Defining Purpose in the Midst of a Pandemic
Two Weeks that Mobilized a District: DeSoto ISD (TX)
Our collective public education system still needs a revolution. And, as educators, we have a responsibility to help students learn the things that really matter the most. School should be the place where students are inspired to dream, where they fall in love with learning and exploration, and where they are introduced to new experiences.Dr. D’Andre J. Weaver, Superintendent of DeSoto ISD
The City of DeSoto, just south of Dallas, has, since the 80s, grown rapidly from a small town of 15,000 to more than 50,000 residents. While the city has become one of the most affluent, predominantly African American cities in Texas with a poverty rate of only 11.9%, DeSoto Independent School District’s numbers tell a different story. Eighty percent of the 8,650 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. And, in 2018, DeSoto ISD was the lowest performing district in North Texas by state standards and was on the verge of bankruptcy due to financial mismanagement. The district experienced an exodus; less than half of the students who live in the DeSoto ISD attendance zone actually attend DeSoto ISD schools.
In the fall of 2018, Dr. D’Andre J. Weaver, assumed the role of superintendent of schools and his new administration took on the triple challenges of enacting cost-savings measures (including a reduction in force), shoring up academics, and focusing on sustainable, long-term solutions to many of the issues that DeSoto ISD was facing.
Under his leadership, DeSoto ISD showed major academic growth, with the district jumping from a 67 ‘D’ rank in 2018 to a 79 ‘C’ in 2019. At the start of the 2019 school year, DeSoto ISD was poised for another strong year of academic growth and financial recovery.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic broke, pushing schools to virtual learning for the remainder of the year.
Spring Break, COVID-19 as a Springboard
In March 2020, the COVID-19 global health pandemic sent the world into crisis response mode. As campuses were forced to close, the district, like so many others, entered into uncharted terrain. Yet, the team in DeSoto ISD embraced the ambiguity and uncertainty. Seeking to create a sense of normalcy through the continuity of education, DeSoto ISD developed its remote learning plan and implemented Anytime, Anywhere Learning in a matter of days for a school system of 8,650 students.
As the global pandemic continued, the district moved from responding to the crisis to reinventing learning experiences for all students. It was guided by the core principles: Empathy, Equity and Excellence.
- Excellence: How do we continue to provide high-quality learning experiences for students while balancing the realities of a global crisis?
- Empathy: How do we ensure that we seek to meet the human needs of every person in our system (employees, kids, and families) while we accomplish this?
- Equity: How do we work to resolve barriers to instruction, especially for our students who have the most barriers to access?
COVID-19 taught every school and system in the country the importance of creating partnerships with families, caregivers and the community. However, leaders in DeSoto were already asking the question, “How do we engage parents so that they’re intimately involved in their student’s learning?” and when the pandemic hit, the team pushed its vision even further. They began exploring models they could adopt and adapt that teach parents and caregivers the questions they need to ask so that they can support their students. And, they were inspired by the belief that learning wasn’t something that happened only between a teacher and a student, but rather an ecosystem where meaning could be created 24/7/365.
In DeSoto ISD, Anytime, Anywhere Learning (AAL) provides access to high-quality learning experiences for every single child through the creativity, collaboration, and solution-orientation of teachers and leaders. AAL seeks to remove barriers to those learning experiences for every child and to move beyond the bounds of the brick and mortar school building or the limitations of the clock. AAL means blended learning opportunities for every child, anytime, anywhere.
Although the move toward AAL was expedited by the global pandemic, AAL is the catalyst for the shift towards a deeper learning environment, increased flexibility and personalization of learning.
THE DEEPER CONTEXT
Since his arrival in 2018, Dr. Weaver has been formulating a big vision that, a year and a quarter later, has become even more urgent and timely in the face of COVID-19 alongside the equality and equity issues foregrounded by the murder of George Floyd.
Superintendent Weaver is on a quest to reinvent learning such that all kids, and particularly those least served by the current industrial model of schooling, are able to thrive in an American public education system designed to serve all children equitably and embrace these ideologies:
- Educators at all levels should not be silent.
- Schools and districts should prioritize learning and self-reflection on issues of race and equity and the social and emotional learning and mental health needs of students and adults.
- Schools and districts should prioritize creating opportunities that connect students to their interests, passions and new and diverse experiences.
Dr. Weaver is determined to reimagine a school system that promotes socially conscious and responsive education, values the needs of each student and tailors their educational journeys to their needs and interests.
And he knows that he cannot do it alone.
Understanding the power and value of collective impact, Dr. Weaver has led the charge to unite the two cities that his district serves (DeSoto and Glenn Heights), the local hospital network (Charlton Methodist) and a higher education institution (The University of North Texas at Dallas) to join forces–leveraging resources and opportunities–to create a Joint Strategic Plan. Led by CapEQ and TNTP, together, leaders from each entity have developed a business case, identified key priorities and created a north star focus for the effort. So, while the district has managed the COVID-19 response at the micro level, it’s also been simultaneously redesigning the overall system in partnership with other vital community entities at the macro level. And, despite the challenges of COVID-19, planning is still underway and the leaders hope to finalize their joint plan in 2021.
THE VISION, CONCRETELY
In the face of COVID-19, many systems searched and planned for ways to get back to their status quo. However, DeSoto ISD saw this as a chance to reinvent its Anytime, Anywhere Learning system. This was the focus of the district in the first half of 2020: a lot of reimagining, reframing, learning, experimenting and exploring. The team arrived at a shared vision of what teaching and learning needed to become, and they developed small and large scale structures that allowed them to feel that reinvention was doable.
THE ‘HOW’: TWO KEY WEEKS OF WORK
Part of the work of a leader is to create the conditions that empower and grow the capacity of stakeholders to own the vision and row together in the same direction. To help showcase the vision, the DeSoto leadership team created a slide deck and met with the school trustees in groups of two or three to walk them through the vision and get their input.
After this, in a two-hour Zoom call, Dr. Weaver met with more than 100 people: teacher leaders, school leaders, and central office leaders. They shared survey data from parents that showed that while the former industrial model worked well for some students, many families felt their children were not being served. They framed the future as a pivotal moment, one that could take the district down the path of new possibility–or one that sought to return to the previous normal.
With the work identified, DeSoto ISD invited interested staff members to join a Design Team who would bring the vision to life. The application to join the team went live, with just a two-day turnaround. While the leadership team initially expected about 30 applicants, more than 80 people signed up. The leadership team then scheduled a second Zoom call, going deeper into the work, explaining how hard and messy it would be. Dr. Weaver even gave people the chance to opt out, given the complexity of the work. However, at the end of the meeting, even more people signed on to work through the summer on the Design Team. In total, more than 85 campus leaders, district directors, teachers, and support staff committed to being a part of this transformational work.
For Dr. Weaver, it was important to set a strong foundation. So, he chose to begin with equity bringing in the National Equity Project to lead a session with the now-constituted Design Team. The session leaders focused on why the district was choosing to lead through equity and what this truly means. With a determination to create a more equitable environment, the Design Team set out to conduct student empathy interviews to better understand what students wanted from their learning experience.
With their new knowledge in hand, the Design Team split into three smaller teams (Curriculum, Culture, and Systems) charged with redesigning DeSoto ISD’s approach to Anytime, Anywhere Learning. The work of each team was grounded in a common set of design principles:
LEARNING SHOULD BE
- intellectually rigorous & coherent, multicultural, social justice oriented, culturally responsive and relevant for all students across all core content areas
- available anytime, anywhere
- an inherently joyous pursuit enabling students to have fun and find their passion
EVERY STUDENT SHOULD
- have access to the highest-quality instruction that leads to deep learning
- be able to show mastery and progress at their own pace
- be treated as a whole child while building long-term health, safety, and agency
- feel connected and belong to a community regardless of the mode of learning
EVERY FAMILY SHOULD
- have the flexibility to choose the educational model that best suits their context
EVERY EDUCATOR SHOULD
- be able to leverage their greatest strengths and passions
With many families in the DeSoto community eager to find safe educational solutions in the midst of the growing global pandemic, the Curriculum Team considered how to build upon the strong foundation of the spring Anytime, Anywhere Learning plan. Knowing virtual learning would be a reality in the fall, the Curriculum Team worked together, with guidance from reDesign, to transform its core content units of study and infuse them with rigor, relevancy and agency. Teachers worked collaboratively to ensure that students receive an engaging and appropriate learning experience no matter how they may access it. These units will allow students to participate at a pace that is most convenient for the families, but will also connect them with real world concepts, issues, experiences that will prepare them for life and learning after high school.
The Culture subcommittee combed through the results of the student empathy interviews, and spring feedback surveys from both staff and families to establish commitments, norms, and rules of engagement for working and learning in a virtual space. This team’s efforts intend to help all staff this fall create and support strong virtual communities where everyone can thrive. It was important to the team to intentionally honor the belief that student success is directly related to their social-emotional and mental well-being. To this end, members of Culture Team developed recommendations for how staff can incorporate meaningful touchpoint moments to support community building in a virtual learning environment that can too easily make people feel distant and disconnected from one another.
The work of the previous two committees present significant changes in how teaching & learning work. As a result, Dr. D’Andre Weaver and the Systems Team thought empathetically about the daily experience of the students and also their staff, who are the ones implementing these changes.
- How can the district support the reinvention of teaching such that teachers are working within their scopes of their expertise?
- How do they support teachers in adopting practices from the science of learning development and help sunset unintentionally harmful practices that have long been accepted as how we do education for many years?
Current educational systems are designed with the expectation that teachers must be amazing in all things: content area, coaches, interventionists, culture builders, but this is a heavy load for teachers to take on. Most other professions encourage and support specialization. The Systems Team helped redefine professional roles in the district, as well as planned for professional learning for staff on:
- the universally adopted district learning management system
- campus safety and wellness
- multi-tiered systems of support
- instructional delivery
In response to the ever-changing nature of fall 2020, this team created an asynchronous master schedule design that ensures students not only have full and flexible access to core instruction, but also all of the various grants and supports available in the district. In addition to this, this team addressed grading practices.
On one hand, it’s clear that school, as we used to know it, will not look the same.
Yet, why should it?
In the old system, despite the hard work and dedication of educators, students were still falling through the cracks. DeSoto ISD plans to change this dynamic and rethink and redesign its system so that students are able to move at their own pace through rigorous, culturally relevant, multicultural, social justice oriented, coherent curriculum towards mastery.
Ultimately, Dr. Weaver believes that if school leaders create the right conditions, students will bloom and that educators have the power to truly shape the change that is so desperately needed in this world.
D’Andre J. Weaver. Ph.D. is the superintendent of DeSoto ISD in Texas. His educational focus centers on equity, access, and transformational educational initiatives. Prior to his appointment as the superintendent of DeSoto ISD, Dr. Weaver served as a Community Superintendent with Houston-area school system Spring Branch ISD. His two daughters both attend DeSoto ISD schools.
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