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Watch: "Kauffman Conversations: the Digital Divide and Education" | 36:06

The digital divide in education just got a lot wider

A panel of experts discuss how the school shutdowns caused by the pandemic is only making it more difficult for vulnerable students to receive a quality education.

The digital divide between those who have the technology needed for modern life, and those who don’t, is not new. What is new, brought to light by the shutdown of schools, is the challenge of attempting to virtually educate students for months on end, when a significant portion of them don’t have the internet access and computers they need to effectively do their work.

A recent panel of education experts emphasize the urgency to not only meet the current needs of students, but also to make sure school systems are prepared to take students into the future. Sherman Whites, director in Education at the Kauffman Foundation, led an impassioned discussion that brought to life the issues that threaten to leave a segment of students even further behind their peers in education attainment, unless systemic change can address the widening gap between the digital haves and have-nots. He was joined by Dr. Marla Sheppard, deputy superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools and Awais Sufi, president and CEO of SchoolSmart Kansas City.

“I will tell you the divide is economic, which does end up manifesting in it being a digital divide,” Sheppard said.  “And I think the biggest thing overall that I’m learning from this is that we’ve got to fix this economic divide. How do we get people the type of wages and the type of opportunities that would allow them to have access to some of the things that some of the middle-class students and above may have?”

Sufi said we’ll need to face up to some realities of life in our communities, if we’re to make sure all students have an equal opportunity for quality education.

“Shouldn’t we be looking at internet access as a public utility?” he said.  “As a right, as opposed to the type of happenstance, where you live, what type of connectivity is available to you. If you’re a family that has economic vulnerability – if you live in an environment, in a neighborhood which has limited access or that digital providers don’t really want to be fully invested in because they don’t feel there’s enough yield in terms of profit, or if you’re in a place where folks have defaulted on bills previously so that it’s not easy for them to actually be reconnected – then you’re in a world of hurt right now, right?”

Watch the full conversation in the video above, or read it below:


Sherman Whites: Marla, Awais, thank you so much for joining me today for this conversation. I’m Sherman Whites. I am a director of education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and if you all could take a minute to introduce yourselves, I would greatly appreciate it. Dr. Marla.

Dr. Marla Sheppard: Hi, I’m Marla Sheppard. I’m the deputy superintendent of the Kansas City, Missouri Public Schools.

Awais Sufi: Hi, and I’m Awais Sufi. I am the president and CEO of School Smart Kansas City, a collaborative fund supporting school improvement in Kansas City, Missouri.

Whites: All right. I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss the challenges that you all are experiencing during this health and economic crisis. Dr. Marla, how are you all fairing over at KCPS?

Sheppard: I’m excited about the work that we’re doing right now. I think we’re doing pretty well. We would like more engagement, and we are at a point right now where we’re passing out more of our laptops to provide more access to students. However, right now what we’re mainly engaged in is getting our teachers the professional development they need.

What we found is to look at what kids are doing without looking at what adults are doing would not be beneficial for us. And so we have actually rolled out in collaboration with our digital learning team, we’ve actually rolled out a teacher professional development plan. A two-week plan for all of our teachers so that they can be trained on all of the digital avenues that we currently pay for that are currently a part of our toolbox so that they can be adequately prepared as we move into the summer and if necessary, the fall to teach students virtually.

Whites: Awais, what challenges are surfacing for you all over at SchoolSmart, KC?

COIVD-19 has made manifest many of the inequities that already exist in our society, including in the education sector. One of the challenges receiving most attention in our region is access to technology in our most impoverished communities.

Sufi: Well, quite a multiplicity of them based on the challenges of COVID-19. We’ve been working on school improvement and supporting our schools and wonderful educators like Dr. Sheppard for the last three years. And the unfortunate reality is that all of the progress and much progress was being made, came to a really challenging moment with the onset of this infection where schools, including Kansas City public schools, had to immediately move out of in-person learning into this new virtual and digital environment.

And as we turned our schools, our educators, our families, the educational support organizations around the schools, what we saw repeatedly was that this was going to cause substantial disruption to the traditional way of doing business. That families and students would need to have access to new methods of both connecting to their schools, but then also teachers and others leaders would have to be able to reconfigure the way they were doing business so the kids could learn.

Sufi: And this was very new and a very challenging moment for everyone. And I have to give a ton of credit to Dr. Sheppard, her colleagues, as well as other educators around Kansas City who have made it work any which way. Whatever it takes, they’re doing it. But nonetheless, they are significantly impeded by some structural challenges that our system has in terms of ensuring connectivity, ensuring virtual learning processes are fully in place to handle what’s come their way.

Whites: Awais, that’s a great segue to today’s conversation around this concept of interdependence. The thought that as a society we thrive when everyone in our society is thriving. Conversely, we suffer when there’s a segment of our community that doesn’t have the same opportunities as others. COVID-19 has made manifest many of the inequities that already exist in our society, including in the education sector. One of the challenges receiving the most attention in our region is access to technology in our most impoverished communities.

As we all know, digital inclusion has been an issue for some time, but largely it’s ignored as a systemic challenge to be solved. Now, this is not to suggest that there has been no activity around closing the gaps, rather a less than adequate response at the structural level and the interdependency is now that we find ourselves in a circumstance that as a result of lack of connectivity, we’re unable to serve these students in any meaningful way.

By de-prioritizing digital inclusion, we’ve essentially closed off ecosystem players and our nonprofits from reaching the most vulnerable students. As an example, if you are an after-school service provider for this demographic, how do you reach your consumers during the crisis? The same can be asked about a number of our players in our ecosystem, special education service providers, reading interventionists, tutors, et cetera.

The people who need these offerings the most are now void of these services. And to exacerbate the issue, many of these nonprofit providers are now looking to philanthropy to provide bridge funding to sustain them during the crisis while having limited capacity to serve the students that are involved, that they talk about in their mission statement. So I’d like to ask both of you this question, which is can you please speak to how the gap in digital access has impacted the district during this time, and how’ve you observed the interdependence of the various parts of the ecosystem playing out?

By de-prioritizing digital inclusion, we’ve essentially closed off ecosystem players and our nonprofits from reaching the most vulnerable students.

Sheppard: I believe what you see here is an economic gap that is really displaying itself a whole lot in this time of crisis. Currently, Kansas City has 46.7% of our students who are actually engaged in turning in assignments, in online instruction. That means that we’ve got close to 53.3% that we are not regularly getting assignments from. And then when I look at the demographics of who’s turning in assignments, largely when you look at the top 10% of students in percentages of online assignments being turned in, it is our signature schools. And there’s plenty of research around magnet programs and parents and the economic divide between students who participate in magnet programs and signature programs versus students who participate in regular schools.

What you see here is an economic divide which has manifested itself in a digital divide. And for us what we’ve found is that we’ve had to distribute electronic devices to our students. And over the last three days we’ve actually distributed 2,648 devices. Then even if we were to distribute over the course of these next four days, 3000 to 3,500 devices, we would still be at about 70% student participation, students who actually have access to a device. That means that there’s still 30% out there who may have parents who can not, because they’re first line providers, they may not be able to come and pick up devices.

We have to think about those parents. That means that we have students who may be in homeless shelters and a variety of places that make them unable to get these devices. So even with us passing out electronic devices, we still see a divide and there’s no percent that’s acceptable, less than 100%. And so for us, what it means is that we’ve got to take this to another level. We’ve got to layer this approach and figure out, “What is our next layer of helping these students who are not receiving, who could not get a device. Why didn’t they get a device? What do we do as a result of them not getting a device and what things can we do to intervene in them in getting a device?”

And so those are the type of questions that we have to ask, but I will tell you the divide is economic, which does end up manifesting in it being a digital divide. And I think the biggest thing overall that I’m learning from this is that we’ve got to fix this economic divide. How do we get people the type of wages and the type of opportunities that would allow them to have access to some of the things that some of the middle-class students and above may have?

Whites: Love that powerful response. Awais?

Sufi: Yeah. I was going to say the same. I mean extraordinarily powerful articulation of the issues, Marla’s put forward, and I couldn’t agree more. I think the key issue as she mentioned really is, we at this point in society are grappling, putting aside COVID, we were grappling with structural inequity that has existed for generations upon generations. And that has manifested itself in the substantial economic dislocation, substantial disparity in terms of the haves and have-nots. And whatever crisis comes along… And the interesting thing about this crisis in some ways is it’s very similar to others in the sense that it has the same ramifications. But on the other hand it’s such a magnitude that we have not seen, at least in my lifetime and many others lifetimes.

It accelerates the issues of inequity, right? It puts us in this position where you have the folks that as Dr. Sheppard said, have access and have had access for years, upon years, upon years and have utilized that access in ways to just become part in… I think all of us, even on a Zoom call right now, we can appreciate this. It’s part of our own bloodstream. This is just how we operate, we engage. It was not fun, but we were able to flip the switch and move into this new domain.

For those without that access, they are light years now, unfortunately, behind in terms of being able to catch up, because they don’t have the access to the devices, they don’t necessarily have access to the connectivity, they’re living in neighborhoods where the challenges exist, where it is hard to get them those things. They are in family structures where the economics are really challenging for them to put down everything and go resolve this issue and not to mention the other things that are around them.

Digital inclusion is economic inclusion.

There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle that are causing this inequity, but really where it comes down to is that, we’ve failed communities in the past and this current challenge is just the next iteration of how that is playing out. And to your question about interdependence, you see that then the families that we’ve tried to kind of patch together the set of services and approaches and supports that helped them out are now all struggling to connect the dots with that family or that student to really make sure that those services or supports are provided because they have limited avenues from which to do that.

On one hand, you can see a really strong way that interdependence works, where all of the pieces are moving in tandem and supporting each other and doing it in a really powerful way, but on the other hand, when we see something like COVID strike, it puts us all in a position where that fragile interdependence is really compromised. So, a really challenging moment, candidly.

Whites: I’m trying to stay calm over here, but you all get me all hyped with these powerful answers. I’m taking notes literally, and I heard Dr. Marla say the digital divide is really about the economic divide. So, digital inclusion is economic inclusion. I love that. And then I heard you say Awais, we’ve been failing families before COVID-19. And I had these debates with people, even in philanthropy that the digital literacy gap and access gap was really an issue before COVID-19. It was an issue last year, two years ago. We just de-prioritized it in the funding community and in policy. So now it’s coming back to bite us because it’s so important in a circumstance like this.

I love this interdependence of housing and economic and healthcare policies and how they’re all interacting and intersecting with education policy in a way we’re able to do our work in our sector.

The next question I’d love for you all to address and give your wisdom on is, do you anticipate any systems level changes occurring as a result of what we’re learning about this particular issue today?

There’s no way we can continue to operate in the manner that we did pre-COVID. We’ve got to do things differently.

Sheppard: Absolutely. There’s no way that we can continue to operate in the manner that we did pre-COVID. There’s no way. We’ve got to do things differently. I will tell you that I’ve been participating in the digital learning pathways that we have in Kansas City public schools, and I’ve learned so much. I’m not a digital native, but I will tell you, I have put forth every effort to learn everything that our teachers are learning so that I can see the path that they have to go. And I will tell you that technology makes things so much easier. I have learned so many different ways to do things that I learned to do them. I started teaching back in 1995. And so when you think about somebody who started teaching back then and who’s now in year 2020 a whole lot of things have changed. And I will tell you the way that we’re teaching now, the kids don’t have the same needs.

I just think about my son, I think about the people here in my house, our children have more access to information than any of us had. They have cell phones, they have electronic devices, they can Google, they can Yahoo. They can do just about anything they want to find out information. So the question that we have to ask ourselves is, do we need to keep handing information to them? When I was in school, teachers had to stand up and talk about let’s say World War I. They had to tell us everything about it. We either had to read the book or the teacher had to stand up, lecture, and tell us all those things. You can ask any kid about World War I now, and they will go and get their phone, and they will Google World War I, and they will be able to tell you everything that you want to know.

The question is as educators, how do we make that shift? How do we get ourselves to a point where we are now facilitators of people who know how to get the information and teach them how to use the information in meaningful ways? If we go back to doing things the way we were, then we would be remiss in our learning, in all of these six to nine weeks that we’ve had. I think what we’re seeing here is children can function without us giving them information. Because a lot of the pathways that we have had to create in Kansas City public schools have been about us throwing problems out there, giving them a small lecture and putting them on their own. And so, when we go back to brick and mortar, whenever that may be, we know that we’ve got a long road ahead of us, but whenever we go back, we’ve got to begin looking at things differently.

We’ve got to create people who have a hunger and thirst for knowledge and who know how to go get that knowledge. And now we teach them how to do bigger things like make meaning to it and put projects together, help us make predictions based on what happened in World War I, World War II, what are some things that we could perhaps look at and predict with COVID as we move throughout this crisis, but helping them to really become problem solvers.

I don’t think that we’ve done enough of that in schools. And if we don’t make that switch, then kids will become more and more bored with school, and I think in a lot of cases they’re showing us, they’re telling us they’re bored. Some of them are dropping out, some of them are becoming disengaged, a lot of different scenarios are happening here. And so they’re telling us they’re giving us all the data that we need. The question is how we respond to that data, and how will school be any better as a result of the learning that we’ve made over these last few weeks?

We’ve got to create people who have a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and who know how to go and get that knowledge. I don’t think we’ve done enough of that in schools. And if we don’t make that switch, then kids will become more and more bored with school.

Whites: Wow. Awais, before I come to you, Dr. Marla, a follow-up question. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the administration at KCPS, you spent the last three, four years just trying to right the ship. To right the ship so that you can be on par with other districts in an antiquated environment. So now COVID is pushing us into a new environment. What should change based on what you’re saying, and I’m loving everything you’re saying – what should change? How do you not right the ship for the old environment? How do you right the ship for the new environment?

Sheppard: I think you’ll see a lot more digital learning tools in our classrooms now because our teachers now have time, they’re actually going through modules. And I will tell you I learned Jamboard this week. And Jamboard is such a phenomenal tool. I’m a math teacher, when you start thinking about combining like terms, when you start thinking about writing the number sentence that actually goes with the word problem. All of those are things that you can use Jamboard for, and they’re interactive ways that kids can use it. Then when you start thinking about Google Forms, I learned Google Forms. There is no reason why we can’t differentiate. I push this pretest out to students on the day before and so by the time they get to me on the next day, I already know how to differentiate. I know who knows it, who kind of knows, and who doesn’t know it at all.

So now those kids who know it, I can go ahead and push them out there and let them do some creating. Those kids who kind of know it, I can still have them in my purview, and I can work with them. But then those who don’t know them, then I know immediately when they come into classroom where exactly they need to be, they need to be with me so I can get them through the necessary steps. There are so many things that we can do here.

And another thing that our digital learning team has adopted is this PIC-RAT model which is really awesome in helping teachers to design lessons, virtual lessons. And what it does is it looks at the teacher and what the teacher does and it also looks at the interaction with that the student. When you look at the P, the P is passive learning, the I is interactive learning, the C is creating. We want our kids to get to that creating level. Passive learning, it’s no longer acceptable. They’re bored with it.

Then, when you look at what the teacher is actually doing, the teacher either can replace, amplify, or transform instruction. Replacing means that, “Hey, is this something that they could do with pen and paper?” We don’t want to be at that level. When we start thinking about transforming, what is it that we could do at the highest level for the teacher, which is transformation and the highest level for the kid, which is creating so that kids are doing things like we do in the workforce. And some of this shift is going to require some of our state officials to shift as well, because we’re not in the workforce bubbling A, B, C, or D as a form of assessment. We’re not in the workforce writing short answers to a word problem that you’ve given us, we’re in the workforce solving real-life problems.

We’re not in the workforce writing short answers to a word problem that you’ve given us, we’re in the workforce solving real-life problems.

We’ve got to get our kids there, in school, solving these real-life problems. I was so impressed when I learned this PIC-RAT model and how to really get teachers engaged in the right type of lesson, writing the right type of lesson plans that would truly engage our kids at a phenomenal level where we can see them doing some of the things that we do in the workforce. I think what you’ll see in Kansas City public schools is a greater focus on digital learning tools and using those digital learning tools to really reach kids at all levels. That kid who can’t do, that kid who kind of has it, and then that kid who really needs the teacher, because we don’t think teachers will ever be exempt, but we do believe the role has to be redefined.

Whites: Awesome. Awais, what are the systems-level changes you anticipate?

Sufi: Just to build on Marla’s pretty extraordinary dialogue and just kind of way she’s bringing the issue: I think first, shame on us as a community if we do not take advantage of this opportunity to improve the long-term prospects for our vulnerable families and communities. I mean, if nothing else, this should be highlighting that in a really serious way. And I think Marla’s put out there a lot of the avenues for which that can happen. If I look back in my adult life, I’ve been a part of what, two major economic recessions prior to this one, right?

One was back when the tech bubble busted, I guess was in the late ’90s, early 2000s. And then it was the housing crisis I think in 2008. And If we look as a community at what happened at those moments or subsequent to those moments in terms of transitions and changes, and I would not say we’ve done things perfectly, but there were specific things that did happen.

In the IT structures, what we saw is that folks did not look at… You could not just build it and assume that revenues would come, right? So, investors became much more disciplined about ensuring that there was a revenue flow, that it was cashflow positive and that over time you would see some yield. And on the other side of it, at the housing side, we all have seen anybody that’s bought a house in the last 10, 15 years has seen, the stack of documentation to ensure the integrity of those underlying mortgage instruments and other things like that. So, there are pathways to make this work if we are focused and going to look at it.

Marla talked in really powerful detail about the learning side of the equation. What I would just add on to that is the digital divide side of it, right? Because the assumption there is, that kids have access to those pieces and we’re going to have to do a lot of changes just as Marla mentioned around how we reconfigure educational models. For me, I say, what are the pathways that we have to create to ensure that, whether in a time of crisis or not, families in the most vulnerable positions have access to all the pieces of the technology they need to be able to do that learning that Dr. Sheppard has talked about so eloquently?

Shame on us as a community if we do not take advantage of this opportunity to improve the long-term prospects for our vulnerable families and communities.

So, for example, shouldn’t we be looking at internet access as a public utility? As a right as opposed to the type of happenstance, where you live, what type of connectivity is available to you. And what’s fascinating to me, if you look in the international context, there are countries upon countries that have leapfrogged into this where they’re providing WiFi access, WiMax access in a very broad way to communities that have not traditionally been connected, right?

In the United States, 30, 40, 50 years ago, we talked about universal service funds for telephone access in rural environments, right? So why can’t we reconfigure the way that we think about digital access, as well? Because right now we’re in a really tough spot. If you’re a family that has economic vulnerability, if you live in an environment, in a neighborhood which has limited access or that digital providers don’t really want to be fully invested in, because they don’t feel there’s enough yield in terms of profit, or if you’re in a place where folks have defaulted on bills previously so that it’s not easy for them to actually be reconnected, then you’re in a world of hurt right now, right?

And all the work that we’re trying to do to sort of patch together things to say, “Okay, right now, we can avoid the fact that you’ve been delinquent on bills. So right now, we’re going to try to give access to this housing complex where traditionally many people don’t have it.” We need to be moving much faster and much more purposefully around addressing those issues in this time, but in this time as it wanes, because the reality is that this is going to keep happening whether it be this issue or some other.

If we’re smart about it, we don’t even look at it from a deficit model, we look at it from a proactive model to do the types of things that Dr. Sheppard’s talked about, where learning is going to transform, and it’s going to transition into these new approaches and we can accelerate the learnings of kids that have been traditionally disenfranchised. There’s a lot of opportunity here. I think it’s just a question of whether we’re going to take advantage of that opportunity.

Whites:  I love that answer, Awais, I mean the question that I have that I’ve been asking people is, “What are we going to do for COVID-21 or the next snow storm that keeps students out for a week? How are we going to be prepared based on our learnings right now?” And based on the gaps that we have. If we get caught like this again, then shame on us. I agree with you. So great answer. Thank you for this great conversation you all. Another question I have either of you, what can schools do to encourage stronger connections between students and their families and the school itself?

What are the pathways that we have to create to ensure that, whether in a time of crisis or not, families in the most vulnerable positions have access to all the pieces of technology they need?

Sufi: Ooh, that’s a big one.

Sheppard: I think largely what we’re finding is teachers who had great relationships with students pre-COVID, are teachers who have great relationships with students post-COVID. I think what you see here is we’ve got to focus more on relationships with students, period. Relationships matter. Relationships matter in kids wanting to work for a teacher, in kids wanting to excel for a teacher. Relationships are everything, we’re talking about children.

I think one of the big things that we need to focus on is making sure that we equip our teachers with the tools and our schools with the tools to build good relationships with the community and good relationships with the students and their families. I would venture to say that without the digital divide, that if you were to look at the kids who were actually participating minus not having devices or not having internet, it would be the kids who already have relationships with their teachers and they’re wanting to get up every day and see that teacher online.

What we’ve got to do is figure out how do we transform that relationship into every classroom? How do we get every teacher to understand how to reasonably build relationship with their students such that it doesn’t matter if we have a snow day, it doesn’t matter if we have a COVID-21 because I agree all of these things are verified in the near future, but teachers – we’ve got to equip them. And I think that’s the big focus that will be a focus for us. How do we equip all of our teachers to build the right and the meaningful relationships with all of their students?

The challenge with the digital divide is that it’s not just about handing somebody a device… It’s four or five components. It’s a device, it’s connectivity, it’s repair and functionality, and it’s servicing over time… So, we are seeing an increasing kind of sharing of best practices, approaches, technical knowledge, expertise among schools and the school systems and educators.

Sufi: I would just build on that. I think that’s exactly right. And I would just kind of even expand the circle. If you’re talking particularly about kids from a vulnerable position or fragile position economically or socially, there are a whole array of supports that well-designed, well-executing schools are putting in place for those kids. And so back to your point about interdependence Sherman, that interdependence amongst that team is critical because each one of those individuals as Dr. Sheppard said, is going to have a unique ability to create a relationship with that child.

And amongst them all also, how do they create the relationships so that there is the understanding that if a certain young person is facing a traumatic circumstance in life, and this is a broad traumatic one, but maybe there were other issues already underlying that, you have social workers, you have folks that are helping with special education needs. You have folks that are helping with immigrant and refugee needs or food insecurity.

All of those issues are surrounding that student, and exactly like Dr. Sheppard said, if we’ve built good relationships to begin with, if we’ve created those bonds, then we’re going to be more resilient at these times of crisis than we will be if we don’t, right? And if we don’t, then we’re trying to make that stuff up. And the crisis is going to bring the best out of people, but without those underlying sort of relationships and sense of common purpose and bond, it’s going to be a lot harder to get to where we want to go.

Whites: Final question, and Awais, I’ll lob it back to you. Kansas City is famous for using the word fragmented, right? We love to go into our respective silos and work oftentimes on same projects, same initiative, same vision and mission, but working in silos versus working together. How has this crisis… How’ve you seen school districts – I’m thinking about interdependence of communities and school districts – how have you seen people come together during this crisis and how are we working as a region and community versus our independent school districts? How have you witnessed this?

If we’ve built good relationships to begin with, then we’re going to be more resilient at these times of crisis than we will be if we don’t.

Sufi: Yeah, powerful question and an important one. I would say the unbelievable challenge we have right now is also, I think the opportunity. This equally affects us all, right? I mean, you can’t go anywhere these days without the notion of COVID really causing us enormous challenges as a community. So, where we’ve seen some really interesting places of collaboration or sort of joint purpose, one area for example, I mean, immediately as soon as this came about, we all communally recognized that food insecurity was an enormous challenge to be faced by our vulnerable families. And the challenge being that each one of the providers of that food meaning school systems that had traditionally been providing free and reduced-price lunches, they were vulnerable themselves because if any of those food service providers, those individuals were to be infected, all of a sudden, you would have that kind of go offline. And it would not change the fact that people literally needed to eat.

What we saw was collaboration amongst school districts in school systems to say, “Hey, let’s back each other up here. Let’s make sure that we find the alternate channels through which this can happen if this doesn’t happen.” And not just the school systems, but the broader environment. Right? So, you would see into your notion of interdependence, you would see food banks, you would see grocery stores, you would see hospitals even coming together and providing that joint approach.

Another place I would say we’ve seen it in a really exciting way, is with this issue of the digital divide, right? Because the challenge with the digital divide is that it’s not just about handing somebody a device, right? I mean it’s four or five components. It’s a device, it’s connectivity, it’s repair and functionality, and it’s servicing over time, and not to mention all the important things that Dr. Sheppard talked about, about learning itself, right? So, we are seeing an increasing kind of sharing of best practices, approaches, technical knowledge, expertise amongst schools and the school systems and educators really to say, “How are you doing it? How can you do it?”

I just love the new approaches and tools that Dr. Sheppard is pushing out there, because I have no doubt some folks are going to hear that and say, “Hey wait, how do I jump on that? That’s going to be great to figure out how to use for the purposes that I have as well.” So there are challenges, but it’s also some wonderful ways of seeing people starting to work together on things that are joined.

Whites: Dr. Marla, close us out.

It’s been really great being on calls with people from all over America and hearing how they’re approaching [education] issues. I think this has brought us together in meaningful ways, and we’re having meaningful conversations.

Sheppard: One of the things that I think has been really great for us is what we have on Fridays is we have cadres. And so we have our teachers working with a group of teachers from another school, which is something that we’re just not able to do during the school year. We don’t have time. And we have one day that we do PD, which is Wednesdays, and that is a 75-minute PD. So the semantics of getting them from one school to the next is very hard. So when you start thinking about the collaboration here, the collaboration at the minute and smallest level is, now we’re seeing teachers from different schools being able to collaborate on Fridays, and you hear them exchanging great ideas and you hear them building relationships with each other. We know that we all need each other.

We live in a world where we’re interdependent, and we need each other. And so the good part about our cadre is this, that our teachers are now working with somebody who may be on the other side of town who may have a different population but, and they may approach the work differently. However, there’s always something that we can learn from each other. So I’m excited about that. But then the type of collaboration that we’re having with districts all over America, every Tuesday I’m on a call with the council of the great city schools, chief academic officers. It is wonderful because you get a chance to hear what’s going on in Columbus, Ohio. You get a chance to hear what’s going on in Los Angeles, California. You get a chance to hear what’s going on in Miami, Florida; and Houston, Texas; Dallas, Texas, all of these places.

And we are really learning from each other. And I think that’s something that we just don’t have time to do during the school year. Life happens and we always want to hear, but we shouldn’t have to go to a conference to hear what other people are doing in other districts. And so what I think it’s done this has brought us all together, and we’re realizing that we have a common problem here, and that common problem is this digital divide, this economic divide, and children who need an education, who will thrive only from an education.

And so bringing us together to talk about those issues and how we deal with it. How do we deal with the grading? How do we deal with the kids who don’t have devices, and what do we do? How do we deal with summer school because we know that they’ve missed out on so much instruction. What are our next steps with summer school? How do we even get ready for the fall? What happens if we have a group of children who want to stay at home, whose parents want to keep them at home? How do we serve those children? What if we have a group of kids whose parents can’t leave them at home and they have to be at our schools all day, but then we still have to have social distancing? We have a lot of scenarios that we have to work through.

The thing about interdependence: the end goal is that everybody benefits.

But it’s been really great being on calls with people from all over America and hearing how they’re approaching these issues. I think this has brought us together in meaningful ways and we’re having meaningful conversations here that really can help us as far as our relationship beyond this and what things we can do to add to each other so that everybody can benefit. Because the thing about interdependence, the end goal is that everybody benefits.

Whites: Love it. Love your responses. First, I want to thank you all for your leadership. Secondly, I want to thank you for being brilliant and knocking these questions out of the park. And then just thank you for your collective efforts to make our district one of the best in the nation. A proof point for what education reform should look like. I’m going to close it out on that and thanks to both of you again and until the next time, be well.


Embracing Our Interdependence: In a country born out of the notion of individualism, our greatest strength can actually be our interdependence. We can remain strong individuals while also building stronger systems, and a stronger nation.

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