MONTEREY — When COVID-19 sent millions of K-12 students home indefinitely, school districts scrambled to recalibrate their approach to teaching in a way that supported at-home learning.
The challenge was urgent and demanding but one that the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District dealt with swiftly, a feat that had not gone unrecognized by education leaders.
This past spring, just as the 2020-2021 school year was drawing to a close, MPUSD Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh lent his voice to “What Will We Take With Us?,” a leadership podcast series created by a national nonprofit known as the Learning Accelerator to spotlight education leaders who rose to the challenge of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 30-minute interview, Diffenbaugh discussed newly-implemented methods of grading, the importance of families in a student’s education and deepening partnerships with local nonprofits, ideas that have continued to serve MPUSD well today as it faces another school year with the specter of the coronavirus looming.
“We built up stamina,” said Diffenbaugh, reflecting on the points he made to the Learning Accelerator podcast earlier this year. “We have in the education system a belief gap about what kids and staff and teachers are capable of doing. I was blown away with how staff pivoted on a dime to offer online learning across the board from the littlest kids to seniors.
“It just showed me that our staff, teachers and kids are capable of tremendous things, and we need to continue to create environments where people are comfortable taking risks… I’m not sure anything has gotten easier, but you do gain confidence that you’ll be able to rise up to the challenge again.”
To Diffenbaugh, ideas brought on by the pandemic weren’t anything revolutionary but merely his district’s way of responding to COVID-19. To the Learning Accelerator, however, MPUSD’s response was far more than an answer to a simple question. Rather, the district’s behavior was something the nonprofit thought deserved emulation.
“We found in Monterey a set of leaders and educators who showed an incredible amount of fortitude throughout the pandemic,” said Beth Rabbitt, chief executive officer of the Learning Accelerator.
Started eight years ago, the Learning Accelerator identifies new educational approaches and widens their reach to classrooms across America, so innovations are not bound to a single school or teacher.
MPUSD crossed paths with the Learning Accelerator in the summer of 2020, when the district joined a network known as the Always Reading for Learning Strategy Lab created to generate greater resiliency and equity during the pandemic. It was then that the Learning Lab and Rabbitt began to see the commitment MPUSD and particularly Diffenbaugh had in supporting students through months of uncertainty.
“I found in PK a leader who prioritizes equity across everything he does as a superintendent,” said Rabbitt. “He dug in with his team to provide as much support as he could to kids.”
Rabbitt went on to recognize that MPUSD managed to not just stay afloat but innovate in the face of COVID-19 because of a culture Diffenbaugh and his team have cultivated throughout the district.
“I think it requires an incredible amount of trust and bravery for school leaders, educators, students and families to lean into each other during a moment of crisis,” she said. “It requires creating a type of culture and communication that allows people to feel safe in asking more of each other to lift everyone up.
“MPUSD really showed that trust and belief in students and staff to be able to put together what they did.”
When MPUSD realized shutdown would not be a short-term condition in March 2020, the district, like most around the country, sought ways to reconcile the idea of a virtual learning environment with a quality education. For MPUSD, this meant shifting toward a standards-based model of grading, where teachers focus on depth rather than breadth of material.
With only so many online school hours in a day, teachers were encouraged to focus on fostering mastery of a few essential standards rather than covering every topic at a surface level. In terms of grading, students are now evaluated on a four-point scale instead of a zero to 100 approach.
“We had started looking at (standards-based grading) before the pandemic, but it was really just among a small pocket of teachers on campus, a coalition of the willing,” said Diffenbaugh. “The pandemic really helped accelerate us to take the approach district-wide.”
Though Diffenbaugh noted the standards-based shift is still underway, he emphasized that the district is starting to move away from failing kids because they didn’t turn in an assignment in favor of evaluating students for their comprehension of essential standards.
Apart from grade-point scales, MPUSD addressed the pandemic as a lesson in relationships, both with the families needing extra support and the local organizations equipped to lend that helping hand. Together, MPUSD created a network within its education system that included far more than students themselves.
Throughout the 18-month stint at home, the district held regular virtual town hall meetings and events like STEM family nights that engaged whole households, breaching the typical parent-teacher relationship where check-ins happen once a year and education falls on the backs of students alone.
Outside of MPUSD, engagement was just as strong. With the help of the Food Bank of Monterey County, the district offered families food free for pick-up, a service it continues to offer every Monday and Wednesday at Seaside High School and Monterey Peninsula College.
Alongside four local nonprofits and city groups, including the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, the city of Seaside Recreation Department and Community Partnership for Youth, MPUSD also launched its Community Cares Program, which provided students with a physical location to complete remote learning if they didn’t have a space to do so at home or even a home at all.
These changes and programs implemented over the last year-and-a-half have carried on to the fall and created a mindset Diffenbaugh knows is necessary for returning to in-person class.
“I think it makes all the difference in the world when students feel that parents, teachers and administrators are on their team all pushing in the same direction for success,” he said. “Kids really feel support from all sides, which is particularly important for kids who are struggling.”
Still, Diffenbaugh was not as quick to boast his own accomplishments. When asked to take part in the Learning Accelerator’s podcast, he was open to the idea but doubted the impact of his contributions to the nonprofit’s goal.
“When they first asked me to do it, I was happy to talk but I didn’t feel like I had anything earth-shattering to share about the work we had done, but they kind of insisted,” said Diffenbaugh. “I don’t particularly feel like I’m a leader that needs to be highlighted, but I am proud of the way that MPUSD responded.”
Despite being acknowledged by the Learning Accelerator, Diffenbaugh doesn’t just doubt the originality of his district’s work but also wonders whether he is doing enough.
“I feel somewhat responsible for kids not getting as great of an education as they could have during the pandemic,” he said. “I think we did everything that we could with kids out virtually for the whole year, but I always look back and ask if I could have done more to facilitate them coming back sooner.”
Inadequacy is a feeling that continues to haunt Diffenbaugh as COVID-19 overshadows the district through its return to face-to-face instruction.
At the time the podcast was recorded last spring, Diffenbaugh looked forward to a new school year where the pandemic became a background concern and the district could recharge. Anticipating a moment to breathe, he discussed future projects the district hoped to complete with the help of state- and federally-funded COVID-19 relief programs designed to make up for any unfinished learning from the last 18 months.
And while MPUSD has put some of this funding to use, having expanded its summer school program and hired new mental health professionals for each school, other ideas have taken a backseat for the time being as the district tries to ensure the safety of students above all else.
This is not to say that after 18 months MPUSD is back where it started. Rather, the district is coming into a new period of transition with a year-and-a-half worth of lessons and resiliency that has made returning difficult but worthwhile nonetheless.
“We were really looking forward to this year to recharge our battery and not focus on COVID all the time, but that hasn’t been the case,” said Diffenbaugh. “But at the end of the day it’s so worth it because kids are back at school and coming every day.
“When we see the energy and joy that kids bring onto campus when they see their friends and teachers, that really does make us want to keep going.”
Contributed by local news sources