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A superintendent forges a path for her district—a path that highlights student voice and community

Whatever it takes: How one underserved district continues to make it through the pandemic


A superintendent forges a path for her district—a path that highlights student voice and community

Listening to Alena Zachery-Ross, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools in Michigan, managing her district through this pandemic almost sounds like a positive story.

In this conversation with eSchool News, Alena recalls her strategies for success. From a new appreciation for student voice to closer interactions with the wider community, her ideas will help any district not only survive, but thrive, in these times.

The following has been edited for clarity.

eSN: Talk a little bit about the importance of social-emotional learning. Is that something that has changed? Has it accelerated during COVID?

AZR: It was always essential for us to have it for students. What’s been different is now we’re serving the whole family. One thing that we did was bring in National Association of Mental Health. They did workshops in a town hall style and people joined on Zoom. We actually had a jazz night for our families, just had a night to listen to jazz. And in between we gave talks about how to support their students. We brought in a social worker and had her to talk at one of the town halls. So that’s what it is. It feels like our responsibility. And as a matter of fact, I have to make sure the teachers [are] mentally healthy.  Are they getting filled up so they can go and give to the students?

eSN: The idea of digital equity is also an issue that is front and center. What does that phrase mean to you?

eSN: The idea of digital equity is also an issue that is front and center. What does that phrase mean to you?

AZR: We have to make it a priority. Before it was not—it was a wish, it was a dream. When it became a priority to everyone, then that’s when we saw the change for us. We were not a one-to-one district. And so I made it a priority. And then I also reached out. And this is where the pandemic was helpful, because other people were saying and understanding that we can’t, I can’t, do this alone as a school.

And so I wrote to United Way, the Ann Arbor Community Foundation to assist us. And so it was the rush to just order and say, “Whatever it takes.” This is impossible, but we’re in an impossible situation, and we’re going to just do it.  Then where are we going to get internet access? So again, I partnered with a group of folks from Eastern Michigan who were graduates. They have a club and they gave us money for internet access. And then I went to Eastern and said, “Well, my goodness, if your alumni could do this, what are you going to put in there? What are you going to put on the table?” On top of that, we became a tech provider because we then had to make office hours available for our tech department to troubleshoot with parents, troubleshoot with students. Then the tech department had to create videos on how to log in to Google classroom, how you use this access etc. It has been such a learning curve. And, again, this is how we got closer to our families because they were just talking. They were caught and we created a helpline where parents could call in.

eSN: So you have found positive takeaways even with all the challenges?

AZR: We call it pandemic learning. What are we going to take with us? How are we now going to integrate technology in a way that we couldn’t before? How are we going to spend our dollars? We’re going to use it to equip the classrooms with cameras. So that we could still have students out and they can remote in and the camera can just be on the teacher and the teacher can be still interacting with the students in a new way, because now the teachers feel very comfortable when they didn’t before.

That’s just an example of now where we’re really hearing student voices, and we’re hearing from the parents about what they need and the teachers, and we’re utilizing them. The community, to me, has a bright, bright future moving forward. And in talking to the students, you know, they talk about loss. I don’t. I think that they’ve really gained so much. I think this experience is going to take them on a new journey as lifelong learners.

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Kevin Hogan

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