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Regional Report: Education in 2020 and beyond

A GPEC Virtual Series

The latest installment of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council’s (GPEC) virtual series, ‘Regional Report,’ centered on the 2020 school year and beyond. Local education leaders discussed how they’re approaching health and safety concerns, the digital divide, and what the education system may look like in the coming years. Panelists included:

Chris Camacho, president & CEO of GPEC, started the discussion by talking about the nexus between education and economic development.

“It all comes down in our world of recruiting companies, and growing and scaling enterprises, to having the requisite workforce with the requisite skills to meet the globally changing demands,” he said.

On the topic of the digital divide, which is defined as the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not, Camacho spotlighted what GPEC is doing to address the disparity within local communities to ensure there is equity and educational opportunities for all.

“GPEC, along with our peer organizations, unlike ever before is going to be heavily focused on how do we ensure we’re enhancing the tax competitiveness of our region and of our state, but coupled with how do we create the requisite tax modernization to ensure we have the requisite funding infrastructure long-term for education,” he said. “Now is our time to lead on this.”

It’s also time for school to start and because of COVID-19, many students and teachers in Arizona will begin the year learning and instructing remotely. The challenges are vast, but Greater Phoenix’s education leaders have been working tirelessly to implement solutions to meet the barriers presented by the pandemic, which includes ensuring students have access to computers and internet.

“The digital divide is wide and it’s real, and we’re seeing it firsthand” said Chad Gestson, superintendent at Phoenix Union High School District. “Phoenix Union has been giving out laptops and hot spots. We’ve had to launch really complex desks and help systems when we give out 30,000 laptops.” In addition to technology challenges, schools are also doing their part on the healthcare side.

“All of our campuses have daily health checks. Those health checks are temperature checks, surveys to find out if we’re experiencing any symptoms,” said Gestson. “If you are a family member and want to register, yes, you will be met with by someone with a smiling face, but that face will be behind a mask behind plexiglass.”

Campuses are still providing food services as well.

“Food insecurity is a massive issue here in Greater Phoenix. The vast majority of youth that attend K-12 schools across our state, but certainly here in The Valley, qualify for free and reduced lunch rate,” said Gestson. “Food service workers will serve food on the sidewalk. We even pre-packaged food for the entire week. We’ll put it in your car, so you don’t have to get out of your car in the morning.”

In terms of instruction, Gestson noted teachers are having to get creative.

“What our teachers are experiencing today are empty classrooms, but full screens. They’re trying to find very unique ways to deliver instruction,” he said. “Going to continue to as best as possible during this remote environment to meet the social, emotional, academic, personal and psychological needs of our students.”

The community college system is facing similar challenges.

“In the middle of March, we moved 21,000 of nearly 22,000 classes from face-to-face to an online environment,” said Dr. Steven Gonzales, interim chancellor at Maricopa Community Colleges. “We had 106,000 students enrolled at that time.

Gonzales spoke about additional pivots the community college system is having to make quickly and how the pandemic’s workforce and economic impacts are different from previous downturns.

“We have a community that needs us to respond quickly. We have an industry that needs us to respond quickly,” he said. “In the past when I was president of Gateway [Community College] we were beginning to focus on creating programs and workforce opportunities to help students become robot proof. Now we’re learning that not only do they need to become robot proof, they need to become pandemic proof.”

In response, Maricopa Community Colleges is standing up programs to fill middle-skill jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but education beyond high school. In hopes of training thousands across the state who have lost jobs that may never come back as a result of COVID-19, Gonzales and his team have recently partnered with Intel to create an Associate of Applied Science, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning program.

“It’s our duty to continue to grow this workforce and have it prepared for a sustainable economy whether that be robot proof or whether that be pandemic proof,” he said.

Julia Meyerson, founder & executive director of Vista College Prep, a kindergarten thought eighth grade network of schools serving students in the Maryvale and Central City South Communities, highlighted her experience navigating COVID-19 where 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and more than 90 percent are students of color.

“School closures have forced all of us to reinvent how we are delivering education, while maintaining the culture and relationships that really previously defined our in-person learning,” she said. “Our continued goal is to fight the notion that this will go down as a lost year for our students.”

In just eight days earlier this year, Vista College Prep launched a fully virtual program. They created how-to videos in Spanish and English to support their families, instituted daily live office hours and tutoring groups that averaged more than 90 percent attendance.

The diligence in March proved beneficial moving into the summer and ultimately the 2020 school year.

“We really created 11 different working groups across the organization to prepare for what the start of school would like,” she said.

One was dedicated to building readiness, which saw members distilling Center for Disease Control guidelines, measuring every single classroom to determine how many students could safely socially distance and participating in webinars hosted around the country to glean best practices.

Vista College Prep launched its first day of virtual learning on August 5. 95 percent of its staff and 100 percent of its teachers returned to serve more than 1,000 students. Despite success in a virtual setting, Meyerson wants to see her students and teachers back in the classroom and Vista College Prep has marked October 12 as a return date should the data suggest it’s safe to return.

“We deeply believe that elementary children need to be in school,” she said. “Any notion that maybe this is a unique opportunity to innovate around digital learning, specifically for our kindergarten through second-grade kids, we just don’t think holds true.”

Meyerson is also adamant that synchronous or live lessons need to be the priority across all grades as opposed to pre-recorded lessons only.

Stephanie Parra, executive director at ALL In Education, an advocacy organization working to ensure that the communities most impacted by education inequities are the ones making decisions for ALL children, spoke about the systemic issues disproportionately affecting people of color in the education system.

“What the pandemic has done is it’s exposed what those of us that have been working in the system have known for a really long time – that our system is riddled with inequity,” she said. “Your zip code unfortunately sometimes defines the quality of your education or the level of resources that you have access to.”

Parra launched her organization and started in her leadership role on April 1, two weeks before schools closed. She got right to work – listening.

“It was important to meet the moment and to take time to listen to the community and to what they were going through,” she said. “A lot of what we feared going into the conversations were validated – gaps in connection to their school community. We heard from Spanish-speaking parents who hadn’t heard from their schools since they closed in March and we were having a conversation in mid-May.”

According to Parra, 46 percent of the student population in Arizona is Latino, but only 15 percent of the teaching workforce is Latino.

Parra spoke to the digital divide issue, but says, “gaps in the digital divide wasn’t just about access to technology, it was also a technical skills gap. “We had parents that, you know, said ‘I’m really grateful that my school community let me borrow a laptop, but I’ve never turned this thing on before and I don’t know how to use it so I still can’t help my kid.’”

But how do we solve these complex issues?

“We have to build a collective effort and a collective movement in order to advance and solve for equity,” she said. “Leaders to all of us need to operate from that same frame and lens. We’re calling this the ‘Equity Framework’ where we are making decisions grounded in equity; where we are analyzing how our decisions are going to impact Latino youth, youth of color and low-income families. Really being intentional in our decision making going forward around new policies, new practices, new programs.”

Panelists also shared their thoughts on what the future of education may look like and what additional issues need to be addressed.

“The future of education is really going to have a strong digital component even when students are back in classes,” said Gestson. “The future of workforce is technological. I think it’s highly individualized curriculum, but also uses technology in a very different way. I think long gone are our educators just sitting up in a room of 30 students and delivering just a lecture.”

“The number one predictor of student achievement is not race or socioeconomic status, it’s teacher quality,” said Meyerson. “I think we should have an educator in every classroom let alone an outstanding one.”

Meyerson highlighted that Arizona has a starting teacher salary of $34,000 and had nearly 8,000 vacancies last year.

“Out statewide talent pipeline is still just not big enough or strong enough to ensure that all children have access to the high-quality education that we want for them, she said. “I think I would put it [money] back to how are we investing continuously in that talent pipeline to ensure that we have an educator that is ready to meet all the demands.”

Gestson expanded on Meyerson’s comments.

“We are starting teachers at poverty wages, we are not putting devices and connectivity in the hands of all our students, and yet, we expect very different outcomes,” he said. “I would just hope that we use this time to really step back, reflect and reinvest differently in our future workforce. Our kids deserve it, but our economy certainly needs it.”

As a business community, there is action that can be taken, and Dr. Gonzales outlined how business big and small can help.

“We can’t do this entirely by ourselves, so we find ourselves seeking our partners that have a mutual interest in serving our community and serving our students,” he said. “I would encourage any business leaders out there that want to help to reach out to us and let’s just start a conversation.”

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