Don’t Do It Alone When Strategic Partnerships Provide Value

Dan Cox, superintendent of Community Unit School District 3A in Rochester, Ill., said leading a school district during a pandemic made him realize “we can’t do it alone.”

“Our collaboration and partnerships have grown tremendously,” he said.

The district now offers 24/7 online tutoring with the help of an outside partner. Initially, Cox said, he wanted to keep the tutoring local; however, he soon realized that the district lacked the people power and turned to an online provider.

“That’s been a huge benefit, not only to our kids,” Cox said. “It’s also been a benefit for the teachers, especially in our language arts department. Teachers talk about seeing a higher quality of writing, and their grading is more efficient.”

RELATED: Check out this session discussing the benefits of educational technology partnerships.

Long-Lasting Tech Improvements Bolster Communication and Connection

The superintendents also spoke about some of the technological changes made during the pandemic that they will preserve going forward.

Zachery-Ross said technology has allowed flexibility around her district in multiple ways. 

“Many of us know that before the pandemic, scheduling parent-teacher conferences and individual education programs was a huge challenge, and it really took up time where parents had to come to campus,” she said. “Technology has allowed us to be flexible in terms of meeting parent needs, student needs, educator needs and to have documents that are shareable and accessible. I really found that the use of technology has given us back some time that all of us need.”

PJ Caposey, superintendent of the Meridian Community Unit School District 223 in Stillman Valley, Ill., said that prior to the pandemic, his rural school district had made incredible progress with technology.

DIVE DEEPER: Connected STEM classrooms break down learning silos.

“We literally went from zero email and zero wireless less than a decade ago to ubiquitous Wi-Fi for every kid with a device,” he said. “This seems like a really good success story, but during the pandemic we realized that we had massive equity and access issues because we did not have places within our community with Wi-Fi or students in their homes with Wi-Fi.”

His district went to work to rectify the issue and discovered along the way that it wasn’t just families with fewer resources that had no internet access; more affluent families lacked it as well. Now that there is connectivity throughout the community, he said, he would never go back.

Cox said one of the areas where his district made permanent changes is in how it approached professional development.

“We often hire new teachers, get them all pumped up, do some orientation, give them mentors for two years, and then boom, they’re on their own,” he said. “One of the things that we’re doing in terms of instruction is to hire more instructional coaches this year. For some districts, that’s a no-brainer; they’ve been doing it for years. But that was a huge shift in our district. And teachers are just now seeing the value of having that support. And not seeing it as a threat but seeing it as a support for them in the classroom.”

How Technology Supports Mental Health in Schools

Another topic the session addressed was how schools are managing some of the growing mental wellness challenges facing students and staff.

“I think what we’ve learned through the pandemic is that the social-emotional needs of everyone were escalated,” Caposey said. “I think one of the potential silver linings that has come out of the pandemic is that there is a much more heightened awareness.”

One audience member asked about student searches for troubling terms such as “suicide” and noted privacy issues associated with the filtering software that can discover such searches.

The superintendents noted that filtering software is part of a holistic approach to mental health that involves referring students making such searches to counseling and other support.

Cox said that in his school system, he’s received great feedback from families. “They like it. They feel like it’s not intrusive,” he said. “I think educating them and letting them know how we come across the information, who sees it, when it’s used and how it’s used is very important.”