Dr. Eakins:

Welcome advocates to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today I got two special guests with me. I have Scott Cavanias, also I have Jessica Delavigne with me as [crosstalk 00:00:19] well. So without further ado, thank you, Scott and Jessica come for joining us today.

Scott Cavanias:

Oh no, thank you for the time. We appreciate it. Thank you.

Jessica Delavigne:

Yeah, this is such a great opportunity to get to speak with you and talk about what we're passionate about. So, thank you.

Dr. Eakins:

But the pleasure is mine. And we're going to be talking about tracking today. And academic tracking is something that I remember growing up, something I used to see growing up as a kid in elementary and all through school. And then I know others have seen that system, and it seems to still be prevalent in a lot of our schools today. So we're going to talk about that. But before we jump in, I would love for the two of you to share a little bit about yourselves and your roles at your school. So let's start with Scott, please.

Scott Cavanias:

Okay. Yeah. My name is Scott Cavanias. I'm a principal at Alvarado Intermediate School in Rowland Heights, California, which is about 15 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles. We're a straight seven, eight middle school. This is, I believe, about my 15th year as an educational administrator. And I have two kids of my own that are both high schoolers. My son just finished his junior year in high school, my daughter just finished her freshman year. And just the playing field for all of our students. And I'm excited to have this opportunity to speak with you and learn some more about the work you're doing and share the work that we're doing.

Dr. Eakins:

Okay. Jessica?

Jessica Delavigne:

My name is Jessica Delavigne. I am the instructional coach over here at Alvarado Intermediate. This has been just the greatest experience for me, just talking about and getting to work every single day with our staff members and our students, and aligning our beliefs and our culture into everything happening instructionally in the classroom. And so, I mean, when we have the chance to speak with you a few weeks ago, it was, for me it just made all the sense in the world to get to learn more about you and what you're doing. And get a chance to just share experiences. So thank you.

Dr. Eakins:

Yes. Yes. And I'm glad that we were able to connect, and we've had some conversations prior to us recording today. I'm really looking forward to this conversation, because this is something I haven't covered on the show. I'd love for us to just get right into it. And let's start with Scott. What are some of your thoughts on academic tracking in general?

Scott Cavanias:

Yeah, absolutely. And thank you, great question. And for us at the middle school, I think this is where academic tracking really takes flight. Obviously it starts in the younger ages when you have your separate reading groups and math groups, and different colors, and early and late birds and all those other things. But in the middle school is where we really see it take flight and take off. And students really start falling into that track, and almost started becoming who that track believes them to be. So the question is about academic tracking, and my beliefs on it, really, my beliefs on academic tracking are pretty radical in the fact that I believe academic tracking is a really hidden form of oppression. Something that was created by our schooling system, and that has just held the test of time. Because, for some reason, educators come up and provide so much rationale as to why we need academic tracking.

               Most times it's based off of the perceived ability levels of students. Most times those perceptions are the perceptions of adults that may not have a good understanding or a full understanding of those students. Very rarely are the students a part of that process. Meaning, very rarely is there student voice or choice in the track that they end up on. Most times it's, how does this student fit into a traditional system? And with that traditional system, what track should the student be placed on? You mentioned things like AP, IB, even honors courses. At Alvarado Intermediate, everything that we do is based off of a set of beliefs and values. Our classes are integrated, we don't do separated honors and non-honors classes. We believe that all of our students are gifted and talented, that all of our students have futures. And that it's really upon us as educators to be responsive to our students' sets of gifts and talents.

               Again, I use some pretty harsh terms there when I say things like oppression and things like that, but I really do believe it to be that. Because what we do is we determine almost how valuable each of our students are by the track we place them on. And again, very rarely does it include their input. Does it include their thoughts, their wants, their desires. And it's just us as adults placing students on tracks. And to be very honest, and maybe this isn't a popular opinion, especially with the times that we're in right now, but I feel that those were put in place to put certain groups of students and certain groups of people in their place.

               And so here at Alvarado, what we're trying to do is we're really trying to battle that. Our master schedule is built off of our beliefs and our values. We allow for student voice and choice, for parent voice and choice. We don't really buy into all those barriers of placement test and basing things off SBAC scores and stuff like that. That is not our charge here at Alvarado at all. We're really trying to even the playing field. And I think, as you referred to, academic tracking is just, for me it's a very scary, scary thing for our kids.

Dr. Eakins:

First of all I want to say, I don't think that using the word oppression... I would say that the listeners, the fellow advocates out there would appreciate those uses of terms. I think sometimes we tend to skate around certain words because we don't want to offend, but I think that we have to use those words. And so I'm glad that you said that. I mean, yes. Academic tracking, I would agree, has historically been utilized to oppress a lot of groups of students. And so I'm so glad that you brought that up. Jessica, I want to bring you in, because I would love to hear a little bit more about how... Because Scott mentioned that you don't do any separation when it comes to courses. So it's not like some students can get access to these honors courses and some students can't. Your mantra is, we believe that all students are gifted and talented. I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you're able to support all students in those kind of capacities, where, there isn't this group of students are taking these courses, and this group of students are taking that course.

Jessica Delavigne:

Absolutely. I want to start and say that, my role as instructional coach, the reason I just feel like this has become the most impactful experience for me, learning experience, is because I have the opportunity to work every single day, not only with our students, but with our staff members as well. And so when we talk about things like academic tracking, I get this dual experience that sometimes we... Once you step out of the classroom, sometimes the concept of things like tracking and the way it impacts our students can become once removed. Right? You don't have the daily interactions, or just the constant reminders of how something like tracking can really damage our students.

               And so when we talk about thoughts and our beliefs on academic tracking, and how are decisions, based on master scheduling, are aligned with and driven by our belief statement, being all students are gifted and talented. All students have futures. Everyone needs a teacher, and every day is an opportunity to be the world's greatest version of myself. Those belief statements, and academic tracking, there's no question about the disconnect between those belief statements and that concept. So when I look at the students in our classes, and our students who are able to, sometimes for the very first time as middle-schoolers, able to bring in their own voice and their own choice into where they feel they can really flourish and be supported and successful. What I get to see a lot of is that the years of being placed based on those perceived notions about each of those students, I sometimes get to see the very harsh realities of how the system has damaged our kids.

               And how, when they are placed in groups, again, based on certain beliefs or notions about that student, all of that leads to almost layers of identity that student has taken on. That they now have to unlearn and shed in order to learn more about themselves, so that they can build relationships with their peers and their teachers, so that they can find that gift and talent that will help them succeed in any setting that they choose to be in. The role that I get to play on campus, just hand-in-hand with, again, students and staff members, there's a lot of unlearning that has to happen. Because the system has done things to both the adults on campus and the students on campus. We have a way of going about things that we are all learning how to shed as we are slapped in the face every single day when we see products of what the system has created.

Dr. Eakins:

I love that answer. And I have a followup question, Jessica. We're going to be moving into the fall, and we had COVID-19 happen. Which my fear is that a lot more students are going to be placed on, quote unquote, remedial tracks. Meaning, they've missed months of school. There's going to be a group of kids and some administration's perspectives will say, you know what, these students, they participated in schoolwork. They did everything. They participated, and so now they're not going to be as far behind as the other students that didn't do anything during school, during COVID-19. So I'm afraid that, especially coming into the fall, if schools weren't already doing tracking this could be a window or a gateway into this tracking. Jessica, I'd love to know, what are your thoughts on how we could maybe avoid that, this is a way that we should go with remedial courses when we come back into the fall?

Jessica Delavigne:

That's a fear that I have as well. And the reason I have that fear is because I have two kids myself. And so obviously have been at home with both of them, with the virtual learning experiences for the last 12 weeks, or whatever it's been. And I see how my daughter, who's in first grade, I see how some of her peers are, I'm going to use the term helicopter parent. A lot of her peers have parents who are really pushing along every bit of their educational experience, and so overly involved that it takes away from the learning experience. So there's not authentic learning going on when there is a parent leading every step of the way. And again, granted, they're first graders.

               And then I have seen some of her peers who have shown every bit of understanding of a concept that's being taught through a lesson, but maybe they have not had the opportunity to do things like turn in their homework on time. Because they are students who are either in homes with parents who are still working, or who don't have maybe the access to even submit their assignments on time. Right? So all of these other factors impacting what a traditional successful learning experience is supposed to look like. So yeah, I do have a ton of fears about how that's going to impact our upcoming fall semester.

               And my only answer to that is that unless there is a foundation of beliefs that are driving your staff to realize that it's going to be our role as educators to respond to those needs. It's not this group of students has fallen behind because of this school closure, that is not on the student to adapt every way of life and everything that our traditional education system has taught them, to then fill those gaps or whatever we're most concerned about right now. It's going to be on our educators, and just every single adult at the school site, to go off of the relationships that they have with our students to then respond to the needs that every single one of our students is coming in with.

               Another thing that we push at Alvarado is what we call the three Rs. Those three Rs are the relationships, responsive instructional experiences, or learning experiences, and ongoing reflection. And the reflection being on the adult side, just as much as the reflection we expect from our students. And so with those three Rs, that's how I'm framing what we need to do to invite our students back in and help them realize that pressure and that expectation is not only on our kids. That expectation has to be on how well we're able to adapt and respond to our student needs.

Dr. Eakins:

Okay, okay. Well, Scott, did you want to jump in on, and maybe share your thoughts as well?

Scott Cavanias:

Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think it's a great question and a great followup. And here's what I would also say, is that this is a time for leadership, right? And part of what Jessica mentioned is, one thing that I think has helped us through this COVID-19 from the start of it to now has been, again, those belief statements. Because they're something for our teachers to anchor everything to, right?

Dr. Eakins:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Scott Cavanias:

That is the foundation, so they link everything to those belief statements. And so when I say it's a leadership thing, I feel like for myself, this is on me to either tie their fall into, okay, COVID-19 hit and flipped our world. And let's just get back to normal and not push the needle at all. Or it's, COVID-19 hit, and this is a great opportunity for us to look at certain things. And, how do we use this opportunity to move forward? Not to fall back into traditional normal routines. I'll give you an example. At Alvarado, what we're looking at is, there was a lot that had to happen with grading around this time. And the reality is, is that most times you can't even approach a conversation around grading, especially in a public school setting.

               Well, we've used this opportunity to approach that conversation, to get deep into that conversation. Because what's happening now, and I'm sure you've heard, Dr. Eakins, so much is people are saying, "Oh, well, the students that are at home, we need to show them grace. We need to understand that all of these students have different opportunities, or different resources, or whatever it may be at they're homes." Well, our understanding is that they've always lived in those homes. But we've always held them accountable for their learning in those homes for some reason. Right?

               Because if you look at most grade books, it's going to be based on what that student has done with their homework. And how they've performed or what they've done outside of the classroom. Right? Very rarely is it what we've been able to capture in those 55 minutes of having them in the classroom. So I think this is also a time for leadership. It's also a time for leaders to say, "No, this is providing us with opportunities for reflection." Like Jessica just talked about. Right? Now that we have this time, and I know that all of us are going crazy and we all have different things, and it's become just such a different, even just working environment. But what is it that we can learn from this? And I think that's a leadership thing. What is it that we can take from this?

               Where is it that we can push the needle a little bit more? I think for something like master scheduling, this is a beautiful time. Because for us, guess what, kids weren't able to take certain assessments now. Or have to meet certain criteria to be able to have access to certain classes. So for us, that's a positive, right? In our district they do an algebra placement test. Well, unfortunately, we weren't able to take that algebra placement test this year. And I probably shouldn't say this, but we've always ignored that at Alvarado. And we're going to ignore it even more now. And the students that want to take the challenge of being in algebra, then they're going to take that challenge of being an algebra. If they want to do that, if it's their choice and their parents believe that they can do that, then we're going to place them in algebra. So I think this is a time for leaders to step up and really see this as an opportunity to move forward rather than an opportunity to just... Or an opportunity to move forward rather than an excuse to fall back.

Dr. Eakins:

Wow. I love that. And I don't want to get you in trouble, so...

Scott Cavanias:

[crosstalk 00:20:03], because I'm used to being in trouble, man. It's all right. Don't worry.

Dr. Eakins:

Okay. Okay. So I'll leave it in there, I was going to edit it out for you. But I'll leave it in there. It sounds like you're okay with-

Scott Cavanias:

You can leave everything on the record, I'm good man.

Dr. Eakins:

Okay. Okay. Okay. So Jessica, let me ask you now as an instructional coach, and I don't know your demographics at your school, I'm just going to guess that there are students that have special needs at your school. What are maybe some thoughts that you have, if we're continuing this conversation in regards to after COVID, what are some of your thoughts as far as supporting some of your teachers with, again, if we're trying to avoid situations where our kids are placed into tracks, for supporting your teachers with providing resources and making sure that IEPs are being met, 504 combinations, those things are being met?

Jessica Delavigne:

As you were asking that question, the one word that I just kept falling back on was relationships. I don't think that there is any accurate or any way to be able to place a student in any setting with peace of mind unless you have those relationships to ground certain decisions on. And for students to know that they can fall back on those relationships to be able to succeed in a classroom, or a setting that they want to take a step into. And so at Alvarado, a lot of things that we do as part of our adult learning process and our adult reflection process, is we bring in structures or opportunities for our adults to actually sit back and hear from our students. And so just as an example, earlier Scott was talking about how we're going to be taking a step into the grading conversation this year.

               So every single year our adult learning experiences are responsive to where our staff is. And so last year, something that we really stepped into is, if we are believing and we are operating from the belief, and we are designing learning experiences from the belief that every single one of our students is gifted and talented, then that learning experience cannot be carried out until the assessment takes place. That belief has to also drive the way we design assessments and the way we get to provide platforms for our students to demonstrate their understanding or mastery of a certain concept. So this year our learning, our charge, our learning step as a staff, was to bring in different forms of authentic assessments that would support our students in highlighting their strengths and their gifts, while at the same time giving us the data to move forward in supporting areas where they know they need growth and where we see that they might need growth as well.

               An example of a structure or an experience within the adult learning process, that I mentioned earlier was, with our work with assessments we had to hear from our students about their experiences with assessments. And so one of our site professional learning days involved bringing in about 10 to 12 students. And they sat on something that we called an assessment panel. And we guided them with certain questions to facilitate a conversation, but really our students are able speak to things in such a way that we realize the importance because we realize the way their experiences have impacted them. Our kids are 12, 13, 14 years old, they're in middle school and they still have so much that they're carrying from their traditional experiences about how things like assessments have affected their learning abilities and their learning experiences.

               And now almost the weight that even hearing the word test or assessment carries for them. So if we are thinking about students with special needs, or any of our students, if we're thinking about how we're going to best support them, we have to continue to bring in ways to hear from them more often. And, again, I'm going to fall back on the need for establishing those relationships so that we can continue that conversation that is crucial for us to move forward as educators. But that conversation has to involve our students. Oftentimes with adults, we think about our steps forward in school, and students are not even part of that conversation. We talk about them. We talk about what we see in our students, but we don't get chances to hear from them about those topics that impact them every single day. So I'm just going to fall back on that relationship piece. And then, again, those three Rs. Responding to those student needs, and then taking every chance we can to reflect together as a staff.

Dr. Eakins:

Okay. Okay. Scott, walk me through. Okay, so you have your... And I love that you're bringing in student voice, that is so important. I mean, we often make decisions with our students in mind, but we don't actually have our students there to help us with those decisions. What is the next step? Once you've done a student panel and collected that feedback, that data, as a leader, what do you do in order to make steps to make sure that students' voices are not just going out into nowhere, but they're actually being validated?

Scott Cavanias:

Yeah. Part of what we do is that conversation is ongoing, right? The conversation with the students is ongoing. The conversation with the staff is ongoing. And then that reflection piece again. So when talking about the responsiveness and then talking about the reflection piece, the reflection is ongoing. And so a lot of times it's taking what the students give us, then we design or make decisions based on whatever information we've gathered from those students. Right? And then that's the implementation phase after that, right? So now we're going to go implement what we're doing based on the information that we received or gathered from the students. And then that cycle begins again. That cycle begins again of, now sharing out the data that we've gathered from implementation, sharing out our learnings through our reflection process, keeping those lines of communication open between staff, among staff, between staff and students, involving parents in that learning and that reflection.

               And then just keeping that cycle going. The beautiful thing about it is there's never a planned next step, if that makes sense. Right? There's never a, we're going to do this, we're going to do step A. And then step A will undoubtedly lead to step B. Very rarely do we know what step B is. We know that there's going to be a step B. We know that there's going to be a step C, D, all the way to Z, or whatever it may be. But very rarely are those steps just completely planned out because we're waiting for the information. Right? So we're waiting for the information gathered from the students. We're waiting for the information from the implementation process. We're waiting for the information from the reflection process. And so there's never really like... And we get that question a lot is like, okay, so what's next?

               The what's next is always going to be what our staff feels should be next based on the responses we received from our students, based on the reflection that we've had amongst ourselves and with our students. And after we've fleshed everything out and decided, okay, this is our next step. And I don't know if that makes sense. But I think what happens too often is, the same as a teacher with a lesson plan, right? So often we have these principal plans will be site plans that give you step A through Z, and you almost feel like there's no margin for error in those steps. You almost feel like there's no flexibility. You almost feel like there's no time, right? Like everything has to get done A through Z. We don't believe that's what learning is. Right? And I've heard that cookie cutter thing at schools, well we should walk into classroom one and then walk into classroom two and see the exact same thing.

               Our response is like, really? Those are 35 different learners in each one of those classes, if you walk in and see the exact same thing, that scares me. Because I don't know how responsive that is to the learners that are sitting in that classroom. So we always have a skeleton type of plan, but there's always that room for reflection, for adjustment, for responding to the needs of our students, or responding to the needs of our community. Even responding to the environment. Right? I spoke to a parent the other day, who she was personally impacted by the riots of '92 in Los Angeles. Right? And now she's speaking to her children who are at home, and she's trying to make these connections, and her children and her children's friends who are all of our students or other students are saying, we didn't even know that there were '92 riots.

               Right? We didn't even know that this happened. Right? So is it really important for us to talk about, first to go over all of those things of the War of 1812 because that's laid out in the curriculum? Or is it more important for us to make connections to real life examples, what's happening now? So that's also another part of this, is responding to the environment as well. So you can't ever really have that laid out plan that you feel like you have to get through, like those pacing guides and pacing calendars. I don't know if that fully answers the question, but that's how we do it here.

Dr. Eakins:

No, no, I'm totally with you. And, again, I appreciate that you started your answer with, well, our student voice is ongoing. It's not, we meet in the beginning of the school year over the summer, and then, okay, we made our plan. It's ongoing feedback that you're open to. And I think that's important, because there's times when you got to change things. Maybe this worked, or maybe you had the best intention, or maybe a teacher tried something it didn't work. And getting that feedback is so important. Between the two of you, Jessica and Scott, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. Jessica, let's start with you. What is one final word of advice that you could provide to our listeners?

Jessica Delavigne:

I don't know if this is advice. This is something that I tell myself every single day when speaking with our kids and speaking with my colleagues, to honor people's stories. To remove yourselves, to remove myself, from input or feedback or insight that's being provided for me. Maybe even leaving my ego at the door to honor people's stories. And I think that is the only way for me to be able to truly align what I say and what I do. And when I say, I honor, or when I say that student voice is so important to me, then my actions should follow that.

               And so, yeah, so removing my self and my ego or whatever from other people's experiences to allow for an experience to actually be changed by what I'm learning. And just like Scott said, I think it aligns as well with how he was talking about, sometimes we don't know what that next step is. We have an idea or a skeleton, but we don't take that next step just because we've already designed that next step. Being completely open to that feedback and other people's experiences, I think, has been the most impactful thing for me.

Dr. Eakins:

Okay. Okay. And what about you, Scott?

Scott Cavanias:

I'll try to say three really quick things. One is a quote that I always try to think about is, "The lens you choose to use will help you find what you're looking for." Right? If we're going to look at kids, communities, families in a certain way, that's what you're going to find. Right? So if we have these perceptions about the students we serve or the different groups that we serve, that's exactly what we'll see. Right? We'll see those things that we're looking for. The second is, if you paint a picture long enough, it's going to become that picture. And that student will become that picture that you've painted for them over a certain amount of time. I truly believe that the reason why there's a bar and a liquor store on every corner in our community, because people are trying to escape the picture that they have become, and that was painted for them.

               And the last thing is for us educators. And when we talked about no, go ahead and keep everything on the record. We need to walk the talk already. We need to walk the talk already. We can not say that we're about certain things, and that we believe in all of our students and we're providing an educational environment that nurtures student learning and that is about all students. And then our actions, our policies, our practices are in total contradiction to those things. So for us, the reason why we have our beliefs and values everywhere on campus, is because they serve as a reminder. They serve as a reminder of who we are and what we do. And so for educators, let's walk the talk. Stop talking the talk, stop putting up vision statements and mission statements that really aren't what we're about. Let's be about what we say we're about, because these are people's lives that we're talking about here. That's all for me.

Dr. Eakins:

I love it. And I appreciate you mentioning sloganism. I see it sometimes, I go to schools and, we support all students. And they have all these extravagant two paragraph mission statements, and you don't see any of that happening. I'm glad to hear that. Scott, if we have some folks that want to reach out to you, what's the best way to connect with you online?

Scott Cavanias:

Yeah. You can get back with me, God, a number of different ways. My email is, you can find me on the Alvarado Intermediate School website, which is Alvaradoschool.org. You can also find, my email is Scavanias, C-A-V-A-N-I-A-S @rowlandschools. Which is, R-O-W-L-A-N-D, schools.org. And I'm also on Twitter every now and then, @AIS_principal. And doing a lot of work with World's Greatest Schools and Greatness Inside Out and stuff like that.

Dr. Eakins:

And Jessica, what about you? If we got some folks that want to connect with you online.

Jessica Delavigne:

Same thing, you can find my contact information on the Alvarado website. My email address is [email protected] Same as Scott's message. I'm on Twitter every so often, JDelavigne. Oh gosh, my last name, J... Here we go. J-D-E-L-A, V as in Victor, I-G-N-E, _RUSE.

Dr. Eakins:

All right. Well, Jessica and Scott, it was funny we were all laughing before we started recording about how people butcher our last name. So it's-

Scott Cavanias:

Absolutely.

Dr. Eakins:

But in all seriousness, I definitely appreciate your time, and for joining me today. It has truly been a pleasure. And I wish you the best as we start preparing for that COVID-19 post school year start in the fall.

Scott Cavanias:

Absolutely. Thank you, Dr. Eakins, so much. And more than just this time, this podcast, thank you for who you are as a human and what you're doing. And just being about people, being about our communities, being about our students, our families. Thank you for your charge, man. I know that the road that you're taking is not the easy road, man. For someone who walked that tough line as a kid, I'm happy that there's more adults like you around. So thank you.

Dr. Eakins:

My pleasure. And I appreciate your support.

 

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