Recent communications from VISD have touted community engagement in creating its plan for distance learning this fall, citing surveys sent in June to parents, teachers and students, the formation of a 60-member reopening team that met four times in the spring and once, so far, in August, and an hour and a half-long Zoom Q&A with parents in early August.
Superintendent Slade McSheehy has also said that he has met, or plans to meet soon, with community stakeholders including Comunidad Latina de Vashon, Harbor School, Vashon Wilderness Program, Vashon Kids, Journeymen, Sisterhood, Vashon Nature Center, Camp Sealth and Vashon Center for the Arts.
But other school districts in our region have done more to involve and prepare their communities for the seismic shift to online learning in the fall. Much of the work by other districts took place throughout July, as cases of COVID-19 ramped up dramatically throughout the country and in Washington, increasing the likelihood of online-only education in the fall.
The Pasco School District facilitated 24 different focus groups in mid-July to get feedback and input from teachers, administrators, parents and community members on a variety of topics including instructional services, scheduling, athletics, and school activities.
The Olympia School district held five virtual town halls in mid-July to hear feedback on re-opening plans from parents, students, district staff and the community. Additionally, eight workgroups made up of staff, students, families and community members were formed to specifically address needs in various aspects of education including socio-emotional learning, family resources and supports, and other areas of concern.
The Shoreline School District surveyed its community in mid-July, following focus group meetings and six virtual town halls also held in July for staff, parents, students in grades 6 to 12, and those in need of Spanish-language interpretation.
The Sumner School District, in its communications to its community, has provided bullet points of findings and priorities gleaned from its decision-making process, which included surveys, a virtual town hall, and meetings with staff and community partners.
The Bainbridge School District hired a consultancy team, Leadership + Design, to guide a task force of teachers who conducted personal interviews with students and parents over the course of four weeks this summer, to determine how to improve online education in the fall.
According to Barry Hoonen, a teacher who participated in the Bainbridge process, the aim of the interviews with community members, was to dig into the question of what had gone wrong with distance learning in the spring.
“We listened and came to the simple conclusion that missing from distance learning was student engagement, authentic social interactions and connection,” he said.
We know that these same problems exist with distance learning on Vashon, and are sure they were considered by school administrators before they announced their online learning plan for Vashon students last week — a plan that dramatically changed the school’s calendar for middle school and high school students, taking many in the community by surprise.
We know that many of our talented teachers will do everything they can to make the schedule and online learning work for Vashon students in the fall. We hope that the plan, which involves fewer classes per quarter for upper grades, will lead to more engagement and less burn-out for the kids, and that the schools are somehow able to mitigate the loss of learning incurred in a long, nine-week break between classes in subjects including maths and languages.
But we wish that there had been more intensive communication and outreach to Vashon families and teachers prior to instituting such a plan, along with more transparent tracking and clear data about how online learning fell short on Vashon in the spring.
It’s an issue that was noticed by The Seattle Times on Aug. 16, in an article comparing how different school districts have approached the challenge of online school.
“Snoqualmie Valley School District kept detailed notes on the academic performance of kids in the spring, while on Vashon Island, plans to track engagement were ‘still in development,’” the article said.
We have also been concerned by what seems like a strangely laid-back culture that has developed on the school board — almost as if its members don’t realize the greatest crisis in education in our lifetimes is in full, malignant bloom. We know the members of the board and have admired their contributions to the community in the past. So we can’t understand why they have chosen to have only had one additional public meeting this summer — one hour before a plan was announced that none of them seemed to have much familiarity with.
In an email, board chair Rheagan Sparks told The Beachcomber that she “trusts our VISD leadership to know their work best.”
But the school board is not a cabinet made up of appointed partisans, there to support the agenda of well paid public servants. It is an elected body convened to serve the public by providing diligent oversight of Vashon’s most important public institution. The board should be a respectful watchdog for the people of Vashon, making sure the work of VISD administrators is informed by sound educational choices and deep and meaningful community engagement.
Especially in these fraught times, VISD should seek to involve as many islanders as possible in a sense co-creation of its plan for our students, especially the most vulnerable. And that hasn’t really happened yet on Vashon.