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The lessons a superintendent learned this spring and at a superintendent symposium over the summer have enriched her district’s approach to engaging distance learning

Engaging distance learning starts (and continues) with collaboration

The lessons a superintendent learned this spring and at a superintendent symposium over the summer have enriched her district’s approach to engaging distance learning

When Highline Public Schools starts its academic year on September 9, the district will implement an engaging distance learning model that Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield and her team developed over the summer.

Based on the case rates of COVID-19 in the area, the district made the decision to offer only distance learning until November. Enfield reached this conclusion in collaboration with other districts in the region of Washington. She and her fellow superintendents felt they had to announce the decision early enough that families and staff could plan their professional and personal lives, so they actually made the call before the state Department of Education had sent its metrics to guide whether schools could open in person or not. When the guidelines arrived from the state Department of Health, they confirmed that the district had made the right call.

Related content: What the pandemic classroom needs to thrive

Here’s how Enfield’s collaborations with her district’s families, teachers, and principals—as well as fellow superintendents from around the country—informed an engaging distance learning model designed to not only support student learning, but also strengthen and maintain the personal relationships that are essential to their growth as people.

Lessons learned from family and student feedback

Highline is a truly diverse district. Its 18,000 pre-K–12 students speak 100 different languages, and 10,000 of them have a first language other than English. Some 13,000 students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and the district serves 3,000 special education students. As Enfield said, “Our Highline Promise is to know every student by name, strength, and need so they graduate for the future they choose.”
To live up to this pledge, the district gathered feedback about distance learning from students and their families this spring, and, Enfield noted, “We heard loud and clear that they wanted live instruction.” Leaders of the district worked with the teachers’ union and staff to plan collaboratively how to offer that face-to-face connection. The academic team developed detailed schedules for elementary and secondary students that lay out what their days and weeks will look like. There’s an emphasis on synchronous learning in the morning and asynchronous and small-group learning in the afternoon.

“Our families also let us know that managing multiple platforms was too much for them,” said Enfield, so she came to an agreement with teachers and principals that Seesaw would be the elementary school platform and Google Classroom would be the platform for secondary schools.

These platforms will also allow Highline to offer the flexibility that families asked for. “We reached an agreement with teachers that they’ll record synchronous instruction,” Enfield said, “so that if a 4th-grader can’t make a Zoom class, they can log on after and see what they missed. It’s important to me that students have access not just to a generic lesson to cover a topic, but to lessons taught by their teacher to their classmates, so students feel that they are part of a school community.”

Connecting with fellow superintendents

As a superintendent in 2020, Enfield said, “I’m facing challenges that I’ve never faced before,” so connecting with her own professional community has been “incredibly valuable.” Over the summer, she spoke on two panels at a hybrid symposium on reopening schools safely and equitably presented by the Institute for Education Innovation, which will continue to support educators during this unprecedented school year with national summits that combine in-person and virtual attendance.

“It was helpful to hear how very different districts were responding to the needs of their community,” Enfield recalled. “Depending on where you are in the country, your reality is quite different. One superintendent was bringing back kids 5 days a week, because they could do it safely, based on the levels of the virus there.”

No matter what their current situation, Enfield said, “Superintendents are an n of 1, so it’s helpful and sometimes cathartic to have time together, especially in a face-to-face meeting that was as safe as it could be, with masks required and other social distancing measures enforced. The power was coming together in person with a small group of like-minded people who literally feel my pain right now.” One of her goals for the start of the year is to inspire a similar sense of empathy among her teachers and their students.

Keeping teachers connected with students

When teachers return to work later this month, Highline will offer synchronous and asynchronous PD (using Canvas as the professional learning site) so teachers will experience what their students will experience.

During distance learning last spring, Enfield said, “our connection rate with students was about 75 percent,” District leaders worked with teachers on a number of ways to improve that number, including pushing back the first day of school to make time for teacher PD. They also instituted Family Connection Days. “The goal is to make sure every student is connected to an adult in his or her school,” Enfield explained. “That adult will then check in on a weekly basis to build a consistent relationship.” The adult can be a teacher, a principal, a counselor, a dean, a paraeducator, or a coach. Enfield admitted, “This is a big lift, but I believe it will be a game-changer in terms of engagement and success.”

To further foster engagement, Highline is emphasizing its signature SEL practices for every meeting or class, which are based on its partnership with Mark Brackett, PhD, creator of the RULER approach:

● Start with an opening ritual;
● Continue with engaging conversation and work; and
● End with an optimistic closure.

As a leader, Enfield’s motto is “Health and family first,” and she models this for teachers by sharing examples from her own life, such as when she has gone on a hike or had dinner with her husband. Highline has also had a wellness partnership with Pure Edge to provide teachers with resources around meditative breathing, mindful movement, and guided rest.

As the district prepares for the first day of school without the anticipation of gathering together in the same school or classroom, Enfield said, “Back-to-school this year certainly doesn’t feel the same,” as it has in the past, but with the collaborative plans she and her team have in place, “I’m confident that when students and teachers see each other for the first time, that excitement will kick in. As the adults, we have the ability and responsibility to make the start of school a happy, hopeful one for all of our students, and that is what we are committed to doing here in Highline.”

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