4 things to focus on this spring as you begin your 2021–22 school improvement plan

If you’re a school administrator, you know your state or district will require you to develop a school improvement plan for next school year soon. It will need to be based on data and research, but the traditional data sources you are used to turning to, such as state assessments, attendance, and discipline, have dramatically changed during COVID-19. Never mind the fact that the plan you had for the 2019–20 school year simply couldn’t be executed. In March of 2020, everyone’s plans shifted from long-term strategy to surviving transitions—to remote learning, to in-school environments that include socially distancing, masks, and frequent handwashing, and to hybrid models.

As we create the next generation of plans, we need to consider what we have learned since schools closed last year. We also need to triangulate pre-COVID and COVID metrics to plan for the 2021–2022 school year. We should be ensuring we’re keeping the needs of all stakeholders in mind as we begin to see a return to “normal.” Things likely shouldn’t return to how they used to be for everyone.

A plan to address the needs of all students

When schools went remote in March, social media was full of posts from families, teachers, and administrators disappointed by the transition to remote learning. They were missing the social interaction and ability to use familiar instructional strategies. Among these were intermittent posts from parents whose children were thriving in the new environment, teachers who were using technology to engage students in new ways, and families who were enjoying a slower pace to their lives. I realized I would have been one of those students who did better in the remote world of COVID.

In March of 2020, everyone’s plans shifted from long-term strategy to surviving transitions.

During my K–8 experience I was a leader involved in many sports and activities, but when I transitioned to high school I found myself socially lost and academically disinterested. My respite was a part-time job at Sears, where I found success and my coworkers became my social circle. I made a rough transition to college, where it took me the first two years to figure out that I had to motivate myself to go to class. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but when I think about that time now, I feel confident that remote learning during high school could have helped me to better manage those years and transition to college more smoothly.

How to plan for 2021–2022: Start with spring 2021

My high school story is not that unique. There are countless teenagers just like me in our schools today. As I watched school closures due to COVID last year, I marveled at how quickly systems made major adjustments to the traditional school experience. Unlike the typical school improvement process, the changes were fast and responsive to the needs of students and staff. As we transition to fall 2021 when (we hope!) all schools will be open again, we can keep this momentum of swift and thoughtful action to create an even better school system.

The best way to prepare for the next school year is to be intentional about what you’re doing as the current school year comes to a close. This spring, the focus should be simple: maintain strong relationships, plan for academic and social-emotional needs, and identify work to be done in the summer. To learn more about support available from NWEA, visit nwea.org/school-improvement.

1. Maintain strong relationships

Schools should continue the focus on maintaining strong relationships with students and families, just as they’ve been doing all year. Students and teachers may feel very disconnected in the Zoom classroom, and trying to engage students academically and socially when they have the ability to go off camera and mute the microphone is a daily struggle. Teachers have lost proximity as a tool of engagement, and finding a way to pull student voice to the surface is critical.

My colleague Erin Beard has some great suggestions to try in her post “5 little things that are really big.” Here are a few more from me:

  • Begin class by getting all students’ voices in the room with a question. These questions can be academic or relationship building. Use randomization to engage students when questioning.
  • Shortly after class begins, have students work in small breakout rooms. Many students will participate on camera or at least off mute if they are with their peers.
  • Respect students who prefer to be off camera, but make it clear that you expect students to participate by coming off mute, typing in chat, or engaging with other interactive methods.

Relationship building is important to both teachers and students, and it is also a way to gather formative assessment data, both academic and social-emotional. Who seems to be thriving in remote instruction?  Who is struggling? Gathering—and documenting—information about how students are doing now is critical as you prepare for a return to in-person, post-COVID learning in the fall.

Consider gathering more qualitative data from parents and students about their educational experience this year. I’m sure schools have heard from those unhappy with decisions, but understanding how school was received by all students and families will be critical to making long-term systemic changes. You might even consider asking families and students an optional question about a teacher or staff member who went above and beyond. The opportunity to note something that went well can make the difficulties of this school year easier to manage. (Bonus: Recognizing teachers and other staff members publicly could improve morale, too.)

2. Plan for the academic needs of students

We are just beginning to understand the academic implications of COVID. Some students have more significant gaps in their knowledge, and we need to address those needs not by trying to resurface the road but by filling in the holes. This will require formative assessment to understand the individual needs of each student.

As we create the next generation of plans, we need to consider what we have learned since schools closed last year. We also need to triangulate pre-COVID and COVID metrics to plan for the 2021–2022 school year.

For students who have more significant gaps, teachers and administrators should work together and plan how to address them vertically. Larger gaps should be addressed systematically, possibly across multiple years. This will require an in-depth understanding of learning progressions and the relationship of standards as well as a proactive plan to address gaps as the skills that build upon each other are being addressed. Students have always had a variety of learning needs, and this has only been exacerbated during the COVID crisis. While we cannot apply the same solution to all students, we need to ensure we move forward with a plan that aims to address the needs of everyone.

In addition, schools should be identifying priority standards and ensuring students are building their critical-thinking skills. If we narrow the focus to the most critical standards and higher-order thinking, we can return to school without overburdening students or teachers.

3. Plan for the social-emotional needs of students

During a typical school year, most school systems have processes in place to identify and address the social-emotional needs of students. During COVID, the effectiveness of these tools may have been lessened. Some schools may not be able to have counselor lessons, for example, while students on Zoom may keep their cameras off and stay muted. Masks during in-person instruction may hide nonverbal cues we might otherwise have noticed. Partnering with families to put social-emotional needs front and center has never been more important.

Schools and districts should reach out to families to determine the students who might be excited to return to “typical” school as well as those students who may be apprehensive about returning. Many schools have alternative programs designed for students who are academically or behaviorally at risk. At-risk indicators in the past have been failing grades and severe behavioral concerns. COVID has brought further focus to the students who have been floating through school for possibly years, working and achieving enough to stay off the at-risk list but not really thriving. Equity concerns have also been difficult to ignore, and schools have supported students by providing meals, technology, and other services. Collaborating more with families will help put all of these issues into focus.

Things likely shouldn’t return to how they used to be for everyone.

Consider, for example, that the financial implications of COVID will increase the number of students needing financial support services. Student services can reach out to families and put supports for children in place before they return to school. Staff should have a plan to address the trauma and stress experienced by students and staff. In addition, ask yourself whether all students have to return to school in person. There are benefits to some of the alternative structures you established during COVID, and you could continue to provide education in some of those ways to best meet the needs of all your students. Reevaluate the relationship between time, standards, and the calendar.

4. Identify work to be done over the summer

As a new teacher, I spent my first summer adjusting lesson plans, reading young-adult literature for use in my classroom, and attending all the professional development my district offered. Whether districts offer paid professional development and curriculum writing or not, teachers are engaging in both right now.

School- and district-level data should help determine how the summer is used. Plan to identify learning gaps, and plan for short- and long-term interventions. Engage your counselors and support-services staff to identify students who might struggle upon returning to school for a variety of reasons. Identify needed social-emotional supports for both students and teachers.

Keep thinking about creative ways to best serve your entire student population as well. One of the districts in Missouri, where I live, has been struggling to keep up with the explosive population growth. They have decided to continue remote learning for interested students and families. This will support the students’ academic and social-emotional needs, and it will also decrease the need and urgency to build new schools. Review the supports for students—from technology to food to trauma responsiveness—and create structures to support both students and staff when school resumes.

Staff support will be a critical component of your summer work. There has been a lot of media coverage about the struggles teachers have faced these past two school years, and rightly so. We know that teachers are essential workers, and administrators and support staff are as well. Take time to acknowledge the work done by teachers, support staff, and administrators.

Allow yourself to accept this imperfect year. And, when you’re ready, start looking to the future.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of reconnecting as a community. Administrators have had to make tough decisions about how to address learning needs. Families and staff may not have agreed with all of them. Some may have voiced their concern in ways that were not typical: angry and fearful emails, speeches at board meetings, and posts on social media. When I was an administrator, I preferred addressing emotion with in-person meetings so I could understand the root cause of the concern, but this has not been possible now. Leaders and teachers will need to remember that although we may have disagreed, everyone believed their opinions put students first. Forgive parents and staff for atypical behaviors based on fear. We now get to move ahead and bring everyone back together.

Be sure to celebrate

As this school year begins to slowly wind down, I hope you will make time to celebrate the successes. While it may not feel like there have been many, I guarantee you that there have been more than you realize. Give yourself credit for those. Allow yourself to accept this imperfect year. And, when you’re ready, start looking to the future—but don’t forget what you’ve learned along the way.


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