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.
—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
- The READI Framework guides states and districts through five key barriers to consider as they design programs and related supports for success in the highest need schools.
- The Educator Context and Stress Spectrum, designed specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, can be used by educators, teacher teams, and leadership teams to gain greater awareness of how their current personal and professional context affects their stress levels. (See also an interactive version of this resource.)
- The Educator Resilience and Trauma-Informed Self-Care Self-Assessment and Planning Tool helps educators discover strategies for supporting their own well-being and resilience.
- The Supporting Student Resilience and Well-Being with Trauma-Informed Care Self-Assessment and Planning Tool offers strategies for educators to support students using trauma-informed care.
- The Building Trust and Well-Being Through Trauma-Informed Communities: Leader Self-Assessment and Planning Tool helps school leaders use strategies to foster trust, well-being, and resilience for all in a learning environment.
- Navigating SEL From the Inside Out provides information for stakeholders who are selecting, recommending, evaluating, or reporting about different social and emotional learning programs, or those who are aligning efforts across multiple schools, programs, or regions.
Student Learning Loss
- Lessons Learned: What Research Shows About Students’ Experiences with Online Learning provides insights that could inform education leaders who are working to promote and support student learning from afar.
- The 10 Regional Educational Laboratories collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based COVID-19 resources about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought about by the pandemic.
- REL Midwest’s Toolkit for Assessing Learning Changes After Spring 2020 COVID-19 School Closures helps public school districts better understand how their students are faring after widespread school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Solving for Learning Loss shares information on proven methods for identifying students who fall behind academically, interventions to help them catch up on learning, and essential pieces that schools need to have in place for any of the academic supports to be successful.
- School Practices to Address Student Learning Loss provides education decision makers with an evidence base to ground discussions about how to best serve students during and following the pandemic.
Advancing Equity and Access
- Three Strategies to Help States Elevate Educational Equity shares insights to assist states in their equity efforts.
- Building Equity: Policies and Practice to Empower All Learners outlines the components of an equity review for a school and district.
- The Tennessee Leaders for Equity Playbook features an action plan, equity continuum shifts, and key actions and resources that can be used by districts and schools.
- Leading an Equity-Focused Response Through and Beyond COVID-19 supports principals and school system leaders in leading an equity-focused response to the ripple effects of COVID-19.
Grading and Promotion
- A Framework and Resources for Measuring Student Needs and Development: During Remote and Blending Learning organizes information pertaining to student needs and development into three overarching categories: engagement, social-emotional and physical needs, and academic progress.
- Promising Practices: Improving Student Engagement and Attendance During COVID-19 School Closures shares an overview of the research on engagement and attendance in online environments.
- The Illinois Priority Learning Standards for the 2020–21 School Year offer a starting point for collaborative planning and discourse in local school districts to support a focus on the standards that will have the greatest positive impact on learning.
- Back-to-School Blueprint: Planning for a Brighter Future After COVID-19 provides strategies to diagnose unfinished learning, assess the strength of instructional materials, provide scaffolds, and deliver effective professional learning that helps educators navigate a new set of instructional needs.
- Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond provides an overarching framework that focuses on how policymakers, as well as educators, can support equitable, effective teaching and learning regardless of the medium through which it takes place.
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.