On this episode of What Will We Take With Us?, a series featuring our conversations with education leaders across the United States on how they grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 education, PK Diffenbaugh of Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in California shares with us how the district integrated inclusive communication, collaboration, and transparency with critical stakeholders in their school community, ensuring that students, teachers, and families were set up to navigate a school year like none they had experienced before. Through multilingual supports, proactive partnerships, and a focus on innovative practices, the district was able to take deliberate steps to move their initiatives forward and bring the full community into the fold.
Monterey Peninsula Unified School District serves five distinct communities along Monterey Bay in Southern California. As the COVID 19 pandemic forced this coastal school district to move to remote learning, district leaders in Monterey focused on how best to support their students, families and teachers. The district implemented a number of strategies, including adopting standards based learning, creatively connecting with families and deepening partnerships with local nonprofits. In this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. We're going to hear from a district leader at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head into 2021. Superintendent P.K. Diffenbaugh shared with us some background on his district and his role. Sure. So, P.K. Diffenbaugh, Superintendent Monterey Peninsula Unified School District on the central coast of California. How I like to explain my district is most people think of Monterey Peninsula, they think of Pebble Beach and, you know, the beauty and the wealth that's concentrated there. And we certainly have the beauty in our district, but we are not a wealthy district, so we serve about 68 percent of our kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch, predominantly Latino population. The tourist industry is the biggest industry, and so a lot of our parents are working in the hotels and the restaurants, in the kitchens. We have around 18 percent. So around eight hundred kids are considered homeless in a McKinney Vento definition. So it doesn't mean they're all in shelters or motels, although many are, but they're doubled up, they're tripled up. And that's how families have been able to make it in a place that's very expensive to live is by doubling and tripling up. So our kids pre-pandemic were overcoming tremendous obstacles. And I think the pandemic just really exacerbrated that. Monterey Peninsula is a suburban district in Monterey, California, serving roughly 10,000 students across 21 schools. 56 percent of the student body identifies as Latine, 20 percent as white, six percent African-American, six percent Asian, five percent Filipino and three percent Pacific Islander. Two- thirds of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, while nearly 35 percent are emerging multi linguists and 11 percent receive special education services. MPUSD seeks to become one of the finest public school systems in the country, one that serves all students well and engages each student in deep learning that prepares them to solve the challenges of the 21st century. As schools across the globe move to remote teaching and learning almost overnight and in-person opportunities for instruction were put on hold, teachers and leaders at Monterey Peninsula were encouraged to try new innovative practices that would allow for the quickest return to in-person teaching and learning. One such innovation was a shift to standards based grading. I'm optimistic about our shift towards standards based grading, and I think that the pandemic really showed that our traditional system of grading was punitive and causing many kids to fail. And we took a hard look at that, and we really worked with our staff beyond just kind of the core group that were interested in it and allowed us and forced us really to push all our staff to really look at grading practices. And so I think we're we're going to take a significant step forward. We were able to reduce our F rate by about 60 percent from quarter one to two. When semester gets on the transcript, you know, and you know, in transparency, like we're back at square one now, we're a lot of kids are failing right and so we didn't change the mindset yet around it. But I think we've changed some of the practical applications of how we grade in a way that I think that gives me hope for kind of long term transformation or, you know, getting some momentum around that. So yeah, I think that's one area, you know another area that I think has been a little bit surprising... Monterey Peninsula has also been focused on teaching essential standards as a way of encouraging breadth over depth here. Superintendent Diffenbaugh reflects on how teachers rose to the occasion and executed this in a virtual environment. You know this which is not revolutionary or anything, but we've been really emphasizing like depth over breath like since forever, you know, and like really trying to tell teachers, you know, you don't need to cover all this. Let's just focus on kind of the essentials, essential standards. I think what the pandemic has done is really forced a lot of teachers to move in that direction and by necessity so that that I'm hopeful for and we've done some work on, you know, identifying those and helping teachers to understand how to teach towards mastery of a few standards rather than trying to cover everything. And so I think that that can serve well. I'm hopeful that every teacher was able to teach virtually some a lot more effective than others. But we prior to the pandemic, we have teachers that, you know, logging on to email was kind of a challenge. And now they're they're doing it, you know, again at different degrees of effectiveness. But I'm hopeful about that. You know, I think that that shows, I guess, the way I thought about it was, you know, we talk a lot about a belief gap but around students, and I think that's true. We do have a belief gap around what certain students can do. But I also think we have a belief gap around teachers and what teachers are capable of. And I think that this really forced us to take this leap that we would have never taken and never thought we could have done. And I think to me, anyways, it shows that it can be done. You know, in some sometimes it's because you have no other choice. But, you know, I think that at times we underestimate what people can do. And this was certainly one, you know, I mean, if you had told me a year ago that every kid would be engaged in online learning from8:
30 to 12 every day, I would have been like, There's no way, you know, there is absolutely no way, but we're doing it. You know, we don't have packets of paper going home and stuff like, we're doing it all online and our attendance rate is very high, higher than when school is traditionally open in a lot of cases. Yeah. So how did Monterey Peninsula gain such a high attendance rate? Much of it boils down to flexibility and connection, a focus on outreach to students who need support by shifting the capacity of district personnel in new and creative ways. I would love to say it's because our lessons are so engaging that kids are so excited, you know, that type of thing. I don't think it's that. I think honestly, I think that sometimes our families are dealing with a whole lot. That kind of managing the process to get to school sometimes is difficult. And it's kind of like, OK, we just can't do that today. You know, whereas now, you know, you kid can go to the couch and turn on their computer and be in class. So I think that's a lot of it. I also would say at the high school level, our follow up and kind of systems of support have gotten so much stronger during the pandemic because we've had classified staff that would have been doing campus monitor jobs or family liaison jobs and being kind of sucked into the day to day of the school day. Now they're they're making home visits, they're making calls, they're following up in ways that I think have been really effective and they've had the time to do that where I think, you know, during a normal school day, they would be busy doing lots of other things. So I think that contributes to it as well. In terms of like when you really look at your attendance, it's really a core group of kids that are driving you down to 95 percent. You know, it's really just a core group that are missing a ton of school. And so I think this has allowed us in a way to focus on that core group in a different way than we've had previously. And then the other thing that we put out, I read this in a tweet, but there's one guy I don't even remember, but he had like these series of like values or whatever, but one, he said, care before content. And that became like a thing for us, you know, and really trying to emphasize to. And I find it strange that people need permission to do that, but I felt like they did to be able to emphasize care over, over content or before content. And so that was certainly something that became a, a theme and a common language across the district. And now, I get it kind of thrown in my face like I wish that the district practiced care before content with its teacher, you know, like stuff like that. But it's like it's part, successful communication of a value that people are now interprating, it's part of the it's part of the language, you know, which is which is great. And I do think, you know, I mean, honestly, I don't think our kids got a great education through this experience, but I do think they had people who cared about it throughout. And you know that, that's good. Another key part of Monterey Peninsula's pandemic response involved deepening and expanding partnerships with community organizations. Superintendent Diffenbaugh described for us the impact of those partnerships. The way we responded to the pandemic, particularly like right away, was to get our kids computers right away. Partnered with the food bank and did a lot of kind of weekly food deliveries and food distribution. We were partnered with an internet company to get internet installed in families homes if they needed it. So I do think we created this environment right away like, look, this is a global pandemic and we've got to respond. And so I do think that people kind of bought into that and felt like, OK, whatever needs to be done, I'm going to do. We were able to form much stronger relationships, right? So like the food bank, huge partner, now we do twice a week, food runs through our campuses. And then I think you guys wrote about this a little bit, but we had these what we call Community CARES program, where for about 200 of our students who are Mckinney- Vento students, they're actually through a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and a nonprofit called Commune Partnership for Youth, they've been on campus since September, you know, and it's a collaboration with them. It's on our campuses, with their staff. When we, you know, we're contributing towards paying their staff and then our kids who really needed it, we're able to have a caring adult with them from eight to eight to five. Similar to those hubs that you you mentioned, we already had the partnerships, but it was more like we were two different organizations, right? As like the kid, the boys and girls club, what they do there, I don't know. I think it's probably good, you know, and now we're much more like we're a team, right? You know, we approach the work as a team. The communication is much better. The follow up is much stronger. So I think that that will definitely continue. I also we're already talking about summer school, for example, and we, you know, we've got a bunch of money to do extended school year and all that. But how do we do something similar where kids are in-person with their teacher for three hours and then the community group kind of takes over and does extension activities? And I just think that that model, while we could have done it before, it wouldn't have been kind of a coherent approach. It would have been like, here's your time now you're going to this organization and they're doing something with you. And now it's I think it's a much more coherent around what the kids are doing. I think there's still a significant amount of work that needs to do to build the capacity of their staff, to serve our students, you know, in a more targeted approach, both academically and social emotionally. A lot of the staff are recent high school grads who, you know, care a lot about kids, but, you know, may not be trained in some of the some of the ways. So I think there's things that we can do also. But overall, it's been super positive and very I'm super appreciative because I think for me, I felt like I was actually telling the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club This is like, you know, it's been a hard year for me to just like emotionally, you know, like, we're not doing enough for our kids, right? And they're really suffering, and hindsight's always 20 20 above. Maybe I could have done more of to push for kids coming back and take that on, you know, and did I not do enough? But I was telling him was like, I can go to bed knowing that at least for those two hundred kids who are the most vulnerable, they're around carrying it all with the food, with the support every day. And that makes me feel like, OK, that was a success, you know, in a really hard time. And so that feels good, you know, and it wouldn't have been possible without them because we didn't have the staffing who was willing to do it, frankly, and their staff was willing to step up. Shifting attention to families, another area that Superintendent Diffenbaugh and his team focused on in their pandemic response was enhancing parents engagement. So we did a parent town hall once a month or two, and you know, we have hundreds of parents tuning in and participating. And I think part of that, obviously, is they want information about coming back to school, about safety measures we're taking. But in a normal year, we would do an LCap presentation and have 10 parents if we were lucky, show up to the district meeting. Now we're getting hundreds through the technology and zoom, so I think that that's parent engagement. While we still have a long way to go, I think we've are going to create ways long term where the parent doesn't have to drive to school and go to the library and they can just tune in at home. I think we're going to be able to leverage that for more parent involvement, given that a majority of students in Monterey Peninsula identify as Latino, with more than a third of all students identified as emerging multi linguists, often referred to as students who are learning English. English language learners, or else Monterrey Peninsula, was particularly strategic in how they worked with Spanish speaking families. The majority of our I don't know if not the majority. We have a lot of Spanish speaking families in the home. And so we did these, when the town halls, we either did them side by side or we did English then followed by Spanish. We didn't get as many participants as the English town halls for parents, but they were pretty effective in the sense that I think people felt like we were really trying to communicate directly to them. They could ask their questions. My assistant superintendent in human resources is just a very powerful connector, you know, has a shared lived experience as many of many of the families. I can speak a little Spanish, which they appreciate me trying. So, you know, I think it was the way that they felt like we were honoring them and trying to bring them in to the discussion. But I do think that technology for some is a little bit more of a barrier. And then obviously, the working working at night, you know, is is pretty common among many of our families. So we did a morning one, one time we got a few people, you know, that type of thing. But yeah, I think that we have a huge opportunity to engage our Latin families. We have a long way to go in that regard. Long way to go. I guess one thing that we would do is we really communicated strongly about the resources that were in the community, whether it was the food bank, whether it was homeless solutions, connecting people. We arranged for a flu clinic. We had drive by testing for COVID, you know, things like that that I think and we really everything was English, Spanish and we were pushing it out strongly to our families. So, you know, a lot of the parents, when they chimed in, our families are just very respectful, you know, and a lot of it started with, thank you for what you've been able to do and listing the specific things. You know, whether it was a clothing drive we did or or whatnot that they took part in and then asked a question or make their statement. So I think we were successful in them feeling support from us. I do think we were really successful in that As we closed out our conversation, we asked Superintendent Diffenbaugh what he's excited about for the future. So I guess I'd say like between the money that the state has allocated and the rescue plan that Biden, you know, just passed, like we're going to have like $20 million to spend within a year and a half to two years on, quote unquote, you know, learning loss, which I don't, you know, we try to use the like like unfinished learning or and support. And so we have long operated in like a resource strapped system that is like trying to make things work with not enough resources. And California's really, really troubled in the way that they financed schools. And I think that this is going to be one of the first times where we actually have the resources to do something really creative and special and different. And so I'm excited about like, what does that look like? I don't, you know, I don't want it to be like, OK, you know, every teacher gets three hours of tutoring. They can do, you know, like, I don't want to do that. I want to do something different. And I don't know exactly what that's going to be, but I think we have the resources to do it. So that's really exciting to think about that. You know, I'm excited about we've talked about launching this new school, this like new independent study school that is, you know, part online, part in person. And then I think that we started before the pandemic, but I think that we've really tried to emphasize student voice a lot and some of the things that our kids have been able to do during this has been really also awesome. And I'm looking forward to like, how do we continue to leverage that? Like during Black History Month, we have an equity leadership team, district wide and Black History Month. They organized this like whole day of community leaders coming in to speak to a whole bunch of our students. And it was like totally student run, student driven like we helped. But yeah, yeah, we have an equity leadership team of students across campus that has just kind of grown and evolved organically. I think there's been some hope that's come through this. You know, like we're doing our, our drama is doing the outsiders. And like some other play, we're literally they're like, we bought him a stage and they're having cars like drive up to the stage in their cars, you know, and are going to be sitting in their cars and they figured out a way where the mic goes to the radio, right? And so like, you turn on the radio, it's like a drive theater. I guess what I'm saying is I've always said, like, if our schools seem like school, we're not doing it right. It shouldn't seem like school. And they're like, Glympse is here in there of stuff that's happening. That, like, doesn't seem like school. You know, it seems really different, innovative, neat, fun. And I'm excited to see, like, can we grow and expand that? You know, like a lot of the elementary schools did, like Steam Night, where they sent home like a steam bag and the parents and the kids and the principal and teachers through Zoom are all like working together on a steam project. The parents wasn't what it was like. Awesome for the parents to be with the kids, and I'm like, That could be real, real school. You know, there's no reason why, like our real school has to be like, drop off your kids and and then we teach them, we send them back. So that's what I guess I get excited about is like, there are glimpses of that happening and with people feeling maybe more confident or more like it's allowed, you know, I mean, that's that's what's crazy is a lot of people think like, I'm not allowed to do this and we're just like, yeah, you can do it. And so I think there's maybe more permission. So those are the things I think I'm probably most excited about. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic, nearly every school across the country had to quickly pivot to allow for new models for teaching and learning to reach students in remote settings. Dealing with circumstances never before experienced, Monterey Peninsula focused on support for critical stakeholders, emphasizing collaboration and transparency to ensure that students, teachers and families were set up to navigate this unprecedented year. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast series. For more resources and leadership stories, visit HopSkipLeapFrog.org.