If there’s one word that continues to surface with educators and what’s required of them to lead effectively, it seems to be empathy. We have seen many districts display a powerful, empathic leadership style throughout the pandemic. This could not be more true for the two leaders we spoke with from Tucson Unified School District and how they have navigated the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has created for their district.
James Butler, the senior director of instructional technology and online education, and Omar Sotelo, the program manager for academic standards in the Office of Curriculum and Professional Development share their experiences and insights implementing a district wide virtual learning program across their district, including best practices they've adopted and their keys to success.
Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), in Tucson, Arizona, serves approximately 42,000 students and has 86 campuses across 200 square miles. As a district, their focus has been on serving the diverse needs of their students throughout the community and continuing to provide a very rigorous, relevant, and engaging environment that encourages teaching and learning and drives student achievement – wherever students are learning.
Leverage this time as an opportunity
When the pandemic hit, TUSD leadership collaborated to embark on creating not only an ecosystem that would work well in the current learning environment, but also how they could rebuild and reimagine school moving forward, while still enabling students to thrive.
From curriculum, to technology, to operations, and transportation, their departments all worked cohesively to define clear goals for the district. And throughout their planning, they stayed focused on the fact that at the end of the day, somebody's child was depending on them to get this right, and they knew they only had one shot to do just that.
Support Your Educators
Although there was a major emphasis on providing adequate supports for their students, the district also prioritized the needs of educators. They wanted to ensure educators had equitable access to all of the new platforms they were using and an understanding of how to utilize them effectively to increase student academic performance.
The district provided many professional development opportunities to accommodate varying educator comfort levels with technology so that teachers were able to utilize these tools and platforms with ease well before the school year started.
In fact, they hosted one of the largest school conferences in southern Arizona for nearly 3,000 educators. Their goal was to get all educators up to speed within three days so they were ready to teach online. The conference included professional development from every single department in the district. Teachers were able to sign up for whatever classes they felt they needed, including asynchronous training, synchronous training, platform navigation, function attendance, and social emotional learning.
This support has continued throughout the school year. The district still offers extended weekly office hours to teachers and administrators to ask questions and seek support.
Leverage Human Capital and Looking to the Future
One of the major takeaways they shared from this experience is looking to everyone throughout a district for good ideas – regardless of their title. Invite the custodian, the cafeteria staff, and a new office assistant to contribute to the conversation.
With so many dedicated people that work for your school district, they encourage other district leaders to leverage the human capital on your team to mine for new ideas that can be operationalized.
This pandemic, as difficult as it is for everyone, did bring some positive changes to TUSD. The district has now invested heavily in providing adequate technology so that all students and families have access to WIFI, and the district can now say it’s a fully 1:1 district.
Even when the pandemic is over, that's not going to go away. Their students will have devices, and educators will understand there is another way to instruct, utilizing technology and giving students an opportunity to think critically, use inquiry skills, and apply information in a way that will prepare them for the future.
To listen to this episode, and other leading voices from education, check out our podcast: https://opportunitythrives.com/the-blueprint-for-success-with-district-wide-virtual-learning/.