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Rowland Unified School District Provides “Innovative Learning for All” During COVID-19

Within forty-eight hours of closing schools to protect students, staff, and the community from the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), district leaders in Rowland Unified School District (California) (RUSD) rolled out their plan for educating students remotely.

In a swift weekend response, Superintendent Dr. Julie Mitchell and her team of educators mapped out a three-part approach to provide distance learning to the district’s nearly 14,000 students. After starting with a blended approach using both paper packets and digital tasks, the district quickly transitioned to online learning. In less than one month, 98 percent of the district’s students were connected to their teachers primarily through digital platforms, a massive accomplishment considering that three-quarters of the district’s students come from low-income families and one-quarter qualify as homeless.

Mitchell credits the district’s involvement with Future Ready Schools® (FRS) for supporting its ability to transition quickly to remote learning during the pandemic.

“I feel very grateful and know firmly we are where we are as a district because of the many partnerships we engaged in, and a huge partner in our work has been Future Ready Schools®,” Mitchell says.

RUSD, located forty miles east of Los Angeles, joined the FRS network in 2015 with a goal to provide “innovative learning for all” to students, teachers, staff, and the community. Expanding the use of instructional technology was one part of that; but the primary focus was creating a learning framework for students and transforming the ways educators teach and students learn, Mitchell says. By the time COVID-19 forced schools to close in mid-March, RUSD already had five years of experience working through the FRS five-step planning process and analyzing the seven gears of the Future Ready Framework. Consequently, Mitchell and her school leaders already knew what strengths they could leverage and what challenges awaited them with the implementation of remote instruction.

“Our teachers were comfortable [using technology]. We had devices we could distribute. We had analyzed and worked through all the elements of the [FRS] gears,” she says. “We had a lot of pieces already in place. We just needed to make sure we aligned our efforts and that we all were going in a common direction and provided teachers with support to be successful.”

RUSD’s employees, and their willingness to support students, are the district’s greatest assets, Mitchell says. She taps their collective expertise through districtwide collaborative leadership (the overarching gear surrounding the Future Ready Framework). At the same time, RUSD faces a persistent challenge in providing students with reliable home internet access, given the socioeconomic status of its student population. The transition to full-time remote learning only reinforced those needs, Mitchell says.

Through an existing partnership with the 1 Million Project Foundation, RUSD has provided internet hot spots to high school students as needed for two years and began distributing them to seventh and eighth graders as well this school year. Additionally, thanks to the various community partnerships RUSD established during the past three years, free Wi-Fi service is available in public parks, laundromats, other businesses, and many low-income apartment complexes. Despite this robust infrastructure, many students no longer can access these services with social distancing measures in place and businesses closed. Additionally, many students have discovered that their existing device or internet arrangement is inadequate to support full-time remote learning, which has increased the need for additional laptops and hot spots, Mitchell adds. To date, RUSD has distributed more than 4,000 Chromebooks and iPads and “every hot spot we could find” to support students’ remote learning, she says. Additionally, Mitchell has been a vocal advocate with her local legislators and members of Congress calling for more state and federal support for students’ home internet access. View her message to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) below asking the FCC to expand E-rate to support home internet services.

In an unexpected way, RUSD’s transition to remote learning also has allowed the district to think more creatively about its use of space and time, an FRS gear the district found challenging in the traditional school building setting. “So many things in a brick-and-mortar setting are set,” Mitchell says. “That now is lifted in this [remote] setting, which I think is a blessing. It gives us an opportunity to look at how we use space and how we use time … and has provided teachers a sense of freedom.”

At this point, Mitchell says it is too early to tell how seven weeks of remote learning will impact students and school operations next school year. But she is grateful that she and her team can draw on the training, resources, and connections they receive from the FRS network throughout this process.

“Our students are learning,” Mitchell says. “I’m immensely proud of the work in the district and all the people in the district who turned it from brick and mortar to digital in a weekend. It’s not flawless and certainly not seamless. Sometimes it’s even a little messy. But we still are there for the kids and that to me is the most important part.”

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Photos provided by RUSD.

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