Guest Op-Ed: Not Your Typical School Year

By School Committeeman Michael O’Neill

As someone who has been front-and-center as a policy-maker in urban public education for more than a dozen years, I thought I had seen quite a bit over the years. The challenges of recessions, closings, superintendent changes, lawsuits and protests have been as much a part of my experience as have school openings, improved graduation and achievement rates, and increased focus on eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps.

But nothing can compare to the shared challenges we are now experiencing for the 2020-21 school year as a result of COVID-19. In the midst of a global pandemic, urban school districts are trying to establish worthwhile remote learning while also working to reopen our schools in either a hybrid or full, in-person learning model. Additionally, we all are trying to learn from the recent focus on our social and racial inequities and their impact on our school and student communities, while also navigating the fiscal challenges that are certain to be pending from this health pandemic.

Thus, I was both nervous and energized to assume the position of Chair of the Board of Directors of the Council of the Great City Schools, effective July 1, 2020.  From my six prior years as a member of the Executive Committee of the Council, including terms as Secretary/Treasurer and Chair-Elect, I had confidence that the organization was well prepared to help guide our member districts through these challenges, as well as to navigate the turbulence within the organization itself as we work though our own leadership adjustments, due to the pending 2021 retirement of Executive Director Dr. Michael Casserly. I also had the opportunity to work closely with my predecessor, Eric Gordon, the CEO of Cleveland Metropolitan Public Schools, so I knew the organization was in excellent shape from a governance and policy perspective.  My faith in the organization that we all belong to has only deepened this summer. 

During this time, I have noticed three themes emerging: 

Like our students, we are building virtual peer networks and learning in new ways. 

Many of us are rebuilding our peer networks virtually and are learning and growing in a new way. This became so clear to me recently as I had the opportunity to join each of the dozen-plus “job-alike” calls that the Council team has hosted every single week since mid-March when schools closed. These conversations among colleagues – from Chief Financial Officers to Superintendents;  from Chief Academic Officers  to heads of ELL programs; from food service, facilities, communications and operations specialists to School Board members — have allowed all of the participants to share with and learn from colleagues nationally who are facing similar circumstances and often are working on solutions that can be shared and emulated. Interestingly, the weekly meetings are allowing us to see, talk with, and get to know and respect national peers with whom we might typically see or meet only once or twice a year.

One particular example stands out for its value to those participating in these weekly calls.  A conversation among approximately forty Chief Legal Counsels from our member districts revealed a shared legal concern on a major issue, and one counsel had particular expertise on how best to respond. After discussion, all on the call quickly agreed with the suggested course of action and decided to follow.  Outside of these calls, it would have typically required hours of legal research and advice to uncover the correct path, the cost of which was saved by those districts participating in the call.

This example multiplied many times over shows how members are building their national networks and from that experience reshaping how they listen, share and learn. I have no doubt that the districts that are actively participating are seeing the value of their membership in the Council come to life week after week, and I actively encourage all of our School Board representatives and Superintendents to invite your senior leaders to participate as often as possible, for the benefit of your district and your students.

Our collective work benefits us all to a greater degree.

The second thing I have noticed as an example of the benefit of our virtual peer networks is that the power of our collective work is even better than the sum of the parts. Many districts have both contributed to and shared the benefits of the Council’  Strategic Support Teams (SST), when a team of experts from across the country visit one district, at their request, for an in-depth look at a department or area that needs improvement.  While that effort has been affected by current travel restrictions, the collective power of the member districts’ knowledge and expertise has borne fruit with the Returning to School Series reports. Working together, a number of our districts have shared expertise and best practices in a range of topics that are of interest to every district. I encourage you to take a close look at these reports.

Can we seize this opportunity to redo how we provide education, especially to those most in need?

My third conclusion is that we are at a critical junction in public K-12 education. When this health pandemic passes, will we return to “normal,” or will we have a “new normal” – and what does that even mean?  I, for one, hope that we use this national crisis as an opportunity to think about the good that has come from this unusual situation, especially the more widespread acknowledgement of the inequities in our systems that we all knew existed but have been unable to overcome. From technology gaps to food and health inequities, the sunlight from this pandemic has finally made a wider society realize that we are not one nation, equal for all. How will we, our nation’s top educators, react and adjust to this? I hope collectively we engage even more passionately to think differently about how we provide education and how we can eliminate opportunity gaps.  From the simple (there should never again be “snow days” but rather seamless “remote days” when there are weather challenges) to the more futuristic (allowing students from one high school to participate remotely in a specific class in another school or community college in a different part of your city), we now have an opportunity to rethink our challenges and imagine new solutions that were impossible six months ago.

I encourage members to participate in our upcoming virtual 64th Annual Fall Conference, scheduled for October 13-17. I thank the dedicated team from the Dallas Independent School District that was working so hard to host us and regret that we cannot attend in person. We do plan to schedule our 2024 conference to be in Dallas. However, rest assured the excellent Council team is laser-focused on providing a productive and worthwhile use of your time, so that we can all share and learn about the key issues facing us right now, even as we also look to learn and grow into new education models for the future.

I close by reminding all of us that the challenges are great right now and the pressure is enormous. The eyes of a nation are on us, and we all know how the critical decisions we are making on a daily basis affect the students, families, staff and communities we serve.  People react differently to the pressure we all feel, and our communities need us more than ever, even if they are finding unique ways — both positive and negative — of sharing those concerns with us.  Yet, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, we are not the critic, but rather that person in the arena.  We all are striving collectively to do the right thing for our communities, and even with the mud in our face and dust in our eyes, we must keep before us that moral center of truth that brought us to this work in the first place and continue shining the light on the 8 million-plus youth we collectively serve.

Michael O’Neill has been a member of the Boston School Committee since 2008 and is the current Chair of the Board of Directors of the Council.

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