3 superintendents to watch: Taking care of each and every student

How these leaders are personalizing academic and emotional learning in innovative ways, from crocheting to farming to "fab labs" where youngsters learn coding.
Marnie Hazelton
Marnie Hazelton

The emotional well-being of students is the north star for educators in Linden Public Schools, an urban district in New Jersey. What other districts call SEL has been retitled  “social-emotional cognitive growth,” and this all-encompassing initiative is what has earned Linden its designation as a national model, Superintendent Marnie Hazelton says.

“A lot of people look at SEL as something they can take off the shelf when they need it and then put it back,” Hazelton says. “For cognitive growth, it has to be embedded in the daily curriculum from the beginning of the school year.”

Linden’s efforts are an example of how District Administration’s “Superintendents to Watch” are attending to the academic and emotional needs of each and every student.

We’re not one-dimensional

Linden’s educators are far enough along in the cognitive growth process that they are already refining their approach. After introducing “SEL days” at all grade levels in late 2021, students decided the most common activity–playing board games–was becoming redundant. Hazelton turned to her student advisory councils, who replaced board games with fundraising campaigns and chess competitions, among other new activities.

Teachers also began sharing hobbies and passions such as crocheting, which can incorporate math skills. And a fifth-grade teacher who taught her class how to use exercise bands brought a dose of physical education into her classroom. “Students often see us as one-dimensional–we’re just teachers or a superintendent,” Hazelton says. “This is showing them we have a human side, that we have lives outside the workplace.”

To help teachers cope with the challenges of the pandemic, Hazelton allowed them to bring their own children to work if they lived in another district that had closed schools. These kids would often find a spot in the corner of a classroom to do their schoolwork. “If I, as a mother, cannot allow teachers the ability to take care of their own children, how can I demand that they take care of other people’s children in their capacity as teachers?”

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Hazelton, like many other K-12 leaders, acknowledges that measuring SEL growth isn’t as easy as testing for math or ELA skills. Still, teachers in the district are reporting that their students are more involved and engaged while disciplinary issues have decreased. The initiative has also drawn the attention of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, which has named Linden a “district to watch” in its Learning 2025 Lighthouse Systems demonstration program.

SEL is a key part of the district’s five-year strategic plan, which also prioritizes creating positive cultures and climate. Earlier in the pandemic, Hazelton and her team created a mentoring program in which each principal checks in weekly with a small, select group of students. Hazelton has also hired more guidance counselors and social workers and added a mentoring program for high school students through My Brother’s Keeper & My Sister’s Keeper.

To wrap up the school year, the district celebrated 50 seniors and their post-high school plans by displaying their pictures on banners hung from light poles around town. “It was not the ‘top 50’–we wanted a cross-section,” Hazelton said. “It’s non-negotiable that our students are going to graduate enrolled, enlisted or employed.”

Technological triumphs

Todd Keruskin
Todd Keruskin

Third-graders in the same classroom working on sixth- or second-grade math is what personalized learning looks like as it’s been built into each day across the Elizabeth Forward School District outside of Pittsburgh. It’s been a “huge paradigm-shift”–third-grade teachers, for example, had only felt comfortable teaching a third-grade curriculum, Superintendent Todd Keruskin says.

Getting to this point required two things: professional development and technology. The PD empowered teachers to use learning management systems and other ed-tech platforms to differentiate instruction without having to create multiple lesson plans–or even any lesson plans at all, Keruskin says. Teachers can now create “playlists” in the Canvas LMS that guide each student through their learning for the week, including intervention and enrichment activities.

“We don’t look at these tools as just pandemic tools,” Keruskin says. “We were focused on modern learning before the pandemic, and we’re continuing to scale the work.”

When the district’s technology director left, Keruskin filled the slot with a new position–a director of digital teaching and learning whose role is “to never be in his office.”  This administrator is less occupied with the Wi-Fi network and more dedicated to co-teaching or working with educators after-school to help them create digital courses, Keruskin says.

Elizabeth Forward is one of AASA’s 13 Learning 2025 Lighthouse Systems for its achievements in technology-enhanced education. The district has seen a “massive” increase in state test scores as Keruskin has implemented computer science in grades K-12. Younger students are learning coding and robotics while “fab labs,” also known as maker spaces, introduce middle and high school students to laser cutters, 3D printers and other design and prototyping tools.

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The district’s high school also received a grant to build a hydroponic “freight farm.” Seniors in an environmental science class will grow lettuce that will be served in the district cafeteria and shared with a local food bank. They will be able to grow 1,200 heads of lettuce every four to five weeks. “Our drive is to make learning, active, fun and engaging,” he says. “We also want to create a culture of ‘It’s OK to fail if we try something new and it doesn’t work’ where our staff can continue to be innovative.”

Inclusive care

Janell Logue-Belden
Janell Logue-Belden

The Deer Lakes School District is the only system in its western Pennsylvania county where students can stay at their high school while receiving mental health care or substance abuse treatment. It’s called a “hospital program” and it’s run in partnership with a local healthcare provider that places therapeutic staff in Deer Lakes schools, superintendent Janell Logue-Belden says.

These students, who would otherwise be placed in a facility outside the district, have the chance to keep up academically while receiving medication and participating in individual, group and family therapy sessions. Students receiving treatment are taught in one of two special classrooms in the district’s high school. One room is for 6-12 students and the other is K-5. Both are staffed by a special education teacher, a paraprofessional and a mental health aide.

Remaining at the school makes it easier for students to fully integrate back into the regular routine when they complete treatment. “They don’t have to go a strange place where they don’t have the support of the district,” Logue-Belden says. “We have seen a lot of growth in these students.”

Deer Lakes, which has also been named a “district to watch” in its Learning 2025 Lighthouse Systems, initiated the program after two students committed suicide–one right after the other–about two years ago, and administrators sought to provide more services. There is now a guidance counselor and nurse in each of its four buildings and students also have access to a mental health consultant and social workers. The district has adopted a range of mental health and suicide awareness programs, such as Hope Squad and Rachel’s Challenge.

The district has also created “chill rooms” for students to visit if they need to calm down or take a break under the supervision of a guidance counselor or social worker.

A student’s access to outside therapy remains dependent on a parent’s insurance, which may limit the number of sessions they receive and require high deductible payments. There’s also a limited number of therapists. Deer Lake’s program eliminates all these roadblocks. “We’re facing an enormous struggle,” Logue-Belden says. “We have a lot of students with a lot of mental health issues. We’re seeing a high number of students who are seeking or require services.”

Logue-Belden has seen disciplinary referrals for her students climb during the pandemic as they’ve struggled to control their emotions and are lashing out at classmates and staff. “Since the pandemic, students have forgotten how to be students and how to get along with others,” she says. “It would be wonderful if every school district could have guidance counselors and nurses in each building, as well as social workers and mental health specialists.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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