Melvin J. Brown, Ed.D., currently serves as Superintendent of Ohio’s Reynoldsburg City Schools. Previously, he served as Deputy Superintendent of the Cuyahoga Falls City School District.
Dr. Brown is originally from Virginia, where he received his undergraduate degree in English from James Madison University. He completed his master’s in school administration and supervision at Virginia Commonwealth University and received his doctorate from The Ohio State University.
The ACE-ED.org team recently sat down with Dr. Brown to hear his thoughts on a host of topics related to equity, educational technology, and teaching and learning in the evolving COVID world. Read on to learn Dr. Brown’s thoughts on this topic.
Can you please tell me about your school system and the community you serve?
Reynoldsburg City Schools is an extremely ethnically, racially, and economically diverse district of about 7,800 students. We are a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, we and confront some of the same issues as does a typical urban district. Our community has evolved substantially over the last 10 years and our demographics reflect that. Our city is among the fastest growing communities in the country and our school district has taken steps to keep pace with that growth.
Before COVID-19, how did your school system think about equity? How did you work to improve equity among the students you serve?
Our school district has been doing work in the equity space since I arrived in 2017. Here are a few examples. There were stark disparities in how individual schools were resourced based on their locations in the city. We took steps to address those inequities from a fiscal standpoint and in terms of infrastructure. We also reconfigured our gifted services so that we were able to service all students identified as gifted at their home schools; which was not the case previously. Being purposeful about identification, we began to increase our diversity in our gifted program by expanding identifications to include visual and performing arts and other “non-verbal” attributes and changed our assessment tool. Previously, students had to be identified as gifted in Language Arts AND Math in order to receive services. This would automatically disqualify many of our students who have another language as their home language. This was clearly an equity issue. Finally, we increased our enrollment of students from historically marginalized background in AP and College Credit Plus by 43% over the last 3 years. We identified many barriers to student access to coursework and we have since eliminated those barriers.
What role do you see educational technologies playing in improving equity across your district?
We believe that educational technologies have an important role to play in improving equity. One of our main tools we are using is the Discovery Education platform. Discovery Education’s robust bank of materials provide equity and access to our students in grades kindergarten through 12 across all content areas. We depend on these resources to encourage literacy across the content areas, to supply rigorous anchor texts for mini-lessons, and also to provide resources that support special education and ESL students through both accommodations and tiered instructional strategies. Banks of texts and videos to support critical concepts including SEL and Social Justice are included; combining this with the primary resources that help us remain culturally competent as we honor all students’ backgrounds and experiences, we are able to provide access to resources and experiences that students simply can’t get without our Discovery Education partnership.
We also recognized that access to broadband was a significant issue for our students prior to COVID. The onset of COVID forced us to address the issue and to think creatively about enabling our student body to have access. We provided all students with devices and worked to implement wifi hotspots across our city. We also increased the reach of the wifi access from each of our school buildings. Upon discovering that we still did not have 100% access with those efforts, we then worked with a provider to have wifi given to individual families in their homes and we funded it.
What’s the biggest challenge to accomplishing that goal?
The biggest challenge for us has been to ensure that families are responsibly using the devices. We have had many repairs to make and we have also had to deal with devices that were not returned.
The last year and a half have been incredibly difficult for teachers, but have there been any unexpected bright spots?
Yes indeed. Many people have chosen to focus on this supposed “learning loss” that students have had. I have repeatedly asked the question, “learning loss in comparison to what?” The metrics that we use to measure academic achievement are made by us and measure the ability of students to memorize facts. That is not learning and we can control what those standards are and how we teach them for mastery. That is far more important to our district. We have a renewed sense of respect for what assets our students bring to school each day and we use those assets to assist in how they overcome their struggles. Our students and staff gained many new and innovative teaching strategies over the past 18 months and they have used those skills to create better classroom conditions for students. We are also much more keenly aware of the social-emotional and mental health needs of our students and recognize that those things must be addressed before we can tackle academic standards. We have also created space for staff to revisit their relationships with individual students. All students should have a sense of belonging and connectedness at school and this moment in time has prompted us to recognize and to address those areas.
What is one adjustment to teaching and learning you made during the COVID-19 era of education you will take forward and continue in the post-COVID environment?
We will continue to take advantage of the ability to connect with kids virtually for academic and other purposes in the event that they have to be out of school for a substantial amount of time. We also have taken steps to be more purposeful about connecting with and creating relationships with students in classroom and of being sure they see themselves in our content. Our diverse community of students needs to have that diversity reflected in what is taught and how we teach.
Has COVID-19 changed the way you think about equity and, if so, how?
I don’t believe that it has changed my thinking, but it has enabled me to be bolder about my advocacy and of being a champion for equity. This work is not for the faint of heart as we know there are forces out there that do not want to have these conversations and who want to ignore the realities of our history as a country and I have grown significantly in my ability to push back on those notions. We are going to focus on truth in our teaching, even when that truth hurts a little.