Located approximately an hour north of San Francisco, Santa Rosa City Schools (SRCS) currently stands as the largest school district in Sonoma County, California. The district welcomes about 16,000 students and 1,600 teachers and staff members across 24 schools, including nine elementary schools, five middle schools, five high schools, and one continuation high school.
SRCS also features four dependent charter schools, including French and Spanish immersion schools, a K-8 charter school for the arts, and a nationally recognized accelerated charter school. SRCS adopted the motto of “Every Student, Every Possibility, No Matter What” and has been recognized for their Equity and Social Justice Initiative. With a hugely diverse population, the community lends itself to over 2,600 English language learners (ELL) and 49 different languages spoken at student homes. To help integrate and foster connections with families, the district employs bilingual family engagement facilitators across all schools. In 2016, the district was recognized for their diversity efforts with the Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association in the category of School Climate and Safety.
In 2017, the Santa Rosa community suffered a devastating wildfire that consumed the homes of over 800 students and 90 staff members. An elementary school and a high school farm were also destroyed in the process. These experiences served as a guiding point for the district’s ability to adapt when school closures began in early spring 2020 due to COVID-19.
A Launching Pad to the Digital Present
When Google products had first started coming into the district in 2012, the SRCS team had little backing and financial support. Linda Kastanis, an education technology TOSA at SRCS who has served the district for over 30 years, recalls: “At the time, I was a middle school science teacher and we were a bit behind the times. At that point, there was little funding for classroom technology.”
Over time, with generous donors and tremendous support from the parent community, some of the first iPads, Chromebooks, and other devices were purchased to use in classes. The momentum built by the students who embraced the newfound technology propelled educators like Linda to get their Google training and certification. Soon enough, SRCS was not only adapting to the technology platforms, but also looking for other online tools to get ahead.
In 2016, SRCS transitioned to Illuminate Data & Assessment (DnA) as their main assessment platform. This provided a perfect backdrop for SRCS when the district learned of an integration between Illuminate and Google Classroom.
Many staff members enrolled in a beta testing cycle. As part of the beta testing group, Kastanis was able to experience initial features and provide direct feedback. Kastanis and her peers were impressed with the ease of use, along with features like importing Google Classroom Assignment scores from Google Classroom into the Illuminate Points-Based Gradebook, and using the Illuminate Inspect assessment bank and pulling scores directly into the Gradebook.
Pivoting in the Period of Remote Learning
When the coronavirus broke out in early 2020, all teachers and staff were forced to adapt to a remote environment. Most teachers who were comfortable with the Illuminate system and the integration with G Suite were able to seamlessly move their classroom online. Others were familiar with using DnA, but did not share the same proficiency around their use of the tools.
Before the stay-in-place orders, SRCS had about 250 active users of Google Classroom. Seemingly overnight, that figure shot up to over 800. In general, it was being used as a learning management system to organize materials, distribute assignments, assess student work, and communicate with students. Teachers also used the integration of Google Classroom with other online tools to increase engagement and understanding, provide multiple means of assessment, and increase student choice and student voice. Training staff were asked to quickly produce documentation and instructional videos to support those who needed assistance.
Kastanis was supported by her teaching colleagues, who came together as a small group of experienced Google Classroom users to train about 450 teachers over a three-day period. They followed up with additional professional development when the district’s educators participated in a mini-EdTech summit, a day that featured 24 training sessions around Google tools as well as the Google Classroom and Illuminate integration. These workshops included directions on topics as wide-ranging as how to pull students’ Gmail addresses into a system report to how to adapt their gradebook for remote learning. The results are reflected in the numbers: Google Classroom integration usage (e.g., posting to / importing from Google Classroom) had increased 75% across schools since the first week of March before the shutdown.
Beyond technology, the district was compelled to shift their philosophical approach. Leaders and educators began to focus on personal connection and well-being, knowing that the drastic shutdown of normal life had affected both families and students on various levels. They soon adopted the motto of “contact before content.” Teachers were to prioritize communications with students over learning content, taking special consideration for home inconveniences and even possible trauma.
Qualitative measures have been used to supplement, if not replace, quantitative measures that were no longer viable in the new learning environment. These would include having teachers connect with students on Zoom for basic wellness check-ins, as well as sharing notes and observations about students from virtual meetings. Though district leaders are still discussing ways to measure student progress and understanding around subjects like math and foreign language, the emphasis is on first ensuring students feel mentally and emotionally healthy. “Our students and staff have had to overcome many challenges over the last few years, so our goal has become less about content and more about connection,” said Kastanis.
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