We took a moment to catch up with Dr. Ann Levett, Superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) in Savannah, GA. In this Q&A, Dr. Levett shares how she has led her district through the COVID-19 pandemic, what is guiding her curriculum development team now, her tips for distance learning, and what keeps her moving forward during these challenging times. Read the full interview below.
EDU: As superintendent, what have been your guiding principles for supporting students during this pandemic?
Dr. Levett: My guiding principle has been to make sure that we are taking care of students holistically. While we typically think about students’ cognitive development—how they are reading, writing, and mastering their academic work generally—it’s important to also remember that students are more than test scores. They are real people who are still developing along several pathways during this period of trauma.
Our district has spent this time focusing on how students are developing physically and whether they feel safe. We have paid attention to their concerns about food, clothing, and shelter. We will do our part to ensure that their physical development isn’t compromised in any way. One way we’ve accomplished this is by providing meals for all students in their neighborhoods using a “meal delivery at bus stops” approach. I don’t want students to feel food insecure. Our school Social Workers have worked with community agencies to assist with clothing and shelter issues.
We’re also focusing on our students’ psychological development. We have been sure to provide resources and support so that students know how to process some of the dramatic changes that occurred this year. We are supporting students’ social-emotional development by encouraging safe social interactions and helping students learn how to manage their emotions during this time. As a district, we are also still focusing on language development. That means not only learning to read, but also finding escape/solace through reading, and helping students learn how to use language to express themselves.
Another primary focus for SCCPSS is addressing the needs of the families of our students. Families are a major part of the social network to which children are connected, and if their families are in distress, then the students will be in distress. Lastly, we’re making sure that district staff members are also doing well, because if the staff isn’t doing well then that transmits to the students. Staff members also need to feel supported.
EDU: Can you share any creative ways SCCPSS has kept students and families engaged in literacy during this unprecedented year?
Dr. Levett: We launched our own television station, which allowed us to make sure students were continuing to receive their content, and we used it to support literacy! We had some of our superstar teachers continue the learning that would have happened in the classroom using our television channel. We worked with another local television station as well to share lessons across various content areas, reinforcing some of the skills and content that teachers had delivered earlier in the year, while also introducing some new content.
The second major effort we executed was a televised read-in. Annually, we invite members of the community to come into our school buildings and read books to our students face-to-face. This activity was not possible this year due to the pandemic. Instead, we had the readers come into our television studio and record themselves reading stories, or they filmed themselves reading stories at home. Then we shared the stories with the students via our television station and our social media platforms so they could follow along at home. These electronic read-in sessions are still available.
The third major effort was to distribute learning boxes for students in grades PreK–8. These boxes included reading materials, books, workbooks, new readers, art materials, and all kinds of other goodies—sometimes even snacks or masks. We wanted to make sure that the students had learning materials at home. Then, we would follow up with the students to make sure they completed the activities and read the books. The distributions were done curbside, so parents would drive up and we would hand them their boxes and take the opportunity to talk with them about how important it was to complete the activities and return them to the students’ teachers.
We also have a very strong partnership with our county library system. Just prior to the pandemic, we had arranged for every student in the school district—all 38,000 of them—to receive a library card. Students could no longer offer excuses such as “I have to have my mom bring me in and sign me up!” When the county libraries opened back up after the shutdown, a lot of our students were able to go to the library to get books or access titles from home. We were so fortunate to get that partnership off the ground before the pandemic set in.
Lastly, we hosted gratitude days dedicated to writing. Students were encouraged to take the time to write letters of gratitude to family members and essential workers who worked throughout the pandemic. This month we will launch our love letter campaign, which will include students writing letters to people in nursing homes and care facilities who may not be able to see their families this year. Those writing days allowed students to study gratitude and determine how best to articulate their gratitude for others. We have a letter writing campaign to military members as well.
EDU: Continuing to think about literacy, what questions are guiding the work for your curriculum development team right now?
Dr. Levett: We are continuing to determine how we best meet the needs of students, staff, and families—that whole support network for children. Our governance and curriculum teams were charged with making sure that learning is not devoid of recognizing the challenges students may face daily. We achieved this by making sure that we’re not only catching up on what students might have lost in learning over this time period—ensuring we have materials, lessons, and experience that address all levels—but we’re also making sure that the materials we use give guidance on how to manage this trauma that students, families, and even staff have experienced. We believe it is essential to give attention to students’ social-emotional needs at this critical time.
Our governance and curriculum teams have also been making sure that we’re paying attention to the students who are not connected to us through technology. Often, the problem is access to broadband, which we’ve been campaigning with federal officials about because we believe internet service should be as accessible as electricity and water. We want students to be able to connect to the Internet and stay connected and have the right tools to make that connection possible. It’s not just “everybody gets a Chromebook.” The more appropriate question becomes “what tools do our students need to succeed?”
EDU: Overall, what lessons have you learned from distance learning that can help guide other school and district leaders?
Dr. Levett: Distance learning can never replace the face-to-face connection between human beings. It’s not a solution for everyone and if distance learning is the only approach, then that will create greater equity issues that warrant attention. Just looking at challenges with broadband access across this country, we know that the equity gap will be exacerbated if distance learning is the only way students will be able to learn and receive the education they deserve.
Distance learning has taught us all that we need effective and ongoing professional development. It has also taught us that we must protect the privacy of our students and staff. Protection of privacy continues to be a concern that demands our attention.
Finally, we must have a variety of tools—from computer applications to devices—available at our disposal, to make sure we are meeting the needs of students and staff. For students with disabilities or those who learn differently, the approach to teaching and learning must be customized. Yes, personalized learning is still required, even with distance learning! One size does not fit all.
EDU: We would love to know, what inspires you to keep moving forward?
Dr. Levett: I believe it is our responsibility as educators to prepare students for the future—that belief has kept me moving forward. This pandemic period has only reinforced the need for us to stay connected with students and help them and their families remain hopeful and to see beyond this temporary situation. I believe that we have the responsibility and capacity to keep students and families engaged so we can get through this rough patch. We will all come out stronger, we’ll collaborate more, we’ll listen more, we’ll be more attentive, and we’ll be more supportive, compassionate, and patient with each other. That’s what keeps me moving forward: knowing that there will be an end to this, that we’ll learn some lessons, and that we will be better prepared next time.
EDU: Lastly, what are you reading right now?
Dr. Levett: I am rereading Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson, and it is incredible. I read it once, and now I am going back into it and studying it. It is a must-read! I am also reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which studies racism and segregation in America and ways we are still impacted by them. He is an incredible researcher and writer. And on my bookshelf, of course, is A Promised Land by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ann Levett, taken at the SCCPSS Student Success Expo, January 2020 in Savannah, GA