Superintendent Dr. Houston Barber Discusses his District’s Approach to Providing Social-Emotional and Academic Supports

 //  Mar 9, 2021

Superintendent Dr. Houston Barber Discusses his District’s Approach to Providing Social-Emotional and Academic Supports

We virtually chatted with Dr. Houston Barber, Superintendent of Frankfort Independent Schools in Frankfort, KY. In this Q&A, Dr. Barber shares how Frankfort’s ongoing 3:1 approach for supporting students has shaped the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, how they’ve kept students engaged in literacy while addressing social-emotional needs, and how the role of superintendent has changed in light of the past year. Read the full interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.

EDU: First, can you tell me about Frankfort Independent Schools?

Dr. Barber: We are a small but mighty community-based district with less than 1,000 students. We’re an inner-city district located in the capitol of Kentucky with a high free and reduced lunch rate percentage. We’re focused on transforming lives—the lives of both our students and our families. Right now, we’re in a hybrid mode of learning but we’re phasing in to in-personal learning.

EDU: In 2017 you wrote a blog post for us about Frankfort Independent Schools’ revised 3:1 approach for supporting students focused on social-emotional supports, academic/behavioral supports, and access to opportunities. How has this approach shaped your thinking regarding supporting students since the start of the pandemic?

Dr. Barber: We have a 3:1 approach for inclusivity in our district for our students, families, and staff. It’s an approach from our leadership perspective. One thing that we initially looked at during the start of the pandemic was: what we were doing that we could keep doing, and what we were doing that we had to adjust, and did we need to do different to give kids the opportunity to feel that they belong. We felt that addressing students’ sense of isolation and sense of belonging was going to be a complicated matter—the two come hand-in-hand because if you feel isolated, you don’t feel like you belong to something.

We knew from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we had to provide food for our students. So, I brainstormed with our Food Services Director and together we totally changed how we did things. We wanted to get our local families food—and we didn’t just want to have them come pick it up—so instead we delivered food directly to our students almost every day. Eventually we shifted that model when our students started coming back to school in person, and we were able to do a hybrid model of the service. This was very important to us because we didn’t want any family to go hungry or any kid not to have access to food.  

On the academic resources side of things, we provided mobile supports so that each child had access to the technology they needed. We partnered with T-Mobile and were able to get hotspots for our students who had a need for them. In doing so, we also had to ensure that there were quality checks to see how students were doing. We spent a lot of time having one-on-one mentoring sessions with kids, where our staff would check in and ask how kids were doing and how they could be best supported. We had to elevate our approach to home visits to provide and accelerate opportunities for kids, safely, to make sure they were getting the support they needed.

Ultimately, we really relied on our partnerships with local support systems—from the library to food and meal opportunities, to local businesses—because we knew it was going to take a village to get access to resources. These efforts included Thanksgiving meals for families or providing gift bags during the holidays.


EDU: We know that literacy is such a big priority for Frankfort Independent Schools. Can you share any creative ways that your district has continued to keep kids engaged and reading outside of school?

Dr. Barber: We’ve promoted literacy opportunities, especially for birth to five, including software platforms that allow kids to pick out different books at no cost. We’ve developed resource kits that provide kids with access to literacy materials throughout this difficult time families are facing. 

Our Birthday Book Initiative is something else we’re truly passionate about. When kids have birthdays we like to give them books, which is a chance to celebrate and reward them, and ultimately get them excited about literacy. Another thing that we’ve done is engaging mentors to work with our students and help identify what type of reading materials they might be interested in.

Literacy is such a high priority for this district that one of our goals is to have every kid reading on grade level by third grade. We also believe that we have to measure progress along the way, and we have to provide the access to resources to make this possible. When there is a deficit or a challenge with getting to this level, we know we need must continue to scaffold and provide support along the way.

EDU: How has coronavirus changed your understanding of and approach to addressing students’ social-emotional needs?

Dr. Barber: We have had to redefine the definition of teaching and learning due to COVID-19. In other words, we’ve had to eliminate barriers—whether before, during, or after school—that existed prior to the pandemic that created disparities and gaps. We developed a strategy that meets students where there are and provides opportunities that makes them want to be engaged and learn right now. We definitely wanted to inspire a growth mindset culture, but at the same time, we had to take into account that our teachers have had to use different approaches, strategies and tools that they’ve never used before.

I think that while we’ve been successful in providing 3:1 supports and social-emotional learning supports, we also have had to figure out ways to measure it differently. For example, we do a resiliency score to measure where our students are with grit and resiliency. Using that, we provide an opportunity to access resources. One way we do this is through a partnership with the University of Louisville on some resources social-emotional growth and development. The bottom line is that we’re truly focusing on trying to figure out where our students are, meet them where they are, discover where they are at socially and emotionally, and then allow them to have opportunities to share in a different way.

I can tell you that we are not backing away from our 3:1 approach. And even with the pandemic, we have ensured that we spend time each and every day to have counseling support, as well make sure we’re meeting the hierarchy of needs for our students.

Lastly, physical activity is also a big thing for us, and Frankfort Independent Schools now does ‘Fitness Fridays’ where we encourage staff to have walk and talk meetings, and students get involved as well. This brings about social-emotional excitement while focusing on health. We’re also getting ready to partner with Healthy Kids Clinic to provide on-site supports for medical management.

EDU: How has the pandemic changed your role as superintendent?

Dr. Barber: Being superintendent is already a 24/7 job, and now we have to take the context of each situation we’re faced with, and evaluate it using strong data. At the same time, you can have twenty incredibly well thought-out strategic plans, and have all twenty not be ready when the situation changes the next day.

The role of the superintendent has changed in many ways. You have to be leader who is out in front doing what’s right for your kids every day, getting out in the community supporting what you believe in. And you have to be an influential leader who makes tough decisions in times of crisis—but the key is involving other people.

Collaboration is central to the changing role of superintendent because the people doing the work at the local level need to be included in your communications and planning in real time. In the past there may have been time to get things going and build systems, but now everything is different and rapidly changing. The superintendent has to be knowledgeable enough to know policy, in addition to figuring out: how do you meet demands while making sure that students and families are successful?

This summer when our taskforce was planning for reopening, I used some creative thinking based on Harvard’s work focused on agile teams. We used this approach to bring teams together to tackle different topics such as operations, logistics, and classroom instruction. We then crowdsourced these solutions by bringing them to the community and we gathered their feedback. Believe it or not, the wisdom of the crowd always wins out in situations like this. Just like the leadership of being superintendent, if you listen to the experts and people around you, when you’ll be successful.

EDU: What are you reading right now?

Dr. Barber: Usually I read about three to four books at a time—I am an avid reader. Currently, I am re-reading Grit by Angela Duckworth, which I love, because it’s a great reminder how we’re working through this situation we’re living in right now. I am also reading Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems by Joanne Quinn and Michael Fullan.

Image courtesy of Dr. Houston Barber