Conducted by Jacob Martinez, Founder & CEO of Digital NEST in October 2021.

Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Michelle Rodriguez, Superintendent of Schools for Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Dr. Rodriguez believes her primary role as the key decision-maker for the largest school district in Santa Cruz County is to be an advocate for the most vulnerable students and families, and to advance an agenda that makes students college, career and life ready. 

I spoke with Dr. Rodriguez about the enormous challenges COVID presented to her and her district, what she learned, why pivoting quickly is vital in unpredictable times, and her ongoing plans to support her students, their families and the community. Her innovative and cross-sector collaborative approach has won her awards and is being introduced to school districts across the country as a new way of shaping education.

The following is a shortened version of our conversation. 

Jacob: Talk about your whole-child, cross-sector collaborative approach to support students in your district. 

Dr. Rodriguez: When I first came to the Pajaro Valley, I was so impressed. There are so many nonprofits, a community action board, and others doing phenomenal work. I see myself as a connector to support the community – I’m their point person to explore ways of serving our students and families. There’s so much need here in the Valley that leveraging each partner for the unique strength they bring to the district reduces redundancy of services.

We currently have about 60 partners in our ecosystem. We created the Great Pajaro Valley Talent Compact with 15 current partners that we’re working closely with right now. We expect the Compact will grow due to demand. Our strong partner ecosystem is unusual. We put the time, attention and resources into our collaborations. The more synergy and interdependence we have, the greater the impact we will have on the community.

How did you support your educators when COVID started? 

Educators were willing to pivot quickly. They did a ton of professional development to make it work. We created an educator hotline (one for parents too) staffed by five tech coaches to help teachers solve tech issues at their moment of need. We created an instructional website with videos and information when teachers needed real time answers, and we continue to provide ongoing tech support.

We held a student panel at the beginning of this year and one student said, “Please take care of our teachers so they can take care of me.” Teachers need social and emotional support to manage the stressors of COVID and to help their students. We asked Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA) to run support groups and one-on-one sessions with teachers as they need help. Those who provide social-emotional student care such as mental health clinicians and social-emotional counselors were especially overwhelmed. We had meeting and decompression time to help them manage the stress of working with students in challenging situations.   

Many think a teacher or staffer isn’t food insecure or worries about eviction. There’s a large group of teachers we supported through Second Harvest Food Bank. One teacher didn’t have food for her children the next day and we were able to secure a food donation for her family. We also provided internet to teachers who didn’t have it at home.

Are there any teacher supports you’ll keep indefinitely?

The focus on social emotional needs won’t go away for staff or students. We shifted focus from whole child to whole child, whole family and whole community which now includes our teachers and staff. We also have a separate contract with PVPSA to extend support to non-Medi-Cal staff and students. And as part of our Restorative Start program we’ll continue to support teachers’ sense of belonging, identity as members of the PVPSA family, and to recognize their own ability to affect change. 

Are there tools you adopted during COVID that you plan to keep?

We started using several tools during COVID that have been valuable. We implemented The Remind App which is why now parents have the ability to get texts, to watch videos and take surveys we send out. Our Youth Truth Annual Survey which informs our planning and decisions, received 18,000 responses this year – triple the responses we usually get. We are also using Thought Exchange. The community told us they wanted to provide unfiltered feedback and see others’ input. The program is anonymous and translates instantaneously so people can engage in real time in whatever languages people are speaking that are translated by Google. 

How else are you measuring student success through COVID?

We continue to use measures of academic progress which we’ve been doing for several years. We kept up with foundational literacy skills that showed learning loss and where students needed support. We looked at grades for middle schoolers and high schoolers and  made a big shift after the first quarter because we saw students’ grades were suffering heading toward graduation. We also piloted a social-emotional program called Sown to Grow which is now district wide. Students can log onto the platform each day to write about how they feel. Guided by artificial intelligence, the program creates a response that the teacher can approve, modify or re-write their own responses. If there’s an emergency, an automatic notification is sent to specific people to respond. The tool allowed us to save a young middle-schooler’s life who was showing signs she may commit suicide. The tool alerted key district leaders who worked with her parents to intervene.

What has been your biggest challenge with COVID?

Polarization of views and what people perceive as best. Pre-COVID, if we were trying to make a change and did enough outreach, had a thoughtful plan, and considered all the consequences, people were behind it. With COVID — locally, regionally and nationally — there was polarization of what we should have done and what we still should do: from people frustrated with mask mandates in schools to parents wanting to go back to distance learning. There were also fewer win-win situations given the span of beliefs. The only thing we could do was communicate regularly and explain our ‘why’. People may not agree with us, but they know why we’re doing it. Another challenge was that situations were ever changing. When people had just gotten used to something, it changed again, such as mask restrictions and shut-downs.

Has COVID changed you as a leader and if so, how? 

It reaffirmed the importance of communication – that people feel heard and that there’s clear, two-way communication. It also reaffirmed visibility. This was a priority for me before COVID, but with the pandemic, I kept showing up at school sites and virtual classrooms to let staff know I’m here and I’ll get you what you need. 

How are you thinking about the future and how students get an education moving forward?

First, social and emotional learning won’t go away. We had a focus on the whole child before, but it was from an academic perspective. We also had Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA) and other supports in place prior to COVID, but we’re focusing on whole-child wellbeing in addition to academics. 

Second, people in the system generally didn’t know that 24-7 learning can and will happen if we allow it to. Many teachers pushed for students to return their laptops to school. We should recognize that we’re not the only foundations of knowledge for students. When we give them computers to take home, they’ll keep learning, researching, doing projects and engaging and interacting with each other. We shouldn’t take that away

And last, the way we allow kids to demonstrate their learning has changed. Rote learning was how kids showed they knew the content. With COVID, students are demonstrating their knowledge through tech tools like Seesaw, Google Classroom and Flipgrid. For kids who aren’t traditional learners they may want to create a PSA to show their understanding versus writing an essay. This lets children be freer in how they learn and show their advancement. The most vulnerable students have benefitted the most from this approach.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

We always knew local partners were important, but when all the chips were down, the local partners came to the aid of the district, students and families. I can’t underscore enough the importance of that partner ecosystem. The vulnerable students wouldn’t have had the support they needed if not for our partners.