CT Examiner sat down with newly-appointed commissioner of education Charlene Russell-Tucker, to talk about how schools will address the challenge of COVID-19 this school year, the efforts to hire a sizable and diverse body of teachers and staff, and the use federal money to support students with academic learning loss.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are some of your goals for your tenure as commissioner?
My big audacious goal is making sure that every school building in Connecticut has the resources necessary to support the behavioral health needs of our students and staff, because studies over the past decades consistently conclude that student health status and student achievement are directly connected.
My next priority is addressing and identifying academic needs and making sure that there are high quality resources and instruction necessary to accelerate learning. We also have to invest in engaging students and their families and communities, because schools, families, communities are interdependent and all work together in amplifying our students’ success.
The final lever that I think about addressing in getting a world-class, nation-leading education system, is recruiting and supporting the retention of high quality educators that are reflective of a beautiful, diverse student body.
What do you think the state’s role should be in guiding the districts through COVID this year, and will it continue to guide districts on how to navigate the pandemic?
We will continue to give that guidance. I’ve been on a call every Tuesday since last August with the Department of Public Health and the Office of the Governor and epidemiologists and our school district leaders and local health directors that averages 600, 650 participants. In that space, we’re working diligently to make sure that we’re providing guidance, support, and answering questions, and that’s what those calls are for.
What were your biggest takeaways from the new data on learning loss from the last year in Connecticut?
What we learned from the data is that the students who learned in person during the 2021 school year lost the least academically, and that some of the losses in math were bigger than in English or language arts. This is not at all about placing blame anywhere, but this is about understanding the impacts of the pandemic when we look at the different learning models.
How do you think parents should be preparing for the uncertainty of this school year, and what do you want to communicate to parents and families?
I want them to know that we’re listening to them and that we hear their concerns. We’ve navigated this now for 18 months, and so we recognize that keeping those lines of communication open is really critical here. Maybe one of the silver linings of the pandemic is improved communication between our school districts and families. I recognize the emotion that’s there, and it’s not perfect, but we all have the same goal in mind.
What do you think the odds are that in-person learning remains viable through the full semester?
Yeah, it’s so hard to really answer that, and that’s why we work so closely with the Department of Public Health. We have last year as an example, and we kind of built that collective muscle with our districts figuring out, what is the threshold, or how high do these counts need to be before we say enough is enough. We worked through that together, and I think that’s the same thing that we’re going to have to do now. I understand families would have to plan and all of that, but right now, we don’t know what that point would be, and we’re working very hard just to say, for the time that we have in front of us, let’s use this opportunity as best we can.
We’ve been hearing that districts have had a real difficulty hiring staff of all kinds, like para-educators, teachers, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. Do you think the state can do anything to help?
It is a concern of ours, and we’ve been in conversation with our districts to find out what those issues are. Last year we had an executive order that allowed us to waive some requirements around recruitment to address our staff shortages. The state board also made some emergency endorsements last year to help to address that. So right now, we’re examining whether the need exists for us to go back to that, and while we continue to work with districts, that’s certainly an issue we’re in touch about.
I’m hearing from districts myself about the bus driver issue, and we’re talking to the organization that does that work, trying to figure out where some of the challenges are and seeing what we’re able to do as a state to help support. This whole ecosystem needs to work in order to support the learning that needs to happen at this school.
What are some of the concrete things you’re working on to increase teacher diversity and recruit more bilingual educators within the context of those staffing challenges?
We’ve been able to meet a goal that we set in increasing our diversity, but we know we’re not done. We’ve got a few things in the hopper right now that we’re working on to continue to look at diversifying our educators. We continue to benchmark and look across other states to see what we can borrow from, but I have to tell you, folks are borrowing from us because we’ve been working at this for a while making some gains, but certainly there’s a lot more to be done. We’re looking at how to help teachers with high loans to refinance those loans and make it a little bit easier for them.
When you look at per pupil expenditures, there’s a wide variation between districts. What are your goals in terms of closing those gaps and making sure all children have the resources they need to get a high quality education?
Collaboration is so necessary here, because those are conversations with legislators and the governor’s office. The $1.7 billion that has come in is not long-term, and we know that everyone’s concerned about the funding cliff that will occur. We need to make sure that when we get to the end of the cliff, we won’t fall off. With the infusion of resources that we have, we need to innovate, and we also need to be sure that we see what works. If we’re able to emerge from this and say, we know that these are the things that worked to improve learning for students, because we’ve gotten the data and the information to show that they do.
Are there things that you’re already seeing that do work?
It may be a little bit too early to call in terms of what works. Right now, for example, we are in the throes of evaluating their summer enrichment programs, but we want to see what works. By the time next summer rolls around, that will inform what we do. It’s very early right now, but we have some promising practices of how we think folks are innovating with the funding and the resources that they have, whether it’s around the academic enrichment work that they’re doing, so stay tuned.
What is the state doing to fund mental and behavioral health support in school districts?
We’ve already invested in a social emotions learning assessment that we’ve made available free of charge to districts. I’ve seen districts be innovative in using their own local dollars for this, so we’ve employed a scan of districts to see where they currently are and what resources they may need from us for hiring social workers, nurses, or psychologists, or partnering with existing school-based health centers or behavioral providers in the community. We’re also prioritizing the needs of students with disabilities, and they are one of the population groups that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We just leveraged $16 million specifically to support special education recovery efforts in the state.
Are there other issues that you are focused on, maybe ones that were on your mind even before the pandemic?
Let me talk about the issue of attendance and chronic absence. The issue of student engagement and student attendance has been one that I have personally been working on in the agency for a decade and making progress on that. We’ve partnered with the Regional Educational Service Center in — I want to say 12 or 15 communities. Folks were literally out in communities knocking on doors, establishing relationships with families, ensuring that they’re connected to the resources that they need, looking at getting them connected to the enrichment programming that was available or the free museum visits.