April 12, 2020

Voices From the Field: Superintendent Scott Muri, Ector County Isd, Texas

TRANSCEND: What’s top of mind for you right now as you lead your district into this uncertain future?

SUPT MURI: We’re thinking in two parallel tracks: short-term and long-term. First and foremost, we’re working to meet the basic needs of our students and community. Then, longer term, we think about the really crucial questions emerging from this crisis: What should school look like to support the new normal for our learners? What do we want the district to be? What are we learning in this new environment and how will this knowledge inform our tomorrow?  How does our Central Office need redesigning so that we won’t be the barrier to change? What are we doing today that doesn’t need to happen tomorrow? What bodies of work are needed that we are not currently designed to support?

TRANSCEND: Those are powerful questions. We’re amazed that you have the bandwidth for them right now. 

SUPT MURI (laughing): Oh, we don’t. But we know we need to get there soon, so it’s good to have them in the back of our minds now. 

TRANSCEND: That’s a great strategy to manage cognitive load. So tell us about the basic needs first.

SUPT MURI: These needs fall into several really big buckets that I’m sure most districts are grappling with.

Hardworking ECISD staff packaging to-go meals.

Nutrition On Monday-Friday we’re feeding 20,000 students breakfast and lunch each day plus sending meals home for the weekend. We’re waiting for the go-ahead from the federal government to allow us to provide a dinner meal as well.

Learning

  • Technology Infrastructure: We needed to stand up learning as quickly as we could.
    • In my previous district, we had built a tech infrastructure that already supported remote learning:  students had devices; we had a district-wide LMS (Learning Management System); we had an LTE system so that our devices could connect to the network at high speeds. 
    • In Ector, we had to get all this up and running. We immediately purchased 10,000 Chromebooks  which will be delivered any day. Our vendor was helpful in reserving them for us. We’re exploring  mobile cellular towers so we can establish LTE everywhere.
    • Technology support is crucial too. We’re running a tech help desk in English and Spanish for our educators and our families. 
    • We’re also providing learning packets.

Curriculum and Learning Design: We needed to develop digital and printed content. Our district is multilingual (70% Hispanic) so everything has to be English and Spanish. We have to support our staff in new forms of instructional design; in a remote environment we certainly can’t do school the way it’s always been done.

Social-Emotional Support

  • The trauma is just starting to hit. We just had our first educator death nearby—not us yet but… We’ve set up a 7AM-9PM hotline that’s run by our counseling staff, and after 9PM a community organization takes over. We’re definitely seeing that this crisis is putting pressure on family dynamics; domestic violence is spiking, and we need to be there to support our students and their families. 

Childcare

  • We have two hospitals in our community, one public and one private. We will open up childcare for healthcare professionals and other first responders. We  have a capacity of 140 kids to begin with. Our goal is to expand it to 24/7 childcare because our first responders are on the job 24/7, and that’s what we need to do to support them.

“Leading in Time of Coronavirus”
”Step 1: Stay informed.”


TRANSCEND: Wow! That’s a remarkable amount of infrastructure-building. Who is collaborating with  you on all this? 

SUPT MURI: At times like this, the community comes together. I work very closely with the CEOs of the two hospitals since we all have experience with emergency management. Of course we liaise closely with our mayor and county judge,  but we have the large teams to do the work needed–our school system is the largest employer in the county. Our partnerships with the local college/university presidents as well as non-profit agencies have been very beneficial.

“At times like this, the community comes together. I work very closely with the CEOs of the two hospitals since we all have experience with emergency management.”

We’re in the Permian Basin, the largest oil producing area in the world, and drilling is basically shutting down right now. This significant economic challenge coupled with COVID-19 has resulted in dramatic community needs. Thankfully, we have many tremendous community partners supporting us. Mental health provider PermiaCare is side-by-side with our counselors and social workers providing mental health and wellness resources; the West Texas Food Bank and the non-profit organization Communities in Schools work closely with many families to ensure they have access to meals and support; and our local law enforcement agencies have agreed to keep us informed if they respond to an incident and notice a child or family that may need additional help from us. Certainly, our local media have been great to work with, welcoming us to call daily and talk about the work we are doing. In particular, BasinPBS changed its format to provide eight hours of educational programming each day, and then we add an element from our curriculum to that programming. Local affiliate KOSA offered us one hour each day to produce our own educational programming for the community in both English and Spanish.

TRANSCEND: How has the state been offering support?

“Each day at 3 PM, every superintendent from the state is on a call with Commissioner Mike Morath who is doing a tremendous job keeping us informed as well as listening to our needs.”

SUPT MURI: Each day at 3 PM, every superintendent from the state is on a call with Commissioner Mike Morath who is doing a tremendous job keeping us informed as well as listening to our needs. He understands we have to play the short-term game alongside the long game. 800 of the districts in Texas have less than 1,000 students, thus the level of support needs to be differentiated across the state. His team has done a great job building resources for all 1,200 districts to use. They range from Instructional Continuity Planning to SpEd / Special Populations to Public Health Resources. 

TRANSCEND: Now let’s talk about those important long-term questions you raised in the beginning…

SUPT MURI: You know that Edward Deming quote, “Every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it is achieving”? Well, this is our chance to seize the moment and design for different results. We can’t go back!

Let me give you an example. Take blended learning. We were already traveling down the blended learning route, and now our teachers are plunged into the virtual. When they come back, we must have processes and systems in place to support the new learning the teachers and students have gained, and we don’t have those systems yet. We must redesign the central office to support what they’re doing. Teachers, students, and families will have a new normal and new expectations, and they’re right to have them. We’re dealing with shock and awe right now, but we have to design for a future that takes into account how our people will have changed over this crisis. I believe that we will be better, and we must design now to prepare for this transformation.

“You know that Edward Deming quote, “Every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it is achieving”? Well, this is our chance to seize the moment and design for different results. We can’t go back!”

TRANSCEND: So you’re gathering data on how people are changing and responding?

SUPT MURI: Everything we’re learning right now is that data. Here’s another example. Some of our kids right now are the only source of income for their families. These kids are working during the day. When school restarts, they’ll still have to work during the day, so school will have to start at 7 PM for them. How do we redesign high school so it meets the needs of those students? So that it meets the needs of all our students?

“Some of our kids right now are the only source of income for their families. These kids are working during the day… How do we redesign high school so it meets the needs of those students? ”


Scott Muri has led Ector County ISD and Spring Branch ISD in Texas. Prior to that, Dr. Muri served as the Deputy Superintendent of Academics in Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, Georgia, a district with 96,000 students and 100 campuses, as well as in a variety of executive leadership team roles with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (North Carolina).

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