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How Newport-Mesa Unified School District became closer by being apart

A district tech director discusses her district's remote learning strategy when it comes to device management, PD, and education's future

Jenith Mishne is a relentlessly positive person. Not even a global pandemic can dampen her enthusiasm when talking about her job as Director of Education Technology in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District (CA), where she serves 22,500 students at twenty-two elementary schools, two intermediate schools, four high schools, one alternative education center, and one adult education center.

In this conversation with eSchool News, Mishne finds the silver linings in the world’s largest beta test for remote learning—from device management to compassionate teacher professional development and better community communication. She also shares some of her thoughts about how education can grow from this tragedy.

Related content: How this district made the remote transition

Here are some highlights:

eSN: What was the district’s device situation when the lockdown orders came?

JM: Luckily we were in year four of a Chromebook implementation with about 18,000 Chromebooks. Grades five through 12 had a device. Third and fourth grades had one-to-one in the classroom, but they were in carts, zip tied down—so you can imagine that transition process. And then pre-K through two had shared carts. We did have to regroup and deploy about 5,000 more Chromebooks and the first wave we did it to families that stated they needed a device. But moving forward, we are just going to go one-to-one, K through 12.

eSN: What about faculty?

At the time teachers were also a mixed bag—some had laptops and some had desktops that couldn’t go home. So because we didn’t have a stash of laptops on site, teachers had to get Chromebooks, which when we were just going to be out for two weeks in the beginning, we thought, “Oh, two weeks, we’ll get you through. Here’s a Chromebook.”

We learned fast though. Using Zoom and screen capture on a Chromebook is not sufficient for a teacher as it is for a student. So now, as soon as we finish the year at the end of June, we’re going to switch out the Chromebooks for laptops.

eSN: What are your other immediate plans for summer?

We are one of the few districts in California that still go until June 19th. So we have a couple more weeks of school where I’m making some adjustments because we’re worried about incompletes for graduation.

We are in the process right now of pulling together a whole committee of parents, community members, students, district leaders, teachers, site administrators, counselors, some of the people that work in our social and emotional areas to start to plan for next year.

We’ll still continue our extended day for special ed students, which we’ve always done. It’s just going to be in the virtual environment. We’re still going to have our secondary online classes that we’ve always held in the summer because they were always online. And then we’re looking at some other models for students.

eSN: How has remote learning affected the school district’s relationship with parents?

JM: This has forced them to work more as a team with teachers and the districts. I actually held Zoom orientations for 4,000 parents. It was amazing. And now, parents are seeing teachers teach right in their homes. I think it broke down some barriers for a lot of people. The biggest thing that we have to pay attention to is keeping that connection. The social, emotional impact was so much more important than any “learning” that happened this spring.

eSN: What were your strategies in regard to assessment? And will any of these new methods stick?

JM: You know, when you have five kids at home and you get one hotspot, when you’re on Zoom hour after hour, the learning doesn’t always work. So we really had to think about that. We had to think about the fact that teachers were getting up to speed. So for our secondary schools, we had just finished a quarter so they went with those quarter grades. But then for the fourth quarter, they changed the grading scale, really just shifted it a little to make it easier. No D’s or F’s were given and attendance, while it was critical and important, it wasn’t going to harm the grade. So we didn’t want attendance on a zoom session to harm a grade. At the elementary, we literally said, “No formal assessments.” We completely wiped out grades. We had just finished our second trimester on that Friday, March 13th. In a way, it was perfect timing.

What we’re doing now is only making comments, and we updated our comments to reflect distance learning, to reflect some of the amazing skills that students learned. So many things. I mean, we have first graders in Zoom, breakout rooms, right?! Who would’ve ever thought that?! So I’m really trying to focus on the positives and the progress that students made from where they were.

From my perspective, there are so many positives to this. Teachers that in the past, were just for whatever reason reluctant about technology, are now saying, “Why didn’t I ever do this?”

Next week: eSchool interviews Andrew Wallace, Director of Technology, South Portland Maine Schools

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