Brett W. McFadden: Gratitude and hope amid the challenges of 2020
It’s Christmas Eve, and we are eager to say “good riddance” to 2020.
It’s been a tough year. But we have reasons to be thankful and look forward to 2021 with hopeful hearts.
The many features that make our high schools unique are waiting for us when we return to in-person instruction. The success of our students affirms the excellence of our academic and extra-curricular programs, and we won’t miss a beat when we welcome students back to campuses.
Before the pandemic propelled the world into uncertainty, the Nevada Joint Union High School District had taken bold steps to reinvigorate our programs and practices. We updated our vision (to be California’s district of choice, preparing all students for success in college or career), mission statement (provide quality educational opportunities for high school students in western Nevada County), and implemented new core values.
Last fall, we bounced back from the early punches: power shutoffs, snow days, fires and smoke. Then the coronavirus dealt a near-knockout blow, and the district pivoted to triage mode. Compared to other school districts around the state, our distance education model was more successful and continued to improve as we made adjustments and modifications. It was not optimal, but we are proud of how we quickly rolled out a brand new instructional method in response to the crisis.
An unexpected benefit of distance learning has been students’ enhanced use and understanding of technology. It’s clear we are preparing students for many jobs that don’t yet exist, and distance education has helped train our youth for workplaces of the future. I certainly do not advocate for 100% distance learning. Yet it is likely that going forward, distance learning could be a viable academic component for students who thrive on that type of instruction.
Anticipating that in-class education will not be possible until at least the latter half of this school year, the district will approve and quickly implement additional strategies in January that will address credit recovery and learning loss. If it were not for the cooperative working relationship between district administration and our teachers and classified employee associations, we wouldn’t have the flexibility to make these important changes. Other school districts have faced labor strife and obstacles on top of the challenges brought on by the pandemic. In contrast, our administrators, teachers, and staff sat down, rolled up their sleeves, and embraced strategies that serve the best interests of students.
Extracurricular programs such as athletics, visual and performing arts, clubs and career-technical education will likely need assistance to regroup successfully. Without fundraising events over the past nine months, some programs will need a financial infusion. The district is already strategizing what forms that assistance may take, which include inventive virtual fundraisers. We are also working to identify other resources within the district and community.
Rest assured the programs that make our students’ high school experiences so enriching will be ready to roll when the pandemic loosens its grip.
Another bright spot in the past year is how the district partnered with community groups to serve thousands of meals to students and their families. We hope to continue serving up to 400 meals each week. We know many of our families have been adversely affected by economic shutdowns and job losses.
NJUHSD will emerge from this pandemic a stronger, smarter, and more nimble organization. We have discovered that we can quickly adapt in response to student and community needs, and do it well. Lessons we’ve learned will be used in the future to tackle problems we previously thought were insurmountable. Conventions such as the number of instructional hours per day or week, inflexible school calendars and course schedules, and traditional testing are now evaluated through a more critical lens.
For example, we are developing benchmark assessments to garner timely, in-depth data about how students are responding to curriculum and/or new instructional methods. We realize we don’t have to wait for state tests or periodic grade reports. We can quickly teach students a set of standards, and just as quickly assess how well they’ve mastered those standards. Do we need to change the pacing? Is another review necessary?
After this year, I doubt I’ll ever hear again in an educational setting, “We’ve always done it that way.”
Indeed, education has long been considered a rigid, intransigent system. With our new post-pandemic eyes and attitudes, challenges will no longer be viewed as major hurdles. We’ve already crossed huge mountains! The pandemic has put into perspective what is possible when an organization is open-minded, innovative, and motivated.
District administrators, teachers, and staff are thankful for the strong support of our community. In turn, we pledge our unbridled commitment to ensure our high school students receive the best possible education.
COVID-19 will pass. The light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter as vaccinations make their way into the population.
I, for one, am looking forward to returning to a new normal, not the old normal. The future is challenging, but it is not bleak. As a school district and a community, we have much for which to be thankful.
Next year at this time, what we had to endure in 2020 will be little more than a memory.
Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 29 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.
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