This week, K-12 Dive is on-site in Austin, Texas, at the SXSW EDU conference. Below is a recap of sessions during the conference's third day.
“Schools are hubs of the community. It’s all about relationships.”
This is the primary truth U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona believes even more strongly following his first year as the nation’s top education official, he told a packed Wednesday keynote crowd at SXSW EDU in Austin, Texas.
The session began with a conversation between Cardona and Dana Brown, chief content officer for civic engagement platform A Starting Point, during which the secretary reiterated many of his recent talking points.
He wants to see a “renaissance of innovation” using American Rescue Plan funds and other resources available to schools. He’d like to see an increase in respect for educators, in terms of legislation that affects their jobs and the pay they receive, saying no teacher should have to work two to three jobs to make ends meet. And he’s incensed by lawmakers seeking to “bully” vulnerable students.
“We’re going to support our students,” Cardona said, adding that if there’s a civil rights violation, the Education Department will get involved.
Following their brief one-on-one discussion, Cardona and Brown were joined by three area high school and college students to focus on how learning could be reimagined with students at the center.
“I get inspired when I hear students,” Cardona said. He stressed that students should always have a meaningful seat at the table to share their voices when school improvement plans and other decisions are up for discussion. Yet, he said, “our systems are not always designed to listen.”
Over the remainder of the session, the students discussed their COVID-era challenges, as well as their goals and dreams. But perhaps most interesting were their responses to what they would do first if they were in Cardona’s position.
Travis High School senior Gesenia Alvarez said she would work to reduce the focus on textbook-driven memorization in learning, placing more emphasis on critical thinking. University of Texas at Austin student Audra Garcia, who's double-majoring in government and English and minoring in business, said she would like to ensure there’s equality across education, that it’s seen as a priority, and that all students have access to top teachers.
Austin Community College art and animation student John Mark Wesley Hunter added that he would make sure education is affordable and accessible, particularly for people of color and minority groups.
Cardona closed by reflecting on his career, saying he spent 20 years as both a teacher and a school and district leader pointing fingers and saying the system is broken — but now he is the system, and he takes fixing it very seriously.
“This has been a rough two years, but one thing I do know is the best days in education are ahead of us,” Cardona said.
How was the pandemic for you?— Lynsey Charles (@Lynsey2108) March 9, 2022
“It’s weird for your mental state.”
“We had to meet with our friends on zoom just to motivate each other.”
“Resources felt cut from me.”
Putting students voices first. They will tell you what they need. #sxswedu pic.twitter.com/59mdZTlXOA
Student Gesenia Alvarez notes that it was so helpful that her high school (Travis HS) provided spaces for students to talk about and process their feelings throughout the pandemic. #sxswedu #sxswedu2022 pic.twitter.com/4WzQJeGrpp— Kelly Mendoza (@kellymendoza) March 9, 2022
The pandemic silver linings that these students are talking about are all rooted in recognizing the humanity of learners, educators, and the relationships that ground them all. I am so grateful for these stories. #SXSWEDU— Kristina Ishmael (she/her) (@kmishmael) March 9, 2022
What student population growth means for teacher shortages
Texas is now the fastest growing state in the country, said Bob Templeton, who calculates enrollment projections as vice president of the school district segment at data intelligence firm Zonda Education.
But what does that mean for districts on the ground? In a Wednesday morning session, two Texas superintendents shared how they are navigating this ongoing demographic shift.
At Hutto Independent School District, Superintendent Celina Estrada Thomas said her district is expecting to grow by 10% in the next school year. In fact, she said Hutto ISD had fewer than 7,000 students in 2017 and is now projected to reach 10,000 by the next school year.
A smaller district, Jarrell Independent School District, grew by nearly 25% between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. That amounts to 573 more students, for a total enrollment of 2,878 this school year.
A major concern for Estrada is hiring new teachers to support this influx of students, particularly as the teacher shortage continues. Estrada said housing costs are too high for new teacher hires to afford homes in the area, leading several newly hired teachers to decline job offers after all.
To address the teacher recruitment issue, Estrada said she’s focused on trying to keep staff in schools for at least five years. One way, she suggested, would be to create a sabbatical teachers can apply for after five years in Hutto ISD.
Jarrell ISD Superintendent Toni Hicks said her district has a local grow-your-own teacher pipeline program. She noted her community has many long-time residents, so she’s tapping into that population and asking them to stay and work for the district.
How has KIPP increased equity in its school leadership pipeline?
In a Wednesday morning session, Sue Jean Hong, director of talent strategy for KIPP Foundation Director of Talent Strategy, and LaNolia Omowanile, the foundation’s director of talent and school leadership development, detailed how the KIPP Charter Schools network set out to build an equitable school leadership pipeline.
Omowanile presented attendees with a scenario: You’re in a district team meeting and a principal announces they’re not returning after the end of the year.
This exit and others exacerbate a challenge of retaining Black and Latinx leaders, who your data shows aren’t persisting in school leadership positions at the same rate as others. Your schools, however, are serving primarily Black and Latinx students, and that representation gap is a problem the KIPP Foundation set out to address.
Examining an extensive amount of research, the KIPP Foundation made a commitment to create a leadership development model founded on equity and anti-racism, with a goal of ensuring that people of color developed in leadership roles at the same rate as their counterparts.
The organization’s Leadership Development Model and Leadership Competency Model define the systems and structures all regions within the KIPP charter network must have in place to ensure an equitable principal pipeline.
Under the development model, foundational leadership standards serve as a guide for hiring, selection, coaching, development and evaluation. These standards are used to inform selective hiring practices that are normalized across all candidates, as well as in-role performance management expectations, roles and responsibilities, and developmental goals.
If there are no normalized leadership standards and no commitment to ongoing coaching, what you have in the principal seat is survival of the fittest, said Omowanile. In that scenario, the existing problems will only continue to persist.
Often, she said, people are promoted because of who they know and because they ran in the right circles — but the goal should be to ensure all leaders have a path toward higher levels of promotion regardless of that.
To further support this, the KIPP Foundation also established a Principal in Residence program.
Using an equitable selection process, the program places year-one principals on a high-performing campus with a mentor school leader who has proven they can create an engaging and rigorous learning environment for students as well as support leadership development. A regional academic leader serves as a secondary coach.
In a cohort with other principals in residency, the new school leaders work on developing the new school leaders work on developing leadership skills aligned to KIPP's leadership standards.
In year two, the program continues each principal’s individualized plan, having them check in with their regional coach monthly and their building mentor daily. During this time, a transition plan is created to help them navigate from being a principal in residency to taking over full leadership of an existing school.
Every principal in residency is also tasked with handling a set of principal “moments” that arise while they're in the program. This might include, for example, an angry parent who comes in and breaks up a meeting. The idea is to ensure new school leaders are exposed to challenges while still having ample guidance and support.
Through his own mental health struggles, a hip-hop icon sets out to help students
In 1993, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels had it all.
He was the mighty “king of rock” who told people how “tricky” it was to “walk this way” in their Adidas, he said. But he was also an “alcoholic, suicidal, metaphysical, spiritual wreck” who at age 35 found out he was adopted.
His mental health problems, however, first manifested years earlier when he set foot on the campus of St. Johns University in Queens, New York, he told an afternoon SXSW EDU session that also featured Michael London, founder and CEO of student mental health support platform UWill.
When he was accepted to St. John’s University, he had planned on attending with his best friend who had been with him all his life since kindergarten. But when his friend didn’t show up for classes, he realized he was going it all alone.
Experiencing the weight of anxiety and other emotions, he didn’t know if St. Johns had facilities or resources to help him and instead skipped classes, went to the neighborhood pool hall and started drinking.
“Nobody’s helping me, I’m all alone — that’s a scary feeling,” McDaniels said.
The pressure students feel to succeed in college is just a sample of the pressure they feel to succeed in life, and that starts when you’re even younger, he said. Drawing parallels with his music career, he said he was initially doing well when he entered the music business because he felt good about himself and his work.
But when other people began applying outside pressures like the “need” to get on the radio and be on MTV and make money, that’s when mental health concerns caught up to him again. Students face similar pressures, he said, and they have to understand it’s OK to seek help, because it’s also easy to reach for things outside of you — like alcohol and other escapes — that result in avoiding and ignoring the problem.
Now when he speaks at schools and opens up about his experiences, he said, students feel they can ask questions and share their feelings more openly, rather than passively listening as during other assemblies. And when students learn young — as early as elementary or middle school — that it’s OK to talk about these things, they’ll be better prepared later on, McDaniels said.
Young people may feel scared, nervous, anxious or like giving up, he said, but they have to understand they can talk to somebody, get help and beat what they’re struggling with.
“People need to realize if you don’t admit how you feel, whether good or bad, you never heal,” McDaniels said.
How 3 district leaders are tackling the digital divide
During a Wednesday afternoon session, three district superintendents shared innovative initiatives they’re working on to address long-term solutions for providing internet access to students and families who can’t afford or access broadband infrastructure.
Chad Gestson, superintendent at Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona, said he’s spent the past year and a half with other district and city leaders to create and roll out a free citywide Wi-Fi network for all public school children in Phoenix.
Over the past two years in North Carolina, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras has formed a nonprofit organization with the City of Greensboro, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Guilford County and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Since then, the organization has begun putting towers on school buildings in the poorest areas to provide free internet access to students and their families.
“I keep stressing that we don’t end the racial wealth gap by just helping students with homework,” Contreras said. “We have to make sure that parents have access to job applications and career opportunities and workforce development and we’re taking care of their health needs, as well.”
Meanwhile, Scott Muri, superintendent of Ector County Independent School District in Texas, has partnered with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to use a new satellite program providing broadband service. This has allowed families in rural areas of Ector ISD who previously lacked service to access high-quality broadband.