Interview with Dr. Grant Rivera

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.

Steven Quinn, outreach director for GeorgiaCAN is joined by Dr. Grant Rivera, the superintendent of Marietta City Schools. A former school leader, Dr. Rivera is leading Marietta’s school system through the Covid-19 pandemic with a clear vision. In the interview, he talks about the importance of leading with values, shares how his district was able to ensure that over 93% of students were engaged with distance learning each day and presents his team’s creative and inspiring plan for education during the summer.


Steven Quinn: I’m excited to be here with Superintendent of Marietta City Public Schools, and that is Dr. Grant Rivera. I’m excited to have you in this conversation. We’re going to talk a little bit this morning about kind of the effects of COVID-19, but then also a little bit about summer learning plans that Marietta City is doing currently. And so I want to get it kicked off, to have yourself do yourself a little introduction and talk a little bit about where you’ve come from and where in the space, specifically.

Grant Rivera: Yeah, sure. I mean, I’ll give a brief overview so those who may be viewing this who don’t understand Marietta might have some context from my comments as we talk. But yeah. I’ve served as superintendent for three years. It’s a wonderful place we call home. Prior to that, I was a high school principal for nine years in both Cobb County and Fulton County and served as a high school assistant principal and also a special ed teacher. Here in Marietta, we have just under 9,000 students. We have 12 schools going from pre-K, which we opened a couple years ago, and all the way up to– well, we have 8 elementary schools, 1 sixth-grade academy, 1 middle and 1 high school, so 12 total, serving just under 9,000 kids. So extremely diverse community. We’re hovering just around 60% free and reduced lunch. 39% of our students are Hispanic. 37% African American. About 20% mobility and transiency, depending on how you interpret that word. I feel like Marietta really is a perfect microcosm of, really, the larger Metro Atlanta area and, certainly, a wonderful place to lead and serve students.

Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. And so I know that we are in the midst of a pandemic, and so talk a little bit about what are the few things that you guys faced when the COVID-19 outbreak started.

Yeah. Well, I mean, I think, first, we had the opportunity to lead through our values. Right? It wasn’t just about, “Oh, we’re going to close, and what’s the new schooling look like?” It really was about reinforcing to our community, “These are our values, and they will drive our priorities as we shift from open to closed.” And there were several. One, I think the students’ most basic need was food. Listen, kids used to show up at our building every morning and every– for breakfast and lunch, and they assumed that we were going to be open to feed them. And if we weren’t there to support them, then they may go hungry. So we made a value statement that we were going to continue the food service, and we delivered to 81 different bus stops across 18 different bus routes. It was important to us. If a child can’t afford food, they probably can’t afford a ride to get to a school to get food. So for us, it was around a value statement of, “No kid hungry, and we meet them where they are.” So we would end up serving, over a course of 10 weeks, just under a quarter-million meals to children. But that was one value statement. It was, “We’re going to take care of our kids because they lean on us, and it’s not their fault the doors are closed.” The second value statement was really around if we’re going to pivot to some kind of digital learning, how do we offer both a device, in our case, a Chromebook, and a hotspot? Because we can’t say we’re going to digital learning and then expect kids to figure that out on their own, especially if they can’t even afford a meal. Right? So the second value statement for us was connecting children to their teacher, and ultimately, connecting children to learning. We would end up handing out over 3,300 Chromebook to our students. Any family who wanted one got one for each of the children they had in our district. We also handed out 721 hotspots. We got a six-month plan that ran from March till September, so that way, kids who needed it had access.

So once we take care of the food, and once we take care of the connectivity, I think the third conversation really is around digital learning because you can’t get to digital learning until you address those first two needs. And really, for that, it was about pivoting to a learning management system which, fortunately, we had in place and really making sure that we were supporting every child and every family. We would go through– over the course of 10 weeks, we had 93% connectivity in terms of our kids connecting and engaging in what we called Schoology, our platform. And then, the other thing we did to be very strategic was we went through and we would look at weekly report of every single child who– we called it a high user, a low user, and a no user. So to what degree did we see children leaning into Schoology, again, our platform, our specific platform? But to what degree did we see children leaning into learning and connecting digitally with their teachers? And if we saw a child who had low engagement, which we could track via logins to Schoology, or we saw them completely off the grid with no engagement, then we would send staff to reach out to them. In some situations, we did home visits in coordination with the Marietta Police Department. But it really was a very comprehensive effort. Feed them, connect them, and then engage them in learning, and if they’re not, take a very personalized approach to what that looks like and not assume that every kid, especially as you’re having conversations around equity– in a community as diverse as ours, we can’t make assumptions that every kid has equal access, equal resources, or equal support.

You’re right. I think my parents are both public school teachers, and my dad’s a principal, actually, in North Carolina, and I think one of the things was connectivity and connecting with students. Right? And I think that’s amazing that you’re able to identify where those students are and then identify the needs of those students, and then, if they aren’t reaching back out to you guys, then reaching back out to them even more. Right? Because we talked a lot about– I think there was a lot of reports out there in the first weeks of the pandemic where there was just not a lot of students logging in. And I think one thing that I’ve seen as a shining star in some of Georgia is that there are some districts that we saw 93, 94, 98 percent connectivity or response rate, and I think that’s amazing that we were keeping kids learning in this space and at this time when all the other things are going on in this world. It’s an amazing bright star in this conversation, and it shows how powerful digital learning can be if we do it the right way and we kind of navigate it. And I think that kind of leads me to this next space. So as families are trying to, I think, navigate the next few months– right? So going back to school has been on top of parents’ minds, but I think, also, parents want to continue learning because the summer slide does exist. You guys are doing some amazing things with kind of the summer learning program that you came up with. Talk a little bit about that.

So yeah. I mean, listen. I think families were forced into a position and a role they didn’t ask for. There’s so much turmoil and whatnot. And I think that our responsibility is to acknowledge where they are and support them. And you acknowledged this COVID slide. Right? So if you go back and look from March 16th in Marietta to the last day of school, May 22nd, our kids lost 25.3% of their school year. We all, as educators, everybody in this space, yourself included, know that when we hit June and July in the summer months, we normally talk about a summer slide. What we did was we just extended that by four and a half, five months. So the question becomes how do we support children, not just during the school year, digitally, but, as you referenced, going into the summer. So one of the things that we did specifically to address the overwhelming research that’s out there right now, we know children are going to come back– if we do nothing, children will come back in August anywhere from 30 to 50 percent behind in reading and math, respectively. So what we did is we have offered a five-week summer learning program– we’re actually not calling it summer school. It’s just a summer learning program. It’s optional. Any child who wants it can sign up for– and the ratios right now are anywhere from 1:15, 1 staff member to 15 kids or lower. And what we did, basically, is we had staff volunteer to participate. They’re getting paid. We had children volunteer to participate. My daughter’s doing it, quite honestly, and yesterday, we went to the school and picked up a Ziploc bag that had her books in it. We know every morning, Monday through Thursday at 9:45, she’s going to do a live session with her teacher. So really, our goal was continue learning throughout the summer so we are not in an academic pandemic come August. And that’s going to involve three hours a week of live instruction with a teacher in small-group. It involves additional supplemental learning that we’ll do through our learning management system.

And the other thing that we’re really excited about is we have a partnership with Kennesaw State, and we are fortunate enough to have received some grant funding, and what we’re doing is we are paying KSU College of Ed teachers to serve as one-on-one tutors for our kids in addition to everything else their teacher is doing. So my kids, our kids in Marietta will get three hours of live instruction, they’ll get three hours of additional supplemental learning, and then, on top of that, they’re going to get additional tutoring, one-on-one, by a KSU College of Ed student. And what’s exciting about that is my kids have one more people– I say my kids. My Marietta – 9,000 of them – kids have one more person to connect with. And then, on top of that, we’re helping college kids who lost their summer jobs. So we’re really trying to pull all this together, make it a win-win, and make sure kids get very intensive small-group and one-on-one support, and we’ll be doing that in math and reading, grades K through 8, for five weeks in June.

That’s awesome. I think it’s a great way to kind of identify, hey, this is an issue that we have. Right? We know it’s happening. And then getting in front of it. Right? And I think not all families– it’s optional, so it’s not required, but I think it’s something that parents will opt into, and I hope they are opting into it.

Yeah. I can tell you right now, we have 1,800 elementary kids who signed up and over 700 middle-school kids who signed up.

That’s amazing.

And that doesn’t even factor in the high school. We’re doing something around credit recovery for kids who need it. That’s a totally different ballgame. But I mean, at the end of the day, supporting our kids academically, reducing, to the greatest degree possible, the impact of 25% of your school year closing, reducing summer slide, I mean, you find me a better use of money than that. For us, it was– again, just like with food and connectivity, it was around a value statement. Like, “Hey, families. If you need summer to go unwind, go unwind. But if you’re worried about math and reading and where your kid is because of this situation that nobody asked for and nobody wanted, then let us help you.” And I mean, I’m really excited about it, and listen, I’m on the other end of this call not just as superintendent of 9,000 kids but as the dad of a first-grader. And I’m thrilled. I am beyond thrilled that my kid gets small-group learning with a teacher, and it’s just going to change– I mean, I think it could be the most productive summer we’ve ever had. Normally, my kid wants nothing to do with learning, and now she’s really excited about it.

Yeah. You’re right. And I think it gives a different perspective to parents. We were on a call last week, actually, with about 60 or 70 parents across the state, and the one thing that kept coming up that we heard from parents is, “What do we do for these students that fall behind?” And I think this is a model of ideas that we can address some of those summer slides, the fall-behind opportunity that does happen when we don’t have a 8-hour instruction day. Right? And I think it’s incredible that we see a district step up in that way because, a lot of times, it’s kind of step back and say, “Hey, we’ll figure it out, and then we’ll identify it.” And I think, sometimes, it’s, “We’re going to address the needs of students and take that on,” which is awesome. And I think, for parents that are watching, what are some things that you think that might be helpful, even if they’re not in your district or even outside– if they’re in your district, what are ways that they should be thinking about summer learning or ideas that they should be including in their process when they’re thinking about the next few months?

Yeah. I mean, I think you’ve asked a really critical question, and I have to start just by saying thank you to all the families who are out there, regardless of whether you wear blue and call yourself a Blue Devil. Right? So I mean, I would argue in the history of public education, there has never been a moment where families were more engaged in their child’s learning than now. I think that is such an amazing testament to what we wanted all along. Right? Now, again, when we were talking about family engagement and making home an extension of the classroom, when school was in session, we never once dreamed that we would thrust families into being a homeschool teacher. Right? But we have, and here’s where we are. And I think, as we look ahead, I would really offer two bits of advice to families as we continue to keep that degree of engagement and that connection to school. And I think one is about summer learning and the other is about as we restart schools and whatever that looks like. So around the summer learning, I think I would encourage families to reach out to their teacher, reach out to their principal or their school district. In Marietta, we’re about to push this out. And families, if there’s not a summer learning program being offered in your district, for example, like we’re doing, there are digital resources that are available.

So for us, I can give you an example. Right? So there are different reading and math programs that we pay year-round. They don’t stop June 1 and start up August 1. So there may be licenses and access that families can get based on the– online academic resources. So again, just to offer one specific example, we did a K-12 math curriculum adoption last year. All of our kids have access to a math digital learning that they could space out and pace over the course of the summer. So I think the question, really, for a teacher or a principal or somebody in the central office, depending on who you feel comfortable reaching out to is, “Hey. What are the digital resources that exist that would be aligned to what my child did last year and what they’re going to be doing this year?” Rather than going online and doing a Google search and ending up with something random, find out what your district is already using because there’s a good possibility your kid’s already familiar with it. When my kid cracks open her laptop at the age of seven, she knows how to navigate into Pearson Math because she does it every day at school. So that’s just one more example of the home being an extension of the classroom.

So the first bit of advice is reach out to an educator and ask them what are the digital resources that are available that you can access for free that really are already baked into what they’re already doing at school. I think the second thing that I would offer– and this could be a now or it could be a when schools reopen – I’ll be honest with you; I lean more towards the now – and that is having families ask their teacher, “Based on what you’ve seen of my child, the 75% of the year when he or she was there, the 25% when we were going digital, do you have any concerns about where my kid is?” And listen, I’m a special ed teacher. I’m a superintendent, but the reality is, I don’t know my kid’s reading and math ability as well as her first-grade teacher. So with one simple email, a family can reach out and say, “Hey. Is there anything that should be on my radar?” “Oh, yeah. They really struggled with circles and squares.” Okay. Well, then, as you lean into summer learning, you can focus on those areas that are needed for a smoother transition to the next grade level. So I think, again, one is what digital resources are available that are provided from your school that are seamless for your kid, and two, that one-on-one dialogue that’s deeper than a report card or an end-of-year progress report, and just say, “Hey. Should there be anything on my radar of concern?” Or flip the question. “What’s my kid doing well that I really need to nourish over the course of the summer?” And I think, armed with those two bits of information– I mean, and this is what I’m hoping for. Right? I’m a dad like everybody else. I’m hoping for the most productive summer my first-grader’s ever had. And I think, armed with those two bits of information, I can continue to lean in, my wife can continue to lean in to support her, and that just makes the transition in August, whatever schools look like, as smooth as possible.

You’re right. And I think that– we had a call yesterday with some teachers from the Atlanta area with parents about summer learning resources, and the one thing that you mentioned was contact your school and find out what services they already have. I think, too, we have a parent on this– as a parent fellow in this space, her son has an IEP, and she was saying to us– I just contacted her and said, “Hey. What can I do during the summer to help his reading skills or continue the work that we’ve done this year?” And those are ways that I think are super powerful, especially because it’s simple things that we just don’t realize. I think a lot of parents feel like they’re stressed when it comes to finding that resource and navigating it, and I’m sure you probably feel this as a dad, too, sometimes. Right when this thing happened, we were thrusted into, like, “Here is a ton of resources.” How do you do it now is the question. And I think whatever is working for your family, I think replicating that. Right? And just keep going in that way. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We’re not all homeschool teachers. We’re not all teachers – right? – at the end of the day, but it’s okay to kind of have some grace in this process, and rely on the ones that know or the experts in this space and say, “Hey. Let’s see what my child needs.” I think that’s an incredible way to think about it. And I think it’s going to be super productive. I’m excited about just seeing what the impact is going to be in the fall for you guys because a plan like this, I think, sets students not just ahead but potentially first in the conversation, more than ever, which is awesome.

I mean, our goal– and I’ll give credit to one of our board members. We had a one-on-one conversation, and he said, “How are our kids going to beat the curve, beat the norm? We’ve got to–” Marietta City Schools, our goal is to outpace average because average is going to have a kid– based on research from NWEA across 5 million kids, they said, and I referenced it earlier, in reading, kids may be 30% behind compared to last year’s grade-equivalent peers and 50% behind in math. So how do we outpace average, which is not good? Right? How do we outpace that? And I think, to your point, everything that your organization’s doing, I think everything that schools across Georgia are doing, what we’re trying to do is outpace average because average is not going to be good enough, and we will spend years, years recovering from a loss of 25% of the school year.

Yep. And it’s going to be impactful in so many ways beyond the 12 years. Right? This goes into workforce development. This goes into communities. This goes into the space that we know exists, and if we hit it right when it happens, it’s going to be more direct impact versus later down the road, which I think is another piece of the puzzle. So as we head into the fall, what do you think the biggest challenge as your district or, potentially, the schools that– or even the state of Georgia is going to face, especially when we go back to school?

Yeah. There’s so many aspects to your question. I’ll touch on a couple of them. So in one sense, we as superintendents, we’re desperately seeking some degree of collaboration and/or alignment from the experts. Listen, I can write an IEP. I could be the principal of a school. I could be a superintendent, but I’m not a health policy expert. I’m certainly not a legislator. I’m certainly not the governor. Right? What we’re getting right now is we’ve got recommendations coming from the CDC and Department of Public Health. We’ve got recommendations coming from the governor’s office, from the DOE, and we’re kind of in the middle, left to interpret all of that. So does six feet of distance in a classroom really mean six feet? Is it a requirement or a recommendation? How do we actualize that in a class of 10, 20, or 30? So one of the things– and I’m speaking for myself, but I think it reflects the sentiment across Georgia for school leaders is we need some alignment of the experts and some collaboration among the experts so we can get to one set of working rules. Otherwise, we’ve got people in different camps all volleying opinions and requirements, and we’re left to navigate through the middle of it. So that’s one, I think, critical factor that we need as we look to reopen. We need some alignment and collaboration and continuity of recommendations and guidelines and protocols and not the expectation that we’re going to navigate through political agendas.

I think the second thing that’s critically important is that we, as superintendents, especially in neighboring school districts, have to do the best job we can to sync up. I don’t mind sharing with you, when I get off this call, we have a call with the Metro Atlanta superintendents. I don’t know if we all share the same values and priorities. We certainly don’t share the same communities. But the degree to which we can collaborate and the degree to which we can try to be consistent so we’re not sending mixed messages– one district announces their plan today. Another one announces it in two weeks. In the interim, everybody’s uptight because why hasn’t one district done it. I mean, can we get to a place where our vision for the fall and our communication about what that looks like is somewhat in sync? And I think our families deserve that. There’s certain numbers of media outlets. They all watch the same news, and they’re getting confused. And, obviously, we’ve got to be timely with that decision because people got to plan their lives. So I mean, those are the two big factors for me as we look to the fall. Obviously, we’re going to lean on the health experts, we’re going to make recommendations that are safe to the greatest degree possible, but there’s a lot of moving pieces and parts. It is just like– the silver lining of all this is we’ve never seen families so engaged in their child’s education before, ever. I’ll also say the flip side of that is they didn’t– listen, there was no chapter in a book that I ever read on how to be a principal or a superintendent that told us how to manage all this. So we’re doing the best we can. We know that people have strong emotions attached to all this. You open and people are mad. You close and they’re mad. You do in the middle, they’re mad. And it’s because there’s so much emotion, and there’s such an impact on our economy, on our families, on their lifestyles, on kids’ safety. I mean, it’s a hot mess. But I’m grateful to have the team that we have around us to work through it together, and I’m confident that, at the end of the day, we’ll make a decision that’s aligned to our values and one that we can explain and, to the greatest degree, engage families in.

Yeah. You’re right. And I think it’s figuring out that balance, and I think it’s good to know that all districts are kind of, potentially, hopefully, on the same page, and navigating that individually, I think, is different. I mean, what your needs in Marietta are very different than the city of Atlanta to Gwinnett County – right? – and then, I think, even down to South Georgia. And ensuring that, if all school leaders are on the same page or at least kind of in the same caliber, it makes the most sense because I think, then, you don’t have a layer of families trying to say, “Well, this is what Marietta did, and this is what Cobb did.” It’s more of, like, “Hey. We’re all banded together to make sure that we’re going to, one, do the best interests for students and families and be respectful of that. I think that’s another layer of this puzzle that we kind of think, too, and I think planning is a big piece of that puzzle, I hope. I hope families know that these decisions are going to come, and they’re going to come relatively, I hope, soon so that parents can plan in the near future, especially if we get back to work in that space. That’s a big part of that work that I think a lot of families are facing in there. Is there anything else you’d love to add? I mean, I think– I really enjoyed our conversation this morning. I think it’s been really helpful. Would love to see if you had anything else to add on either summer learning or anything that you think is important for families to know during this time.

No. I think I just– maybe I’ll close with two words of gratitude, one that I mentioned and one that I haven’t. I mean, I mentioned twice now this idea of really being grateful for families. I think there are so many families, there are family leaders, liaisons, people like that, in your network and in others, who’ve really worked hard to not only take care of their own family but to engage others, and I think that is to be commended. I also just have to say, I mean, the staff that exists in each school district– I could speak for ours. Right? The nutrition staff, the bus staff, the instructional staff, the counselors who’ve been checking on kids and, when necessary, making home visits. I mean, there are heroes walking around hospitals and doctors’ offices. There are heroes sitting in living rooms, also, who are not only families but they’re also teachers teaching from their living rooms. So I mean, I just wanted to offer a heartfelt thank-you. I don’t know what the future looks like, but I know that we will get there on the shoulders of those same heroes, those being our families and, ultimately, our educators, and that gives us great resolve to continue to move forward.

You’re right. And think there are so many great things happening in this space, and I think we realized, during pandemics, people’s, I think, heart and minds kind of change in that conversation, and you see that in the real direction, which is great. Well, I want to thank you, Dr. Rivera, for this time this morning. I really appreciate it. And I hope that we can see some great benefits after your guys’ launch of this program, I think next week. Right? And we’ll go from there. All right? Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you for all that you and your organization are doing. I appreciate it.

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