I graduated from St. Clements High School as a senior, Class of 2007. The first in my immediate family to graduate from high school. As excited as I was, my graduation meant more to my parents than to me. I was leaving for Philadelphia to attend Temple University to study pre-law, and my parents planned a considerable celebration, proud that their only girl was heading off to college. Like most families in Everett, my parents immigrated here for a better life for their future family. They worked three jobs to help pay for my tuition while I worked part-time to help cover my books and school fees. Their joyful tears of achievement at my high school graduation were a symbol of why they left Haiti to come here for a better life. It was bigger than me. I want Everett High School Seniors to experience the best day of their lives for all their hard work, especially for their parents.
As an elected official, I am not afraid to speak out about issues that affect our community, be a voice for the voiceless, and be asked tough questions. Last week, I created a stir of emotions because I addressed the way School Committee and School Leadership handled certain issues during COVID-19.
I ran for public office because I saw a lack of leadership in the city. I stepped up, said something is broken, and am working on inequities in the system. In the last three months, I have received multiple phone calls, emails, and text messages from students, parents, school employees, and other elected officials concerned about multiple issues in the school system. Examples include parents spending their own money to make up for what the school should have been doing all along, no communication plan to the parents, school employees looking for legal counsel, and students who felt left behind.
At the end of many of these conversations, I felt embarrassed. I happily took the time to listen, and I asked each person, what do you want to see done? Every conversation left me puzzled, asking myself, “Are they doing what is best for the students?” and, “What could I do to help solve this problem?”
I have many examples, but here are four ways in which I feel there was a lack of leadership:
- Lack of equity and communication plan for all parents, including English Language Learners, Special Needs, and Low-Income
- Food access for all students
- Seniors Celebrating their Milestone
- Parent and Employee Confidence in the School System
I will not engage in social media wars. I am in communication with over 1500 people every week. I have reached out to the respective parties. The responses were not sufficient, as the issues from the students, parents, and employees still kept coming to me. Hopefully, this letter will open up a conversation.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, students attended a field trip. Afterward, many students tested positive for coronavirus. Leadership said school would continue, and they would monitor the situation. I began to be concerned. The number of cases increased, and our Mayor decided to shut down the schools. Before they shut down, I wondered what the education plan was and how they would communicate next steps to all parents. A few days after the shutdown, students and parents reached out to me, asking what was going on, they had not heard from the schools. Students were wondering about their graduation plans, what would their grades have to be/how would grades be determined for them to graduate? I wondered, why didn’t they figure out a plan before they released the students, and communicate it to all parties involved?
Once we heard food would be distributed to students, no one reached out to me about the logistics. I wondered, how are they reaching out to parents? A week in, City Councilors were told the number of people coming to pick up food was much lower than anticipated, and asked to help get the word out about the food distribution. Again, I wondered, what was the communication plan and how were they implementing it?
When the schools decided to distribute chromebooks, they explained on social media that parents could pick them up on certain days based on the first letter of their last name. I knew many parents did not get this information, because multiple parents reached out to me to ask how they could get a chromebook. They asked how to access the learning plan. With 7200+ students, I did not understand the plan, how many weeks would it take to get every household a computer to learn? Then the number of cases climbed in Everett. What happened next? They decided to shut down distribution of Chromebooks and food to students for three full weeks. Parents were asking, “How will my child learn? Will they be left behind?” I grew up with parents who had no idea what a computer was and wouldn’t have been able to afford internet service. When a Spanish speaking Everett parent reached out to a Chelsea City Councilor about receiving the Chromebook but not having internet, not knowing what to do, I was broken-hearted.
Parents reached out about food. I told them, please call 311. I contacted the 311 Director early, knowing the number of calls, many from Spanish and Portuguese speakers, would be high. I asked what the plan was, and how we could find solutions together. I was told everything was being handled.
In other cities (I spoke with other elected officials), they did not stop, they kept going because they did not want any child to be left hungry or left behind in learning. Many Everett teachers told me there was no communication plan for them for almost two months. I watched the video that the Superintendent released to the teachers about the end of year plan. I don’t feel it instilled the confidence or clearly outlined the steps needed to ensure that equity would be achieved for all students in all circumstances. Also, they did not seek input.
Last week, the Everett Independent highlighted Super Mom Shenae Jackson, whose questions about the cap/gown and yearbook (she paid for) were not addressed. Was there a plan in place for the Seniors before COVID-19? There was no communication, so she took matters into her own hands. She spent $2100+ of her own money to help give seniors a sense of pride. I asked my City Council Colleagues to join me in helping to support Mrs. Jackson, instead of yes or no answers, I received backlash in asking for support. Now people are trying to say the school committee and school leadership were planning activities all along. All any of us really know is that the schools shut down in mid-March. In the first week of May, there were still questions as to what the plan was. When we finally received an update, it still did not address inequities in students’ personal situations. One piece of the plan had me concerned about safety, giving out students' addresses to strangers.
As we continue into summer and the next school year, we need to ask ourselves, are we doing our best for every student and utilizing resources to ensure that we are working hard for everyone? At the end of the pandemic, elected officials will need to ask ourselves:
- Did we treat every student the same?
- Are our students safe and healthy?
- Are our students continuing to learn and grow as school continues remotely?
- What support will they need over the summer or the next school year to be successful?
The truth is, I cannot answer these questions with a yes. My fears are real that we may have, and may continue to, miss the mark.
During the next City Council meeting, I am calling on Everett Public Schools to share information on remote learning, and what is planned for the future. I am concerned about the budget, we are still waiting for the CFO to let us know what the finance plan is for the next fiscal year, as the current one ends on June 30, 2020. I am a massive supporter of investing in our students and want our city budget to reflect that. Data is a valuable tool to understand how our students are learning so we can ensure equity, not only in access to quality education, but in how we can address the gaps many of our children will face due to COVID-19.
We create equity in our public schools by investing the most in the students who need the most from us. To do this right, we need to make sure we are not afraid to ask the right questions, call out when leadership is wrong, and let every parent and student know that we are there for them, not against them.
I never want to be a burden for anyone, especially our teachers and administrators who are working hard to adapt to this new way of learning. I am grateful for all the teachers and parents who have shared their experiences.
Thank you to all who have stepped up and created opportunities, possibilities, and smiles for all our students, parents, and employees. Together, we will get through this, but the keyword is together. Let's work together and not leave anyone out.
City Councilor Gerly Adrien