Like schools across the country, Lompoc Unified School District was thrown into distance learning with little warning and no real preparation. While it was far from ideal, we found that building community was the key to making the best of the situation.

Fortunately, we had a head start because of a community reading program, and there may even be a silver lining to look forward to when COVID-19 becomes a memory.

Schools play a critical role in building community together

Our reading initiative began last summer when our superintendent, Trevor McDonald, decided to pilot myON in an effort to put thousands of digital books and news articles into students’ hands.

Related content: Driving student success in the “COVID tech rush”

To get that effort off the ground, we had to put our district community to work. We handed out fliers, went on the radio to talk about the initiative, and even knocked on doors to let folks know about this resource for students.

And it was a huge success! Not only did our students collectively read for 131,000 minutes in June and July that summer, their parents were digging into myON to read as well.

Since then, we’ve expanded the initiative by partnering with other districts on the central California coast in an effort we call 805 Reads!, named after our local area code. Through this initiative, we share strategies with each other to make the most out of our community reading model. We share resources and information, and even have virtual meetups. We have stickers that community businesses can place in their windows to let neighbors know they’re participating, which usually means that students are welcome to come inside, log onto the WiFi, and sit down to read for a bit.

Across the 11 districts in the initiative, 60,000 students have read approximately 4 million minutes and finished more than 200,000 books. It’s a successful reading initiative, but it’s bigger than kids reading books.

When families see that consistency across the region, it really demonstrates that schools are the hubs of their communities. And that community is important, especially now! I’ve been approached at the grocery store, the gas station, and even a restaurant by families with tears in their eyes expressing gratitude for this program and the access to literature it offers at a time when libraries and bookstores are closed and students don’t have access to the traditional summertime activities.

The switch to distance learning

We had 24 hours to prepare for distance learning, so there were definitely stumbles along the way. One thing we learned is the importance of school-wide consistency in platforms. Particularly for families with multiple children in one school, it’s just so much easier if everyone is on the same page. We’re all using Google Classroom, so the learning platform is the same for everyone, and we use Clever to make sign-on as easy and streamlined as possible. Any student who requests one gets a Chromebook, and we’re still working to ensure that everyone is connected by providing hotspots.

Our community has stepped up in response to school closures as well. Our local YMCA, for example, has really filled the gap for a lot of families by offering childcare and educational support while schools have been closed, and they have continued to do that as we remain remote for the fall.

Lessons learned from—but not about!—distance education

Lessons on building community from a pandemic

Not everything we’ve learned over the last few months has been the result of stumbling in a new and difficult situation, and we’re looking forward to some of those lessons improving our education community long after the pandemic.

Our teachers have been collaborating better since we switched to distance learning, for example. Because there aren’t any site-specific variations for things like transporting students, all of our elementary campuses can have the same bell schedule, so that just removes a logistical hurdle for teachers collaborating across schools. We also just asked them outright to spend some time on a couple Fridays discussing their experiences, challenges, and solutions related to distance learning. They formed an important source of support for each other, and they came up with some great changes that we were able to implement across the district. They found it so helpful they continued doing it weekly on their own.

Our communication with parents has also improved. We were forced to begin communicating with them through various channels and in these different innovative ways, and that’s not going to stop. These parents are plugged in now, and we know how to reach them and put information in their hands.

Back-to-school assessments, for example, will be a different experience this year. Assessment can be a fraught topic with parents, but this year we have the ability—and the need—to communicate more clearly about them. We’re going to administer Star Assessments virtually, so we need the parents to be team players more than ever. We’re going to explain to them that these are formative assessments, so it’s not a letter grade that matters here, but finding out where each student is at so we can appropriately target instruction. We believe they will make the effort to ensure those assessments are as accurate as possible.

With the classroom in their living room these days, they’ve had a front-row seat to the progress their students are making over time—and the incredible work teachers and students put into making that happen.

About the Author:

Bree Valla is the deputy superintendent of human resources and educational services for Lompoc Unified School District. She can be reached at valla.bree@lompocschools.org.


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