Superintendents share lessons learned after challenging start to 2021-22

Strong leadership and communication have been critical to administrative offices and all staff throughout schools.

(This is the first of a series of articles with three superintendents on the return to school in 2022.)

It has been less than a year since Dr. Stacy Johnson moved across the state of Texas to become superintendent at the Banquete Independent School District outside Corpus Christi.

Previously the Executive Director Leadership at Ector County, she took over the role in June with plenty of support from staff and some guidance from her twin sister, Tracy Canter, the superintendent at Iraan-Sheffield ISD.

Starting any job before a new school year can be difficult, let alone in a district with three schools and 870 students during a pandemic. But for the most part, 2021-22 has gone well for Banquete, with Johnson and her team gaining valuable lessons that will carry them beyond this school year.

“It’s had its challenges with COVID and me being new to the area, but one of the huge benefits is that we have created a very strong leadership team; a cabinet,” Johnson says. “That didn’t exist before. I bring campus leaders and district leaders together and we look at every single problem and work to find solutions on how to get there. We’ve been able to refine and create very good processes moving forward. We plan for right now and for the future.”

That future is ever-changing, with omicron seizing control of communities across the nation and forcing some schools back to temporary remote learning. While Banquete has remained open, Johnson (right) last week had to help out in the high school cafeteria with other administrators after all food staff there had to be isolated because of COVID-19 concerns. But with unique problems come unique solutions, especially for savvy school leaders and teachers.

More from DA: Why K-12 leaders believe latest big shift to remote learning is only temporary

Despite all the tumult—from learning loss to violence to staff shortages—what has stood out for some leaders is how well they have been able to respond to crisis moments.

“We’re better than we thought we were,” says Dr. Melissa Varley, superintendent of Berkeley Heights Public Schools in northern New Jersey (below) which comprises six schools and 2,500 students. “Leading up to 2020, we had all these naysayers saying we weren’t going to be ready to go remote, and we switched to remote in one day. We had all of our technology set out. We had all of our teachers come in and do PD. We did it all without having to have a long, drawn-out plan. Everybody came together and worked to make it happen.”

Leading the way

Managing resources and skillfully handling employees, parents and students—by those at the top and those inside the schools—has been a linchpin helping to keep schools functioning.

“I’ve learned leadership matters, and not just in my seat,” says Dr. Jimmy Shaw (left), superintendent at Florence City Schools in Alabama, which has more than 4,000 students and 300 full-time teachers. “At the school level, teachers are the most impactful when it comes to student success. But I will tell you that the most impactful people that you have are those principals. These last 24 months have done nothing but double down to me on the importance of those principals. Communication is huge. Our parents trust us to do the right thing, but if they don’t feel communicated with, you cause yourself all kinds of issues.”

Johnson agrees, saying the pandemic and high expectations have made it essential that those lines are always open. “Clear communication is paramount, even more than before,” she says. “Previously, the district didn’t even have a Twitter account. We have gotten really good at pushing out reminders through Facebook or Twitter and additions to different apps that campuses have purchased. We get ahead of the curve. We notify parents when there’s that positive COVID case, or if they have to quarantine. Being very transparent with them has been a huge lesson learned.”

Banquete also has set up a color-coded system in communications with parents to show them when the virus is prevalent, helping give them a visual sense of how operations might need to change. Being proactive, not overextending resources and remaining focused on families has been a big difference-maker.

“One of the biggest lessons that we’ve learned is: work smarter, not harder. We’re utilizing existing resources and reallocating staff to meet individualized needs of students,” Johnson says. “If we were overstaffed in one area, we reallocated staff to be curriculum specialists and intervention specialists. We’ve moved people around to be community and parent liaisons so we can have more community voice. It’s about creating more learning opportunities for parents and students because what we’ve learned is that our parents need to be as well-educated as our students are. How can they support their kids at home? What does COVID look like? What are the things you can do to help if we have an outbreak?”

For all the positive work and outcomes, there are some lessons learned that superintendents hope to see changed as schools still try to rebound from a brutal 2020-21.

“Virtual is not for everybody. We tried to take that model that had been successful and implement it for 100% of our students. It did not work ideally, but at the same time it allowed our kids to have some learning,” Shaw says. “When we came back this year, we really doubled down on learning loss.”

The pandemic has made clear the biggest lesson of all, highlighted by the recent Chicago Public Schools fallout: Students must be in school if it’s safe while learning and getting all the support districts have to offer. That’s something district leaders will take through 2022.

“We really need to focus on social and emotional learning for our kids,” Varley says. “They need to be in school. We need to do as a unit everything we can to keep them face to face and have the time to let our teachers collaborate. That’s one thing we’re missing right now.”

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