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"Connectivity is now a social justice issue"

An Interview with Dallas ISD Supt. Michael Hinojosa

Dr. Michael Hinojosa has been a student, parent, teacher, coach, and two-time superintendent in the Dallas Independent School District, but little could have fully prepared him for the challenges facing his district today. Still, as he puts it, people are looking for “problem solvers and not whiners,” and in turn, the superintendent spent most of our conversation speaking to ways he’s working to better serve his students, with expanded mental health care services, internet connectivity, and more.

Superintendents have an incredibly hard decision to make right now balancing health and safety of students, staff, and families with the reality that the disruption over the past four months has also had a significant impact on learning. Can you talk about how you're balancing that in approaching this decision?

The most important issue to consider is safety. Parents sometimes will forgive us if we commit educational malpractice, but they would never forgive us if we let something happen to their children while they're under our custody and control. And so the decisions are tough. Learning loss is significant. It's mind boggling how significant it could be. But there's only certain things that we can control. And one of the things that kind of helps me manage through this is to focus on things in my control. People are looking to us to be problem solvers and not whiners, and you need to lead from that perspective, always, for the safety of students and staff. But then, you can't deliver a quality education from the superintendent's office. You have to have staff to execute. Some people have flourished, many people have struggled, but it's better than nothing.

You mentioned the potential for significant learning loss. Can you talk about how you intend to serve students living in communities hardest hit by the virus who are also very likely to have limited access to the internet, and may be the most impacted by the learning loss associated with summer slide?

This pandemic situation exacerbates things for students and families who don't have agency. Those of us who have agency, we can find a way around it. We have resources, we have support systems, we can find a way through it. But the ones who are struggling don't have those inherent support systems in place. And that's what educators provide. Educators provide those wraparound services for the students who don't have agency. So these are the students that fall furthest behind, not only in an academic sense, but a social-emotional sense. And one of the things that we really worry about is the mental health [of students], and the abuse situations that now have gone unreported since March, because typically teachers and counselors are the ones that actually identify abuse that could be happening in the home and notify the appropriate officials about it. So that compounds the whole issue. We have to figure out how to support them in this time of need. So that's one of the reasons that we hired 57 additional mental health professionals that are going to help us when we get the students back to deal with some of the trauma they've been through. Obviously there's going to be academic trauma, but then there's other types of trauma that these students have gone through over these last few months.

What are you learning from parents and staff surveys, how do the results inform your thinking?

Early on, only 20% of our parents said they wanted at-home learning only. 20% said they wanted to be in the building, and the other 60% said they'd like to have a combination. That has completely changed. Over 50% of our parents are now saying they're not coming. Initially, 91% of our teachers said they were coming. That is also pivoting significantly. I would say that if we did another teacher survey now, it'd be similar, around 50%. Things have gotten worse and not better, and people are scared. In fact, we opened up our central office voluntarily up to 25%. We only had about 10% show up. And so we moved that to August.

Can you talk a little bit about how the district is approaching online curriculum and online teaching? What did you learn in the spring that will inform the fall?

We were pleased with our initial launch. We connected with 98% of our students. Our teachers did a great job. Some of our students were very engaged. Others struggled. But I'm very proud that when we open school, we're going to be much better at learning at home than we were in the spring. We learned a lot of things. Our systems are now more robust. We have a learning management system. We have Google classroom. We have those tools that are available. But even more importantly, our teachers were outstanding in participating in summer professional development to learn how to be better at delivering at home instruction. In fact, there were multiple sessions this summer. We had over 6,000 of our 10,000 teachers involved in training this summer about how to deliver our curriculum in a better format. So we're a lot more confident about how well we'll do this when we open up. Now that 50% of our parents have told us that vehicle of learning that they prefer, we have to be ready to deliver on that. We're disappointed that the state's going to make us jump through hoops before they allow us to get funding for that at home learning. In fact, we have to have a building physically open and allow for any parents that might want to drop their kid off at school before we can even start a virtual option. We have to juggle all those things on the fly, but we'll manage it.

We know you’ve been closely involved with Operation Connectivity. Can you talk about the progress the district has made in ensuring equitable internet access for students?

We had a long range technology plan that we accelerated. We had devices for all of our secondary students on the campuses. We deployed them two days before spring break and then two weeks after spring break. Then we decided to accelerate our elementary plan. And so we've deployed the devices for our three through fifth graders. And now we've pivoted from the Kindle to buying iPads for our primary students. So on the device side, we're pretty much up to speed. And by the time school starts, students will have a device. For the connectivity issue, we have 36,000 households that did not have connectivity to broadband. We temporarily solved the problem by distributing over 20,000 hotspots that our foundation and our board purchased. But those are short term solutions. We are working with a very aggressive strategy that by January one, 2021, we will actually have all of our families connected. The city of Dallas has stepped up with some of their CARES funds to support us. We're going to use our future bond funds, if that passes. If not, we'll use our reserve funds to complete the delta to connect our families. Our students need to have devices. They need to have connectivity and they need to be involved in those matters as we move forward.

This is now a social justice issue. This is something that is going to be extremely necessary. It's going to need all hands on deck. What I've seen so far as I built this guiding coalition is that this is not a partisan issue. It is an issue that everybody can get behind because it impacts families and impacts education. It impacts health. And so I would encourage everyone to watch this thing and hold us accountable as this thing rolls out. This is more than just Dallas. This needs to be a systemic change, for the state and the country. We know the Federal Government had to take care of families first and they had to take care of small business. They had to take care of airlines. Now they also have to take care of state and local governments because we're trying to provide services to these students and families.

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