The GMW Interview: Wilton Schools’ Superintendent on How Teaching May be Different Next Year–and If We Have to Settle

Over the last several weeks the Board of Education has discussed what the 2020-2021 school year will look like come fall. Following the June 4 BOE meeting, ensuing media reports and social media discussion focused on whether the district is compromising on standards and teaching, and if Wilton educators were lowering academic expectations.

GOOD Morning Wilton interviewed Superintendent Kevin Smith to address how the district is planning for what promises to be a different start to a school year than Wilton has ever seen.

The unknowns are still unknown:  will there be distance learning or in-person classroom teaching? will masks be mandatory or optional? will school start on time? Nope–there are no firm answers. But Wilton’s administrators are trying to prepare as much as they can. And Smith does his best to tell us what he knows, what the district is doing in anticipation, and how teaching may look different next year.

[Editor’s note:  the interview was conducted on June 8. We have edited the video interview for clarity and brevity, but it’s still almost 30 minutes long. It’s followed by a condensed written transcript of the video, broken out by topic and individual video clips.]

State Will Set Guidelines, Wilton Will Follow

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Following the last couple of weeks of board of education meetings, there’s been discussion about how the district is moving forward and what next year is going to look like. It’s left questions for everyone from parents, students, teachers, I’m sure even you too. And with so many unknowns from health to learning gaps to whether or not students are even going to be in the building, when are you going to have something more concrete to share with the community about what next year is going to look like?

Dr. Kevin Smith:  That’s really dependent on the state of Connecticut following through and issuing reopening guidance. And so my hope is that sometime within the next week to 10 days at the outside, we’ll get some good guidance from the state. And then that guidance will really inform the work that we’re doing locally.

So we can …get much deeper in terms of our planning. That being said it’s important to just restate that as we are planning, health and safety of students and staff is obviously our first priority. We built around that idea.

We have some assumptions around social distancing and what we’ll need to do to actually get people back into the building safely. So we’ve been operating around those assumptions and we’ll see what the guidance looks like.

The governor has pushed certain deadlines back, moved them forward, he’s changed guidance on everything from graduation to group sizes and things like that. So there’s a lot of time between now and August or September.

GMW:  So what’s to say it’s not going to be entirely a different story come July, August towards September?

Smith:  Oh, I think you’re absolutely right. Guidance seems to change daily, if not hourly. If nothing else, we are also learning to be a nimble with our plans. We will have a Plan A and as things change a Plan B and a Plan C.

Your point about things loosening up is a very good point. Whereas for summer school we were, because of the guidance looking at ratios of one staff member to 10 students in a room, we’re wondering if that’s not going to shift and we might see some other kind of guidance that allows for more students in a single space [for fall]. It’s hard to say at this point, but we’re going to try to do the best that we can and be flexible and responsive to those changes.

GMW:   I do see people online and on social media talking about how the guidance and the guidelines are way too strict. Or other people who say it’s not strict enough, this is a pandemic. Those opinions clearly are very far apart and on the extreme. Why is there a disconnect? And is the district getting caught in the middle in terms of who’s setting the ground rules?

Smith:  We take our guidance from the state of Connecticut, the State Department of Education. It’s upon that guidance that we then make some local decisions and local recommendations. And locally we work very closely with Barry Bogle, the health director; our nursing supervisor; and certainly our medical advisor.

The guidance on ESY [Extended School Year] and summer school, the first round was issued maybe three weeks ago, and then it was reissued and it was much more stringent a week ago. So we’re caught in between trying to respond to that guidance. But, in broad strokes, we are dependent upon the state.

How to Address the Academic Gaps of the ‘COVID Slide’ – and is Wilton OK with Settling?

GMW:  Now I want to move into some discussion about academics and curriculum. One of the terms that people have talked quite a lot about is COVID slide, which is a learning gap or falling behind, learning that was lost because of distance learning because students weren’t in the classroom.

I want to refer to an article that appeared in The New York Times today that talked about a paper that was done by the NWEA and researchers at Brown University and the University of Virginia that [found that]:

“The average student could begin the next school year having lost as much as a third of the expected progress from the previous year in reading and half of the expected progress in math.”

there was also more research that came out, analysts from McKinsey and Company said that:

“When all of the impacts are taken into account, the average student could fall seven months behind academically with greater learning losses for black and Hispanic students.”

In that same article, there was a teacher that was quoted and gets right to the point:

“If we continue to do things the way we do them, we won’t be able to fill those gaps.”

Now I want to relate it to something that you said during one of the board of education meetings, which I also thought was really important in terms of the way the district approaches things. You said:

“We’re thinking about how can we be better? Our traditional system doesn’t serve all kids. We have gaps in the way we’ve been doing things. This is a real opportunity to better serve. Many of those kids. We were under-serving in our traditional setup. We’ve built an emergency e-learning system that’s getting us through now, but it’s not sufficient for what’s to come. We have the talent, the intellect, and the resources here in this community, among our staff, and with our families to do the work of teaching and learning in our public school system, far more effectively, given some time, some additional tools, some planning, and training.”

You said that in the context of really needing to take a look at how we’ve adapted quickly to using more technology in the classroom–how can we take that quick adaptability, take a look at where we’ve been falling behind with some students and really make a commitment to really working on changing things.

Now, I’m going to reflect on some other quotes that came out at the very last meeting–there have been people in the community upset by what they heard–different things that your assistant superintendent of curriculum Chuck Smith said during the meeting that seemed to run counter to things that you said:

“We’re probably not going to be able to deliver the curriculum the way we would if we were in a traditional setting. This is going to be hard next year for everybody. And so we have to focus on the most important standards.”

To me, and to a lot of people, it sounds like we are putting priorities on certain standards and reducing or eliminating other standards. It sounds almost like we’re okay with settling. That the district is taking an approach–or that Chuck Smith is taking an approach–of being okay with settling. But how do you reconcile what you said?

Smith:  The challenge for us–and I think this is what Chuck was alluding to the other night–is, in the face of such an unknown, it’s hard to plan today. And so that exchange about what intervention is going to look like, what should the appropriate benchmarks be for intervention? And who is responsible ultimately for delivering that intervention? I think there are a lot of questions around that conversation,  and that is very closely coupled with the other piece that you mentioned, which is naming priority standards.

I just want to be clear, having priority standards isn’t necessarily a loss. There was a researcher named Robert Marzano and he said, if you were to teach all of the standards, you would need a K-to-22 system.

In education today, whether we’re in session as we have always been, or in this kind of new paradigm, there have always been more standards than we have the capacity to teach into deeply. And so, when Chuck was saying that, not everybody is aware of just how many standards there are. We teach a full complement of standards, always. But going through the exercise of not only really getting shared understanding about what are the most important pieces of a grade level or key learning, but then how do we compact standards? Are there genuinely standards that really aren’t that important that we can let go? And I think that’s a reasonable conversation, but we’re not diminishing any child’s education, not by a long shot.

GMW:  Philosophically, when people start to hear things like ‘prioritizing standards’ or not delivering a full curriculum, that’s where that fear comes from. So that’s the philosophical side.

Let’s talk about the execution part, because things were said at the last meeting about intervention and about the percentages of students that are expected to start at a gap and whether or not you’re going to be having as many intervention opportunities or let alone intervention staff to be able to help some of the neediest learners to the typical learners who are also going to fall behind.

Let’s talk about the practical things, in terms of the number of interventionists. One of the members of the Board of Education did ask Dr. Chuck Smith, ‘If you need to intervene with more students and the gaps are going to be more severe, why not bring on more interventionists?’ And Dr. Smith seemed to say, ‘That’s probably not an option.’

Smith:  That is something that we’re going to consider. At this point, nothing is off the table. As we often do, we go back to our core values and priorities. In this case, if our core values and priorities speak to–and they do–ensuring that kids are meeting or exceeding grade-level standards, and we’re closing gaps, then it becomes a question of, what model makes the most sense?

I’m not going to speak for [Chuck Smith], but I would say until we have a clear sense of what direction the state’s driving in, it’s just hard to commit to a model. We just need to stand by on that. But to answer the question, nothing is off the table at this point.

The board will continue to meet over the summer. As we hone in, we’ll come forward with recommendations that we think are going to best meet those goals of helping kids to meet or exceed standards and to close gaps.

The other point, in terms of just getting really, matter of fact about how we’re delivering instruction, one of the important decisions that we made in the last month was to really commit to this blended learning model. In the scope of instructional models, it’s definitely a more recent and more contemporary model.

Having a system like Schoology, where teachers build their courses and their lessons in an online platform, gives us the opportunity to deliver those lessons in person or online. The work we’ve done, the thinking we’ve done, and now the training that we’re doing, to build the infrastructure is going to really advantage us as we are getting closer to the fall on the opening, because it just provides us a level of flexibility that we certainly didn’t have when we shut down on March 11.

What is ‘Schoology’ and what is ‘Blended Learning’?

GMW:  People have a difficult time understanding when they can’t visualize and they can’t understand exactly what Schoology is. So when you talk about that blended learning environment, is that more along the lines of what people were calling for at the beginning of this whole at-home learning experience when the pandemic first broke out? More of a synchronous, online, real-time, educational opportunity for their kids?

Smith:  When you blend, the idea is you have some in-person–whether it’s in physical person or synchronously the kind of work as we’re doing now–that’s one piece of it. And then the second piece is the non-synchronous or asynchronous piece.

What is it in a sequence of learning that students can do in the absence of the teacher? What Schoology will do is make that process more fluid and more seamless for students as well as for parents.

Because [with Schoology] parents, which they don’t have now, will have different access to information about what students are learning. One of the features (and there are many that I was really attracted to on the parents’ side of things) was this calendar feature where, as teachers are posting, [parents] can see what the assignments are and when they’re due.

You can also see if a teacher is scheduling zoom calls or when it is. That’s been a piece that has been a challenge for some, because that information hasn’t been as easily available. So kids miss sessions, parents aren’t able to support their kids with some of those sessions. Now that the information will be out there and available, then we address the expectations.

So as we’re rethinking our instructional models and what we need in place, that’s the next piece that’s really most critical–what are those expectations? Operating in an emergency learning situation, we really didn’t know what parents were facing, what kids were facing in their lives. And still, again, like so many other districts, we really approach it from a very kind of open-ended standpoint and said, ‘Do your best.’

Now with some time and planning, and now the right infrastructure, we can come back around to expectations that more fully mirror what our typical expectations are when school is functioning in a normal environment.

GMW:  Those expectations you’re talking about are on the students, in terms of what they’re going to deliver?

Smith:  The whole thing–students, staff, teachers, administrators. Those expectations apply to everybody.

GMW:  Let’s be honest, parents still will have to have increased involvement, more than what’s in a typical school day, where students are eight hours a day in a classroom. There’s still going to be a significant expectation on the part of the parents too.

Smith:  Of course there is. That’s the other reality, the way that we conceive of teaching has really shifted. Think about your own home experience. I’ll think about mine now. It’s really a team sport in that parents have very much been involved–I’ve had to be, and it’s different at different age and developmental levels, but certainly, the parents of our youngest learners have had to do quite a bit in order to support the learning of their children.

If we’re in a situation where kids are at home, either because we have to be shut down or we’re in some kind of hybrid model where we’re only bringing in part of the kids at a time, there’s absolutely going to be a need for additional parent support beyond what if we were in full time would be typically required.

How Quickly Can Teachers Get Up to Speed on Building Curriculum in Schoology–or Will there Be Delays?

GMW:  As I listened to the way that [director of digital learning] Fran Kompar explained things, and the way that Chuck Smith explained things, it sounded like a lot of the work of building coursework and lesson plans [in Schoology] is happening over the course of the school year–not over the summer. So there’s going to be lag time for a good chunk of the 2020-2021 school year. That’s what it sounds like.

Smith:  I don’t know if I would describe it as ‘lag time,’ but certainly not every lesson in every course is going to be ‘in the can,’ so to speak before school begins. But that’s also a reality in real-time too. Teachers often go through that practice–even the most experienced teachers–of revising units of study, revising lessons. And so that’s not, to me, a significant departure from the way that we commonly do business.

Many of our experienced teachers have good, solid lessons and lesson plans that will need to be recrafted into a Schoology template. So teachers are engaging in training now. We had, between last week and this week, more than 300 of our teachers are participating in the Schoology training.

That’s a very positive thing because they’ll be equipped as they’re walking out the door to more clearly understand what is going to need to happen in setting up for the fall. We’ll have summer curriculum days, we’ll be working with our ILs [instructional leaders] and team leaders. And groups of people are in the process of already writing introductory units.

Then as we get closer to the fall subsequent units will be developed and then we’re going to have to refashion and reprioritize team time and lesson-planning time. So that work can all be dedicated to making sure that lessons are planned and ready to go.

You know, the district has had the [Schoology] platform for a couple of years. We were using it for a couple of years to deliver our asynchronous professional learning to staff. So there was some general familiarity with the tool on the part of everybody.

Our Genesis folks have been using it exclusively to deliver the content of their lessons. And that’s been going very, very well. We also have a handful of staff who are experts in using it. So we have some good live resources to support the rest of our staff as we’re moving forward.

Meeting Unmet Needs of Special Needs Students–Do You Have Enough Interventionists?

GMW:  I do want to talk about students that receive special services because at least the experience of many people whose children have had the most significant needs in terms of receiving services, it was very difficult for them when they weren’t in a face-to-face learning environment; that there were a lot of services that just could not be delivered. How is that going to be addressed, as we move into the 2020-2021 school year?

Smith:  We have a strong, shared desire to put those kids back in a situation where they can receive appropriate instruction. [Assistant superintendent for student services] Andrea [Leonardi] and her team have been thinking a lot about that and working on plans for ESY. ESY will be our first attempt at delivering instruction and bringing students back to the school building.

We’re thinking about who’s delivering instruction? What are the conditions that have to be in place in order to do it safely? Obviously, the social distancing guidelines need to be adhered to, the use of proper protective equipment needs to be factored into doing that work. But, as I’m understanding it, this is not an insurmountable problem. But what I’m anticipating is that certainly, our neediest students will receive a much more intense level of education–as we typically would have.

GMW:  There was some discussion at last Thursday night’s BOE meeting about how some intervention might need to get moved back into the classroom where a general education classroom teacher might have to deliver or put together some of those intervention programs, as opposed to that being [done] with interventionists. It seems sort of a burden of work or an imbalance in terms of the way education had been delivered one-on-one between an interventionist and a student who had intervention needs and also students who were learning in a typical classroom setting. It seems like now everybody’s sacrificing something in there, whether it’s the teachers, the interventionists, or the students at whatever level.

Smith:  It’s a really good question. And there is no one way, right. So oftentimes, we think of traditional instructional models and (more so at the high school or secondary level) that’s more of a kind of transmission model, where a teacher might present contact through a lecture or something like that. But that’s only one of many types of delivery systems.

One of the shifts that’s been underway for many, many years is a small group differentiated approach. Particularly at the elementary schools and even many classrooms at the middle school and high school, teachers break their kids into smaller groups and then they dovetail their lesson to what those kids need.

So you can walk into any classroom at particularly Miller Driscoll or Cider Mill, and over the course of 45 minutes, you would see instructional practices where the teacher might do a bit that’s whole group, and then the kids might break apart and work individually or in teams. And then that teacher would pull a small group or a couple of small groups with a mini-lesson that’s targeted to whatever goal or skill those kids have. Then following that, you might see the teacher do a couple of one-on-one sessions as well. So when we talk about providing intervention and what teachers are and aren’t doing, that’s a flexible model–and I think a simple model that can serve many more kids.

So even with the intervention groups, I would argue that teachers have been doing intervention anyway. So to me, that’s not a new thing.

But then, who’s working with the interventionists? It’s only in the rarest of cases where you might have a one-on-one, frequent and more intense. I think more often than not there’s group sizes of maybe two, three, four, what have you.

I think the point that Chuck was making the other night was one of the key pieces that’s really important in those intervention groups is the group size. And so, if we had loads of kids who needed intervention, but we didn’t, if we inflated the group size, we would diminish the impact. And I think that’s what we’re all trying to sort out, is how can we ensure that the intensity of the instruction remains really, really strong in those intervention models,

GMW:  Which sounds like it comes back to the question of the opportunity to bring on more interventionists. I know this all folds into questions about the budget and how to staff everything. It’s a very complicated puzzle, and you layer in all of the health and safety and the operational issues and other things like that. I see it on your face. It’s a lot.

Smith:  You know, we laid out nine goal areas, which I think now encompass just about all of the activities that we need to entertain as we get ready to reopen. Obviously, the curriculum and instruction ones are our chief to making sure we can be effective. But there are also a number of others in terms of staffing, and health and safety considerations. And in each one of those committees, the list of considerations is as long as my arm, if not longer.

You know, we work in Wilton with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. These are people who are very well-read. They’re immersed in the literature, they’re paying attention, they’re in touch with colleagues from across the state and the country. So I really do think we have some of the best thinking at our fingertips.

In addition, we have parents who come with a wealth of background knowledge. So we’ve been tapping people to take advantage of what they know. That leads me to my last point here:  we do need to survey again and just get a clear understanding of, if school is reopened and naming some of those assumptions we have about COVID will still be present–there’ll be some social distancing guidelines, people are going to need to wear masks, those kinds of things–I’m going to want to know how many of our families are able and willing to bring the kids back. How many have real considerations? I know we have others who may be immunocompromised or have other medical issues; those folks I think we already know about. But we have to plan separately for people who couldn’t participate in any kind of in-person instruction.

There’ll be lots of opportunity for feedback and input. And I would expect as time marches forward here, as our plans come more fully together and we share them, we’ll invite again that feedback and commentary.

GMW:  I appreciate you, as always, being open to questions. Thank you for making yourself available to it.

Smith:  Thank you. Listen, we’re going to get this right. I stand by that. I’m very confident in our staff. We’re all–everybody, yourself, all of our families–people are under a lot of stress and pressure right now. And so it’s important when you hear something that sounds kind of funny, or it doesn’t quite fit the equation, to just ask the question and we’ll do a better job of more fully explaining our thinking.