If you are familiar with the Learning Counsel’s Learning Leadership Symposia, you know that it consists of a region’s best and brightest education leaders coming together for some of the nation’s top solutions-oriented professional development. These symposia follow a fairly standard schedule, packing a couple days’ worth of learning into one action-packed day. At the end of that day, a few of the area’s most respected administrators hold a panel discussion. Typically, these panel discussions are “call ‘em as you see ‘em” affairs, with nothing held back. The admins are there for one reason and one reason only: to get to the truth and share workable solutions with their region and their nation. The Panel discussions are fun to watch, and absolutely brimming with solutions to challenges we are all experiencing.

In this Chicago area panel discussion, you’ll see Dr. Jeff Shuler, Superintendent at Community Unit School District 200, Maureen Miller, Director of Instructional Technology at Oak Park and Forest River High School, and Dr. Paul O’Malley, Superintendent of Butler School District 53. And true to form, they hold nothing back, and solutions are there for the taking.

According to Dr. Jeff Shuler, “Coming out of the pandemic-altered years, we really focused a lot of time and energy around two things for the district. We built out during the pandemic, a portrait of what we want our graduates to be, to possess, and to have, coming out of district 200. Of course, we know we want them to come out with good sound, academic skills, characteristics, that kind of learning acceleration, academic excellence part of it. But surrounding it, we really focused on four critical elements. We need them to be effective communicators, good problem solvers. We need them to be resilient learners and know how to manage difficult challenges and work through that. And then, we need them to be collaborators. We need them to know how to, to work together. So that's really been our focus most recently. How do we do those two things simultaneously?  How do we build academic excellence strand and yet, do it in a way that allows us to address those four quadrants that sit around it, in a really authentic way.

Maureen Miller’s district has a somewhat different focus. “Coming back from the pandemic, the kids were different,” she said. “We all noticed that the kids were different, and we really weren't expecting how different they were. It was a shock to everybody. We knew there would be some learning issues, but we weren't so sure about the behavior piece of being alone for two years. It was not pretty.

“We have a very high level of culture, where we are setting standards and really folding in all children,” said Miller. “We want to make sure that every kid has an adult that they're connected to. We're bringing in SEL days where we're doing focusing on executive functioning, resilience and regulating yourself, and building those into the school day. So, we restructured everything.

“We're trying to be creative with the school day so that we're not losing any of that contact time, but doing things that are more important. We want kids to know that they have an adult that cares about them and be able to communicate and collaborate and be creative.”

We strategically abandoned a lot of the practices that I felt were overwhelming our teachers,” said Dr. Paul O’Malley.  “We've brought it back down to Earth, and we've paced ourselves over a 3, 4, 5 year period of time where we're going to focus on making sure that the kids are learning at their own pace, and they're able to get that experience in the ALP program. Because when our kids go to the high school, um, majority of our students are in the advanced honors courses, and they are in the AP track. And so, we know that our students are going to go to the Yales, the Browns, the high-flying schools throughout the course of the country. And so, we will make sure we put them on that trajectory to proficiency so that at a level that's much, much higher, at the same extent we're weighing it with the fun.

“We want to make sure there's fun in school, because that's something that was lost during COVID. So, we're making sure that we have our Explore More Days, which is an exceptional experience for our kids and our families to come and to be greeted. We have our Kona Ice Days where we basically have the Kona truck that's pulled up and the kids get their ice cream. It’s awesome and they have a lot of fun. For us, it's basically weighing the most advanced part of it with a goal that's going to be something that's high level and strategic, but at the same extent, you need to have fun back in school. That's something that's been lost over the last couple years. And so, we're just really proud of just keeping it simple. In fact, we, adopted the K.I.S.S. model.”

“Yeah. I love all this,” said LeiLani Cauthen, Panel Host and CEO of the Learning Counsel News Media and Research. “I love the individualizing. But I also love that because you're elementary, you realize that recess is important to me. As a five-year-old, why would I even go there unless there was playtime?”

You’ll want to watch the video. It is a terrific panel discussion, with three different administrators using three different approaches to all reach the best results possible. Often times, there is more than one way to win, and multiple ways to get to the right answer. In this case, the right answer is happy, well-adjusted and high-performing children – all of whom are having some fun along the way.