Emerging Community Roles
The role of schools in providing services outside the central functions of teaching and learning is not new. Nutrition, dental care, health care, substance abuse, and child abuse are just a sampling of how schools serve in their communities. Now, the school's role in supporting their communities other than education is being highlighted by the complexities brought forth during this pandemic.
Models of school and community hubs are not new and traditionally have been formed around national challenges such as poverty, school performance, or health care. Existing models of community hubs were typically designed to support the academic success of its students. According to Horn et al.:
When a school integrates and begins to function as a hub, it organizes services for its own students as well as, in certain cases, the broader school community such as parents and other family members in an effort to improve the chances for students to excel academically.
(Horn et al., 2015, p. 4)
Now, the concept of community hubs creates an expanded focus to the health and welfare of not only students but also for the greater community served by the school and the district. A new question for schools and communities as they move forward will be "How do we define our individual and collective roles in addressing community needs in the COVID-19 pandemic?"
While the focus for schools should primarily be about how to educate the children, they now have an increasing role in the health of students and adults in their community. For schools to open their doors, they will need to work directly with community agencies in developing plans that will likely redefine relationships and allocation of resources. Decisions on school reopening models and response to student needs must be made with coordinated planning between the school system, local government, and the business community.
Dr. Calvin J. Watts, superintendent of the Kent School District (Kent, Washington), emphatically and equitably embraces the power of the people in his district and community. The Kent School District serves 27,000 students supported by 3,600 employees, including 1,600 classroom teachers and 2,000 school-based and central office staff. Dr. Watts began his 28-year career in education as a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools. Dr. Watts spent 13 years in Gwinnett County Public Schools (GA), where he engaged diverse communities and improved student performance as a building and central office-level administrator. As superintendent of the Kent School District, Dr. Watts implemented a bold, new entry plan that inspired the development of the community-based strategic planning process that drives continuous quality improvement district-wide. He increased student access to more challenging high school course offerings and the district showed significant gains across special education, Black/
African American and Hispanic/Latino subgroups Kent School District's Class of 2019 recorded the all-time highest four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate of 84%.
There was no time to wait in addressing the unknowns of COVID-19 and its impact on Dr. Watts's district and community. He understood the need to respond immediately through continuous communication with all stakeholders. Through his Narrative, Dr. Watts amplified the urgency to address the educational injustices within the system as he engaged diverse communities in larger discussions in leading the system.
Calvin J. Watts, Ed.D.
Superintendent Kent School District
Leveraging Local Leadership During a Global Crisis
A leader whom I admire greatly often stated, "If you believe that public education is devoid of politics, then you also believe that you can swim without getting wet." Throughout my 28 years in education, I have also come to realize that politics can best be described as the relationship between power and people. As a result, whether a Fortune 500 company, a startup nonprofit organization, a faith-based institution, or even the family's place of residence, a high-functioning entity can be characterized by the ability of its people to share and shift that power empathetically and equitably. When the opposite occurs—when power is instead hoarded or abused—then the outcomes can be harmful to an individual and to an entire community.
Health and Well-being of the Community, First
Since 2015, I have proudly served as the Superintendent of the Kent School District, the fifth largest and fourth most richly diverse school system in Washington State. During the months of January and February 2020, the Pacific Northwest became known as the epicenter for COVID-19 positive cases. Through initial pandemic planning, our school community soon realized that these health-related circumstances were devastating and, if left up to chance, the impact could place 27,000 students, 3,600 employees, and 19,000 families in harm's way. In fact, our first critical decision concerning the health and well-being of our community occurred on February 28, 2020. After basing our decision on a preponderance of evidence, and consulting with district staff and local public health officials, I recommended that we close two schools for deep cleaning and disinfecting on March 2-3, 2020.
The concerns expressed by families, students, and staff were impossible to ignore. So we continued to communicate early and often about the possibility of community spread and the importance of preventative care, including washing hands, social distancing, and staying home when you are not feeling well. We also communicated through several mediums that we closed those school facilities out of an abundance of caution and based on information that was shared with district officials.
Appreciation for the Voices of the Community
The importance of maintaining a safe and healthy environment was our primary concern. It was not until we reopened that I gained a full appreciation for the overall concerns expressed by our community. The fears associated with contracting the COVID-19 virus were prominently displayed when we opened both schools on March 4, 2020. It was important for me to be the face of care and compassion, so I personally welcomed our families, students, and staff back to their respective school communities. I praised our staff for their commitment to teaching and learning, and for their focus on the safety, health, and well-being of our students. I also thanked our families for trusting us to take good care of their most precious resource, their children. In fact, these two school facilities were now the cleanest and most disinfected facilities within our entire school building portfolio. Ironically, for the next two weeks, both schools registered the lowest student attendance rates for the year.
Together Creating Comfort and Strength
By this time, our communication strategies had become more pronounced and included the voices of health practitioners, educational service district staff, as well as locally elected and appointed leaders in the community, including our Mayors, Chamber of Commerce President, State Superintendent, School Board Directors, and local Superintendent colleagues. It was clear to each one of us that the problem we were attempting to solve, presented neither simple nor easy solutions. We found both comfort and strength in numbers. Even in the midst of this emerging crisis, my superintendent colleagues and I took solace in the fact that we were all going through this global health crisis together. As a result of this emerging leadership challenge, our regional education service district scheduled semiweekly meetings to ensure a consistency of purpose, practice, and information-sharing was available to all school districts. More often than not, we were able to have thought-provoking and safe conversations that enabled us to voice concerns, frustrations, and even fears about what no educator wants to consider—the inability to adequately address the varied needs of our students, staff, and families we serve.
Working as One
On March 16, 2020, we discovered just how impactful public education had become to so many. As a result of our Governor's Executive Order, and our State Superintendent's "First Do No Harm" guidance, each of our state's 295 school districts were required to provide breakfast and lunch meal service to students, free childcare for essential workers, and to maintain the delivery of instruction within a remote learning environment. Over the next five months, we worked collectively with our labor partners, local community-based organizations (CBOs), faith-based institutions, and private businesses associated with our Kent Chamber of Commerce, to address the most basic needs of our students, families, and staff members.
Between the months of March and June 2020, the Kent School District along with several community-based partners:
- • served more than 650,000 meals;
- • provided digital devices and Wi-Fi hotspots to more than 7,000 students and families who had not already been supported by our Digital 1:1 Program; and,
- • provided free childcare to more than 50 families who were considered essential workers.
In these unprecedented times, our local government, school districts, and CBOs exemplified what we have all come to recognize about the power of local leadership within a global health crisis—it is not measured in what happens, it can only be measured in how we respond to the individual needs of a person, a family, an organization, or an entire community.
An effective democratic republic is one that is informed, engaged, and empowered. If school systems like the Kent School District are to be recognized as public institutions that uphold and support the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, then we must create the very systems, structures, and policies that will move us further toward educational justice.
Whether based on race, ethnicity, linguistic ability, or socioeconomic status, we have learned from our current COVID-19 health crisis that our existing systems are disproportionately benefitting and burdening students and families at even greater levels. For these reasons, the phrase "Think globally and act locally" has gained particular significance. The COVID-19 pandemic did more than create a pandemic response. It shined an intense light on what existed in our schools and communities already: we have an equity gap and we must act upon it.
Together We Can
I recognize, now more than ever, that our mission of successfully preparing all students for their futures will only be realized when our entire community feels included, engaged, empowered, and supported. We have shifted our focus to creating a culture of collective efficacy and collective impact. The implementation of diverse cross-functional advisories, committees, task forces, and action learning teams, has enabled team members to listen more effectively and learn from and with students, families, teachers, building administrators, local businesses, institutions of higher education, elected officials, and affinity networks that may be linked to topics pertinent to the overall success of the Kent School District. By implementing this comprehensive strategy, our school district community has strengthened its willingness and ability to be highly communicative and responsive to the needs of all of our communities that make us the Kent School District.
Broader Bole of School Leaders
The struggles of our district and community have been unprecedented, but the realization of the role of schools in my community has emerged clearly. I, as superintendent, now embrace a greater responsibility to impact our schools and community through engagement and community inclusion. Today, I lead, serve, and support our entire community through active engagement at every level from the classroom to the statehouse.
This pandemic has also tested leaders across the country in ways never experienced in our history. It not only raised the threshold for safety in uncharted waters, but leveraged the need to act in creating more equitable schoolsand communities. I believe strongly that the success of our responses will be directly dependent on the collective responsibility and actions we take as leaders in leveraging new ideas and solutions. Ultimately, school leaders will need to reflect on their roles and responsibilities and make the changes necessary to support every student, every family member, and every community member. For me, this reflection began on March 2, 2020.
Dr. Watts shared how community collaboration was needed to address the COVID-19 challenges and how this work surfaced the educational injustices that needed greater focus and attention in the system. He worked closely within his community as decisions were made to ensure the health and safety of all its members.
For the first time, many communities will need to consider the unknowns of COVID-19 as they develop short-term entry plans together. Decisions made in isolation can likely create conflict, frustration, and a feeling of being minimized by some groups. As communities come together in developing joint plans, Reid (2020) suggests that city managers consider these common best practices:
- 1. Plan for the proper oversight: Communities need to have an oversight plan to coordinate both internal and external stakeholders.
- 2. Know your community culture: A community's culture is critical and coordination and compromise are critical as plans are developed to reopen including government, businesses, service agencies, and schools.
- 3. Organize resources for the reopening effort: Reopening a community will require additional or reallocation of resources especially personnel as new safety protocols are put in place.
- 4. Protect employees and citizens: The single most critical issue in the COVID-19 response is the protection of employees and citizens while preserving the commonly held expectations of the community.
- 5. Sanitize to reopen: Every community organization will need to put in place new protocols for keeping their environment clean and safe, of which many may remain in place post-COVID-19.
- 6. Communicate and collaborate on reopening plans: Reopening will require tremendous coordination and agreement between workplaces, childcare, and schools to assure the pragmatic and safe reopening of communities.
These practices provide a structure of response that is readily applicable for any entity to respond to COVID-19 or similar disruptions.
New problems create new questions with unknown answers that require new thinking. In moving forward, schools and community agencies must come together in new ways to address emerging school and community health challenges like COVID-19.