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.