St. Johnsbury School District is committed to building on their assets, seeking input from all stakeholders, and planning in phases to seek sustainable transformation. Nationwide, education leaders are planning for the conclusion of one of the most challenging and weirdest school years ever. Simultaneously, they are working on medium and long-term planning for post-pandemic schooling. Much of this work will show up in proposals related to the influx of money from federal funds.
The federal government will provide financial support for education in unprecedented ways over the next several years. The timelines for providing concrete plans for those funds are incredibly tight. The pressures from all corners are intense and in some cases contradictory. How best to address “learning loss,” transform schooling based on lessons learned from the pandemic, and avoid saddling community budgets with obligations after the funds run out? It’s a tall order, no doubt.
Let’s hear how one Vermont district is approaching things in a way that prioritizes the process.
Recover? How about reignite
“We are calling our next phase in St. Johnsbury, Reigniting Education. This idea came from our Director of Learning Design, Jodie Elliott, and it captures more accurately what we are aiming to do in the next few years. I refuse to begin any work from a deficit mindset, and this is no exception. Our students and their families deserve nothing less than starting from the strengths of this past year.”
So wrote Brian Ricca, Superintendent of St. Johnsbury School District, in a blog post titled All Is Not Lost. That was at a time when the main theme going around Vermont education circles was “recovery.”
This is a powerful reframe, Brian. Reigniting captures the imagination. It fuels progress, creativity, and energy. Words matter … your team nailed this.
— Meg (@meg_allison) March 15, 2021
Lydia Cochrane, PK-3 principal at St. Johnsbury School, noted: “People’s blood sweat and tears went into making this year work. So to call it like a lost year just felt disrespectful. I mean obviously everyone needs to recover from this year, but that just felt demeaning to all the teachers, all the educators, and all the kids.”
Jeremy Ross, 4-8 principal, added: “I think the key to reigniting as opposed to recovering is that …A lot of really good learning happened this year. It may have looked different. It may not have been the same pace that it always would have been. But it may have required our students and teachers to really think outside the box and approach their learning in a different way than what we would normally have expected.”
This overarching asset-based framing is accompanied by a couple of big ideas.
Relationships and knowing students well
Brian emphasized relationships as the key to ending this school year and starting the next one well. “The number one thing where we’re going to really need to put our effort is to make sure that we’re taking the time to rebuild relationships. Reforming connections and knowing our kids individually [allows us] to help support them and meet their needs wherever they are.”
Brian shared that teachers learned a lot about what some students were capable of this year. He provided a hypothetical of what a teacher might have learned based on shifting teaching formats. “Wow this student was shining in a class size of nine. And then that might have dwindled because we all wanted everybody back in school. And then there goes that student back to being a wallflower, because it’s a much larger group and he doesn’t feel as comfortable and doesn’t have that extra time and attention.”
Seeing students adapt and respond differently in various formats drew attention to the way that the school system interacts dynamically with individual student needs. Educators are more determined than ever to get to know individual students and create responsive learning environments.
Lydia noted that the concept of focusing on student growth has been strengthened over the last year. “One of the opportunities that it’s provided for us as a school is to think outside of student growth in terms of where they should be when they come in for a grade and where they should end. And instead really think about where the student is coming in and what would be the expected growth for annual growth.”
Jeremy agreed. Both principals anticipate working to build teacher skills and school structures around the measurement of growth.
Brian tied the concepts of relationships, growth, rigor, and equity together in another recent blog post.
“…We meet our students where they are and help them grow and learn from there. In this case, the emphasis on relationships means a greater level of expectations, not less. By knowing our students as well as our faculty and staff do, we are able to know what they are capable of, and if they’re not meeting their potential, we know something is amiss. The emphasis on relationships makes us expect more, not less. The emphasis on relationships makes us stronger, not softer. The emphasis on relationships welcomes the whole child, not just the student.”
The St. Johnsbury administration is in a similar situation to others. The past year has been incredibly hard but has also offered some lessons learned. Looking toward the future, they don’t want to go back to “normal” but they also know teachers and students are craving some simple things like stability and reconnection. They want to do deep and thoughtful planning that involves all stakeholders but the timing and timelines aren’t helpful in that regard.
This conundrum became glaringly obvious at a full day retreat involving a district leadership team and community members. As Brian reported in a blog post titled In Gratitude, after a morning of thoroughly structured productivity, the community members asked to slow down and leave more room for open exploration. As a result, “conversations and discussions were richer, had more depth, and sounded more productive.”
That retreat day is a metaphor for how the district is approaching the rest of the planning process. They want to have a process that is inclusive, with room to breathe and detour as needed. Brian explained his ideal process this way:
“Here’s the process: we start with students. Principals will do a listening tour. We’re going to send out a survey to faculty asking what they need and want. We’re going to take that raw data and sort it a little bit on the leadership team end. … Then take it to our reigniting team with community partners. And then we say to our community and our families: these are the themes that emerged, what are the most important things that you see.”
But what about the planning timelines? They’ve got a plan for that.
Planning in chunks
St. Johnsbury is taking an approach that they’ve dubbed “chunking.” By the looming deadline of June 1 for submitting a Recovery Plan, they will detail their plans for this summer. Then they will add details in the early fall based on an intensive and inclusive planning process. Their approach has been approved by the Vermont Agency of Education.
Brian explains it this way: “I remind my team and my board all the time: we have the ability to do something truly great here in a focused way that meets the needs of our students or adults, our families and our community. We can’t miss this opportunity. So we do want to take it slow.”
A lot of people are talking about thinking outside of the box to transform education. St. Johnsbury refuses to be boxed in by a rushed planning process.
The chunking approach allows for short term stability with an eye toward long term transformation. Brian is clear about expectations: “I think if somebody comes in next year to this school district, they’re gonna look around and be like, huh, pretty much the same. But I think in two years. I want that same person to come back and go, this is different. And I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but I want to be bold.”
Dream big as long as it’s sustainable
St. Johnsbury District’s approach seems like a reasonable one. Brian expresses awe when he talks about the amount of funds that will be available to his district over the next few years. He wants to be ambitious about the opportunity while remaining pragmatic about the process and the aftermath.
“This is really a once in an educational lifetime opportunity to transform what we do on behalf of kids and adults. How often have we said, oh there’s no money for that? … Now, you could come to me with a mulit-million dollar idea and we can actually sit down and think about how to make it work. The only limitation I’m offering is that we can’t saddle ourselves with obligations beyond the federal money. But other than that we can be as bold as we want to be.”
Here’s hoping that St. Johnsbury’s “go slow to go fast” approach allows them to build on their considerable assets with broad stakeholder input.
And that this “recovery” period ignites the transformation, in St. Johnsbury and beyond, that our students deserve.