In Conversation With the Superintendent of the 5th Largest District in America
When talking to Dr. Jesus Jara, Superintendent of Clark County School District (CCSD) in Nevada, his passion for serving the needs of his 320,000 students was unmistakable.
Dr. Jara has a laser-like focus on ensuring equity and access for historically underserved and under-resourced students. Though many consider CCSD an urban district, as the fifth largest school district in the nation, Dr. Jara shared that it is the fourth largest rural district in Nevada, serving both urban and rural communities. "The diversity of the school system that we operate is incredible [...] I think that is something that is forgotten; we're not just Las Vegas," said Dr. Jara.
Under his leadership, the team laid out a five-year strategic plan to ensure educational justice for every child. With school closures, the urgency for this has reverberated throughout the education world:
The American public school system was working for some kids," said Dr. Jara, "but there's a lot of kids that we were missing. I think this crisis has put a magnifying glass on the inequities in public education.
For Dr. Jara, this time presents an opportunity to "hit a reset" and reconnect our families. He insists that the internet is not a luxury but a necessity. "Shame on the leadership if we don't provide our families with some of the basic needs," stated Dr. Jara, "and I think this is where we have to take a stand. This is not a time to cut funding; this is a time to invest in our children so that we can provide a personalized education for wherever the kids are to meet the goals for all kids."
While Dr. Jara always knew the district had amazing educators, the way they have all stepped up during this time to support students and families has just reinforced this belief. He underlined the "human element" of CCSD that has shone through over the last few months.
I see this community coming together on behalf of our students and our families [...] I've done a lot of round table conversations with our teachers and what you hear that our kids are going through…our teachers are jumping in to help.
Phases of distance learning at CCSD
As we delved into how CCSD tackled distance learning, Dr. Jara presented his district's focus and initiatives in different phases. Fitting because, since school closures, no month, week, or even day has looked like the one prior. Dr. Jara said that his district went from brick-and-mortar to "Phase 1" of school closures within one week. And now, even though schools are out for the summer, CCSD is trying to prevent learning loss for when students return.
First and foremost, the CCSD community acknowledged that whatever they were going to do had to be equitable for all students. They started distributing learning packets in-person and online to help families keep their students engaged in their learning. "We knew that it wasn't going to be new instruction because the inequities that we had within the system before COVID-19 have been magnified and amplified here now."
The district partnered with EdTech companies, such as Khan Academy and Achieve3000, and utilized various free offerings to provide learning enrichment.
Ensuring seniors graduate.
"We immediately identified that we have 6300 kids that had to finish their credits to graduate, so we immediately reached out to that group." CCSD started credit-bearing seniors and then worked their way down each grade level.
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara participating in Chromebook distribution to students on May 9, 2020. Image courtesy of CCSD.
Asking the right questions.
How do we help our teachers with platforms? How do we move away from using multiple platforms to narrowing it down to a couple across the board? These are the questions the leadership team took on once they were settled into phase 1.
"In my previous role as Deputy superintendent in Orange County, I was responsible and co-chaired a distance education learning plan; it took us six years to develop it and put together very methodical research. The team did a great job here in a matter of a week and tried to do the best we can with the resources that we have to not only support our students but our teachers."
CCSD staff working to distribute Chromebooks to students on May 16, 2020 during the COVID-19 school closure to ensure students were able to participate in distance learning. Image courtesy of CCSD.
Distance Education 2.0.
"Now we're moving into what we're calling distance education 2.0," said Dr. Jara.The district put together a daily instructional guide for students to engage in grade-level activities and prepare for the next school year, while also focusing on their well-being.
"We also have Vegas PBS; luckily, we have our own TV station, and we put lessons out there for families. And Cox Communication, our internet provider here in the community, jumped in and now our teachers are doing lessons on TV. [...] So all of that is just part of us really looking at distance education for enrichment. We're not teaching new standards because we are still not connecting all kids, and, to me, that's a huge inequity."
One of many CCSD school buses equipped with wifi that were deployed to neighborhoods in May 2020 to ensure students had access to wifi. The wifi codes were displayed on the side of the school buses to ensure social distancing was maintained. Image courtesy of CCSD.
When talking to Dr. Jara, it became clear that he is deeply engaged with other leaders in education to inform the best steps moving forward. He is a part of various networks that he considers safe spaces for the gathering of minds, where superintendents ask questions and learn from one another.
I've been on the phone since 7:00 this morning, so I sit on the AASA COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. There are about thirty superintendents on there. I'm a big partner with the Council of the Great City Schools. We meet every Thursday, and we started meeting right away, so that's where the large urban school systems across America are working together to collaborate.
Dr. Jara described how the large urban school systems across America are working together to collaborate and ask pressing questions about the future leading schools: “What does next year look like? How do you do a first day of school online? ”