As a full return to in-person instruction in the fall seems more likely, almost everyone associated with public education is hoping for a return to some semblance of normalcy.
But with the global pandemic revealing long-standing inequities in stark and painful ways, returning to “normal” this fall would be a disservice to students and families, especially to those who experienced the greatest hardships.
Fortunately, unprecedented new federal and state resources (albeit on a one-time basis) allow districts a rare opportunity to invest in their students. School district superintendents across the state now face the challenge: how to focus on what will make a real difference for students and not get lost in the need to spend the money.
As two former superintendents who now have the privilege of working with dedicated leaders and leadership teams across the state, we’re heartened to partner with many thinking deeply about meeting the moment for their students. They are focused on those who have been disproportionately affected, while at the same time creating the conditions for long-term success. Taking a step back from what we’re hearing, we offer districts the following principles to guide their spending, along with encouragement to stick to them amid the coming clamor for dollars from many stakeholders.
- Focus: Do not allow the money to take you off course. Be crystal clear about how the expenditures are aligned with the goals you have set for student success. This money is an opportunity to specifically address the needs of those students who have fallen even further behind.
- Less is More: To the extent possible, have a few big goals versus lots of small, less impactful ideas.
- Long Term: Spend with sustainability in mind. Adding people and programs is popular and easy; laying them off and ending programs is not. Consider ways to build the capacity of those you already have working with your students.
- Students First: Spend the money as close to the students as possible. Far too often we begin with what is convenient for the adults. Ground your decisions on what is critical for your students’ success.
Maintaining focus was critical at Burbank Unified, where Superintendent Matt Hill had already prioritized making sure underserved students were on track for college success. The pandemic increased the need for middle and high school students to have access to immediate support for credits lost during distance learning.
“It is critical that each of our students remain on track for college access,” Hill said. “This summer is the first step in that process.” He is not only investing in a robust summer school program. “This fall will have to be different to support our students,” he reflected. “We have to both support students who lost credits and keep them on track to meet A-G requirements. That won’t be accomplished overnight. This is a two- to three-year effort.”
Meanwhile, in Oxnard School District, Superintendent Karling Aguilera-Fort is thinking long term: “We are using the Student Profile — which outlines ideal student outcomes at graduation — as our guide, so everything that we are doing is connected to it and will be part of our strategic plan,” Aguilera-Fort said.
An important step in this process is creating additional time. “It is critical to invest in our staff to better serve our students,” he said. “We are adding professional learning days for teachers and school counselors to provide opportunities to learn, look at data, plan, design lessons.”
For Superintendent Adela Jones at Sanger Unified, students must be first. She is working directly with teachers and principals to determine exactly what their students need. This approach is essential in increasing instructional time for students.
“It is unfair to say that kids don’t understand a concept they were never taught,” Jones said. “We are going to monitor the impact the interventions have on our students throughout the school year and tailor our additional staff and resources based on what the students need, not what we have to spend.”
While each of these leaders works within a unique context, they are all thinking long term, avoiding quick fixes and resisting the temptation to say yes to more than they can actually do well.
Let’s join these leaders in holding ourselves and everyone in our organizations accountable to outcomes that actually make a lasting difference for students, especially for those who have historically been left behind.
Steven Kellner and Laura Schwalm are both former superintendents who now work for California Education Partners, a nonprofit organization that supports California districts to engage in intentional collaborative, continuous improvement in the service of real results for students.
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