Pillars of Success

Chelsea Public Schools community outreach highlighted by Rennie Center

On one day last summer, Supt. Almi Abeyta, members of the School Committee and her staff hit a pivot point.

After emergency schooling had wrapped up, video graduation had transpired, racial issues in the district had surfaced and many were simply coming up from survival mode after months treading water – it was time to think about school again.

The first thing to figure out was how in the world would the Chelsea Public Schools (CPS) engage with parents and students in a pandemic. With engagement historically challenging in Chelsea, adding a pandemic to the mix made seem insurmountable.

But incrementally, and with building a foundation, the district not only figured out how to engage, but also ended up launching a long-term plan for co-design of the district with parents, students, community members and business leaders.

Last Thursday, The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy highlighted the district for one of three key pillars of success in state school districts – that being shared voices and shared leadership.

“The one silver lining in all of COVID, it’s the family and community engagement we’ve been able to do during this time,” said Supt. Almi Abeyta during a panel discussion last Thursday.

Center Director Chad d’Entremont said they are pushing the idea of shared leadership in school districts, going a step beyond just collaborating. He said it could come with elevating student voices, having student-led conferences, School Committee seats for students with full voting privileges, or changing other formal structures.

He said the Harvard School of Education’s Design Lab has innovated in creating Children’s Cabinets, which Chelsea Public Schools has adopted this year in the midst of its ambitious co-design plan. The Cabinets create a table for those working with youth – including departments, agencies, businesses, civic leaders and non-profits.

“They come together to develop a collective vision and system of supports for youth development and growth,” he said. “CPS has taken such an approach to this. Along with establishing the Children’s Cabinet, they have also launched the co-design pilot to include families in every step of the district’s plan to improve learning.”

In doing so, they’ve established nine teams to look at everything from discipline practices to remote learning to improving School Site Councils to changing the demographics of the teaching staff.

“Chelsea is a largely immigrant with a high LatinX population and a predominately white teaching staff,” he said. “One goal is to shift racial power dynamics in the community.”

In the panel discussion, Abeyta said you have to lay a foundation before attempting such a move. As a new superintendent last year, her entry plan called for new and better engagement with families.

“That kind of led me to say one pillar will be family and community engagement as I start a new superintendency,” she said. “Building on that, the community and the teachers were so hungry to engage families. We hadn’t made the effort because we were so busy with everything else.

Then COVID presented this silver lining and you can’t let the crisis go to waste. We were thinking that we were in remote learning and we didn’t know how long we would be there. We had to engage our families somehow. They aren’t coming to the schools and we have to engage students and make sure attendance rates are good.”

That’s when they decided to do trust visits last summer.

Though simple, they were effective in creating a personal bond. Teachers and administrators scoured the community and had visits or conferences on sidewalks and porches of the homes around the city. Some parents actually came to the school for the upper grades and talked with teachers in large tents outside.

That activity was built into the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Chelsea Teachers Association. The understanding was in the 10 days of professional development training, some of those days would be reserved for outreach and trust visits.

“We thought about having parent/teacher conferences out front, but we don’t really call those parent/teacher conferences,” she said. “Instead we called them trust visits. The trust visits happened on the sidewalk. We also bought big tents and put them outside so teachers could meet with families before school and have a physical connection even with masks and social distancing.”

After having the visits and giving away books, art supplies, discussing wi-fi issues and providing hot spots if necessary, students, families and teachers felt ready for school – and empowered to reach out to school leaders if there were issues.

That ended up being the foundation and pre-cursor for the evolution of co-design, which was a long-term goal for the district that many didn’t think would happen in the midst of COVID. However, it did and it has accelerated.

“We set the foundation and there was just this eagerness and thirst,” said Abeyta. “Then we started to co-design. It evolved. That’s what I love about this is it evolved and there is so much ownership across the district. The educators doing this with our families have created such a beautiful partnership.”

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