Earlier this week, La Cañada Unified School District Superintendent Wendy Sinnette had a small bounce in her step.
After steering the district through a historic pandemic and confronting barriers to a return to on-campus education, Sinnette applied on Monday for waivers from Los Angeles County to allow in-person instruction for TK-grade 2 at all three district elementary schools. LCUSD likely is one of the first public school districts, if not the first, in the county to apply for the waivers, which will help increase the potential of approval, she noted.
“It really is a huge accomplishment,” said Sinnette, beaming as she lightly waved the paperwork in her hand. “I have to give a shoutout to the California School Employees Association Chapter 122,” which gave a formal letter of support to the district, one of the requirements to file for a waiver.
The association had pledged early on to support the district in its efforts to return to on-campus instruction, yet when it asked approval from the state CSEA agency there was pushback; the agency was concerned with safety. Sinnette and representatives worked throughout the weekend to complete a memorandum of understanding detailing the commitment to safety protocols to be followed on campus, to which the CSEA stamped approval.
One of the reasons LCUSD is likely among the first public school districts to apply, she added, is because of trouble procuring that letter of agency support.
“I think it would be really a great thing for people to stand back and recognize how powerful and unifying a force it is for us to be able to have our associations really commit to bringing the TK-2 students back on campus and the district to be able to partner with them to ensure the safety and health protocols will all be in place, and that teachers and classified staff have partnered with parents who so desperately want their children to have in-person learning experiences,” she said.
She grinned broadly at the thought of her district’s kids back on campus, clearly enjoying a celebratory feeling in a year that’s been rife with challenges unlike any she has ever seen during her 19 years with the district. Sitting down to discuss her “Superintendent Goals,” which she will present at the LCUSD Governing Board meeting next Tuesday, Oct. 27, Sinnette briefly laid out her vision and plan regarding work on the diversity, equity and inclusion initiative; distance learning; a broad return to on-campus learning; and modernization and design projects.
The return to campus, spelled out in detail through multiple scenarios in the district’s School Reopening and Safety Plan 2020-2021 that can be found at LCUSD.net, will most likely be executed by grades, in waves, and as the county further loosens restrictions. One small complication regarding her most recent application, she highlighted, is if the county approves one elementary school and not the other two. Currently, the county is approving 30 waivers per week and they will be distributed across all five supervisor regions. Priority is also given to schools with the highest population of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, and LCUSD’s numbers are low compared to those of other schools, which might weigh in at 60%. However, Sinnette had received news from the county Office of Education that only 62 applications had been submitted as of Oct. 10, mainly private and parochial, which would give LCUSD a unique advantage.
“If one [local] school gets a waiver and the other two don’t, that will be difficult, but hopefully the community can celebrate that one school, and then hopefully, in another wave, it will be the other schools,” she noted. “It’s all unknown still, but it’s exciting to say that we’ve filed. Seeing the total number of schools that have applied, when your pool is so small … potentially we might meet with some early success.”
Recently, Sinnette joined other county superintendents on a phone call with county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who gave some sobering norms about high school students eventually returning to campus, suggesting they might have only one teacher giving in-class instruction and then plug in remotely to their other classes. Sinnette emphasized the discussion did not give any policies or orders, just a breakdown of what she might eventually encounter.
“She really was tempering expectations a little bit, wanted us to do the mental shift, for when we get to the point where high schools might reopen, it’s not going to look like it used to look or even look like the [LCUSD] hybrid model we’ve suggested, which would just make contact tracing very difficult” or even involve closing down sites, she said. “I don’t know what the future looks like but we just will keep trying to grind away with incremental progress and make sure the community, school staff and students stay healthy.”
Meanwhile, next week, there is a limited return to campus for elementary school-age students with special needs, a return that will expand to include more students on Nov. 2.
In the meantime, distance learning is going well, Sinnette said. After a rocky start in March as measures to curb COVID-19 shut down all congregant activities, including on-campus education, there have been “great strides and improvement.”
“It’s been almost surreal; nobody anticipated this, to have to pivot to distance learning overnight. I think we’ve learned a lot and I’m grateful to our technology team, for not only having built the infrastructure, but the teacher capacity and student capacity to have everyone follow along seamlessly,” she said, adding that all principals currently have access to all the Zoom classrooms, so they can drop in to observe and create measures for progress. “I think we’re in a really good place — there’s always room for improvement, but I think there’s an inherent level of transparency in our teaching methods right now.”
DEI INITIATIVE FORWARD
Apart from discussions at governing board meetings, statements and her direct dealings with stakeholders about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative — which has garnered a divided response from community members — Sinnette recently attended the La Cañada High School PTSA meeting to address the topic. She clarified a few points about DEI, but also addressed the initial reason for creating it in the first place.
“There is poor language [on campus]. It’s not OK for poor language, insulting language, and it’s not OK for a student to say, ‘Oh, I was just kidding,’” she said at the meeting. “For people to understand the power of language and there are huge consequences in the world for discriminatory, racist language that is not appropriate. If we don’t work as a team, as educators and parents, to firmly imbed in our students what language is acceptable or what language isn’t, then we’ve missed the mark and we’re underserving them.”
Sinnette also emphasized that the work regarding DEI is not new and that, in fact, the district has been working on “personal growth” for its students since she became superintendent, although those efforts were differently named — such as programs with “developmental assets” like Challenge Success, a Stanford University program, or the LCHS Wellness Center.
To the Outlook, Sinnette explained that her outreach efforts are to help provide people with some background and clarifications of the DEI initiative. She’s handled queries ranging from whether the district is bringing in students from outside the district (“Not happening, we have a public school based on ZIP code”), to whether it means everyone will get the same grades (also not happening).
“I think the work is very important and the people need to understand that it isn’t radical or extremist at all, what we want to do. In our district we want to be sure it is not extremist or grounded in partisanship, that it’s about us working with kids so that they can be successful when they go out into the world. … Personal growth evolves over time, and we’ve had many programs focused on building character,” she said.
“Kids need the skills and the tools to navigate an increasingly diverse world, and right now with some of the political climate it’s even more charged, and so it’s even more complicated to navigate. So we really just want kids to be inclusive and proactive to have the necessary talents to be advocates and agents for empathy and kindness and everything we want.”
Regarding the seeming divisiveness that has arisen over the topic, she said, “It’s personal and complicated, and I think people maybe get hyper-charged about not wanting things necessarily to change. Part of what we’re talking about is systemic change, but only in educating the children. That’s the systemic part. But we’ve already been doing that work.”
The district has long collaborated with consultants of all types, she noted, and the DEI consultant, Christina Hale-Elliott, now is part of that group. While she foresees continuing the work with Hale-Elliott in some capacity, it likely won’t involve a permanent hire in a district as small as the LCUSD, which will also be confronting a tight budget amid the pandemic-related economic fallout next year, Sinnette said.
As for some misconceptions, Sinnette emphasized that part of the district’s mission has always been “equity of opportunity,” not “equity of outcome.” Equity of opportunity is making sure all students have the chance to access all the programs or initiatives that the LCUSD can offer, she said, comparing it to taking an Advanced Placement course, which does not enforce any prerequisites to join. The term also encompasses meeting the needs of every student, she added.
“Not everybody is getting the same thing, but everybody is getting the full range of opportunities, experiences, programs that really fit with them as learners. If we do our job right, every learner that has gone through LCUSD has had that full range of robust opportunity.”
FORMING A DIVERSITY PANEL
After the board approves Sinnette’s goals, she foresees the district will soon announce an application process to build an advisory committee on DEI, which could be made up of stakeholders, students and staff, along with some governing board members.
While the size of the committee is yet to be determined, Sinnette noted there will also be a few listening sessions before the application process closes, so that people can truly understand what the initiative is and if it’ work they want to help pursue. Hopefully, she added, it will be a “full range of individuals.”
“I think we need to be transparent with however we do it and a rubric by which we evaluate the applications, be very strategic and intentional with our selection process … be clear, articulate, methodical. And even though people might not like the outcomes, at least they’ll understand how we got there.”
To hear more about Sinnette’s annual superintendent goals, listen in on the virtual LCUSD board meeting on Oct. 27 from 7-10 p.m., at LCUSD Media on YouTube.