Wednesday, June 29, 2022
June 29, 2022

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COVID presents Clark County schools chiefs with obstacles and opportunity

Superintendents of Clark County’s three largest school districts discuss education amid COVID-19

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
Battle Ground Deputy Superintendent Denny Waters chats with a kindergartner during the 2020-21 school year. Waters spent the past four years as the district's deputy superintendent before becoming superintendent July 1.
Battle Ground Deputy Superintendent Denny Waters chats with a kindergartner during the 2020-21 school year. Waters spent the past four years as the district's deputy superintendent before becoming superintendent July 1. (Battle Ground Public Schools) Photo Gallery

Jeff Snell last taught high school math in 2003, but problem-solving has continued throughout his journey in public education.

That’s no different in his new job as the superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools — Clark County’s second-largest district and the state’s ninth-largest — at a time when the COVID-19 crisis is about to impact a third consecutive academic year.

For Snell, problem-solving has its benefits beyond formulas.

“That’s what’s brought me the greatest joy — listening to people,” he said. “Listen to what the problem was or what that barrier was, and then creatively come up with a solution.”

Creative solutions are part of crisis management, trying to find ways to deliver quality education during a pandemic. So, too, is feeling the brunt of disputes.

Superintendency is a pressure-filled, high-stakes and even lonely job. Its responsibilities and tensions have only intensified behind community debates and conflicts on reopening plans and masks in schools.

Now, less than three weeks away from another school year marked by COVID-19, The Columbian met with the superintendents of Clark County’s three largest school districts. The Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground districts educate nearly three-quarters of students in the region.

Their superintendents say COVID-19 has reshaped not only education, but reshaped them as leaders as the pandemic’s path slowly leads from disruption to recovery. We posed three questions to each; their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jeff Snell, Vancouver Public Schools:

‘We were able to connect in different ways with families and partners’

Snell, 47, started his career as a math teacher at Fort Vancouver High School in 1996. For the last 10 years, he led the Camas School District — first as deputy superintendent, then, since 2016, as superintendent. Now he’s back in Vancouver.

July 1 was officially his first contractual day as Vancouver’s new superintendent, but he actually began working months earlier, using his time off to visit all 36 schools and meet with principals and staff, PTA groups, recent graduates and current students. An overriding theme he found surrounds hope and expectations — short and long term. Elevating student voice and student experience always is on the forefront for this career educator.

The pandemic only magnified that.

“I feel like this opportunity I have as a leader allows me to kind of put a microphone around students and allow them to tell us about what it’s been like and what they hope it would be like,” Snell said. “And making it better in some way.”

The past 18 months upended all aspects of school beyond moving lessons from classrooms to computer screens. It also tested basic ideas on attendance, instruction, the role of technology and the importance of human connections. The rethinking continues, with a growing sense that some changes are here to stay — from using meeting software to remote-only instructional offerings.

“We were forced to try to create some opportunities that we didn’t think about,” Snell said. “We were able to connect in different ways with families and partners, so how do we hold onto that?”

Leadership change — in a pandemic, no less — is not easy. But Snell’s intentions start with accessibility; availability; maximizing the experiences of staff, students and families; and re-establishing patterns and routines for a new school year. One of the questions The Columbian asked surrounding success in schools also is one he’s asking through interviews and surveys as he builds a transition team.

“I think that’s important,” Snell said. “We have an organization this large that collectively, we need to think about this transition as an opportunity. Where are the areas people feel there’s some energy for growth?”

The pandemic really showed how education has changed. How do you see education being shaped post-COVID?

“Every industry had to pivot, but the amount of professional learning our staff did in the last 18 months and how they changed their delivery model and what they learned is huge for an organization. We have more tools at our disposal than we’ve ever had before. We spent a lot of time prioritizing learning standards, too, just because there wasn’t the ability to cover everything.

“From a kid standpoint, they don’t really care that you covered everything; they want something that’s going to make their lives a little better or they’re excited about or engaged in. So, ‘deep instead of wide’ is an important thing to move forward. And that builds onto where we are as a country and a world; employers aren’t asking for specific skill sets as much as they’re asking for learners. As a public education system, we need to think about that. I think we’re poised to do some amazing things.”

There have been buzzwords of “learning loss” or “unfinished learning” surrounding students’ achievement gaps. Do you believe that, or is there a better way to define it?

“I never really liked that term, because it means there’s something lost or something was taken away. Was learning different? Absolutely. So loss, in my opinion, kind of minimizes the efforts they put in and the dedication they had.

“Now, on the other hand, I don’t want to be naive. There could be gaps in their learning related to some of our learning standards and content. When you think about the continuing of learning, especially if you’re trying to learn to read, there’s going to be gaps that we’re going to identify. Maybe they accelerated in one area and there’s an area that they really struggled in. I think it’s going to be very unique to each student, which will challenge us as an education system and as a staff to recognize those unique needs and design instruction to help.

“And sometimes I feel like in our desire to help, we’ve had this ‘fix it’ model with kids. Like there’s something potentially broken. There is nothing broken. Kids are amazing individuals with so much to offer. And so we need to start with the assets first and build from there.”

Vancouver is offering its Virtual Learning Academy to families and students who want to stay in full-time remote-only instruction. How can the district make remote learning better and improve the student experience?

“I think one way is to understand the reasons, because if there are reasons, the reasons present opportunities. It could be that they’re wanting a smaller setting or a more personalized ability to drive the pace of their learning. If that’s the case, then how do we maximize that?

“It could be just about safety issues and the pandemic. So No. 1, it’s about assessing their needs and paying attention to that and thinking about what’s going to make this special for you. Anytime you can create a sense of community, that means people are feeling they can be vulnerable, they can be authentic, and that’s when learning happens.

“So creating that sense of community is really important. If that’s in-person, great. If that’s remote learning, great. The strategies might look a little different in those two contexts.”

Mike Merlino, Evergreen Public Schools:

‘We’re doing our best by the kids — that’s why we’re here’

Just as The Columbian met with Evergreen Public Schools’ Mike Merlino, Gov. Jay Inslee required mask wearing for students, faculty and staff at all public and private K-12 schools statewide.

“My guess is we’re with this for a while,” said Merlino, who leads the county’s largest school district. “But our facilities are ready, our staff is ready, and we’re excited. We’ll just continue to wear masks.”

State schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal went a step further, explaining any school that does not enforce updated COVID-19 mitigations guidelines or offer full-time in-person instruction will be denied state and federal funding.

Full-time, in-person instruction will be a change for Evergreen. Last year it was the region’s lone district to remain at twice-a-week hybrid learning when neighboring districts returned to four and five days of in-person classes.

Reflecting on that decision, Merlino expressed frustration and disappointment. Contract language in agreements with Evergreen’s employee unions, in part, brought expanded in-person classes to a standstill.

“It was frustrating to be in the spot where we were, and pushing really hard to get our kids in,” Merlino said.”

Now Evergreen and other districts are putting final touches on plans for welcoming staff and students back full time. The state Department of Health’s new school guidance includes updated physical distancing requirements and quarantine protocols, including a new definition of a “close contact.”

COVID-19’s delta variant is causing case counts to rise, and vaccines are not approved for anyone younger than 12. So ensuring that staff and students feel safe inside school buildings starts with continuing to implement protocols and positive word-of-mouth about prior experiences, Merlino said.

Two Evergreen schools reported COVID-19 outbreaks last school year. “We got really experienced in following state guidelines around COVID well,” he said.

Merlino, 56, has worked in public education since 1988, mostly on the financial side. Appointed in April 2019, he’s yet to have a full school year as superintendent without dealing with COVID-19. He’s also still getting accustomed to being in the spotlight, especially when it comes to decision-making surrounding education in a pandemic.

He even half-joked with a staffer on the over-under of getting booed at the district’s June high school graduation ceremonies. Regardless, he said, all decisions continue to have a student-centered focus.

“I’ve had an opportunity to be involved with literally everything that occurs in a school district,” he said, “and that means people and helping kids. … Every one of these kids has been impacted by what we’re trying to do, and not in a way to try to hurt them, but you just have to do what you have to do. We have to continue to always make the effort because we’re doing our best by the kids — that’s why we’re here.”

How did last year make your job more difficult? How did it better prepare you as a leader?

“There’s a different visibility of me now than there was a year ago. I feel like that helps me when I’m working with other school districts, when I’m working with people in the city, when I’m working with parents. There’s things I’ve gone through and we’ve been through — not just myself — that we never necessarily would have expected.

“You learn from every experience. I’m somebody who tries to really listen and get feedback. We’ve clearly learned that more feedback is better. I think we need to figure out as many ways as we can to communicate and interact.

“I feel energized about the fact kids are going to come back again. I view my role as one to support our buildings, to support our kids, to promote all the good things that we do and make sure we need to work hard every day.”

How will the district use the $63 million awarded in federal ESSER funding when it comes to pandemic recovery?

“In the short term, we’ve used it for technology. We have the technology levy that really pays for the devices, but we maybe bought some extra ones that we wouldn’t have typically bought. We’ll use the money for extensive cleaning. We’ve used some funds to help backfill some staffing. I think we’ve probably allocated more staffing positions than we typically would allocate in a normal year. In order to maintain the 3 feet (of social distancing in classrooms), we have to make sure we put some extra staff in middle schools or high schools where there are more kids in classrooms.

“ESSER 3 was just for accelerated learning, or learning loss. So for summer school, we did that, but then that also translates to opportunities during the school year.”

What’s your biggest worry looking ahead to the 2021-22 school year?

“The big thing for me is always stable funding. I think we do a great job for our kids. I really believe that. I think we have a great graduation rate in our district. I think we have a lot of different ways we can show all the good things we do. In order for us to continue and have the opportunity to have positive momentum going forward, I think stable funding is huge.

“We’ve had great, stable funding from the perspective of our local support. This last year and a half has tested the local support. I worry about rebuilding the relationship with the community or enhancing that.”

Denny Waters, Battle Ground Public Schools:

‘We can’t be successful if we’re fighting with our community’

Three weeks into his tenure, Denny Waters greeted all audience members at the July 26 school board meeting by introducing himself and sharing a policy he doesn’t plan to rescind: His office is always open.

“Anyone who wants to have a conversation with the superintendent can do that,” Waters said. “I’m glad to hear concerns and thoughts.”

Waters, 58, is a homegrown leader. He’s lived in the district for more than 30 years, been with the district since 2007 and moved up the administrative ranks the past seven years.

Twenty percent of Washington’s 294 districts have had superintendent turnover, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators. That turnover is evident in Clark County, too. Five districts have new or interim superintendents: Waters at Battle Ground, Snell at Vancouver, Peter Rosenkranz at La Center, Doug Hood (interim) at Camas and former La Center superintendent Dave Holmes (interim) at Green Mountain.

Battle Ground expanded to full-time, in-person instruction across all schools and grade levels last spring. As successful as that was, Waters said, he also knows a critical part of a successful 2021-22 school year could be determined in November.

In February, Battle Ground voters rejected the district’s replacement Educational Programs and Operations levy. The district is re-running the levy at a lower rate for taxpayers on Nov. 2.

Waters didn’t shy away from the impact a double levy failure could have on the district. It represents 14 percent of the district’s $200 million budget and provides services, staffing and programs not funded by the state.

Trust and transparency are necessary to build unity between the district and community, Waters said.

“That’s our focus,” he said. “We can’t be successful if we’re fighting with our community. We need to do a better job in terms of the district listening to our parents, listening to our community and understanding what their concerns are, getting their voice in and trying to move forward together.”

After 18 months of dealing with COVID-19 in education, what worked last school year? How did the pandemic expose how the district can be and should be doing better?

“I’m proud of the product we put out there. I know that it didn’t work for every kid, and that’s the disappointing part of it, but the intent and the effort and energy were at a high level. I’m proud of the fact that we transitioned back to full time and we were one of the largest districts to do so in Western Washington, not just Southwest Washington.

“We had some significant challenges because of internet access in north county, which was challenging for our families and students. And we did some significant outreach to try to work with kids who were struggling. I think there’s some things that are going to stay with us. The use of technology — the pandemic forced us to do that.

“The way we had to have kids learn during the pandemic has been a challenge. And we’re noticing it in our classrooms. There’s a lot of work to be done in just re-engaging kids and getting them used to being back to normal.”

As a first-year superintendent, what is your top priority?

“It’s all around high-quality instruction and strong social-emotional skills for kids. That’s our focus. And we were implementing that and meeting that with me as the deputy superintendent. We were just in the stage where we were getting it going, and then the pandemic came. We’ve been able to do some good work because I think the one of the things that came out of this pandemic was this idea that we needed to be consistent with our approaches with kids and that we needed to really determine ‘What’s the most important things we have to teach?’ I’m excited to see how that translates as we move forward, because it does bring this idea that we’re putting our best efforts forward.”

Districts all over saw a pandemic-related enrollment drop. What’s your pitch about Battle Ground schools to families who fled the district?

“One of the things that we need to talk about is to let families know that we are willing to listen. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of opinions on what schools should look like. With the parents that I’ve been able to connect with, there’s a myriad of different issues. So it’s a matter of trying to get to that and find some options.”

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