I’m so excited to welcome our Vashon Island School District students, families, and staff to the 2020–2021 school year. Our island’s support for our students and our schools has been nothing short of amazing. In March, we entered uncharted waters as remote learning began. The learning curve was and continues to be steep. It has been necessary for us to be more resilient than ever before and adapt to new routines. As we enter this new school year, we are bringing our students and staff back to reopen under our “new normal.” We have to learn from our past and re-imagine the Vashon Island School District with a focus on what’s essential. Keeping our students, staff, and community as safe as possible is essential, and remains our top priority. Parallel to everyone’s safety is our shared commitment to equity and excellence.
We are now in our fourth year of enacting our Racial Equity Policy. A policy that aims to eliminate institutional and structural barriers to success for children, families, and communities of color and move us closer toward our goal of becoming a district where each student, regardless of race or ethnicity, is equipped to engage, thrive and contribute in an ever-changing world. If under-performance or disparities are identified between students from different racial or ethnic groups, the district must seek to close these gaps. If systems aren’t working, we have to change. It is our collective mandate. As we work toward becoming a better district, I am recommitting to implementing explicit antiracist practices and being accountable to communities of color to define success. I acknowledge that we are far from our goal.
To be honest, Latino, Black, and Indigenous people experienced the effects of the initial school closure differently. I’ve learned that this is not a coincidence. There are structures and systems in our schools that work better for some and not others. These inequities also exist in access to technology, housing and health care, and employment.
If we want outcomes to change for our students of color, then we have to do the work necessary to co-create a system that puts equity at the center. It should not be a surprise that we can and should do much better for our students and families.
It is from these beliefs that we asked the question, “How did our six-period/semester schedule serve our students and families furthest away from social justice?” Given what we learned, we have made a bold and ambitious plan to move from a six-period semester system to a three-period quarter system at our secondary schools. I recognize and fully apologize for shortfalls in my communication to our public. Making visible the many nuances of decisions and managing the fast pace of information will continue to be a challenge, however, it will not stop me from trying to improve. This change in our system will provide capacity for our staff and families to navigate the most significant school transformation, in-person to distance learning, in our recent memory. One veteran VISD teacher recently shared with our administration, “…and three courses per quarter. Teachers can spend a higher proportion of their time ensuring engagement with more students, which arguably is at the top of the list for goals in COVID season.”
Mr. Rock recently communicated to families, “We want students to dive deeply into a few subjects, reduce the overwhelming amount of communication and logistics associated with six classes, and to still have space during the day for us to provide help and support to those who need it…Our staff understand the challenges involved and believe our support structures and teacher preparations will mitigate the liabilities of having nine weeks between subjects. For instance, Math, World Language, and AP courses will be uniquely supported in our model with extra contact between teachers and students. Several of these teachers have already planned out their courses to the point where they know which content they can cover and reteach within the quarter while providing off-quarter practice and supports to ensure students maintain their learning.”
The administration and teacher leadership in our buildings put their values first. They know where they are going and have a plan to get there.
The road ahead may not be easy and we will not always get it right on the first or even the second time. We may fall short but we will try and try again. This is perhaps the most accurate definition of learning and maybe what VISD does best. Our actions will be confident, ambitious, and we will deal with our challenges honestly.
There are many people to thank for their tireless efforts toward reopening this year. I will start with the entire VISD staff, who bring their best selves to work each day and breathe life into our values. Our Board of Directors, who act as our stewards through the reopening process. Our dear school partners, Vashon Schools Foundation and Partners In Education, who provide opportunities for our students that truly make our island unique. In addition, there are countless community partners whose collaboration, involvement, input, and support we greatly value.
Most importantly, I’m so thankful for the vitality and distinct talents of our island’s children, young adults, and families. They are truly our North Star, our joy, and our future. It is our collective duty to provide you with exceptional learning experiences, instill a lifelong love of learning, and ensure each and every one of you will be successful in school and life. With the start of school less than a week away, we believe that our small school district and our island community will stand together for a better future. Perhaps we should not be reaching for a new normal when better is within our grasp.
Dr. Slade McSheehy is the superintendent of the Vashon Island School District.