How This Superintendent Works to Ensure Educational Equity Amid a Crisis

Photo: The Northwest Indiana Influential Women Association named Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley "2018 Woman of the Year in Education."

In her 35 years in education, Sharon Johnson-Shirley has worn many hats: teacher, principal, director of curriculum, assistant superintendent, and for the past 12 years, superintendent of Lake Ridge New Tech Schools in Gary, Indiana. While the experience helps, it couldn’t quite prepare her for the COVID-19 pandemic, which she says gave school leadership across the country a “rude awakening.” Johnson-Shirley, who is co-founder of the Innovation For Equity initiative, is learning as she goes, like everyone else.

Her district faces challenges under normal circumstances: high poverty rates, high student mobility, high teacher turnover. But Johnson-Shirley has eked out some wins. For the past three years, Lake Ridge New Tech Schools has boasted a one-to-one computer program for its nearly 2,000 students. Younger kids use iPads, older kids use MacBooks, and the students are fairly tech savvy. Still, the district’s move to online learning has not been without challenges. Her staff has had to find creative ways to provide students with tech support along with social-emotional support.

Johnson-Shirley says this “new way of doing business” is draining. But she sees it as preparation for the future, a chance to do better next time. I spoke with Johnson-Shirley about how to meet students’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the steps she will take to prepare for future emergencies, and how she will ensure students have the computers and internet connections they need to continue their learning under any circumstances.

Brenda Iasevoli: Was the move to online learning difficult?

Sharon Johnson-Shirley: It’s difficult if you’ve never done e-learning. We at least have that experience, because we use so much technology in our schools. But it’s not easy. It gets easier with practice and professional development and collaboration. I’m hearing from educators who have never done e-learning. One of our influential schools with money hates online learning. They think teachers working with students face-to-face is the best way to learn. Here’s my comment to them: Online learning is the way many colleges operate, so you’re sending kids to college who are behind.

BI: What challenges have come up?

SJ: Some kids haven’t logged in to our platform. It’s up to us to find each and every one of them, and find out why. My teachers call students’ homes to do wellness checks and social-emotional checks. They’re talking with parents and students to find out how they’re doing and make sure everyone is okay. Teachers know which students have trouble on normal school days, and they know these kids are going to be even more challenged sheltering in. They find ways to connect and make sure the kids are coping. Teachers have had professional development on how to deal with kids’ social-emotional needs.

BI: How do you get information out to parents and students?

SJ: We provide information on our marquees, on our website, and on various social media channels. The principals post on Facebook. My curriculum director is a community member, and she is in contact with everyone on Facebook and makes sure information gets to them.

BI: What do you do for the kids who don’t have a computer?

SJ: We’ve had to get creative. Teachers call students to give them their work. Parents who have smartphones can take a picture of their child’s work and send it to the teacher. I meet with my principals every day using Zoom, and we talk about what our teachers and students need, and how we can get resources to them. We’ve had so many challenges, but we are getting through them.

BI: Are there students who don’t have internet access in your district?

SJ: Oh, yes. When you have poverty, you will have families without internet access. There are internet companies offering free Wi-Fi for a period of time, but they will charge eventually. A company will give free service for two months, but parents have to commit to paying after that. Our kids who don’t have Wi-Fi have driven to Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and other businesses in the local area and were told they couldn’t do their work there. You know I will have something to say about that. Dunkin’ Donuts is right across from our school. We probably support that Dunkin’ Donuts. That hurt my heart, because we are in this together.

BI: Do you mail schoolwork packets to students who don’t have computers?

SJ: We thought about that, but there are parents who are afraid to touch the packets because of the virus. Some want them, and some don’t, and that creates a whole different dynamic. So, it depends on the teacher. They can mail packets, call students, meet with students virtually, or do a mix of all three. Most teachers use almost all virtual learning. Our teachers hold office hours through e-learning every morning and afternoon. They have to be available. That has been our e-learning rule all along. No matter what, even if you are out of town, you better get to your hotel room and answer a kid. Teachers use a program where they can call from their phone without giving the number out. Students can either call or text back. 

BI: What other kinds of support, besides tech, do you give families during this time?

SJ: We are a high-poverty district with 100 percent free or reduced-price lunch for students. We distributed food to families the first week of school closures. Yesterday, we gave out more than 13,000 meals. Students get a week’s supply of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also work with Northwest Indiana food bank. We had our second food giveaway in early March. So we are partnering with different organizations to get our community the help it needs.

BI: Are there other equity issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated?

SJ: In poor urban areas, a lot of time you hear from parents: “I don’t have time to do this.” There might be three kids in the family and one computer, or the kids have to stay home by themselves while the parent goes to work. There are challenges. But we continue to fight through them. I told my principals today: “For the majority, we are getting through. For those individual cases, you make it your business to contact them one by one. Take the extra step to call parents and children—to make sure they have everything they need to continue learning.”

BI: Are you seeing success from the extra effort?

SJ: Teachers get a lot of feedback from parents like “Good job,” “You’re doing the right thing,” “Thank you for going the extra mile.” I write letters once a week and post them on Facebook and social media to make sure parents are informed of everything that we’re doing. You do what you can.

BI: Did you have a plan in place for emergencies like this one?

SJ: I do have a technology plan, but when you add a pandemic, you get a whole new set of challenges. I think legislators need to put a bill out there that every child in every school will have technology and an internet connection in their homes. I’m hoping we’ll see a bill like this and money to back it up. In Indiana, we have some surplus money that will be put into the budget to deal with exactly what we’re talking about. I know a lot of people at the state level I can call to get the conversation started. I’ve already brought this topic up with superintendents. Next, we’ll have to go to the newspapers. I have a method to my madness. This is a national problem, and we have to keep at it until we have a solution.

BI: Do you have advice for educators who are doing online learning for the first time?

SJ: They need to put together a technology plan that incorporates e-learning, something all of us are going to need. And teachers will need professional development, lots of it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of success stories out there. I would suggest connecting with schools that already do e-learning and ask them about how to get it right and what mistakes to avoid. Then you just need to have faith, jump in, and get started.

BI: What will be one of the first steps you take when schools open back up?

SJ: This whole pandemic has changed the way we do business. I can’t wait to get back to whatever we call normal again and reflect on what went wrong, what went right, and how we are going to improve. I can’t wait to have that conversation with teachers, principals, students, and parents. I want to have roundtable discussions and town hall meetings and talk all of this out. This may happen again; we don’t know. If it does happen again, we have to be better prepared.

BI: You’ve dedicated your career to fighting for equity for your students. In 2018, you co-founded Innovation For Equity with other education leaders. Can you describe the goal of this initiative?

SJ: Our mission is to improve life outcomes for students. Initially, we focused on African American students, but we’d like to expand that because we are not the only people with a lack of resources. We are looking for innovative teaching across the country and around the world. We’re looking for best practices, people who have a proven track record for the great things they’re doing in the African American community.

BI: What’s the next step once you’ve found those innovative teachers?

SJ: Our whole concept is to scale up. How can we help you share your success with others? How can we replicate what you’re doing? We want to recognize those educators who are going above and beyond. We want to fund their professional development and travel so they can meet with other teachers, pass on that knowledge, and change the lives of an even greater number of students.

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Join HMH in supporting Innovation For Equity’s mission. Find out how you can get involved at innovationequity.org.

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