At the start of the third school year affected by the pandemic, we check in with our Re-Centering cohort leaders.
More than a year and a half since the pandemic began, K-12 education continues to feel the ripple effects of the pandemic’s impact on learning, instruction, and student wellbeing. School communities have not been immune to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the path to recovery remains all the more urgent as we forge ahead in our new pandemic reality.
As schools reopened with uncertainty last year, Boston Schools Fund invested in the idea that more certainty was needed — not just for students and families, but for school leaders and educators. With our Re-Centering Schools Initiative, we sought to re-center back to what matters most in classrooms: the social-emotional wellness of all students, staff, and families; individualized understanding of student learning needs; and evidence-based, therapeutic approaches to learning that acknowledge more than a year of trauma.
In March 2021 we launched EdRecentered.org — a central hub for our Re-Centering Schools initiative work. In partnership with Attuned Education Partners, we released a comprehensive School Re-Centering Guide to inform leaders as they prioritized pandemic recovery efforts for their own schools. This guide, along with dedicated coaching from Attuned, has served as the foundation for the experience of our Re-Centering Schools cohort. Five leaders from Boston Public Schools were selected to participate in this cohort experience, representing some of the neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic since it began.
At the start of the third school year touched by the pandemic, we checked in with each of our cohort leaders to see how they’re re-centering their school community and to share some of their learnings from their planning process.
Building on excellence—despite pandemic interruption
For Kristen Goncalves, Principal of Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, the impact of the pandemic was felt in multiple ways in their school community, noting some catastrophic losses for some families in their community. With more than 57% of the PJK serving English language learners, Goncalves notes that the 2019–2020 school year was intended to be the PJK’s “defining year,” with the launch of their full co-teaching model for ESL and inclusion, with all children learning together and receiving services in the same space.
When the pandemic closed down schools and forced the entire learning community into remote instruction, the co-teaching model was severely impacted. “It’s really hard to co-teach in a Zoom room,” Goncalves notes, despite the gains made in the first six months of their new ESL model. School reopened remotely in 2020, then transitioning to hybrid and full in-person instruction in early April 2021, with each mode of instruction presenting its own challenges along the way.
In advance of schools reopening fully in this fall, Goncalves realized the opportunity that lay ahead. “I just feel like a lot of people are saying we have to start from scratch. I don’t think we have to start from scratch,” she shares. “I think we need to take the really good things that we started and just add on to make sure that we’re meeting all Tier 1 [instructional] needs.”
At the PJK, Goncalves has re-centered on their defining work with ESL and inclusion, noting that every single classroom and homeroom will have the benefit of both ESL services and a co-teacher this year.
With over 900 students spanning grades K through eight, the Richard J. Murphy School faced a pantheon of student issues as the school has weathered the pandemic. Through her re-centering work, Principal Courtney Sheppeck has found balance for their school community by focusing on two key pillars as they returned to school this September: establishing cohesion in instruction across grade levels and creating new structures for student support.
“Teaching, learning, and instruction is a very social act,” Sheppeck notes. Due to the sheer number of students and grade spans at the Murphy, team leaders have become an essential element of her instructional cohesion strategy, helping teachers to build their teaching muscle around their core curriculum. As much as professional development is critical to instructional cohesion, teaming is also a critical theme of their second pillar focused on student supports.
Sheppeck shares how teachers simply can’t do it alone, and that the sheer variety and scale of needs across the Murphy’s grade spans requires new ways of approaching student supports: “Teachers need to have places where we share strategies with the school psychologists, the nurses, myself, our social worker, our family liaison.”
Leveraging the power of data to accelerate learning
Located in Hyde Park, the William E. Channing Elementary School serves a student population where nearly 90 percent are students of color, in grades PreK through six. Under Principal Carline Pignato’s leadership since 2014, the Channing successfully exited turnaround status in 2019. In a previous interview with BSF, Pignato emphasized how not just data and assessment, but building a culture of leveraging that data to improve student outcomes has been essential to their efforts in their school community.
When the pandemic struck and students had to learn remotely, Pignato again leaned into one of her strengths as a leader by turning to the data. The school had made substantial gains in literacy, nearly meeting the state’s average for third grade ELA in 2019.
“We were very reflective on what it is that we would need to do differently or better when our children came back and data led us directly to specific strategies,” she notes. The data revealed that remote instruction was not nearly as effective as in-person learning, particularly when it came to math. Focusing on an improved math curriculum is just one part of the Channing’s re-centering work. Another aspect involves deeper work around changing a mindset, as Pignato notes, by “seeing every child as capable of exceeding math expectations for the grades, so that we can reverse the cycle of poor performance, which was simply the result of having the interruption from the pandemic.”
Grounding in core values to drive priorities
The Mendell Elementary School serves students in grades PreK to five in Roxbury and is grounded in three core values: inclusivity, excellence, and agency. These values, as Principal Julia Bott shares, are “in service to our commitment to be an anti-racist school community.” The Mendell’s re-centering work reflects these values and their commitment. “We want to be prepared to support each and every student and do that in a culturally responsive and linguistically responsive way that affirms their identity, but also really meets their needs,” Bott notes.
At the Mendell this year, Bott has prioritized the health and wellness of students, families, staff, from increasing mental health supports to engaging in restorative justice practices. With the quality of teaching and learning as essential to the school’s core values, high quality unit design is another pillar of their priorities. Finally, Bott explains how equitable literacy instruction is vital to their re-centering work this year: “We are thinking about our practices in teaching children how to read and making sure that everything we are doing is research based, so that all students develop into strong readers and writers.”
Bridging social-emotional learning and instruction to build resilience
The Charles H. Taylor School is located in Mattapan, where Principal Jennifer Marks oversees more than 300 students in grades PreK through five. The disruption of in-person learning when schools closed for the pandemic highlighted the importance of building on strategies for social-emotional learning for students. The abrupt pivot to remote instruction had deep impacts on student culture, thus necessitating the strengthening of school culture as one area of focus for re-centering at the Taylor.
“We have to look at the whole child,” Marks shares, noting that their re-centering work should “speak to the joy the students are exhibiting.”
In addition to strengthening school culture, the Taylor’s re-centering work has also focused on professional development for its educators and staff to deepen their curricular connection to social-emotional learning as well. “We’re headed toward becoming a trauma-sensitive school,” Marks adds. “It’s been a journey for staff to have an awakening with building their understanding and it’s brought a level of empathy and a different level of support that we’ve started.”