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Matt Crowley on Woburn, MA’s pivot to remote learning during the pandemic
Episode 118th February 2022 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
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This episode is cross-posted from the Building State Capability at Harvard University Podcast Series and features Matt Crowley, Superintendent of the Public School District in Woburn, Massachusetts, interviewed by Salimah Samji, Director of the Building State Capability Programme. They discuss how this school system pivoted to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of collaboration and adaptability when leading through a crisis.

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Speaker biographies

Matt Crowley is the Superintendent of the Public School District in Woburn, Massachusetts.

Salimah Samji is the Director of Building State Capability (BSC). She has more than 15 years of experience working in international development on the delivery of public services, transparency and accountability, strategic planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning. She joined the Center for International Development at Harvard University in 2012 to help create the BSC programme. Today, she is responsible for providing vision, strategic leadership, oversight and managing projects and research initiatives. Salimah also leads BSC’s work on digital learning.

Attribution

This episode was first published on the Building State Capability at Harvard University Podcast Series and has been cross-posted with permission. RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.

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Building State Capability at Harvard University

Transcripts

RISE Programme:

Hello and welcome to this RISE podcast episode. Today's episode is cross posted from the Building State Capability at Harvard University Podcast Series. In this episode, Salimah Samji, Director of the Building State Capability programme at Harvard University interviews Matt Crowley, Superintendent of the public school district in Woburn, Massachusetts. They discuss how the school system pivoted to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the importance of collaboration and adaptability when leading through a crisis.

Salimah Samji:

Welcome to the podcast series today with me I have Matt Crowley, he is the Superintendent of the Woburn public school district. Welcome, Matt.

Matt Crowley:

Thank you very much for having me.

Salimah Samji:

We're delighted to have you. So what we thought it would be really wonderful to hear about your experience running a public school district through the COVID pandemic, which still continues today. So I was wondering if we could start in March 2020. So COVID is happening. What did you do? This must have been a really hard thing to make decisions about.

01:09

ah, so going back to March of:

Salimah Samji:

So you know, you close thinking only for two weeks, and then it turns out, we're in this lockdown. And who knows when we're gonna, and I think even in April, as a parent myself, I wasn't even sure is my child going to go back in May? Or like the idea in March or even in early April, was never that that was it, that going to school was over. How did you think about okay, you know, I love your example about food, like, let's meet the basic needs of our children. And then when did it become clear that, okay, what about the teaching? Because with this moving thing, it wasn't clear, do we have to start having remote classes? What do we do about the learning?

Matt Crowley:

I'd have to almost look back at my calendar to give you all the meetings that we had to figure this out. Because, in many ways, you know, the virus is an invisible enemy, so to speak. And we then had to come up with a tangible plan. And so the deadline, if I recall, schools were closed until May 4, or something along that line, you know, the governor made that decision. And at some point, we were required to start delivering instruction. And so for us, one of the challenges there was, not all kids had a device. And so that's right, we had to provide devices to students that didn't have them. And so that was one of the initial things we did in March, when we closed. And fortunately, we were able to provide devices to our students. But I can tell you right outside my office is where we did sort of a drive thru device pickup, where all of our Chromebooks were asset tagged. And our technology department, who has been unbelievable through this whole process, organised where parents would call up or email us, tell us they needed a device, they were given a number sort of like at a drive thru, or, you know, when you're waiting at a deli counter, and then they would drive through our parking lot. And they were queued up in the street. We had to have administrators and police to kind of go, you know, it was very orderly, but not to create a traffic jam. And our families were given one device, per family, because that's what we were able to do at that point, just again, one of these fundamental issues of equity that we were trying to wrestle with, in real time when we were closed. And so that was definitely a challenge. And the other part to the device issue is Wi Fi. We assume, right, that everyone has access to the internet. And that is not true.

Salimah Samji:

That's right. And not even in the United States, right? People assume, Oh, the United States, they must all have all of these things. And that's just not true. Correct?

Matt Crowley:

Yeah. And I give a lot of credit, we, we were able to add a Family and Community Engagement liaison position, pre-pandemic, and she has been out with families. And the ability to communicate with families in different languages, but also to meet their needs and to hear what the needs are. So what we wound up doing there was purchasing hotspots to give to families so that they could access the internet, right. And so it's just been one challenge after another, and fortunately, built up capacity over the past few years to meet some of these challenges. I always say I'm absolutely proud of what we've done. We're not perfect, right? I don't want to say that we handled everything perfectly.

Salimah Samji:

But nobody's perfect. No. Tell me more about this position that you created this family engagement liaison. It sounds wonderful, right? I mean, you do need to engage with the parents. And then there's people speak different languages and meeting people where they're at. How do you find out the issues of the parents and at the time of a pandemic, it becomes even more important. But it sounds like you did this before the pandemic. So tell me a little bit about your thinking there.

Matt Crowley:

So prior to coming to Woburn, I was an educator in the city of Brockton for quite a while as a teacher and administrator. And Brockton is a diverse community, south of Boston, and they do have a Parent Information Centre in the city of Brockton. And I always thought that that was a great idea because it allowed new people to the city an opportunity to enrol registered students and so forth. And so that concept was in my mind. I also did my dissertation on immigrant students from the country of Cape Verde and the role of social capital. And I say that because one of my findings was that it didn't matter who it was, it could be any person in the city that sort of acted as an institutional agent for a family. And that could change the trajectory of a student's outcome. And, you know, genuinely I found there were custodians that were able to guide students in certain ways because they knew the system a little bit better. And so the idea of social capital is in my mind's eye, so important to all of us, and try to extend that here in Woburn, so we were able to do it. She's in her third year now. So this was pre pandemic, and we grant funded it for the first year to see if it was worthwhile. And clearly it is. And we're actually trying to expand the position, you know, to add to her team, so to speak, because it's such an important element of student success, but also family success. We want families to feel connected to schools, to the library, to the rec department, to the city. And so it's really been a great addition to our goal system.

Salimah Samji:

You know, making decisions like this is hard, right? What do you do about this? How do you think about that? How did you make these decisions? Did you have, you know, people that you could speak to, and you mentioned leadership team earlier, I was wondering if you could just explain more about this leadership team for our listeners?

Matt Crowley:

Sure, I would tell anybody, you know, this job is very, very hard. And I could not do it alone. And so I am very fortunate to have many people that I work with every day. And so I refer to the broader context as leadership team. I have an amazing group of principals, we have 10 schools in the city of Woburn. And so they're definitely an integral part of the leadership team. I also have three assistant superintendents, we all work together every day on any issue, and are in constant communication with each other. And so they are also part of my leadership team. I also would tell you that I collaborate closely with the president of the Woburn Teachers Association, the union, while not officially part of my team, so to speak, we are, you know, we're teammates, and we're trying to get through this together. And so when we speak about a variety of different issues as it relates to the pandemic, each of the assistant superintendents also have people that they work with. So you know, for example, there are curriculum roles, leadership roles. We have an amazing tech department that I alluded to earlier, our special ed department. There is a Director of Special Education who's been nothing short of amazing during the pandemic. Because one of the areas that for learning loss, and parents worried about their kids, is trying to figure out how to meet the individual needs of all students, but particularly those in our special ed department. The other group that I would really like to recognise is my school committee, who have been fabulous to work with throughout the pandemic. They've been nothing but supportive. And we work collaboratively on almost every decision that we make as it relates to the schools. They have prioritised the students and families throughout the pandemic. And I owe a debt of gratitude to them for their support. And so, you know, there's an array of people that kind of compose the district. And so I call everybody under that umbrella, the leadership team, the decisions are collaborative, I try to talk through the majority of decisions that we need to make, ultimately, some are, you know, we just have to make quickly and we do, but I think the larger decisions, it's nice to have input from a variety of different folks before we make a make a final determination.

Salimah Samji:

Absolutely. And just listening to the diverse viewpoints, right from the various stakeholders, whether it's the parents, it's the teachers, it's the unions, it's the school administrators, everyone does have a different viewpoint on the same issue of educating our children. So the idea of your leadership team sounds really excellent. I'm assuming it's also a way that gives you a pulse of what's going on in the education system and hear about the issues that people are having, the challenges that you are then better able to address, because you know they exist.

Matt Crowley:

Absolutely. I can't be everywhere. And so it's great to have people that are able to see and then inform in real time. And again, the teachers, the people that are in the classroom every day really deserve...a hero. I mean, they're doing amazing work. And so, you know, I talk about leadership team. I have nothing but enormous gratitude for the teachers that have pivoted multiple times since March of 2020. And continue to do that. And so they've been great. And they work tirelessly, teachers, will, you know that I'll get direct emails, which is wonderful, but they'll work with their schools to resolve any questions people have. And so it's been a very challenging environment. But it's been a respectful environment, and we're doing what we believe is the best thing we can do for kids.

Salimah Samji:

I was wondering if you can speak a little more about the actual teaching and learning, pivoting to virtual or remote learning is hard. This was hard for us at Harvard University, and we have a lot of resources, etc. I could do not, it was a struggle, because we have some faculty who struggled with technology who have never been into the idea of remote learning. Or why should you do things online, you know, the only way to learn is in person. And so how did that work out for you?

Matt Crowley:

I would like to think of this as a silver lining, that teachers learn technology in a way that we would never have been able to do without a pandemic. Our tech department was able to push out a variety of different platforms for teachers so that they could find one that they were more comfortable with. Whether it was Google classroom at some of the secondary level or Seesaw at the elementary levels. We use Screencastify, you know, allow teachers to record lessons. And these are things that I believe, that are still in place, right? So we just had a back to school night at the elementary level. For our families, our principals recorded Screencastify and use that. And so, you know, trying to capitalise on what we've learned. And we've had meetings, I just got off a principal meeting I was on a Google meet. And you know, people can stay in their buildings where productive. We know how to do breakout rooms and get things accomplished. So I think it's been a challenge to your question, you know, Harvard with the resources you have, it's not about money, it's about learning. And try it. If you've done that.

Salimah Samji:

That's wonderful. Do you have some examples you can share about some of the things you had to learn or, you know, try out and see whether it worked. And just experiment, because that's kind of the only way you learn it. Because there is no script, there is no way to do this, you just have to try things and see what sticks.

Matt Crowley:

One of our greatest learnings I think, was last year, during the course of the year, we were in a hybrid model. And we were remote on Wednesdays, that was the way that we structured our school year. And one of the best things that happened was this collaboration between third grade teachers as an example, district wide. Every Wednesday, they would meet on a Google meet to talk about what was happening in third grade, fourth grade, and so forth. And we're going to continue that this year, because it worked. And it was time well spent, that otherwise we would not have ever thought about using the time that way. And so it really highlights this collaborative structure that was put into place by necessity, but it's something that we want to carry forward. And I think it's again, to try to spin it in a positive light a silver lining of the pandemic. Another example of technology being utilised differently is the QR codes that are so prevalent. Now, students at the secondary level, the high school can scan into school if they're running late with a QR code. And so it's changed how kids are able to access their education, they can, you know, it's quicker and they get right to class. And so those kinds of things have been great discoveries.

Salimah Samji:

Great. You know, through this conversation, you've already talked about some of your lessons that you've had in the last 18 months, are there some that you would say are some key things that you have learned? And also how? Or are you planning to continue to use them right, so that what we're finding in some places, is people learn a whole load of skills in this pandemic, because they have to try different things. But the moment we went back to "Okay, we're back into in person learning" and all that learning is just kind of forgotten or lost. And so what are some mechanisms you're using to ensure that some of the things that you've learned, you will still continue to use?

Matt Crowley:

You know, one of the things that we're continuing to use is the technology, particularly at the secondary level, where now every student from grade 6 to 12 has a Chromebook that goes back and forth every day. It does not replace in person instruction, and it does not replace the teacher. There's nothing more important than what happens between the teacher and student. But I think that in a lot of cases, teachers are now doing things, almost like a flipped classroom where students are doing work at home and then are coming in to discuss. And so I think that is something that has been an important finding. At the elementary level, one of my favourite things to witness is recess, I think, particularly at the elementary, but kids are outside more. We have a couple of elementary schools where they've taken tree stumps and they're doing outdoor classrooms. I love that. I want that to stay, I don't want to lose that, you know, I think we're trying to prioritise social and emotional health of our kids too. And staff, I mean, we've gone through and continue to go through a traumatic, collective experience. And so we want to make sure that we have resources for our kids to feel safe in school. And so we've been able to provide counselling as needed both in school and outside of school. We have wraparound services. We've written grants so that students can have services on weekends or vacations during the summer. And so you know, problems don't just arise during school hours, right? So we try to be cognizant of that. So that, again, we're able to meet the needs of our kids so that when they come to school, they're in a place ready to learn.

Salimah Samji:

That's great. I think my final question for you would be, what advice would you give to either superintendents, principals, you know, anyone in the public school system, about how to handle these challenges with this virus that we thought would end. 18 months later, we're still here, we hear about new variants every day, this isn't going away. And I feel like, this isn't the only problem we're gonna have, and even looking at climate change, our world is changing, we're just going to see a lot more of this. What's some advice you would give others in your position to think about as ways to navigate how we do our jobs?

Matt Crowley:

If I were to say anything, I'd say be vulnerable? You know, we don't know how to do this. We've never done it before. We're asked to do things differently. So I try to ask as many questions as possible, as many people as possible. I try to go slow. And I know that it may not be the way that everyone would like, but I'd rather get as much information as possible to try to make a good decision. And, you know, I keep saying our priority is the health and safety of everybody in the Woburn public schools. And so whatever decision we make has to have that as a top priority. And so if it requires me asking more questions than I needed, you know, so be it. But I'm okay. I want to be respectful of people and hear what other folks have to say. I do think that there's a collective wisdom that ultimately will benefit everybody. And so my advice, I guess, is ask questions, be vulnerable. And let's get through this together.

Salimah Samji:

Wonderful. That's excellent. That is very good advice. I'm sure our listeners will really appreciate that, you know, when we are in the unknown, just accepting that we don't know. And asking questions and realising we're in this together are all really excellent pieces of advice. Thank you very much, Matt. This has been a really great conversation. And thank you for sharing some of the things that you've done in your school district. It's been a real pleasure.

Matt Crowley:

Thank you very much. I appreciate the time.

RISE Programme:

Thanks for listening to our podcast today. This episode was originally produced by the Building State Capability programme at Harvard University as part of its podcast series. You can find a link to that original episode under the show notes for this episode. And if you liked it, we encourage you to visit the website for Building State Capbility to learn more about the programme and listen to some of the other episodes in their podcast series as well. The RISE Podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme through support from the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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