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.
Marc is joined by ConnCAN Executive Director Subira Gordon for a look at what’s happening on the ground in Connecticut. Subira offers insight into what parents and students are experiencing around the state and how their concerns led her team to develop new policy goals to meet the needs of families that have shifted as a result of the Covid19 pandemic.
Marc Porter Magee: I’m really excited to be able to dig in again with our video interview series, and today we have a great guest: Subira Gordon. She is the executive director of ConnCAN, which is the oldest CAN in the 50CAN network. It’s been advocating for kids in the Constitution State for 15 years. Before she joined ConnCAN as the executive director, she was the executive director of the Commission on Equity and Opportunity at the Connecticut State Legislature and she got her start in advocacy as an organizer with SEIU. So she is the perfect mix of great outside grassroots advocacy and a really smart and savvy inside strategy for how you get things done for kids. So I’m excited to dig in with you, Subira.
Subira Gordon: Thank you, Marc.
I thought we could start by talking about what’s going on in Connecticut right now. So catch us up. Helps us understand what are the big issues at play, how has the landscape changed in the past few months?
Thank you for that introduction, Marc. So, here in Connecticut, like in many other states, school buildings are physically closed. And for those of us who care about education, it was important for us to have the message be clear that although buildings were closed, learning was supposed to still be happening. But many districts had a very slow roll to getting their distance learning going.
We saw where, in what I call high-resource districts, more suburban areas, they quickly were able to pivot and have all of their kids on devices and having high-quality instruction being delivered remotely. Whereas, in our urban centers, also known as our Alliance Districts in Connecticut, that was not the case.
Some school districts sent home a couple of pages of work for kids to do and it’s taken a very long time for all kids to be in a high-quality distance learning environment and still, today, many school districts have not been able to get devices in the hands of the kids although they were promised that several weeks ago.
So it’s very challenging but I want to say it’s also an exciting time as we continue to figure out how to pivot our work. There was a heavy legislative strategy, fighting for public policy and now to think about how do we change our narrative to really home in on distance learning and making sure that what is happening is equitable for all kids.
So let’s talk about distance learning. Obviously, it’s been a huge sea change, nothing any of us could have predicted just a few months ago. I know you spent a lot of time talking to students and parents and teachers about this new reality, what are you hearing from people in Connecticut?
So specifically, from educators, they feel like they were not trained and prepared for the shift and some educators are doing their best. They’re trying to figure out how do they lesson-plan for remote learning experience where they’re still also making sure that they’re delivering high-quality instruction to their students.
And the parents are telling us that they’re seeing a big breakdown in communication between the school district and the parents and the families who are trying to kind of do their best to make sure that their kids are learning.
There’s been some issues around access to food and reliability of that access to food because initially, you had school districts saying, “Come to a school on this day and line up,” which did not allow for parents to be following the social distancing guidelines. We’ve seen some pivots and some districts do a really good job there by utilizing their school buses to get the food out, but it’s still not at 100%.
And then we have to also remember families are deeply concerned about their own health, safety and job security while at the same time, trying to be their students’ kind of facilitator or distance learning and in some cases full-on homeschooling.
And then students, it’s interesting, in some places, students are saying, “This is the best thing that could have happened. I really like learning online.” But for the most part, students are saying, “I would much rather have, if we’re in a distance learning environment, live webcast with my teacher,” to be able to kind of simulate the classroom experience and not having to really figure things out on their own. Older kids say, “I’m on Google and I’m really trying to figure out how do I do these problems because my educators, while they’re available, it’s not simulating a classroom experience as much they would like.”
And I know, as those realities are changing for students, for teachers, for families, that creates a different challenges in terms of what the policy agenda should be so what can you do as an advocacy campaign to most help those kids, and families, and teachers? So help us understand how your policy ideas have shifted this year. What are the goals you’re aiming for and what would success look like?
We came into 2020 with some, I would say, big ideas. We’ve done a lot of work around teacher diversity, we wanted to make sure that parental voice was in turnaround efforts and we’re also looking at equitable school funding.
Well, in the crisis, we’re still hearing a lot about equitable school funding because schools of choice or public schools and many times, you see them, especially here in Connecticut, treated differently in our ECS formula and we, in this crisis, really think that we should be ensuring that all public schools should be receiving funding through the CARES Act. So that’s been a high priority for us.
We’ve also been really thinking about assessing and we need to have a diagnostic assessment for either the end of the school year or early next year depending on how things are happening, whether we’re in a remote learning environment or not. And specifically where families need to have access to that assessment. Many times, school districts, or schools, they will know where those kids are and trying to figure out where should they place them, but that’s not a conversation that traditionally happens with families. And we think it’s really important here at ConnCAN that families are brought into those conversations and a parent should have the right to say, “I think my child should stay back” or “I will help you in a partnership to make sure that they’re staying on track.”
We’re also looking at one to one ratios. Distance learning does not happen if you don’t have a device. In places where they’re sending home packets, there’s a not a really good flow of information. The packets aren’t going back to educators and they’re not being able to communicate with parents on kind of how they’re students are doing. We think there should be a one to one ratio.
We also want there to be a distance learning, I think the wording we’re using is clearinghouse at the State Department of Education. So somewhere where districts can send their distance learning plans to the State Department of Education and it gets kind of a thumbs up or a thumbs down or they’re helped to figure out what’s the best way to deliver high-quality instruction because right now, the decision-makers have essentially shifted the decisions down to the local school districts where Connecticut is kind of a really local control kind of state. But the State Department of Education should be the gatekeeper and helping the districts, not tell them what to do, but decide if what they’re doing is high-quality and rigorous enough for students to be successful. So it’s a little different from what we’ve been doing, but I think it also still aligns with our guiding stars, which is why we’re doing this work.
And I would imagine as your goals have shifted, you also need to adjust how you seek to accomplish those goals so as someone who spent a lot of time walking the halls of the capitol, I imagine it’s a bit weird to not be able to go inside the capitol right now. So maybe help us understand how are you working, you and your team, to get these goals done this year?
I’ve been a key believer that relationships are key and in a crisis, the executive branch is the leader. So the legislature—we are closed for the rest of the year, we might go back into special session late June for budgetary reasons—but we’re exclusively negotiating with the Executive Branch and the State Department of Education, which is very different.
We are used to a public process where there’s a public hearing and you can submit your proposal or give feedback to a proposal. So it’s really a situation where it’s mostly like a lot of late negotiations and depending on strong relationships that have been built over the years working on different issues and just being a trusted resource for those officials who understand that ConnCAN has it’s pulse on what’s happening with students and families. And we are a trusted resource for them to get feedback.
And also, sometimes, it might not be an easy way to do this, but we have to challenge when decisions come out that we think are not equitable for all kids. I think we’ve set up a really good system and I’m excited to see how we can work with them to make sure that our new goals are accomplished.
That’s great. Well, seems like you’ve got a lot of work ahead in the next few months. How should we follow along as you take on these goals with this new era or advocacy?
So it’s really easy. Our Twitter handle is @conncan and we are on Facebook as ConnCAN and same thing on Instagram, follow us @conncan. Thank you so much, Marc.
Thank you, Subira. Good luck.