July 17, 2020 Leadership

Leadership Highlights: How education leaders have responded in times of crisis

2020 has proven to be a challenging, unprecedented year. First, the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures dramatically reshaped students’ access to basic needs as well as learning and emotional support. Second, in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black individuals, a national dialogue and social movement has emerged to tackle questions of racism, trauma and equity.

Through it all, school leaders have been creative, resourceful and deliberate in their responses. We wanted to share some of the ways in which principals, assistant principals and superintendents have risen to the challenge of these times.


Responding to Remote Learning & Administration 

On Virtual Graduation 

Victor Iturralde, Principal of Solorio Academy

“We had a drive-thru graduation. I got a little too much sun, but it was worth it! We rented a stage, put out a red carpet and some tents, and made it really nice. It was a beautiful day. 

“We set it up so that as cars would drive by, students would pose for a picture with a balloon arch. We streamed it live on Facebook and gave each student a time so folks could keep track of our 250 graduates. There was a backdrop where they had their photograph taken professionally, and then they were interviewed to provide just a 10-second clip of what their plans are or what their favorite memories are.

“That’s all being compiled into a virtual graduation where we’re going to include some of that information. It was very different, but being flexible and adaptable, that’s the way things are at this time.”


On the Importance of Implementing Technology in Learning

Juwana Foster-Wells, Assistant Principal of Carroll-Rosenwald Elementary School

“I want my teachers, students and families to be well versed in technology. Whether or not we go back to in-person instruction in September, technology should be embedded in learning. Through this pandemic, we need to continue our high standards of academic excellence. It’s essential that everyone is able to work computers and the learning platforms to meet those standards.

“When you think about it, high schools and post-secondary institutions utilize virtual learning — it’s not new to them. Elementary schools had to get on board with remote learning quickly in order to give students instruction during this pandemic. Some schools were more prepared than others for a variety of reasons. As an elementary school assistant principal, I think it is imperative that all elementary schools have a strategic plan around preparing staff, students and families on technology platforms that will educate, transform, and create instructional rigor for all. As well as meeting the needs and levels of all students.

“The pandemic’s impact on schools can be used as a way of strengthening our community through the growth in technology that will prepare our future leaders.  This is a wake up call for all administrators and educators worldwide, funds should be invested in technology training for classroom learning and to prepare families as well. 

I want COVID-19 to be a learning experience for everyone in the community.”


Responding to Community Needs 

On Staff Talking to Students about Protests 

Terea Peoples, Principal of Emmett Till Magnet School

“My social worker sought out resources for our students. The day after the riots, teachers gave students a safe space to openly express their feelings and talk about things that they saw happening in their neighborhood — and just give them a moment to express themselves. 

“Teachers did a moment of silence and then let the kids speak up about how they were feeling. There were a lot of mixed emotions. The social worker followed up with each classroom and talked to them about it. We reminded our students to stay grounded in their own principles and values that they believe in. If they believe that something was wrong, then they shouldn’t engage in those types of activities.”


On Connecting with Families After COVID-19 School Closures 

Elizabeth Alvarez, Chief of Network 8 Schools

“During the pandemic, we discovered through a survey that parents were saying they didn’t feel connected anymore. And it really hurt to hear that because our vision at Network 8 is having a sense of belonging.

“So we created Coffee with the Chief. Every Wednesday — 3 p.m. for English and 4 p.m. for Spanish— parents met with me to talk about different topics. We had about 90 parents showing up letting us know how they felt about remote learning with their child, the struggles they were dealing with, and how we could support them. We gave them phone numbers and told them how to reach out and make sure that they know they’re not alone, that we’re in this together. 

It was hectic in the beginning, but by our third trial, they already knew how to do it. Everyone was so respectful and grateful.”


On Parents Coming Together After COVID-19 School Closures 

Yalil Nieves, Principal of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School

“The Peterson community is truly exceptional. Parents are heavily involved and responsive to the needs of other parents. 

“During the closure period, we had a lot of parents that were not able to access all the learning resources that we have for them. So we ended up developing video tutorials. We had a support call center where parent volunteers actually assisted other parents to navigate technology.

“A couple of weeks ago, there was no food distribution at Peterson on Monday. So that meant that the weekend had gone by, and if families were not able to have sufficient food, they would have counted on us on Monday to be able to provide the meals. In fact, Mondays are one of our heaviest days.

“And so, I was home, because we were supposed to work from home, and all of a sudden I got a call from one of our parent leaders. And she says, ‘We’re planning on contacting our local businesses to see if they can donate food.’ And this sense of relief just went over me. Long story short, we have parents who got together, got donations and were able to provide meals for our families. I mean it is truly mind blowing what community members do here for others.”


On the Continuously Learning about the Community’s COVID-19 Vulnerability 

Maria Amador, Principal of Multicultural High School

“Our students are just so resilient. Many of my students and their families were impacted by this pandemic. They came in direct contact with the virus, and unfortunately, students and members of their families got sick. That really put things into perspective for me in terms of why they were so much more exposed. Our parents don’t have the option to work from home. If they work at a restaurant or a factory, they won’t get paid if they can’t go to work. Our families have no choice but to provide for their family. That’s why there is such a high rate of infection in this particular zip code.”


Responding to Racism  

On School Leadership and Eliminating Systemic Racism in Education

D’Andre Weaver, Superintendent of DeSoto ISD, DeSoto, Texas, and Former Chicago Public Schools Principal

“As a teacher, I was also complicit in furthering achievement gaps because of some of the practices that I accepted as being true. We need to do things differently. We have to be intentional about redesigning for the inequities we know exist.

“I think this COVID-19 situation has put us in a position where we actually have a moment to drastically shift our work and actually do some of the forward thinking and redesigning systems’ structures. Now, we actually can have conversations about grading practices and what kids really need to know. Are we really much more interested in whether a student shows proficiency and do we want students to progress at their own rate and pace? Are we handcuffed to the ways things used to be?

“There are partners available and there’s potential funding that’s helping us be in the driver seat to some of the change that we know needs to take place. We’re in an interesting place now where we’re trying to maximize the moment.”

Read his full thoughts in his article: “Breaking systemic racism starts by reforming public education: why are we so committed to an educational system that has failed?”


On Self-Education about Anti-Racism 

Yalil Nieves, Principal of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School 

“Over the summer, we’re going to be doing some book clubs with educators. We’re hoping to do book clubs with our families and communities as well. Moving forward, we plan to establish an equity committee to carry out some of this work. 

“We don’t have all the specifics. But what we do know is that this is going to be at the forefront of everything that we do. Something that’s going to be a long-term focus of the school. We’re going to continue to learn and adjust and serve our kids the best way that we can.”


On Creating a Culturally Relevant Curriculum

Maria Amador, Principal of Multicultural High School

“I’ve been really pushing my leadership team to think about how we’re providing culturally relevant instruction. 

“As a Latina, to me, culturally relevant instruction does not mean we just celebrate Dia de Los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo or that we read a short snippet by an African-American author. Culturally relevant instruction should be embedded in the very culture of our school. I want to continue providing my teachers with the resources they need to build an inclusive curriculum where all students feel represented.

“It’s important for our students to feel a connection to the material they’re learning – especially during this pandemic.”


On Facilitating Difficult Community Conversations

Tai Basurto, Principal of John C. Dore Elementary

“I have tried to just be present and to be a voice. The weekend after the first protest of the murder of George Floyd, we had a staff meeting, and I began it with an opportunity for anyone to speak and just be heard. Not for dialogue, simply to be heard. We need space to listen and to really hear one another, not listening to respond but listening to understand.

“I feel compelled as a woman of color leading a school of predominantly white teachers to speak on this. I feel that George Floyd was murdered and that there is a crisis in our country that must be addressed systematically. This is not an isolated incident; I am hurting, but I am also an educator. I can use my platform to do some of the work.

“A fifth to a quarter of my staff are police families. They were feeling this very real stress in their families. And regardless of my sympathies to the Black Lives Matter Movement, their concerns are real. I have an obligation to respond to their concerns too — not just to the murders of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor — to demonstrate to them that these things exist at the same time.

“What I tell parents when they come with these questions: your political, your religious, your social beliefs are for home. And it’s not our job as the school to disrupt those. What it is our job to do is to teach your child to think critically, to receive information and not just digest it, but to develop and formulate their opinions based on valid information.”