5 things Burlington parents should know about where schools are headed

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Educators learn that fickle internet connections, lack of supervision while parents go to work, the lure of warmer weather and fatigue prevent some students from participating in online learning during the coronavirus pandemic. (June 15) AP Domestic

Tom Flanagan arrived in Burlington in the midst of a global pandemic, public outcry for racial equality and a sprint to figure out how to open public schools safely in the fall.

“This is the most challenging time in education,” a mentor said to the new Burlington School District Superintendent, who held his first public appearance at Burlington High School Tuesday to announce his 100 Day Entry Plan.

Flanagan acknowledged the challenges before him and plans to lead Burlington schools into its next era with a strategy of listening to the community, effective communication and teamwork among school administrators and leaders.

Three priority areas top his short-term goal list for his first 100 days: equity, engagement and deep learning. At the conclusion of the 100 day plan in early October, the district will enter in to a 5-year strategic plan process.

Here are 5 things families should know about the direction of Burlington schools for the upcoming year:

Equity

In order to promote a system where “all students are valued and challenged,” Flanagan proposed a list of action points:

  • Leadership workshop series with principals and school leaders.
  • Review special education programs and work to improve in that area.
  • Build on a foundation of restorative practices.
  • Book study related to social justice at Burlington High School.
  • Create an Office for Equity that will be led by Henri Sparks — this is a realigning but would have Sparks serving a similar function as he did as Director of Equity.

More: Special education in Vermont ‘needs intervention,’ feds say

Engagement

The engagement focus facilitates two-way communication between a variety of stakeholder groups.

  • Emphasis on listening, talking to one another and understanding one’s frame of reference. 
  • Living Room Chat Series where Flanagan talks with small groups of people in the community. This could be hosted in someone’s back yard or on a front stoop. 
  • Advisory groups will meet regularly to advise Flanagan on matters important to the district. He has already begun meeting weekly with union leadership.
  • The Office of Engagement will be overseen by Victor Prussack, who has served in the curriculum department of the Burlington schools as the Achievement Gap leader.

Deep learning

Flanagan said he wants to build upon what Burlington is already doing to promote engaged learning in subjects students are interested in which have connection to the outside world. This will be achieved through supporting teachers.

  • Investing in educators’ growth and empowerment through professional development.
  • Flanagan anticipates spending a lot of time in schools, along with administrators, to observe classroom learning and make sure instructional practices are prioritized. 
  • Developing a professional learning plan and curriculum work group.

Fall reopening

The Burlington School District has established a Reopening Task Force to to lead the district’s efforts to ready schools for reopening while maintaining health and safety guidelines the Vermont Agency of Education has instated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Finance and Operations Director Nathan Lavery is leading this effort and has put together various work groups to address specific needs.

In a recent survey to the Burlington community, more than 1,200 families and 500 educators provided responses answering what they would like to see for schools reopening. The task force is taking survey information into account while planning.

“We’re getting good feedback about how we should open and we’re going to be holding a couple town halls next week to start to test some of those ideas,” Flanagan said.

He said 15% of families said they are not comfortable sending their children back to school yet and the schools would provide virtual learning for those students. 

An A/B schedule — alternating from one day to the next — is being considered as well as learning pods, groups that stay together. Flanagan said they have found success during summer school having multiple entrances where health checks are performed.

He said each student will be issued a device in the event remote learning is reinstated.

The district is on track to open on time with the first day of school August 26.

More: Back to school in a pandemic: What Vermont students and families can expect

Flanagan’s background

Tom Flanagan grew up in the Washington, D.C. area where he served as a school principal and eventually the deputy chief of specialized instruction for Washington, D.C. Public Schools.

He was most recently the chief academic officer for Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island.

While in Providence, Flanagan said he worked to engage families in helping develop district improvement plans, which ultimately led to improved test scores.

More: Burlington School District Board announces next superintendent

Flanagan started his career coaching soccer while in high school and again after college. “I ended up backing into a teaching job,” he said. 

He holds a master’s degree in special education. 

Flanagan’s wife and three daughters, who will attend Burlington schools, are moving from Providence.

“I’m just really honored and excited to be here. I’m fortunate to have a team that’s standing by my side and is incredibly strong and committed to this work.” Flanagan said he is “really excited to be a part of the community.”

More: Burlington School Superintendent Yaw Obeng is stepping down

Contact April Barton at abarton@freepressmedia.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.

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