Kelly Kent: The COVID Challenge and Responsibility for Culver City Schools

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Kelly KentStudents need to be physically healthy. They need our emotional embrace. And they need to be intellectually nourished. How can we educate our children in a way that keeps the entire community safe while paying attention to the trauma that many have suffered? We must improve, and even reinvent, our schools to better serve students, educators, and families, now, but with our eye steadfastly on the future.

I have served on the Culver City School Board for the last five years. I am running for a second term and, if given the opportunity to continue, my next term will focus on reimagining our education system. Culver City Unified is focused ardently on making our campuses safe and healthy. All the while, I insist that we make the most of this unique opportunity to progressively evolve our schools. We have no more excuses for sticking to “business as usual.” We can, and should, concurrently make decisions based on the latest biology of learning and innovations in instructional models.

The Culver City school system, partly as a result of an inertia common throughout the nation, is still using models of instruction that were designed a century ago. These models have often reinforced disparities and divisions based on race, class, and ability; disparities that are created by systems, not innate to any biology.

As a neuroscientist, I know with absolute certainty every brain is capable of mastery. While each learner needs individualized education, we all share the same potential to thrive when we are challenged and inspired by our learning environment and supported by loving relationships with educators. Critical and creative thinkers are fostered in a learning environment that provides relationships, rigor, and relevancy to each and every student.

In this difficult and perhaps dark moment, I hold a great hope and bright light. I will fight for a holistic and equitable educational model in Culver City because when we accommodate all, we begin to create a society that values fairness over luck and ‘ours’ over ‘mine.’

Here’s where we can significantly improve our schools:[1]

  1. Close the digital divide. We have begun this process by providing laptops for all students and are working with the City towards expanded WiFi access in the parks and recreation areas. But we need every student to have 100% connectivity everywhere they work. We have started a program at our Office of Child Development where some students can come onto campus and get access to the library services in a safe and supervised environment. This should be expanded as much as possible for our high needs populations.
  2. Strengthen distance and blended learning. While we learn to educate better online, we need to combine this with blended learning which combines the best of face-to-face instruction with highly engaging online learning. In 2010, the US Dept of Education released a meta-analysis of online learning that found blended instruction was “more effective” than conventional face-to-face classes alone.[2] The online learning must be collaborative, instructor-led and include student reflection. And we can conduct our art, makerspace, dance, PE, music classes as well as so many others that are compromised in the online setting using safe in-person small group instruction that can also take place outdoors.
  3. Assess what students need. We need to be much better at listening to and reaching out to students and parents. They are telling us that they need much more by way of social and emotional supports (for example physical and mental wellness care) in addition to their academic needs. One critical component will be facilitating supervised and high quality peer-to-peer mental health awareness and care. Another will be replacing increasingly harsh punitive discipline practices with restorative, caring practices. These efforts are shown to make schools safer, strengthen relationships and improve achievement.
  4. Emphasize real-world and culturally relevant learning. We should strive to connect lessons to the real-world lives of our students with culturally and socially connected inquiries. This empowers students to explore the world around them as they experience it every day and to demonstrate what they know through projects and presentations that display the products of their work. This would also lend itself to grading according to mastery of material rather than a yearly average or non-material factors like turning in work on time.

CCHS alum have described their experience with the lack of cultural sensitivity on campus that is mirrored in the lack of cultural relevance and responsiveness in many classrooms.

A student group, POC4Change, has suggested Ethnic and Gender Studies classes for every student. I couldn’t agree more. When academic material connects with the student either personally or through their passions about the world, they are engaged, motivated and much more likely to succeed.

  1. Prepare educators for reinventing school. Faculty and staff represent the frontline of our values. CCUSD must incorporate cultural proficiency and innovative thinking into everything we do, starting with our staffing. Knowledgeable, skilled, culturally aware, and dedicated educators are key to every change discussed here. We need to cultivate a socially just and educationally empowering educational culture through ongoing anti-racism professional development and through facilitating deep but safe conversations where educators can reflect and grow.
  2. Explore ways to expand learning time. The traditional school day and calendar are not sufficient to offset the learning time that has been lost during the pandemic. We will need to consider tutoring within and beyond the school day, summer programs, and after-school programs. We should also consider year-round school, and we need to continue to explore funding sources for expanded all-day early childhood care for our entire community.

These ideas are directed towards using the difficulties inherent in this unprecedented moment as an opportunity to achieve long-term, systemic changes that can transform learning and close opportunity and achievement gaps. We have a once-in-a-generation moment to rethink and reinvent our school systems to provide the kind of education that will allow all students to fulfill their potential in much more empowering and transcendent ways.

[1] Several of these suggestions are drawn from Reinventing School in the COVID Era and Beyond by Linda Darling-Hammond, Abby Schachner and Adam Edgerton, Learning Policy Institute, https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/blog/covid-reinventing-school.

[2] U.S. Department of Education, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf

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