July/August 2020

From the Field: The Way Forward is Together

By Dean Langdon

As school districts across the state considered how to best honor the class of 2020, one district decided the first step was to simply “ask.” As the spread of coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on the many honors, traditions, and rites of passage associated with learning and our communities, this district leadership team wondered, “What is best for our students and families?”

For many connected to our schools, it has been a disappointing series of cancelations, leaving all with a sense of unfinished business. Should we adapt our traditional ceremony or should we embrace something new? Knowing high school graduation was about honoring both, our graduating seniors and their families, the district surveyed both the seniors and the parents. Unexpectedly, they got two different answers.

The parents indicated a desire to postpone. This was mid-April, when we hoped for some normalcy. They wanted to see their children cross the stage and hear their names over the public address system. They wanted this special accomplishment to be shared with family and friends — in front of the entire community. Their hope was to hold the ceremony later when it would be safe to gather. I get it. These are proud parenting moments! Moments so important that we gather our loved ones, strategize for the best seats, arrive early, and endure sitting in uncomfortable chairs or bleachers for a long time. Parents want these moments to reflect on childhood, and appreciate all that has occurred up to this point. We all know our family won’t be the same again.

The seniors, however, indicated a need for closure. They wanted to move on and, I suspect, needed to move on. Throughout their last quarter of high school, they had missed entire seasons, banquets, concerts, and awards programs. It’s no wonder they wanted to complete this chapter of their lives. Who wouldn’t want to begin anew after experiencing three months of stay-at-home? After all, graduation is called “commencement” for a reason.

There is a good lesson here for school boards. An appreciation for where we have been is important. To be sure, there are many lessons regarding remote learning, technology, and meal distribution and we ought to consider what we have learned over the past several months. We also should celebrate all our school systems have accomplished. The transition for our instructional programs and our food-service operation has been nothing short of amazing. But this is also an opportunity to look ahead, put our past work behind us, and start anew.

Let’s start with the goals for the school district. As representatives of the “owners” (your community), the number-one responsibility is to articulate a vision for your school system and consider the goals needed to make that vision happen. It may be time to press pause on some priorities that don’t make sense in an environment of uncertainty, or that don’t address your most pressing needs. Alternatively, it may be time to accelerate those projects with the greatest impact right now. This may be the opportunity to completely reimagine an instructional or operational program in your district that will have a positive impact for many years to come. Just like the class of 2020, you should be looking ahead.

Once your goals are revised and rearticulated, board members will want to consider their relationships with other board members and the administrative team. Let’s fully understand and accept these stressful times for everyone. Our lives have been turned upside-down with remote learning, social distancing, and the continual uncertainty of information. The only way forward is together. How can we support one another as we work toward our shared goals? A pivotal moment for a school board member is the realization your individual priorities aren’t embraced by your colleagues and the only way to move forward is to embrace the collective goals of the board. Today, this moment may be more important than ever, as each of us reconsiders how our own vision of public education aligns with those around us. For the board to move on, everyone may need closure on what could have been, in order to embrace what can be in the future.

What did this district leadership team do when faced with the dilemma of parents and students wanting different solutions to the graduation dilemma? They listened to the students. They communicated the survey results to all and decided a combination virtual experience to honor each individual graduate along with a parade, providing a common celebration would be best.

Delaying the ceremony created more uncertainty in a time when the class of 2020 simply wanted closure. Closure on last year allows us to begin the work needed to accomplish our goals for the coming year and beyond. As we honor the accomplishments of the class of 2020, let’s not linger too long. The closure of this year allows us to reimagine next year and beyond.
Dean Langdon is Associate Executive Director for Member Services with the Illinois Association of School Boards.