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Earnest Winston: Being a First-Year Superintendent During COVID Crisis

“One teacher is having ‘Chat and Chew’ Zoom meetings; the teacher is available during lunch to discuss whatever is going on with the students. [...] Some teachers are having Instagram live sessions to help students with their time management, with issues such as mental health, and on the importance of exercise and communication. [...] One teacher sent a personalized letter to all of her nearly one hundred and thirty students encouraging them to stay engaged.”

These are some of the heartwarming stories the first-year superintendent shared about his district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), in North Carolina.

For Earnest Winston, the novelty of taking on the superintendent position was compounded by the fact that he did so in 2020; he also had to tackle the novel coronavirus.

Walking into the role of superintendent during this time would be daunting to most, but Mr. Winston was optimistic when talking about his district. “I will say unequivocally that there have been more opportunities than challenges.”

He shared some of the leadership lessons he learned so far:

• This is not a popularity contest:

“It’s about making the best decision possible. You cannot get into this work and expect that you are going to be the most popular person,” said Mr. Winston.

• The decision-making process is just as important as the decision, if not sometimes more:

Earnest Winston stressed the importance of having a solid process. Though people may disagree with your decisions, having a strong process that led to the decision is key.

• Make all decisions student-centered:

This is not so much a lesson as much as it is a guiding principle for Superintendent Winston. “I made this commitment to our board of education when I agreed to take on this role, that I will always be guided by what is in the best interest of students [...] Sometimes, that will upset some adults, but it’s important to me that I be able to lay my head on a pillow at night and be comfortable with the decisions I’ve made.”

One of the hard decisions Earnest Winston had to make was: How do we recognize our seniors?

“This being my first year as superintendent, this is my first graduating class. And there’s always something special about your first.” Though the superintendent had hoped that they could have a traditional celebration for all their wonderful accomplishments, he realized that he would have to get creative in light of public health concerns.

As a result, the leadership team at CMS pulled together a task force that was made primarily of seniors, parents of seniors, high school principals, senior staff members, and a representative from their local public county health department.

It was important for me to get as much feedback as possible before making a decision, and it was important to involve those people who would be directly impacted, i.e., our seniors. It was important to hear directly from them as part of the process.

The team put out surveys and received a lot of positive feedback.

At the end of the day, Mr. Winston had to make a decision that was in the best interest of the health and safety of his students and staff: “We have ten thousand graduates, we have over a hundred thousand family members who attend our graduations, so it was going to be impossible to have a traditional graduation.”

What they decided on was a three-pronged approach:

• Virtual graduations that would be pre-recorded, including speeches from dignitaries, the valedictorian, the salutatorian, and student leaders. Each student’s name would be read aloud and flashed across the screen.

• Drive-through celebration at the students’ schools, where they would get out of their car one by one and pick up their diploma and take a picture in their cap and gown.

• Later this year, if conditions allow for it, CMS would invite their graduates back to campus for a special event in-person.

“While it’s a different scenario than they envisioned in terms of how they would be celebrated, it certainly doesn’t diminish everything that they’ve accomplished over their careers in school.”

Planning for AY 2020-21

In our interview on May 29, Earnest Winston shared that, “as part of our COVID-19 response efforts, we would like to obtain feedback from students and their caregivers regarding their remote learning experience.” The leadership team sent questionnaires in English and Spanish between June 1-9. Teachers will also get a survey in the coming weeks.

“It’s important that we take stock and hear feedback from students, families, and teachers to understand from their perspective what worked well, and what are some areas for improvement. And so we want to get that information as we plan for next year to be able to help inform that process."

It’s important that we do things together, vs. do things to people. And so we want to make sure that we’re doing this with our families, students, and staff members vs. doing it to them.

Though there are many uncertainties for the fall, the top priority is making sure students are being educated in a safe environment. The leadership team’s mission is to create as many face-to-face opportunities as possible for students while considering cleaning and hygiene measures, how to monitor the health of students and staff, and how to protect high-risk populations.

In order to do so, they created workgroups, each one championed by a member of their cabinet. “Those teams are designing an educational environment that meets the students’ needs and adheres to safety protocols from both our state and local officials while keeping top of mind guidance from the CDC.”

They are also exploring the ways in which online asynchronous learning might be used to complement face-to-face learning next school year.

Earnest Winston shared that his staff is exploring expanding their virtual high school at the district, to serve students beyond grades 9-12:

“We are exploring the possibility of expanding that to offer instructions in grades K-12, and that shift is intended to provide a viable school option for families who do not feel comfortable having children return to a brick and mortar building next school year. This will allow us to continue to serve these families and contribute toward maintaining them in our district. So the intent is for the student to either enroll in their assigned school or request a transfer to the virtual school.”

Learning Opportunities at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

• Self-directed remote learning opportunities for enrichment will be provided to all students

• Students in grades K-4 are strongly encouraged to participate in a reading check-up program being led by one of CMS’ community partners, Read Charlotte. This initiative focuses on improving literacy in earlier grades.

• English learners at CMS (EL students) in grades 1-11 will be invited to participate in the EL newcomer ACE Academy. Newly enrolled EL students will receive additional content and language learning opportunities on a daily basis, including live sessions.

• High school students will have an opportunity to participate in credit-recovery and obtain new credits. This is an extended learning opportunity for students who have demonstrated a need for additional academic support, including those who need to meet summer graduation requirements.

Despite these incredible initiatives, Superintendent Winston acknowledges that some students are left behind:

Someone asked me the question the other day: What keeps you up at night? It’s that despite our team’s efforts, we know that there is going to be regression among many of our students. How do we continue to provide high-quality grade-level instruction to make sure that we meet the needs of our students, who we know will have unfinished learning when they come back to us in August?

Knowing the summer slide that traditionally occurs, and the trouble it causes when students return in the fall, the “covid-slide” is an even greater concern for educators. “We ask ourselves, are we giving every opportunity to succeed? Part of our answer was that we need to allow them to keep their devices,” he explained.

For Mr. Winston, addressing the concerns of the fall is like completing a puzzle: One piece at a time.

He mentioned how his district was fortunate in that they were a largely 1:1 district before the crisis, and were able to provide them to students rapidly. “Having a device is one piece of the puzzle. You need internet connectivity. Several philanthropic partners in the community have stepped up to the plate. The effort was led by our CMS public schools foundation, worked with the partners to provide six thousand hotspots.”

Like most leaders, Earnest said that he is not naive enough to believe this work can be done alone.

It takes educators, partners, families to be able to say that “we are gonna tackle education as a community issue.

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