Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.
We’re honored today to speak with Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District, a public district in Arizona. Dr. Gestson and his team have emerged as some of the most innovative leaders in education in responding to the COVID-19 closures. Through a relentless commitment to students, Dr. Gestson has embraced a vision of “every kid, every day.” In the interview, Dr. Gestson explains why the approach is working and speaks about the importance of focusing on the immediate needs of children while simultaneously building towards the future.
Marc Porter Magee: I’m so glad to have Superintendent Chad Gestson here with us today, and he is the superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District which, over the past few years, has emerged as a real model across the country for what an innovative school system of the future looks like. And in the past few weeks, he’s emerged as a real leader of how do you take a system like that and move it into a world of distance learning and how you continue high quality schooling without the school building. So we’re really excited to have you here to talk about that. And I’d love to just jump in and hear about your school district, what it’s all about and what you’ve been working on up to this moment when this crisis hit.
Chad Gestson: I appreciate the opportunity to be here today. Thanks so much. As you said at the very beginning, I’m very proud to serve as the superintendent for the Phoenix Union High School District, and we are the umbrella high school district for the city of Phoenix. We have a handful of K-8 districts that feed into a large high school district. We serve about 30,000 high school students. All told, we’re a K-12 system of about 150,000 students.
Among our 30,000 between 85 and 90 percent of our kids live at or below the federal poverty line, qualify for free and reduced lunch. Like many systems across our nation, we have beautiful diversity. Our kids speak almost 100 languages. About 85 percent of our youth are Hispanic and have beautiful diversity there after Native American. We serve more Native American youth in Phoenix Union than any school system in Arizona off of reservation. We serve more African American youth than any system in Arizona, and so we are very proud of our diversity. But it’s not just our cultural diversity. It’s the educational diversity as well, the backgrounds of our youth. And what we realized a few years ago is that with a diverse group of students, we need to have a diverse system of schools.
And so a few years ago, we made a bold decision to not only brand ourselves as a portfolio district, but set a really bold vision that we would become one of the, if not the most, progressive portfolio districts in the country. We’re still striving for that. And what that means to us is that Phoenix Union used to be a system of about 5 to 10 large comprehensive educational high schools. This happens to be out 125th year anniversary. And what we did a few years ago is said that every learner needs a different type of school system, different type of school. Some need small, some need specialty, some need large. Some students want to go to a tech school. Some want clubs, sports, arts. Parents are asking for more parent classes, food banks, clothing banks. We launched a coding and technology high school. We have a bio science high school. We run the only police and fire high school in the country. We are the only Montessori high school in the state of Arizona.
We do that because we know that not every kid learns in the same way and same pace and in the same space. And so we’ve been working really hard to live up to what we call the PXU promise, which is that we will develop a portfolio of schools that will welcome, love, and inspire every single student that walks across our threshold and help them and equip them to go places and do things that matter to them and to their families and to our community.
And then you had this challenge. It’s like you were on this amazing path with you and your team and fulfilling that promise, and then almost overnight, the unspeakable happened. You had to figure out how to make that system of schools work without the school buildings. I wonder if you could take us into that first couple days. What did you and your team think about? What did you prioritize? How did you make such a dramatic shift in such a short period of time?
It’s been a month that we’ll never forget. I’ve shared with many people that we happened to be right in the middle of our spring break when we had to make really clear decisions about what school closures were going to look like. We had no idea, at that time, the closures would be for the rest of the year.
At the time, our state had decided it would be two weeks, but we’ve all been tracking the anticipated spread of COVID-19. And so our team came back from spring break, and as I shared, we work 24 straight days, or it might even have been 25 straight days. We finally took last Sunday off for the first time. We gave up spring break and every weekend, because we had to create two very distinct plans in our system to prepare the shift. And again, as you alluded to, we were turning this 125-year-old brick-and-mortar institution, and almost overnight, needed to become a virtual learning institution. And that required a tremendous amount of training and planning. And so what we did is we created a robust professional development plan for our staff. We realized we needed to equip our staff first. It’s almost like the oxygen mask and the airplane metaphor, that, “I first help equip you to serve others, and then you can go serve others.”
So we launched professional development for our teachers. We had fortunately launched a digital academy about a year ago, and so we do have an online virtual platform. We’ve been using Microsoft Teams to do virtual meetings already. So we trained our staff, equipped all of them over a two-day period. Even when schools were closed to kids, we brought our staff back for two days. We had to make sure that everybody had a laptop and a hotspot in their own house so the teachers could deliver that instruction. And of course, this entire plan for our students, how do we get them to have laptops in the household? What devices do they have? How do we inventory every device in our system? Purchased hotspots early, create food distribution systems, and on and on. And that 48 hours, but really, the last month has tested our system, and I’m extremely proud of our staff and our students.
You seem to have gone further than just taking everything you had done before and bringing it online through all those changes and all the systems and all those long days, but also making even stronger promises. I wonder if you could let us in on this bold promise that has been circulating and people are getting inspired by of “Every student, every day.” What does that mean?
Yeah. Well, let me tell you what that means. We’ve said, from day one, that every single child in our system must be treated as if they were our own children. And we know that youth today especially—we serve only high school students—we know that serving a community that’s primarily in poverty and serving this generation of teenagers, we already have many people in crisis, more depression, more anxiety, more self doubt, more self harm than virtually any other generation in our history. And so when we closed our doors on March 6, we did not know that we, in fact, would not reopen our doors until August 3. Five months, we are sending our children home, very likely. And we thought that the only way for us to ensure that our kids stayed well and healthy and connected is that we would call every single student every single day. And we’ve made that commitment to our students.
We started just a few days ago, and built this entire system. Happy to talk a little bit about that here in a moment. But we have committed to virtually every single adult in our system, including myself, even governing board, that we will take groups of students, and we will make sure that they are well. These are just well checks. These aren’t academic checks. This is, “How are you? How’s your mom? How’s your dad? How’s your guardian? Do you have electricity in the house? Can we provide you with support services?” We believe every kid must be contacted and connected every day if we’re going to get our kids back to school healthy on the 3rd of August.
We’ve seen some data that’s starting to come out that’s saying, about half of all public high school kids have not connected yet with their schools since the school closure. So we know we have a long way to go, and you’re a shining example of how we can make that happen. I wonder if you could just talk about what does it take, and can we expect that all schools can make this transition?
I’ll say a couple of things. One, I think it’s probably the most worthwhile endeavor we’ve ever launched in my time. Actually, we think there’s some great long-term benefits to this particular initiative. So one, I think it’s worth it. Number two, I think even if it feels messy and there’s a lot of questions upfront around FERPA and HIPAA and protecting caller identity, it is absolutely worth it.
We’ve built a system where we believe we can protect our employees and our kids at the same time. And ultimately, what it means logistically for us is we were fortunate to already have an advisory period, a homeroom, across our system. That’s something we launched a couple of years ago. We believe that every kid needs to have an adult on each campus that knows them, loves them, and cares about them. And so we launched this advisory council. And what we’ve asked our employees to do is every advisor in our system is paired with another employee in our system. Office staff, principal, someone here at the district office, and those two tag-team a group of about 20 to 25 students. And they split the list down the middle, and our job is to do these well checks every single day.
I think more importantly is we’ve told our staff, “It’s not just about the phone calls. It’s about the information that we’re gathering too.” You and I, you might be the student that I’m calling. I learned that you’re doing well academically, but mom just lost her job last night. Oh, I can’t solve that over the phone. But my job is to be sympathetic, build this relationship, and when we’re done, every employee in our school system has a link. And I enter your name and that fact that your mom just lost her job into this link, and then on the backside of the link is principals, assistant principals, our support staff team, who are then triaging each student.
We’re doing home visits. We knock on the door, stand back 10 feet to adhere to the social distancing guidelines, but make sure that we will search out every single student if we have to. And we still have kids who haven’t answered the phone. We’re home visiting. We’re going around community. We’re knocking on doors, and we will not stop till we have every student in our system.
It’s amazing. I thought maybe we could just finished by—you’ve been moving a million miles an hour, responding to all these urgent needs—maybe just to look a little bit into the future, how do we make sure that the way we’re responding to this crisis sets us up to be even stronger in the years to come, serving our kids?
I get asked all the time, “What is it that– what is it that we can do, foundations, business community? We want to help.” And what I told a few people is that– one of my reactions, and it’s a real reaction, which is we have a challenge ahead of us and a question for us to grapple with, which is, “Are we trying to solve a two-week, four-week, six-week issue, or are we actually going to try to tackle this greater disparity that exists in our country?”
So I’ve told people, “Don’t send me any more hotspots. I want WiFi towers and fiber in every poor community in America. Don’t send me any more laptops. I want to appropriately resourced schools in America. Don’t send me money to run a summer program. I want adequate funding to do free clubs and free sports and free activities and free arts for poor kids all throughout our nation.”
And what I continue to challenge our community to ask themselves is, “How much money and time and effort are we going to invest over the next two weeks?” And at the same time, let’s be honest with ourselves. What kind of effort energy do we need to put into to start to tackle these long-term disparities in our nation, these inequities across our country negatively impacting, disproportionately impacting the communities of color? And I think this is a great opportunity. Now that the light is shed on issues of poverty and the disparities and the lack of equity in our country, to really think about long-term solutions. Around funding, around infrastructure, around support for students and schools and families.
Absolutely. Well, that’s great. I think that’s a great note to end on. I know you are just getting started, and you and your team have a lot of other work and plans and innovations to come. How should we follow along to keep up with all that work?
Well, I appreciate that. And again, thank you for the opportunity to chat today. Our website is www.PhoenixUnion.org. A lot of our information, we put all of our pamphlets, flyers, guides on our main website. Of course, we can be followed at phoenixunion.org or on Facebook.
And also, we’ve started a couple of hashtags. We have every student, every day, but we also created another hashtag just to tell our great story. And it’s #closenotclosed. Because the reality is the message across our nation is that schools are closed, but the reality is we’re not closed.
And we’re never going to give up on our kids. We’re never going to abandon our kids, and so even if the gates are closed, our hands are open. Our hearts are open, and we will continue to serve our students and families, whether this will last one month or five months. We won’t give up on our kids.
Thank you so much, Superintendent Gestson. I really enjoyed it and we’re looking forward to what’s to come.