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Suburban Schools Emerge from the Pandemic With New Resilience

As the nation continues to emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, leaders in suburban school districts are using a range of strategies to restore and strengthen connections with students and communities.

School boys in masks
A mask mandate is in place for Pa. schools.
(Alejandro A. Alvarez/TNS)
New data from the Census Bureau confirms one worry about the rough road ahead for America’s schools: too many students are staying away. Enrollment in October 2020 was down by nearly 3 million students compared to 2019. This is consistent with a June report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that showed preK-12 enrollment in 2020-2021 fell by 3 percent from the year before.

The biggest enrollment drop NCES found was at the preschool and kindergarten level. This declined 13 percent, possibly reflecting the difficulty of providing remote instruction to the youngest students. Mark Schneider, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, expressed particular concern about this when NCES released the data it collected from state education agencies. “Research shows that these early years are essential in helping students succeed academically and socially,” he said.

The under-18 population decreased by more than a million between 2010 and 2020. School enrollment has been trending downward for some time, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). But this trend accelerated during the pandemic as students chose not to participate in online instruction and dropped from school rolls.

“They’re gone, and a lot of school districts are searching for them, hiring personnel to go out to their homes, to find them and bring them back,” he says. Some parents decided to homeschool their children, at times forming small groups and hiring teachers, an arrangement Domenech characterizes as “semi-private” school.

As part of its relief efforts, Congress provided a total of nearly $190 billion to the Elementary and Secondary Relief (ESSER) Fund to help K-12 schools make it through the pandemic and prepare to reopen safely. To date, the Depart of Education has not tracked how this money has been spent in detail.
The challenges that inner city schools face in retaining and recovering lost students are undeniable, but according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, fewer than one in three elementary and secondary students attend public school in a city. Millions more attend suburban schools, and students in rural schools number about 60 percent as many as those in city schools.

“The reality is that the majority of school districts in America are small rural and suburban schools,” says Domenech. “The large urban districts that we often hear about are the minority.”

It’s also incorrect to assume that suburban districts are inherently less diverse. While this is true in some communities, nationally more than half of Black, Latino and Asian Americans in large metropolitan areas live in a suburb and not a city. As long as a decade ago, an analysis of Census data by the Brookings Institution found the share of minorities in the suburbs to be similar to that in the overall U.S. population.

The pandemic struggles of big cities in the northeast have been well documented. At present, case rates in the region are falling. School districts that serve rural and suburban communities in Pennsylvania and New York are finding ways to rebuild their relationships with students and parents.
Fewer than one in three American public school students are enrolled in city districts.

School’s on the Radio

Butler Area School District is located about a half hour north of Pittsburgh, Pa., and comprises 11 schools over 150 square miles. Its 6,300 students come from both rural and suburban communities and the city of Butler. About 45 percent receive free or reduced lunch, says Superintendent Brian White. Its 2020-2021 enrollment is similar to the year before, with 2,000 students choosing the district’s cyber pathway.

The district’s demographic mix, and varying expectations within it about what school should be, pose unique challenges, says White. Some of these came into sharp relief when school closures were first ordered.

“We have all the issues of rural America not having broadband in place, but we also have poverty in the center of our district, in the city,” he says. “All of those students did not have access to the Internet.”

In March 2020, the district had 2,500 devices for 6,400 students. As it mustered Chromebooks, tablets and computers from its computer labs to get what was needed to serve every family, the district broadcast lessons for two weeks on a local radio station. (One of these lessons received an award from the state’s broadcast association.)

A local cable company helped White get broadband into every home where possible and hot spots were provided to the rest. Devices stripped from computer labs went to students. While this went forward, the school librarian trained teachers to teach online, using a course she had created before the pandemic in the context of her professional development.

The radio broadcasts ended, and these combined efforts propelled the district through the first stage of the pandemic. When it became possible to resume in-person instruction, it offered students the choice of in-person learning, asynchronous remote learning or livestreaming classroom instruction, with the option to switch every three weeks.

Small classes, double staffing and creative use of school facilities made it possible to keep in-person classes modest in size and safe and support cyber learning. But by the time last summer came around, it was clear that achievement gaps had grown.

To address this, the district decided to shift gears and emphasize the importance of relationships in the learning process.

At the beginning of the year, the district focused on building relationships between all its stakeholders — principals and teachers, teachers with one another and with students, students with each other and schools with families and communities. “The idea was that we would work on that, then build confidence, set goals and then really start talking about how to learn,” says White.
Elementary students standing in a field while two of them dig with shovels.
Elementary students at a Butler Area School District campus participate in a project overseen by an advisory board of local farmers, part of the district’s efforts to strengthen relationships strained by the pandemic. (Butler Area School District)

Farms, Stores and a Lawsuit

District efforts to engage families have included designing learning opportunities that reflect local priorities. An elementary school in one community has a 20-acre campus. “The idea of agriculture really resonated with them,” White says. “We’re putting greenhouses in, we’re putting in a Christmas tree farm, fruit trees, raised beds where they are growing vegetables.” An advisory panel of farmers is helping teachers, parents and students develop programs at the school.

At a more urban elementary school in the district, community groups created a partnership with the school based on service, rebuilding the library as a “store” that can provide goods that students need for school, at no cost. Planning these projects created a sense of excitement about the future for the district, a welcome counterpoint to the stresses of a lingering pandemic.

White has faced a unique obstacle in building consensus around public health orders. The Pennsylvania Department of Health required that schools providing in-person instruction sign an attestation that they will comply with its guidelines for schools, which include face coverings.

“This is a very, very conservative district and our school board took enormous issue with that,” says White. Initially, it considered not signing the attestation. Instead, it signed it under protest and filed a lawsuit against the governor and the state secretaries of education and health, a lawsuit that is still in active litigation.

This has created more than one paradox for White. As he told the board, one effect of the lawsuit was to increase pressure for the district to follow guidelines as strictly as possible. At the same time, parents who question masking ask why students should wear masks if the school board opposes the state mandate.

What seems to work best is listening to parents, acknowledging their frustration and taking time — in person, in thousands of phone calls, via regular emails — to respond to the specific concerns of parents and clarify the rules and orders that govern how the district is required to operate.

“I always say that they should talk to their doctor. I’m not a public health official, I’m a superintendent,” says White. “I always try to circle back to that, to the voices I’m listening to and what I’m hearing.”
Young children participating in a hands-on project inside a school gym while wearing facemasks.
Summer sessions gave students at the Avonworth School District a chance to engage in projects that had been impossible during a year of remote instruction. (Avonworth School District)

Lunch With Students

The demographics of the Avonworth School District, just north of Pittsburgh, are very different than those of the Butler Area District. It has two campuses and serves around 1,900 students who are predominantly affluent and white; just 10 percent of its attendees are students of color and about 14 percent receive free or reduced lunch. District enrollment has continued to grow over the past three years, national trends notwithstanding.

The district had provided a device to every student before COVID-19 arrived, and this made it much easier for it to pivot immediately to remote learning. Staff were able to quickly transition from in-the-classroom instruction to remote, virtual instruction. “Our teachers were fantastic,” says Superintendent Jeff Hadley.

Hadley considered it vital for K-6 students to continue to receive in-person math and reading instruction. Last year, half of the alphabet came in the morning, and half in the afternoon. A dedicated teacher was assigned for each grade level to assist with students who could only attend school remotely.

From the outside, it might be easy to assume that an affluent district such as his would have relatively few problems and that every student it would have all the resources they need, but that’s a misconception, he says. “Every district has students at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, and they have needs. When it comes to social and emotional needs that goes across the gamut, whether you’re high or low on that ladder.”

Over the summer, outdoor social events were held at the district’s primary building to begin the transition back to in-person teaching and build community. ESSER funds were used to give hundreds of K-12 students learning opportunities that remote instruction had taken from them. Weeklong sessions covered topics ranging from creative writing, mock trials and forensic anthropology to credit recovery and assistance with college applications.

The sessions weren’t designed to regain learning that been missed, says Hadley. “It was a great success because kids got to have experiences they had missed; of course, there was learning that took place, but the focus was on the experiences.”

Hadley has made a practice of eating lunch with returning students to get their perspectives. Most would prefer for the community to be more empathetic to teachers and administrators enforcing public health orders. “If it gets them back in school, they’re OK with it.”
Growth in the population of school-age Americans has occurred largely in suburban communities. (Pew Research Center)

Investing in Capacity

The Arlington Central District, 75 miles north of New York City, serves nearly 8,000 students. According to the New York State Education Department, minorities make up nearly 30 percent of the student body. As is the case in the Butler Area District, students come from a mix of suburban, rural and urban communities.

Dave Moyer, who became superintendent of the district in January 2021, has settled on a strategic use for COVID-19 funds. Rather than buying people or buying programs, he’s investing in job-embedded professional development. The goal is to build the capacity of his staff to deliver high-quality education in an era of rapid change and unpredictability.

“We’re trying to create a systemic approach to support personalizing learning for all of your students, that is sustainable over the long term,” he says. “This [COVID-19] is the current change interjected into our system, but four or five years from now there might be a different change interjected into it — do we have the capacity to deal with that and meet the needs of our kids?”

Arlington had not made classroom technology a priority before the pandemic hit, Moyer says. When it did, the district bought Chromebooks for students, but was not prepared to make effective use of them. The focus of current staff development efforts isn’t on the devices themselves, but the unique ways that technology can be used to personalize learning.

“We’re not going to be able to overcome what we’ve experienced in these last couple of years in six months or a year,” Moyer says. “We have to redesign what we’re doing for the long haul; some people are hoping they can just go back to the way it always was whenever this passes, and we just don’t think that that’s an option.”

As an additional tool to bring this transformation about, the district is using the AASA’s Learning 2025 model as an organizing framework. Learning 2025 calls for a redesign of the public education system by 2025, with an emphasis on student-centered, equity-focused education.

Along the way, Moyer and his staff are navigating the social and development consequences of young people being disconnected from schools. The youngest students, in particular, have missed opportunities to learn about norms for interaction in the setting of a school.

“It’s a challenge to create this environment again, where everyone is interacting and working together, working through disagreements and getting on the same page about why we’re here and what we’re trying to do,” says Moyer.

This process extends beyond the school itself and includes educating the community about the changes the district is implementing, how might they make schools look different than the schools parents remember and how the district’s new approach can better prepare students for success after they have graduated.
New Jersey parents protesting mask mandates.
New Jersey parents protest mask mandates.
(Peter Ackerman/TNS)

The Last Stumbling Block

In communities where vaccination rates are high and infection rates are low, kids are back in school and things are close to normal, says AASA’s Dan Domenech. “The stumbling block right now is reluctance on the part of people to wear masks and to get vaccinated. Eventually we’ll get past that, and once we do the energy is there to redesign education — we need to admit that our educational system is antiquated, and certainly not in keeping with the 21st century.”

Johannah Vanatta is superintendent of the Chartiers Valley School District, a suburban district southwest of Pittsburgh. She saw students grow during the pandemic, learning how to move past texting and compose emails that truly communicated, and develop new capacity to problem solve.

“Those are life lessons and life skills that they will remember,” she says. “I’m actually very excited about the creative learning and problem solving that’s going to come out of this generation.”

The pandemic created a new level of urgency to fix problems in education that have existed for a long time, says Dave Moyer. People might like binary, yes-no solutions, but they aren’t enough to solve the complex problems of the 21st century.

“We’re going to have to stand in the fire and get our system and our people in a place where they can ensure that our kids are ready to be successful in life when they leave our K-12 programs.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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