Supt. Tahiliani: Schools Focused on Serving Families First, Data Second

Supt. Priya Tahiliani told the School Committee on Monday night during a special meeting that they focused more on serving the basic needs of students and families – such as shelter and food – over the last few months ahead of academics, a plan she and members of the Committee agreed was the best course of action given the struggles faced by so many in just trying to get by during COVID-19.

Tahiliani said they began to quickly realize that many students and families needed wrap-around services such as food, clothing and other goods – which is what they heard clearly. Focusing on that above academics was a call she made, which didn’t mean they didn’t collect data, but did mean they made it less of a priority to analyze.

“Our students are from working-class families  and any information gathered and presented should not be used to penalize our families that are going through an unprecedented situation through no fault of their own,” she said. “Instead of compiling the numbers of ‘virtual drop outs,’ which is a term I have a problem with…, I chose a more holistic approach that ensured our families had access to food, technology and other wrap-around services, which is where we really heard our families had the most need. Then we’ll shift our attention to make sure our students have what they need to be academically successful at the start of next school year.

“This was a judgement call I made clear to our staff and that we were looking at in three tiers,” she said.

She said though academics is certainly their mission, taking care of students and their families in very tough circumstances became the top priority.

“I know we’re an academic institution and we should be thinking about academics above all else,” she said. “However, I did make the call that we were looking at the whole child and to make sure they were taken care of, number two, their families were taken care of.”

There is quite a bit of data that has been collected, and that has been discussed internally. Early on, the EPS looked at log-ins and found participation fluctuated by the day, or by the week. Some students didn’t log in regularly, but did their work. Others logged in, but were spotty on homework. Others didn’t even have a computer or internet service. All of that was early on in the remote learning journey, but soon after, as the surge of COVID-19 cases began, Tahiliani said they began to focus solely on one data point. That point was how many families had no contact with the school despite phone calls, house visits, mailings and other contact attempts.

Earlier this week, that number was at 206 families, but Tahiliani said two families have since reported they moved out of Everett during COVID-19. So, that number is now down to 204.

In focusing on those families that were out of contact, they did uncover some very serious situations where school personnel were able to direct services to the family for help of all kinds, including groceries, food services, health care and gift cards.

“We will continue to plug away and figure out what is going on with these families and make sure their needs are taken care of,” she said.

As for the more commonplace data, such as how many kids logged in and how many assignments were completed, that data does exist, but it needs to be analyzed over the summer. There is a great deal of discussion right now in school districts, particularly urban districts, about what good attendance means – what is consistent and inconsistent in remote learning. Some students logged in consistently, but didn’t do well completing assignments. Other students didn’t log in, but completed all assignments. Likewise, some teachers had much higher expectations for student Zoom meeting participation than other teachers. That inconsistency made it difficult for figuring out just how students did during remote learning – as log-ins didn’t always equal great success in the classroom, which makes grading in this new era more difficult than it already is.

For Everett, in the third quarter, all students got an ‘A’ for their classes. Following that, for the final quarter during remote learning, they got an ‘A,’ a ‘Pass,’ or an ‘Incomplete/Intervention.’

“We really are struggling with how to define it,” she said. “We go to other districts to see what they’re doing, and they have the same questions.”

Tahiliani said they plan to analyze all of the data they collected, put that into a report this summer, and present it then. Whether it becomes public information is another story – as some data begins to expose families who were hit hard by COVID-19 with job loss and sickness.

School Committeewoman Dana Murray – a teacher in Boston Public Schools – said she would be very careful about releasing data to the public about this year’s remote learning.

“I think we should be very strategic and thoughtful with what we do with this data because I’ve seen in other places where it’s been used to weaponize and I’m not in the business of weaponizing data to use against educators or parents.”

School Committeeman Frank Parker said he has been following other high-performing urban school districts around the country, and one common thread he found during COVID-19 is that they all shifted to focus on the needs of families ahead of academics.

“It’s a hierarchy of needs,” he said. “If anyone is going to question you on it, I’ll be there to defend the decision we made…Things changed and we had to move quickly without the systems or support or professional development in place.”

Tahiliani said she agreed that the data needs to be handled carefully as they begin to understand it fully.

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