Photo courtesy of Remake Learning.

Up close with educators: Exploring innovations and positive changes in Pittsburgh schools and nationwide

By Melissa Rayworth

School leaders and superintendents are navigating a uniquely challenging semester. Even as they face immediate issues of remote learning and COVID-safe in-school learning, they’re also busy charting a path toward long-term innovation and truly equitable education for all.

Districts are reexamining structures and practices that weren’t working well even before COVID-19, and that honest assessment is valuable. But an equally powerful step toward positive change is noticing what is working. Teachers have been innovating in remarkable ways since the school disruption began last spring. Districts are adapting and embracing new methods of professional development, student assessment and project-based learning.

To help grow this positive progress, the Tomorrow campaign has offered educators a series of weekly seminars hosted by Grable Foundation fellows Dr. Bille Rondinelli and Dr. Bart Rocco.

“As we all work to navigate through this pandemic crisis, our hope for the series is to connect a community of learners with creative and dedicated educators that are willing to share their unique leadership perspectives and diverse talents,” said Rondinelli. “The presenters that contributed their time, energy and talents openly shared their struggles and hopes for ‘Tomorrow’ while also providing concrete examples of how to engage students, parents, families, caregivers, and stakeholders to better meet and exceed the needs amid the current educational challenges.”

Below you’ll find highlights from these “Transform for Tomorrow: What’s Working in Schools Now?” seminars, along with links to video recordings of each seminar.

OCT. 8: Delivering instruction to students through interactive learning and engaging students using technology

Online learning will never duplicate the experience of learning in a classroom, said Dr. Michael Nagler, superintendent of Mineola Public Schools on Long Island. But “can you deliver quality education virtually?” Nagler asked. “Absolutely.”

In this seminar, Nagler and Dr. Todd Keruskin, superintendent at Elizabeth Forward School District in the Pittsburgh region, discussed the learning managements systems their schools use and the powerful ways these systems can help teachers communicate with students and effectively teach them.

“Giving work to children, getting it back, giving feedback back — that whole relationship among and between your kids is critical to making all of this work,” Nagler said.

Enthusiastic use of a good learning management system can make all that possible even when all learning is happening remotely. And it can serve schools even after the virus disruption ends. “One of the big things I stress to my colleagues is don’t look at this as ‘One-and-done, I have to get through COVID.’ You should really be thinking ‘How I do build this digital library that I can use when the pandemic is over, and I still have value-added in all of my classrooms?’ ”

Find the full session here.

OCT. 15: How to build relationships and communicate effectively with students, parents, and caregivers in this new learning environment

COVID-19 has changed the way school districts have used technology to communicate with their stakeholders. How have these virtual communication experiences changed practices for teachers, parents, and caregivers? We’ve always known that relationships are vital for effective teaching and learning, Dr. Rocco told the audience for this seminar. But, he said, “COVID-19 made us think differently about how we build relationships.”

Dr. Thomas Ralston, superintendent of Avonworth Schools in suburban Pittsburgh, said communicating and connecting with students and families was his district’s first priority when schools closed last spring. “We were kind of learning as we went along,” he said of those challenging early weeks.

Matt Miller, superintendent of Lakota Schools in suburban Cincinnati, described a similar experience of family outreach: “The first thing we talked about doing was ‘How are we going to feed our kids?’ ” Ralston’s district made sure to fully communicate about safety procedures and engage staff, parents and students about their personal concerns. Miller mentioned frequently surveying his school community to get their feedback, and using tools like Facebook Live.

Even as these superintendents described the challenges they’ve faced this year, they spoke encouragingly about the increased communication in their districts. This challenging year, Ralson said, has offered educators “the best professional development we could have ever experienced.”

Find the full session here.

OCT. 22: Providing professional development to your staff and strategies to help your colleagues

Teacher and district professional development is a critical part of school operations. How have school leaders been providing professional development in a virtual environment and finding ways to improve the ways professional development is delivered now and in the future? In this session, Dr. Randal Lutz, superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh, spoke about the opportunity to create lasting and meaningful change.

“In our district,” he told the audience, “we’ve been talking about not just getting back to normal, but getting back to better.” In response, Dr. Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland School District #2 in Columbia, S.C., said “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

In his district, they pivoted quickly last spring to create a professional development series focusing on e-learning instruction. They asked questions like “How do you set the purpose and build engagement in a synchronous learning environment?” Schools in Lutz’s district have now built-in extra time each week for teacher professional development, along with the time teachers need for planning and interaction with students. They’ve also seen many teachers collaborating and sharing skills with one another.

Find the full session here.

OCT. 29: How curriculum is changing in schools and essential literacies we should be teaching students K-12

COVID-19 has made school leaders rethink the essential literacies students need. How are they reimagining K-12 curriculum to prepare students for their future?

“Curriculum really does need to be collaborative,” said Dr. Mary Catherine Reljac, superintendent of Fox Chapel Area School District in Pittsburgh. When curriculum focuses on collaboration between adults and children, she said, “all of us are a little bit smarter as a result.”

It’s also vital that curriculum be meaningful to students: “When we are giving students authentic tasks that are worthy of their time, it really means something in a curricular cycle,” Reljac said.

Dr. David Miyashiro, Cajon Valley Union School District in El Cajon, California, reinforced that notion of making learning meaningful to students’ lives and giving students a true voice in their own learning. At his school, where students host their own annual TedX conference, Miyashiro told the audience that curriculum is built with this quote from John Adams in mind: “There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”

Find the full session here.

NOV. 5: How learning will look in the future and how this experience will impact how schools educate students 

The school experience for students, teachers, families and caregivers has changed dramatically in the past nine months. In this final session, Digital Promise executive director Kimberly Smith and Dennis Henderson, deputy CEO of Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh spoke about the remarkable innovation they’ve been seeing from teachers and the enthusiastic support those teachers have gotten from administrators.

Among the most exciting innovations: Digital learning gives students access to educators beyond their geographic area.

Children can “truly connect beyond the walls of their school,” Henderson told the audience. “To say that a year ago, it would have sounded totally radical. But the truth is that this can happen right now. We can really meet the needs of students and they can identify educators that resonate with them.” Smith agreed: “Districts are evolving their models for reaching students and families,” she said. “The future is here. We’re living it.”

Find the full session here.

Through these five seminars and the many conversations they sparked, Rocco said, “the Transform for Tomorrow Series exemplified the mission of the Grable Foundation, which is to improve the lives of children/. We provided an opportunity for educators to learn and grow from great local and national leaders about how they are managing operations of schools during COVID 19.  What these educators shared will have a positive impact on children in schools around the country.”

This article is part of a series for Tomorrow, powered by Remake Learning. Tomorrow explores – through virtual events, grantmaking and extensive storytelling – what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Have something to add? Share your hopes for today’s young people using #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning.