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Awais Sufi

President and CEO
School Smart KC
Uncommon Voices 2020

Awais Sufi
I really do think that schools are well-positioned to improve and broaden the way they look at providing supports to students. 

The inequities in access to technology have been brought to light by the pandemic and a move to online schooling. Awais Sufi, president and CEO of School Smart KC, said his organization has worked to help improve the opportunities and outcomes for students in disadvantaged communities as remote learning has remained a reality for many this first semester. 

“It’s been very challenging. I don’t want to sugarcoat that,” Sufi said. “That said, we are heartened by the readiness of folks to come together and to work in support of our communities that are in the disadvantaged state.”

In early May, Sufi joined deputy superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools Dr. Marla Sheppard and Kauffman’s Director in Education Sherman Whites for a Kauffman Conversation to discuss the digital divide in education

Q: Since your conversation in May, how has the digital divide for students in Kansas City changed? 

The answer, of course, is more complicated than just a quick simple, “Of course it’s changed in a positive way.” I think I will say it is clear to me that from the perspective of devices, meaning kids having computers or tablets in hand, we are dramatically better off now than we were at the outset of the pandemic.  

The issues of infrastructure in broadband go well beyond and are much deeper than just procuring devices and handing them out.  

That said, the digital divide still exists in substantial ways, particularly when it comes to internet connectivity.

And I think our community has really struggled to figure out the best way forward. Frankly, the availability and effectiveness of virtual instruction is something that is disparate in terms of its impact for communities of color, communities that are disadvantaged. So, it’s a mixed bag, but I will say we’ve seen some good progress in particular areas. 

Q: Has anything in the past year changed your mind on your views of the world? 

One of the things is that the pandemic has forced us all to move into slow motion. I think many of us were running around with extraordinary intensity and ping-ponging and bouncing back and forth between work, school activities, other things and, if nothing else, this has forced us to slow down. 

I think that has been really helpful exercise because when things are in slow motion, you’re able to assess and analyze them in much more precise detail and understand how things are put together. We’re able to identify where there are gaps, where there are challenges, and where we need to target our efforts. 

I think that has been really helpful. And it plays out in all sorts of parts of life, including in our school system.  

Q: What “new normals” – good or bad – do you see or anticipate coming out of this year? 

I’m hopeful that as schools have deployed a lot more technology and have put together new approaches for hybrid learning, that it will provide better support for students outside of the normal channels. I really do think that schools are well-positioned to improve and broaden the way they look at providing supports to students. 

Hopefully, the systems that are assessing student progress can take a more effective view of that as well. For example, one of the key things we’ve looked at is in an environment where competency was started, and where you’re assessing a student’s performance based on course completion. That is interesting because it’s no longer about “seat time,” it’s actually if you have completed it. And when you start talking about completion, then you’re starting to talk about competencies.  

At that point, you start saying, can we actually move to a system that is less based on seat time and more based on competency development? So, some kids may take longer to develop a competency and need specific supports, others can go faster. And so, it moves us away from this traditional mode of education that, candidly, hasn’t worked well or well enough to allow our systems to really thrive and our kids to thrive. 

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