When Superintendent Kris Cosca walked into his first teaching job in an impoverished community, he realized that his students required more from him than a lesson plan.
“Those students needed to trust me,” Cosca said. “They needed to respect me. They needed to know that I cared for them. And until they knew those things, there was that wall. And once they let me in, we could start making great progress.”
This experience led Cosca, who began his role as superintendent in August, to center his goals for NUSD around building a “culture of caring” and implementing additional support systems to aid students of all ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses and academic achievement levels.
These priorities are detailed in NUSD’s “Keeping All Doors Open” Education Services Action Plan for the 2019-22 school years. The plan includes three distinct categories: “Multi-tiered System of Support”, “Proficiency Based Education” and a “Culture of Caring.”
In his speech to NUSD’s teachers at the start of the 2019-20 school year, Cosca said that “one of the most important things you do every day is to forge strong and healthy relationships with your kids.”
Then he repeated it.
“I’ve worked really hard this year to tell the teachers that this is a critical part of [their] role,” Cosca said. “I believe that kids need to relate to their teachers. In order to really learn from their teachers, kids have to let teachers into their lives.”
Cosca also hopes that placing emphasis on these relationships between students and teachers will help address the need for additional mental health support. Cosca said that mental health support has shifted from being “primarily a responsibility for society outside of school” to being a necessity on campus. He added that this is “the biggest change that I’ve seen in the 25 years that I’ve been in public education.”
“I think the key is that relationships piece,” Cosca said. “I think the key is just knowing that there’s somebody on campus that cares about you, knowing that there’s somebody you can trust. Beyond that, it’s the counselors and the mental health providers.”
Creating a “Culture of Caring”
The “Culture of Caring” is targeted at reducing suspension and truancy rates for minority subgroups. In 2016-17, the district-wide suspension rate was 2.3 percent for foster students and 8 percent for African American students. In 2017-18, the rates grew to
12.2 percent for foster students and 10.7 percent for African American students. The truancy rates for these groups increased 5.4 and 5 percent, respectively, from 2016-17 to 2017-18. Besides addressing these increases, the “Culture of Caring” also includes trauma-informed teaching and increased restorative justice initiatives.
Another change Cosca hopes to emphasize district-wide involves the way in which teachers relate to the cultural diversity present among students.
“We have a lot of students that are minority students that were English learners, or are English learners, people who are immigrants to this country, and if you look at our teacher workforce, you see a lot of folks that are white and came from educated families,” Cosca said. “And while we can’t change who we are, we can change the way we relate to our students. We can change the way we understand some of the challenges that our students are facing.”
Modifying grading practices
Another one of Cosca’s priorities is redefining NUSD’s approach to grading practices. For example, in the current grading system, if a student were to receive a zero on a test, it would negatively impact their grade for the rest of the semester, even if they demonstrated a full understanding of the content later on.
“We’re trying to determine, what’s the point of a grade?” Cosca said. “Is the point to
show how well a student did on a test? Or is the point to show what a student knows?”
The proposed “Proficiency Based Education” (PBE) would emphasize content mastery, skill acquisition and project-based learning rather than the current system, which is described in the district’s Strategic Plan as “time-based teaching that guarantees a minimal exposure to content without a guarantee of learning.”
According to the Strategic Plan, the shift to PBE “will eventually affect everything from the school’s philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, reporting, promotion, and graduation.”
Cosca said that this year’s Strategic Plan focuses on these three categories rather than multiple so that more progress is attainable.
“If everything is a focus, nothing is a focus,” Cosca said. “The only way we can improve across our system is to find a few of the most important topics and focus on them over time.”