March 22, 2021
As many local school districts in California move to reopen their doors for in-person instruction, parents and policymakers focus on the academic losses they fear kids have incurred after a full year of distance learning. There’s talk of extra summer school, increasing instructional time, and adding academic support services to make sure kids don’t fall below grade-level.
But in at least one district in San Jose, they are taking a different approach—one that puts the well-being of students and the school community front and center. And they have evidence that it’s working.
Franklin-McKinley School District Superintendent Juan Cruz said teachers in his district are asking how they can take care of the social and emotional needs of their students.
“I’ve noticed an increased interest in doing this work now —from teachers at all grade levels— we need to seize that opportunity,” he said.
In November, after a series of listening sessions with parents and teachers, the Franklin-McKinley School Board voted to keep the district in distance learning for the remainder of the school year.
This decision, Cruz said, has freed up staff and leaders in the district from having to orchestrate the constant sea change in how to deliver instruction that other districts working toward hybrid or in-person instruction are facing this spring. Instead, he said, the school district and their community partners have had a laser sharp focus on meeting families’ immediate needs and, crucially, on building the kind of education program students will need when they return to campuses in August.
The district serves primarily immigrant families from Mexico, Central America, and Asia. Their community has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Many parents are essential workers and live in crowded conditions with multiple families to one household. The school district’s neighborhoods have some of the highest rates of COVID infections and deaths in the county.
Franklin-McKinley has been serving about 500 high-needs students in in-person learning pods since September, but for the most part, leaders say, parents and staff were united in their desire to stay in remote learning to protect people’s health.
“That was a hard decision,” Cruz said. But “due to the support and services we have been providing our families, they are not asking us to rush back to provide in-person instruction.”
Jennifer Klassen, the district’s director of early and elementary education, said it has been incredibly challenging to meet the needs of kids and families during this pandemic. “Every single family has been impacted,” Klassen said. “We often don't know the extent of need right away, it will take some time to understand what will be required for us to recover and heal from this past year."
The school district began last March with a mobilization around families’ basic needs—food, technology, mental health, and diapers—relying on long-held partnerships with community organizations.
They worked with family resource centers, local food pantries and Educare California at Silicon Valley to set up food and diaper distribution. They formed new emergency Operations Response Teams, composed of school social workers and service coordinators to reach out directly to vulnerable students to check in and to connect them to services like counseling and telehealth. They partnered with the Franklin-McKinley Children's Initiative to run multi-lingual workshops for parents and caregivers on computer basics and how to support students in distance learning.
“In a small district like this everyone wears two, three and four hats just to make things work,” Cruz said.
But it is the work the school district has done to build teachers’ skills in social and emotional development that they are perhaps most proud of, and that they are leaning on now.
Since 2016, the district has invested in robust training for their early childhood teachers to better understand how to support children’s social and emotional learning and to integrate this work into academic instruction. This work has included instructional coaching, workshops, and the development of a cadre of teacher leaders.
Evaluation results show that the professional development has improved kindergarten readiness scores. Children scored higher if their teachers had participated in the training and did better the more training their teachers had.
District leaders believe the pandemic is the opportune time to expand this work.
Franklin-McKinley is creating a multi-year plan to integrate social and emotional learning across all grade levels and plans to rely on teacher leaders to help them do so. They have also created a Social Emotional Learning Committee and are focusing on teacher support.
“We have teachers who believe in social emotional learning but want to better understand what this integration looks like,” Cruz said. “How does it show up throughout the day and in what ways? We have teachers in our district who can speak to that from experience.”
Franklin-McKinley is working more closely with Educare, which operates on one of their elementary school campuses. Educare now hosts some of the school district’s transitional kindergarten classrooms and leads professional development sessions their teachers attend.
One regional partnership led by Educare trains teachers in best practices for working with young dual language learners, who make up 45 percent of students in Franklin-McKinley. The partnership aims to saturate the early childhood workforce in this region in best practices in working with this population and is piloting these techniques in their classrooms.
Chris Sciarrino, a consultant who works in the school district, said these partnerships to improve the quality of teaching in early childhood are informing how they were able to respond to the pandemic. “It has really strengthened the quality and the energy in the whole school district,” she said.
One of the bright spots has been Educare’s ability to provide training over Zoom to teachers from the region who have been showing up in droves to learn strategies and classroom practices for working with dual language learners, said Drew Giles, Educare’s director of programs. Participating educators have included elementary school teachers from Franklin-McKinley, family home child care providers, preschool teachers, and family engagement staff. Educators participated from as far away as Monterey, CA and Arizona to learn from this local pilot project.
Teachers are also participating in follow-up professional learning communities and got to pilot a unique online tool that allows them to reflect on their teaching practice in real time.
All of this, leaders say, is helping to build a comprehensive system to support young children in this community as they grow, head back to school, and as their communities begin to heal from the pandemic.
“We are doing a lot of work to strengthen our inclusive and equitable school communities. We are really shifting beliefs from a deficit-based to a strength-based mindset, ” Superintendent Cruz said.
“While distance learning has been challenging for many of our students, I believe students have been learning—not only the traditional academic content, but they've also continued to grow and mature and learn.”
Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!