. And so the map is incorporated into their tutoring methodologies. The tutoring, the tutors themselves work with classroom teacher so they know and understand exactly what is happening in the classroom. The tutors connect with the child's teacher is specifically in the area of mathematics and reading, so those two areas. And then they use map data to to understand where kids are. We just did the January administration, so the tutors have access to that. And then the contract itself holds the tutors accountable for student growth. So at the end of the year, after those 19 hours of tutoring, the students will take the map assessment based upon their growth during that time. We will pay the tutoring company, or we will not pay the tutoring company based upon the growth of those students and so outcomes based contracting. This is our pilot piece of that. The goal over the next three years is to invest significantly. We can see 5000 students engaging in this type of tutoring. We would do high dose. It would do 60 hours for 5000 students for the next three years. And again in a pure outcomes based environment. And then look at the results again, monitor those results over time. So, yes, all of those tutors will be virtual. The switch to remote learning also deepened connections while establishing the opportunity for consistent communication between schools and homes to ensure this was done equitably. The district works with a collaborative leadership team spanning all sectors of the community to identify different methods than previously used to make sure they effectively reached everyone that they could. Really from the teacher level and you'll hear and talk to teachers. They now have a window into families that they never had before. Part of that is the virtual window, and some of our teachers have seen the real lives of some of our kids because the camera's on and they hear things and see things that are appalling to them. So from from that perspective, the pandemic has helped our teachers better understand what some of our children deal with in their daily lives. It has also helped bridge the gap between sometimes a divided family and in school, you know, families not engaged, and now they've got to be engaged. And we've seen many more parents engage in the learning process because they're supporting learning in their homes and they become just that three legged stool. Parents now see themselves, many of them as an important leg in that three legged stool. We've seen a lot of that from the system level. We've leveraged a variety of different technology resources. One of the things we started doing, so I started this was probably March April, right after the pandemic. Just doing a press conference on a regular basis with a local television station, which now has evolved into every Wednesday.At 3:
30, I do a weekly press conference with every local media outlet. They're just hungry for information. It started out as pandemic response, and let's talk about the virus and what we're doing in virtual learning. And now it is really. The school district speaks to our families and communities every single week on the work of our system, our presence in our community and all media outlets we have for the four primary states, the television stations and all the print media. We are visible. You'll see us on the news almost every single night telling our story or stories that are happening and that we were not, you know, we were on the media years ago for the crisis in the community or somebody behaving badly. And now it's it's the good news of the work of the district on a on a regular basis. So we do. In fact, tonight at seven o'clock, every other week we do ECISD Live, so we broadcast live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. That was started during the pandemic. We feature we have a different topic every single time. Tonight, for instance, we're talking about summer learning, and so we'll interview some of our teachers and leaders, et cetera, that are going to be providing summer learning experiences for our students. Again, it's informing we've done. We had Chris Minnich from NWEA. He was one of our guests when we walked with our parents through how to read your own map assessment. So we have some interesting celebrity guests, if you will, but help us educate and inform our parents and community members about the important work of the system. So there is a lot more communication today. We're leveraging the tools of technology much more effectively than ever before a Spanish radio or laptop as a final. We've realized that many of our families, especially our older parents and grandparents, Spanish radio is important to them and it is something that is on all day long in their homes. And they don't necessarily listen to the local television, but they listen to Spanish radio. So we know our very present on Spanish radio just because we got to communicate to the broader community. So that's been new for us as well. So again, part of the pandemic, probably a month in, we started we being the community leaders. So it's myself, local college president, the local community college president, the CEOs of both hospitals and our community, the mayor, the county judge and several elected city councilmen and county commissioners. We began to meet together every single week and and it was all about the pandemic and our response to the community and what we're doing and what we need to do. In fact, we just celebrated our one year anniversary of that group meeting because we still meet weekly and talk about the issues of our community. And it was that group of people as we were taught, how do we communicate effectively with our community? All of the different messages, how do we get our folks to wear masks? How do we get our folks to do this or not do that to stay sheltered, et cetera? And you know, in conversation, we realized looking at data, there's a group of people that are missing. Why is this particular population not following the guidance that we're giving? And we realized it's because they're not hearing it, they're not receiving it. And it was primarily an older group of parents and. Grandparents in the Hispanic community, and we were not using their media outlets and Spanish radio we discovered is their media outlet. The city began to advertise a market and Spanish radio, and the school district now leverages that everything from bringing our new pre-K kids in to just informing our community about the work of our schools. So yes, it was a collection of community leaders that when we looked at data and needed to figure out how to communicate effectively, we were missing subgroups of our population. In fact, our communication now really has very little to do with the pandemic anymore. I mean, yes, there are still some things, but it's it's much more about teaching and learning and educating and the work that's happening in our school system 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. As a low performing district that had already laid a strong foundation for improvement, Ector County ISD made the most of the pandemic to accelerate the implementation of many goals, including the expansion of internet access, focusing on personalized professional development and forging stronger home school connections. 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.