Using a Peer-to-Peer Approach to Coordinate a Statewide Back-to-School Response to COVID-19

Masked second-grade student works behind a protection shield.

By Beth Howard-Brown, EdD

January 14, 2021

Across the country, education leaders spent the summer grappling with how to start the 2020–21 school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was no different in Illinois. The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools (IARSS) realized that there were no coordinated statewide COVID-19 forums for district leaders to discuss their immediate challenges as schools reopened in fall 2020. IARSS and the Illinois State Board of Education saw the need for a support system that would provide opportunities for leaders in districts to have peer-to-peer conversations centered on instructional supports during this unprecedented time.

To make this support possible, the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC) partnered with IARSS to establish peer-to-peer focus groups bringing together superintendents from across Illinois. These focus groups offered a timely and useful forum for district leaders to discuss current challenges, share successes, examine strategies to deal with the reopening of schools and beyond, and identify and apply evidence-based resources to support their school communities. The project also exemplifies the “support-connect-elevate” framework that undergirds all of R9CC’s work.

Supporting Key Priorities

To ensure that the focus groups would support superintendents’ key back-to-school priorities, R9CC and IARSS initially developed a needs-sensing survey that gathered information to inform the topics to be explored by the superintendent focus groups. The survey revealed five priority areas:

  • Student well-being
  • Staff well-being
  • Student learning loss
  • Equity and access
  • Grading and promotion

The survey made clear that superintendents were committed to building their professional knowledge and district capacity to help their students, staff, and other education stakeholders successfully navigate COVID-19. R9CC structured each focus group session to highlight one of these priority topics.

Connecting Superintendents With National Experts

The peer-to-peer focus groups facilitated timely sharing of knowledge and best practices through facilitated discussions among local superintendents. To ensure the information shared was evidence-based, R9CC tapped into several partners to share their expertise, including subject-matter experts from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE), Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, and Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest.

Final Report on Superintendent Peer-to-Peer Focus Groups

This report shares an overview of each peer-to-peer focus group session that highlights the topic and local and national experts who contributed to the conversations. Each topical session overview also includes a set of key takeaways and relevant evidence-based practices to address district and school needs.

>> Download the final report here. (PDF)

In the first session, Kathleen Guarino of NCSSLE and Tammie Causey-Konaté, PhD, of REL Midwest provided expertise on trauma-informed practices. Later during the third peer-to-peer focus group, Dr. Causey-Konaté discussed the concepts of equity and access, emphasizing equity-focused leadership, intersectionality, and how education leaders can operationalize equity and access through their commitments.

In the student learning loss session, Emily Ackman, PhD—a senior researcher who presently serves as a graduation coach for Graduation Ready, a midphase Education Innovation Research grant on early warning systems—discussed trends associated with knowledge retention as a challenge students are facing nationwide. She emphasized that early warning systems provide information that can lead to interventions and supports that students may need to stay on grade level or proceed toward graduation. Dr. Ackman presented research results showing how using data indicators and acting on information collected resulted in reductions in students’ chronic absenteeism and course failure.

Then, Dominique Bradley, PhD, and Susan Burkhauser, PhD, of REL Midwest showcased a toolkit designed to assess changes in student learning following the spring 2020 COVID-19 school building closures. The toolkit is composed of five modules with step-by-step guidance for district leaders and researchers to plan, collect, analyze, and act on data about student learning changes. The last module provides additional suggestions and resources for continuing to examine data about student learning changes after COVID-19.

The grading and promotion session shared promising practices for instruction, assessment, and academic support for improving student learning. R9CC project lead Beth Howard-Brown, EdD, provided a foundational review of best practices. Jenny Scala, a senior researcher on several RELs, informed participants about the Progress Center—which focuses on improving access and outcomes for students with disabilities—and reinforced the need to provide supports for all students using multi-tiered systems of support.

Elevating Local Expertise and Successes

Although connecting stakeholders with leading education experts and research is critical, it is just as important to remember that local education leaders also have a multitude of experiential expertise. Throughout the focus group series, several superintendents presented about what is working in their own districts. For example, during the session on student well-being, Ridgewood High School District #234 superintendent Jennifer Kelsall, PhD, shared a variety of strategies that her district is employing to support the social and emotional well-being of students and staff.

In addition, Teresa Lance, EdD, assistant superintendent of equity and innovation at District U-46 and an R9CC advisory board member, shared her experiences with operationalizing equity initiatives in her district, including how district personnel use data to make decisions, establish and monitor progress toward the achievement of milestones in their equity plan, and implement other supports districtwide.

“Throughout the peer-to-peer sessions facilitated by R9CC, superintendents raved about the combination of accessing experts from around the country while, at the same time, sharing their struggles and celebrations with other leaders during this extraordinary time of uncharted waters.”
—Mark Klaisner, Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools

The grading and promotion focus group featured a question-and-answer session with Antoinette Taylor, PhD, an Illinois accessibility consultant, and Superintendent Joshua Stafford of the Vienna High School District. Both shared teaching strategies focused on the use of multi-tiered systems of support to advance student learning. Stafford also highlighted small-group instruction and the more active involvement of stakeholder groups as promising practices that his schools are using.

Ultimately, the mix of national and local expertise proved useful for participating district leaders. As IARSS president Mark Klaisner, EdD, put it, “Throughout the peer-to-peer sessions facilitated by R9CC, superintendents raved about the combination of accessing experts from around the country while, at the same time, sharing their struggles and celebrations with other leaders during this extraordinary time of uncharted waters.”

Dig Deeper With Resources From the Focus Groups

Although this focus group project is wrapping up, education leaders can use many publicly available resources to inform their work. Explore the following list to find evidence-based resources shared during the focus group sessions. A resource list is also available in the project’s final report. (PDF)

Student and Staff Well-Being

Student Learning Loss

Advancing Equity and Access

Grading and Promotion

Beth Howard-Brown, EdD, leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s back-to-school focus groups project with the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools and is a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Howard-Brown has over 28 years of experience leading local, state, and federal education initiatives and is a former mathematics teacher, coach, school counselor, and instructional leader.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.