So far, so good for the learning pods that serve many of the Glendale Unified School District’s elementary students. District officials reported to the GUSD Board of Education this week that no evidence indicates any transmission of COVID-19 among students or staff members involved in the learning pods. Four weeks into the school year, the news came as a relief to officials of the district, which is among the local pioneers of the system.
At this week’s board meeting, Roosevelt Middle School teacher Jozet Petrosian was honored as the Glendale Unified School District Teacher of the Year for 2020, and will represent the district in the countywide competition. Conferencing into the GUSD Board of Education meeting via Zoom, as a sign of the times, Petrosian said she was honored to join her other peers in the district who previously earned the title. “I’m very lucky to wake up every morning and go to do what I love to do,” she said Tuesday. “Not many people look forward to going to work. To me, teaching is not a job: it’s part of my life. There’s not a moment that goes by that I’m not thinking about how and what I’m going to be doing next time I’m with my kids.” Petrosian teaches 7th grade life sciences at RMS and has been with the school since 1997. “Mrs. Petrosian inspires her students every day by building a culture of belonging and making her students feel important,” Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said. “When you visit Mrs. Petrosian’s class, it is immediately evident that she has a wonderful rapport with her students. Her upbeat and positive demeanor brings a sense of joy to every lesson.”
The school year is off to an unusual but productive start in Glendale, and the Glendale Educational Foundation stands ready to support high-quality instruction and community engagement. In partnership with the Glendale Unified School District, GEF will host its first virtual convening and fundraiser, the 16th annual State of the Schools on Oct. 1. The event will be broadcast on Charter 15, U-verse 99 and streamed live on GEF’s Facebook page. Jennifer Cano has joined GEF as its new executive director. Cano is a youth development professional with more than 20 years of experience in K-12 education policy, expanded learning and civic engagement. Before joining GEF, she served at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and L.A.’s BEST After School Enrichment Program in senior management positions. She began her education career as a high school teacher in Alhambra and as an elementary teacher in San Francisco. “I am thrilled for the opportunity to work with the GEF community to further develop its robust partnerships,” said Cano. “I am a teacher at heart and very excited to support a diverse school community served by a remarkable array of public schools.”
Following what can probably be categorized as the most volatile six months in its history, the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education discussed its list of priorities for the 2020-21 school year at its meeting Tuesday evening. And, not surprisingly, making sure that distance learning works for all GUSD students amid the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the discourse. Following tradition, the board first analyzed the set of guidelines that were adopted a year ago and include maximizing student achievement, creating a culture of learning, increasing engagement and maintaining district solvency and financial responsibility. Then Superintendent Vivian Ekchian pushed the discussion — which will continue in future meetings — toward major focus areas for the current academic year. “This is the time to speak up,” Ekchian quipped, introducing the free-form conversation that followed.
The educational community at the Glendale Unified School District’s three middle schools received quite the welcome-back boost when more than 3,000 Samsung Chromebooks — one for each student and teacher — were delivered recently to kick off the 2020-21 school year. The schools were selected earlier this year to join Verizon Innovative Learning Schools, an educational initiative sponsored by Verizon that targets under-resourced middle schools across the country. As part of the program, Roosevelt, Toll and Wilson Middle Schools have been provided with a comprehensive education package that includes a Chromebook for every student and teacher, a data plan for up to four years on each device, access to curricula that provides a personalized learning experience for students and professional development for teachers. A full-time technology coach in each school, partially funded through Verizon Innovative Learning, partners with teachers to provide ongoing support to integrate the technology in classroom instruction. The program is also made possible by Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization originated by the U.S. Congress in 2008 to improve technology in education.
Glendale Unified School District board members this week showed confidence in the back-to-school plans prepared by district administrators that are slated to kick off Wednesday, Aug. 19, as computers and tablets power up and video conference sessions are launched. Those images are relevant because the district is soldiering on with distance learning, with most students remaining home and elementary-age students in need of day care receiving instruction virtually at “learning pods” on school sites. “We’ve always spoken about the fact that no matter what type of model is embraced, we will continue distance learning because that is a commitment we made to the parents and community members who felt that they would not be ready to return whenever public health allowed us to return,” Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “Distance learning will be the constant and we will certainly consider hybrid learning as an option once public health allows us to move in that direction.”\In the meantime, the school board is expected to ratify, in a coming meeting, an agreement with the Glendale Teachers Association regarding distance teaching for fall 2020. The two parties announced in a joint statement late Wednesday that they had hammered out an accord and that the start of school remains Aug. 19.
Safety Drives School Decision, but Heavy Hearts Follow
Making the decision to start off the upcoming school year with students taking lessons through their computer screens represented a heavy moment for the officials making it.
Nevertheless, for those Glendale Unified School District leaders and likely for many parents, there is some relief in knowing what to plan for as the first day of class approaches on Aug. 19.
“I feel relieved to have clarity,” said Elizabeth Vitanza, whose son attends Franklin Elementary School. “I don’t think there’s a school district in the country that has figured this out. It seems like their response was sensitive to the concerns of some groups of parents and guardians around child care and standardizing the technology used.”
The GUSD Board of Education agreed unanimously this week to start the year with remote learning and to leave open the possibility of creating some sort of hybrid model in the future should public health guidelines allow for direct on-campus instruction. The decision nevertheless drew emotions from school board members who clearly were dreading it.
“Our precious kids, they won’t be able to see their schools on the first day of school,” said board President Armina Gharpetian, who fought tears, “especially our kindergartners who have never been to the school sites, our first-year middle school students and first-year high school students. Some of them, they’ve never been to the schools they’re going to go to. They don’t know what the school looks like.”
Some elementary school students may end up seeing what their school looks like, in a sense. Under a pod system, the district expects to provide child care for certain families by grouping a small group of students in one classroom, spaced out, where they can perform their remote learning work under the supervision and watch of an employee, likely a classified staffer or substitute teacher.
“That’s going to be a big issue,” said Leslie Dickson, a parent of four GUSD kids, on the need for child care. “We have a lot of kids who are fortunate to have a parent who stays home, but obviously we have kids who don’t or don’t have parents who can facilitate instruction.”
I think it’s a really good solution for people who have to go out,” she added. “No one wants this. We all want our kids in schools. I’m a teacher and I know what school is supposed to feel like, and knowing that none of that can happen in any form is really hard. I think GUSD is doing a really good job.”
Vitanza, who herself teaches at a private school in Los Angeles, agreed that the child-care portion will be a key relief for parents and district employees otherwise faced with having to monitor their own kids at home while working. She added that practices adopted in light of the pandemic might continue use with the district, depending on how effective they are.
“I think the situation has changed for a lot of parents who had a job and were laid off or furloughed in the spring,” Vitanza said. “I think they’re probably thinking creatively about that piece and, eventually when we do go back to school, maybe some of that will be retained.”
Still, it’s clear that the school year is going to have a big asterisk next to it. Typical on-campus experiences and events obviously aren’t going to be happening. The California Interscholastic Federation is expected to announce a plan for fall sports at a Monday press conference, after which individual districts have the final authority on which sports they will offer in any given season.
“Believe me,” said board member Greg Krikorian at Tuesday’s meeting. “I love watching CIF tournaments, the Battle of the Bell, cross-country matches, the marching bands — we have the best marching bands in the state — and now this pandemic is shutting them down. But we can’t shut down the educational system.”
“When we say ‘school,’ school is not just academics,” Gharpetian added. “It’s the experiences. It’s making new friends. It’s hanging out with your friends. It’s sharing funny moments, joining clubs, playing sports, learning a musical instrument, creating art, singing in a choir, going to assemblies, going to school dances, having pizza parties with your teachers, participating in classroom competitions and so many other things.
“For me, school is that,” the board president continued, “and unfortunately, we will not be able to provide all these experiences for our kids with 100% remote learning, but we are only doing this for the safety and health of our students, our teachers and our community as a whole. We’re not making this decision lightly.”
Dickson, whose eldest graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in June and has four other children in three GUSD schools, pointed out that other districts, like Burbank, Pasadena and Los Angeles unified school districts, also have gone with fully remote starts to the year.
“All of our neighboring districts are doing the same thing,” she said. “Doing anything different would be really irresponsible.”
Added Vitanza, who has served on the world languages advisory committee and superintendent’s parent advisory committee: “I’m cautiously optimistic that this could be a unifying moment in the history of GUSD. You’re always going to have the anti-mask contingent and others like that, but for those of us who have been invested in GUSD, it really seems like the school board members and Dr. Ekchian are working and acting in good faith.”
School Board Wants ‘100% Focus’ on Distance Learning to Start Year
By unanimous verdict, Glendale Unified School District will start the academic year at 100% remote learning, mirroring neighboring districts that are facing the realities of educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The selection was one of three provided to the GUSD Board of Education on Tuesday by Superintendent Vivian Ekchian, who ultimately recommended exactly what the board took up. The board also committed to bringing students back to campus in waves once it feels that the public health guidelines indicate that it’s relatively safe to do so. Ekchian’s recommendation was based on a litany of survey data from families and GUSD employees as well as guidance from Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“I think the fall semester is a better turning point for when things might be different and I think right now we need 100% focus on one area, and that is remote and making it the best semester possible,” said Shant Sahakian, the board’s vice president. “I think we all hope that the school year and spring can end much stronger.”
This week, the Los Angeles, Burbank and Pasadena unified school districts all committed to 100% online models to kick off the school year. GUSD classes are slated to begin Wednesday, Aug. 19.
Much as school board members wished students could return to their schools on a normal schedule, they also acknowledged that simply was not an option right now, particularly as daily new cases of the coronavirus seem to set new records each day.
“Any decision we make, there’s going to be a segment that’s not going to be happy. But at the end of the day, I know from all the years that all of us have been in this community, the last thing we’d ever want is for something to happen to one of our kids,” said board member Greg Krikorian, who noted he “couldn’t be more supportive” of the remote decision. “I’m not personally willing to take the chance on a child or teacher’s life.”
Echoed board President Armina Gharpetian: “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I knew somebody’s health is at risk because of our decision.”
Meanwhile, the district will continue to make available its free breakfasts and lunches to all children residing within the district, as it began doing in March when it, like virtually every other district in the state, closed its doors as reality dawned with respect to the pandemic. When the school year kicks off, the district plans to offer on-campus child care to families who need it. Small groups of students in child care would tentatively be assigned to a “pod” that has a dedicated classroom each day where kids can space out and do their remote learning.
This service would likely be offered strictly to elementary school students and would prioritize children who receive free or reduced-price lunch, children of essential workers and children of district employees. Ekchian said the district would make a final decision based on how many families express a need for child care and go from there. Classified employees and substitute teachers would likely be brought in to monitor these pods.
“Ultimately, our capacity has to be supplemented with family and community support, whether it’s for child care or nutrition services for medical care or employer flexibility,” the superintendent said Tuesday. “We have to be able to support our parents to reinforce the needs and guidelines around physical distancing, to ensure that children are engaged with e-learning and to make sure that parents are able to keep their sick children at home.”
Board members emphasized the need to ramp up what the remote teaching system was like in the spring and stressed that equity should be a priority among the district’s 26,000 students.
“The fact is that teaching remotely, no matter how vibrant it’s going to be, it is not the same as in-person,” said board Clerk Nayiri Nahabedian. “It’s a social justice issue, to be able to do right by our more vulnerable populations.”
Constant communication with stakeholders, the board and superintendent contended, will be key to future decisions as well.
“I know we have been working over the last several years to really increase engagement, really make sure that we are hearing from folks and that we are really taking that into account,” said board member Jennifer Freemon. “All of that has come together and up here on the dais, we have a really good pulse on where our entire GUSD community is, which helps us understand what can be done.”
By Haley Sawyer | Special to the Glendale News-Press
Flor Silva has been involved in the Glendale Police Department’s Explorer program for only nine months, but it has already had an impact on her life, through the friendships she’s made and the hours she’s spent serving the community as a volunteer. “So far, the best thing I’ve done is when we donated toys to the people in need in December for Christmas and we took Christmas trees to their houses,” said Silva, 16. “Seeing the happy faces on the kids, it was a really good memory.” Due to concerns over COVID-19, community service and many other Explorer activities have been halted. Battle of the Badges, a highly anticipated physical and mental competition involving the Glendale Explorers and their counterparts in other cities in the area, has been canceled.
There has yet to be a graduation ceremony for those who have completed the program, and new applications aren’t being accepted, either. The Explorer program, which is funded by the GPD and fundraisers, has been condensed, with two-hour meetings on Tuesday nights. Although the schedule has changed, the teens are still finding strength in the bond they have with each other and the program itself. “It definitely helps me because I feel like I have something to look forward to since school is online now,” said Christopher Magana, 20, who has been involved with the Explorers for four years. “That’s my little escape from what’s going on. It helps me a lot and I look forward to it almost every single week.” The Explorer program is for people ages 14-21 who are interested in learning about or pursuing a career in law enforcement. Potential Explorers must submit an initial application, pass an oral interview, a background check and have satisfactory grades and a readiness to serve the community. Participants in the program must complete a 14- to 18-week Explorer academy in which they are challenged physically and mentally. They can also be credited with service hours, which are required for graduation in the Glendale Unified School District. “It’s a lot of time dedication and kids are busy,” said Officer Michelle Gonzalez, who runs Explorers. “I have some really good kids, and you have to be able to manage your time. Homework is not an excuse to miss a meeting. I think they come out at the end better, and the parents are extremely happy and complimentary of the program.” Gonzalez has managed to keep the program fun but structured for all involved. Explorers are expected to meet grooming standards even for online meetings and participate in peer-led presentations. The officer has also invited them to attend online meetings in the community, such as neighborhood watch meetings. A goal of such participation is to emphasize the importance of dialogue between law enforcement and the people it serves, especially in times when attitudes towards police officers can be tense. “They do have a uniform. It might look a little bit different from ours, but they’re still representatives of the police department,” said Gonzalez, “and I think the community at large thinks that they have all the answers and equal training and all that stuff. It’s to really prepare them for those interactions and give them the tools of knowledge to be able to interact with the community and give them information that they’re seeking.” Gonzalez is unsure of when the Explorer program will be full-fledged once again, since it will depend on Los Angeles County and state health regulations, although she has considered having in-person meetings with small groups in the near future. Until then, the Explorers are still dutifully studying and building connections. “It’s really like a second family, if I have to be honest,” said Narek Hayrapetyan, a third-year Explorer. “At first those people were acquaintances, now they’re friends and now I see them as a second family.”
The Glendale Unified School District has announced that it is convening a working group that will focus on providing a culturally relevant and responsive education for all students.
The group will be made up of students, teachers, school and district administrators, staff members, community members and parents and guardians. Some of the areas of focus will include eliminating bias in curriculums and educational materials; providing professional development to ensure culturally competent leadership; actively recruiting a more diverse workforce; monitoring student discipline data to ensure students of color are not disproportionately penalized; and continuing the use of practices to build community, strengthen school culture, and repair relationships. Continue reading “School District Panel Will Seek to Fight Bias on Many Fronts”
Local schools find themselves in the annual pause between graduation and the start of the next academic year, but Tuesday’s meeting of the Glendale Unified School District defied the typical tone of summer vacation that characterizes assemblies held this time of year.
The topic was pedestrian enough — a presentation by the district’s Return to School Task Force — but with less than two months remaining until the first day, the overwhelming sense of the unknown was palpable.
With a little time to plan, unlike the almost immediate shuttering of school facilities that took place in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset, board members nevertheless found themselves with at least as many questions as answers when it came to plotting a course for the upcoming 2021-21 school year.
“We will take the framework and the guidelines and vet them with board priorities to get a plan and bring it back to the board for approval,” said Hagop Eulmessekian, the GUSD’s director of student support services, who provided the task force’s report. Continue reading “District Researching Options for Upcoming School Year”