From The Superintendent

Back to School 2021-2022

In February of 2020, few teachers, students, or parents could have believed that just a few weeks later, schools would close their doors for the remainder of the year and challenge our education system like never before.

Students would spend the next year and a half doing much, or even all, of their learning via videoconference. The mere suggestion that K-12 schooling could be delivered virtually was typically met with eye-rolls, scoffs, snickers, and general disbelief, if not downright derision.

How things have changed over the course of 18 months!

The pandemic has given us all pause to re-examine some of the mindsets, beliefs, and assumptions that we held pre-COVID. While at first, so many of us believed we could not possibly do our jobs and schooling effectively from home, over time we learned that not only can we work productively, but we can also leverage this unique moment in time to enjoy more family dinners, aid in the development of our children’s education and find happiness in the more simple things in life.

This same transformation has occurred in many of our institutions, as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in the very field of science that produced the vaccines that have saved so many lives and allowed us to begin to return to normal. For 30 years, Dr. Katalin Kariko’s work to understand the inner workings of messenger RNA (“mRNA”) languished in academia as grant request after grant request was denied by a scientific community that failed to see the promise of the technology she was exploring. Then along came COVID-19 and among the 20 or so companies that set out to develop a vaccine were a few that chose to take less orthodox approaches based on mRNA. I’m sure you will recognize two of their names: Pfizer and Moderna. Now scientists and pharmaceutical companies are clamoring to apply this technology in domains beyond COVID, including creating vaccines for HIV, influenza, and many other viruses.

One of Dr. Kariko’s colleagues, Dr. David Langer, describes the closed-minded thinking that prevented her innovative work from breaking through earlier: “When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out.” He goes on to say, “There’s a tendency when scientists are looking at data to try to validate their own idea… The best scientists try to prove themselves wrong. Kate’s genius was a willingness to accept failure and keep trying, and her ability to answer questions people were not smart enough to ask.”

Her experience and, more broadly, everyone’s experience over the last 18 months, demonstrate how the human mind struggles when it comes to thinking the unthinkable. Our earliest ideas, beliefs, and impressions stubbornly hold fast in our minds and we filter out new ideas, theories, and even obvious facts that challenge them - a phenomenon identified by psychologists as “confirmation bias.” Learning oftentimes involves the painful process of letting go of bedrock assumptions that have guided our thoughts and actions for years or even decades.

What role, then, do schools play in helping students to evolve their thinking through (hopefully) increasingly accurate understandings of how the world works? And what role do we play in the present moment as we emerge from the pandemic and answer the difficult question, “What comes next?”

The word “educate” is derived from the Latin words “e(x)” (“out of”) and ducere (“to lead”). In this sense, its antonym is “induce” - to lead someone into something. Our experience of re-thinking so many things during the pandemic is a reminder that it is the former, not the latter, that comprises real, quality education. It is inherently freeing, leading students away from misconceptions, untested assumptions, and superstitions. The best teachers lead us out of Plato’s cave.

In Edgemont, during the pandemic, we focused on the importance of the instructional core and on the key relationships between and among student, teacher, and parent. We created a schedule to get students into school every day and increased our communications with our parent partners. We will build upon these structures by meeting students where they are and building upon their new experiences and skills. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it has been the value and practices of truly effective problem solving within a variety of content areas and contexts. Over the last 18 months, Edgemont students, teachers, parents, and administrators have repeatedly been required to demonstrate and develop the qualities of adaptability, resilience, and ingenuity thereby developing their creativity, cognition, and awareness.

For more than twenty years we have been using the term “twenty-first century skills” to describe the types of competencies needed in college and career in our complex changing world. It turns out that many of those twenty-first century skills are the same competencies and mindsets that navigating the pandemic has ignited in adults and children alike: perseverance, ingenuity, empathy, and dialogue. COVID has validated a belief shared by many educators and non-educators alike: that the best schools connect students to their world and encourage them to explore, question, test, and critique it.

During the pandemic, I worked with many stakeholders in the Edgemont community to revisit our strategic goal. The revised goal and its components offer continuity with Edgemont’s rich past while supporting the district’s continued growth in response to the evolving needs of our twenty-first century world.

Goal: As we prepare our students for life in a rapidly changing, interconnected world, we will design learning opportunities that engage students in deep understanding of themselves, others and the complex and evolving landscape around them.

  • Component One: Understanding and Appreciation of Self

In these times when we are preparing students for careers that may not yet exist, students must be able to collaborate effectively with others, understand different viewpoints, and persist in the face of challenges. The latest educational research shows that when schools actively work to cultivate these skills in students, there is a positive effect on academic achievement, social integration, and mental health. We will create and maintain an educational program that supports the development of social, emotional, and academic behaviors to promote learning and well-being for all students. Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making are behaviors and skills our robust curricula support.

  • Component Two: Understanding and Appreciation of Others

We will develop curricula, policies, and practices that value and support diversity, equity, and inclusion in education. Through purposeful exposure to multiple perspectives, cultures, and ideas in an inclusive environment, students can develop greater compassion, confidence, empathy and creativity. Developing a rich understanding of the importance of diversity and equity prepares students to be the leaders of the future and to make meaningful contributions to their communities.

  • Component Three: Connecting Learning to Life

When asked about what they are learning in the classroom or beyond the school setting, students will be able to meaningfully describe not just “what” they are learning but “why” they are learning it. According to research in the area of growth mindset, students learn more deeply when the learning is relevant to their lives, connected to a broader purpose, and reflective of their own voice and agency. We will provide purposeful instruction to deepen student learning, regardless of the educational setting, across all content areas. Ultimately, students will not only understand the powerful connections of their learning to the world around them, but will embrace new opportunities, new questions, and new possibilities with courage and passion.

The pandemic has caused many of us to reflect upon and recognize the importance of mental health, self-care, healthy relationships and their connection to our personal productivity, creativity, and fulfilment. The first goal, with its focus on social-emotional learning, ensures that our students have the intra- and interpersonal skills needed to collaborate meaningfully and empathize with the people around them. Indeed, re-forming relationships and fostering a sense of community and connection is almost universally endorsed by educational experts as keys to helping students to transition to this post-COVID new normal. The past year and a half has served as a reminder of how much we value community and need daily engagement with our neighbors, classmates and friends. Although the last-minute shifts in protocols and formats were a challenge, many people described the in-person EHS graduation as a cathartic moment where we could reconnect as a community and celebrate our accomplishments.

Similarly, the pandemic and many events that have happened in parallel to it have intensified the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have been engaged in this work for several years now: our faculty have received training on supporting equity and creating more inclusive environments in their classrooms and we have revised our hiring practices to ensure that we attract and hire the most diverse, engaging, and highly-talented group of teachers possible. The second goal builds upon the foundation we have already established in this area and will guide the district’s work in the coming years following the guidance from the New York State Regents. I want to assure everyone that our approach here is one of humility and dialogue. Our goal is not to indoctrinate but to question, challenge, and communicate. Again, our goal is to lead out of, not into.

Finally, the third goal on what we have come to call “connecting learning to life” is the one that best reflects the generative vision I’ve described in the preceding paragraphs: an education that foregrounds students thinking critically about the world around them and constantly asking the question, “Why?” Asking “why?” lies at the heart of a problem-posing education that challenges students to constantly review and revise their beliefs, assumptions, and ideas as well as those embodied in the institutions and culture that surround them. It represents an education of leading out.

Our admiration for what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation” largely stems from the resilience and resourcefulness they developed when confronted with the Great Depression and World War II. With COVID, we have experienced trauma. Now we turn towards the coming school year. We look forward to resuming treasured rituals and traditions in our schools but also sense the opportunity to grow, both as individuals and as a community. Our strategic goal will support this transition by pushing us towards a more holistic understanding of the present moment as an opportunity to help Edgemont students become the Even-Greater Generation. We look forward to your partnership in this important work.

Written by Michael Curtin, Edgemont Director of Curriculum and Instruction and Victoria Kniewel, Edgemont Superintendent