One of the things we’ve learned over the past few months is that the spread of COVID-19 has no boundaries. It doesn’t differentiate between school systems and the communities they serve. This summer, I’ve had an opportunity to talk with a number of superintendents about how the opening of school will not only impact their staff, students and immediate families, but how it could also impact other citizens in the community. While it is unclear what the year of COVID-19 will bring, I am confident that our local educational leaders will do whatever they can to keep everyone safe.
This past week, the Woodridge Local School District’s leadership team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network hosted a Zoom discussion with State Representatives Bill Roemer (R-Ritchfield) and Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson). Similar to the recent OPSAN meeting in North Royalton with State Senator Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls), the Woodridge discussion centered around the challenge of opening school this coming year. On July 14, the OPSAN leadership team for the Deer Park Community City Schools (just north of Cincinnati) will be hosting a Zoom meeting with the district’s state senator and state representative.
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported in “A Nation at Risk” that America’s public schools were failing. For nearly four decades, this has been the underlying narrative driving the education reform movement in our country. Today, however, thanks to COVID-19 and the shutdown of our public schools, this old narrative is being challenged. The heroic response of our teachers to the current pandemic has established the new narrative that they can be trusted do what is best for our children, their families and our communities.
Today, our democracy is struggling through one of the most politically divisive periods in our nation’s history. Throughout my career, one of the persons I’ve turned to for insight and perspective in times like this is David Mathews. Dr. Mathews is president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, an international research institution which studies what it takes to make democracy work as it should. This past year, he delivered the closing remarks at Kettering’s “National Issues Forum” in Washington, DC. The topic of his address was political division.
Tuesday evening, North Royalton’s leadership team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network hosted a Zoom meeting with State Senator Matt Dolan. Predictably, the bulk of the conversation centered around the current challenge of opening school this coming year. Without getting into the weeds of what was a very congenial and productive discussion, Senator Dolan said something that I’d like to share. Not only did he thank everyone for their valuable feedback, but he also validated the importance of their conversation by asking if he could meet with them again to learn what they are learning about the realities of reopening school amid this pandemic. This was Senator Dolan’s second discussion with the leadership teams from OPSAN’s 10 pilot districts. He met with Mayfield prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. It is clear that these discussions with state legislators (which also have occurred in other OPSAN pilot districts prior to the pandemic) are building trust and confidence and should not only be continued but also expanded. Currently, the OPSAN leadership teams from Woodridge and Deer Park are scheduling Zoom meetings with their legislative officials.
This past year, Charlie Irish and I co-authored Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools. In it, we discuss how unchallenged conventional wisdom threatens the future of our public schools. One of the sacred cow beliefs highlighted in our book is that whatever teachers are asked to do, they’ll make it work. Following three decades of rigorous education reform, this well-meaning rallying cry has placed a heavy, and sometimes unrealistic, burden on our teaching profession. Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, our teachers are being asked once again to do more and make it work.
In her new book, Sarah Stitzlein expresses a growing concern shared by many other Americans – which is that our democracy stands on shaky ground: “As wary citizens grow increasingly distrustful of elected officials and their fellow citizens, they turn to authoritarian alternatives.” There is, however, a strategy that I’ve observed throughout my career (and is supported by many of the points that Sarah makes in her book) which can overcome this distrust. That strategy is providing citizens with opportunities to come together and make a difference. Giving citizens a legitimate voice in addressing challenges and opportunities impacting them and their public schools is a powerful remedy for reducing cynicism and increasing hope. If I’ve heard it said once, I’ve heard it said dozens and dozens of times over the past 25 years in communities throughout Ohio: “Coming together like this has has restored my faith in our democracy.”
Susie Kaeser is a community member in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. She also is one of Ohio’s most effective spokespersons for the public schools throughout our state. In addition to co-founding the Heights Coalition for Public Education, she is a member of the statewide leadership team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network and serves as education specialist for the League of Women Voters of Ohio. In a recent opinion piece in Cleveland.com, she focuses on rethinking school vouchers during a pandemic.
In a feature story yesterday on CBS News “Sunday Morning,” Florida’s 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year spoke candidly about the challenges for teachers and students during the current COVID-19 crisis. One of the most powerful insights she shared is that remote learning has made one thing very clear about the value of our current educational system. It is that “there’s nothing like the connections we have at school.”
What can the coronavirus teach us about leadership at defining moments? The CEO and Chief Architect of Syntegrity have authored an insightful article in Forbes about the opportunity to start thinking now about how you’ll be ready with that plan for decisive action at the defining moment when this crisis is over. Syntegrity is a company that helps leaders at all levels rapidly solve complex issues.