What To Do When There's Not One Right Answer?
Educators across the country, and around the world, have found themselves in a whole new normal. In addition to focusing on student needs, engaging content, and individualized support, educators have been thrust into also focusing on equitable access to content, adapting content to multiple environments, and providing support that is more varied than ever before.
At the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), our role has also changed drastically. Educators and school leaders have looked to us for increased support and guidance. In North Carolina, we have over 1.6 million students that we serve in 115 different school districts and 201 charter schools. Their needs are as varied as the communities they each serve, and we have focused our efforts on being supportive and responsive to their individual and collective needs.
Over the past few months, we have seen our role expand exponentially as a partner and support for the schools and districts in our state. But what does a state leader do when there is not one right answer? The state leader responds to the educators’ needs and adapts as needed. As a result, North Carolina has seen an increased need in five key areas:
1. Timely, Responsive, and Supportive Communication
Almost immediately following our state’s quarantine due to COVID 19, our education leaders from across the state expressed a need for timely, responsive, and supportive communication about the ever-changing needs and situation. In response, we mobilized and created weekly, hour-long virtual conferencing chats for all superintendents and charter school leads. These leaders submit their questions, concerns, thoughts, and suggestions ahead of time, and during the calls we address them for everyone to hear and respond to as needed. This transparent communication builds understanding and consensus, among other positive outcomes. Weekly video calls are recorded and the questions submitted in the chat feature are summarized and sent back out to everyone following the chat for reference. We follow up the questions with written responses, as needed. From these calls, many innovative strategies and ideas emerged, statewide policy change recommendations arose, and collective needs were identified as needing legislative action. Similar statewide weekly video calls for Public Information Officers, Technology Directors, curriculum leaders and others were also created which helped strengthen ongoing, clear communication and collective capacity in those key areas of school district leadership.
Along with the weekly calls to answer pressing statewide questions, we also developed a weekly Top Ten that we send out on Fridays. This Top Ten list includes a link to the recorded video chat, links to resources and ideas, updates on State Board of Education (SBE) action or legislative action, communication about resources being distributed from the department, as well as relevant information from other state agencies such as the Governor’s Office or the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Additionally, in response to educator needs, the department has created virtual office hours for school and district leaders. These office hours were designated times and dates where NCDPI staff were online and available to meet virtually with anyone who had needs or questions. The office hours are tailored to key areas of need such as student health and safety, instructional planning and scheduling, transportation, nutrition, or students with exceptional needs.
2. Reopening Guidance
To help guide educators across the state in decisions they face around school reopening in the Fall, we created the Lighting Our Way Forward support document as well as an ever-adapting Guidebook that is responsive and adaptable to changing state executive orders, new legislative bills, and updated SBE policies. Additionally, NCDPI works closely with DHHS and the Governor’s Office on joint guidance, support with personal protective equipment supplies and signage, among other areas of need.
3. Professional Development
NCDPI began developing professional development through a multi-faceted approach, to include an extensive six-week program with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and numerous sessions from NC Virtual Public Schools. Throughout the period from March to July, the reach was approximately 65,000-70,000 registrants across the span of all of the professional development (PD) sessions. Registrations for the sessions filled within a matter of minutes to days, amplifying the need for field-based support in a variety of areas. Such areas include digital tools and transferring content to a web-based modality, content-specific sessions, social and emotional learning, and sessions based on academic leaders and coaches. With such a great need, NCDPI continues to develop and provide additional PD throughout the summer and into the 2020-2021 school year.
4. Non-Digital Support
Recognizing that pockets of North Carolina have limited access to broadband and/or devices, NCDPI partnered with UNCTV public broadcasting to provide broadcast lessons, while NCDPI content experts created coinciding printable lessons for districts to print and provide as a non-digital option. The sum of viewership ranges from 680,521 to 1,074,725 from Weeks 1-10. Viewership across the first 10 weeks of the At Home Learning Initiative’s implementation more than doubled compared to viewership during January/February 2020 and viewership during the same time the previous year. Additionally, with the leadership of the 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year, the 2019-2020 and 2018-2019 cohorts of regional teachers of the year developed TOY Time, a homegrown academic lesson repository via YouTube.
Through ongoing communication with education leaders and other stakeholders, we identified educational needs, relief, and resources for schools and districts. Many of these needs required funding, new policies or adaptations to existing policies, and new state laws or rules. As these needs came to light through our weekly virtual calls, through office hour discussions, or other means, we adapted our advocacy and policy development support as we partnered with the state General Assembly, the SBE, and the US Department of Education. This flexibility and responsive advocacy focuses on needed state board policies or adaptation to existing policies. It focuses on funding needs and flexibility on the use of existing funds at both the state and federal level. Through collaborative advocacy and partnership with the General Assembly, new mandates and state bills have provided needed support to educators and families.
So, what do we do when there’s not one right answer? We communicate, collaborate, innovate, advocate, and serve. As we enter into the new normal for education, we are all tasked with new challenges and opportunities. The innovation developed during this time has the potential to provide a launching point for students and educators going forward into the unknown.
About David Stegall and Angie Mullennix - Guest Authors
Dr. David Stegall is the Deputy State Superintendent of Innovation at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. He’s previously served as a school district superintendent in NC as well as a superintendent of international schools in the Middle East and North Africa. Dr. Angie Mullennix is the Director of K-12 Academics and Innovation Strategy at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. She oversees Standards, Curriculum, and Instruction and many innovative projects, and prior to NCDPI, she was a Research Scholar at the NC State University Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.