Many are glad to have the year 2020 in their rearview mirror, and Matt Hill shares the sentiment.
The Burbank Unified School District superintendent dealt with the defeat of a parcel tax proposal that led to layoffs of teachers and staff members, a pivot to distance learning after campuses were shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and difficult conversations with stakeholders about diversity, equity and inclusion.
“There was nothing in my education or training that could have prepared me for a year like this,” Hill told the Leader in a recent interview.
It certainly took a toll on the Burbank community, but the silver linings were enough to keep Hill optimistic going into the new year.
“Tired but inspired,” said Hill, who has been with Burbank Unified since 2015. “I’ve just been inspired from how the Burbank community has really rallied together. We’ve debated issues, we’ve disagreed, but at the end of the day, we all came together and focused on what we felt was best for the community.”
The BUSD superintendent, along with the board of education, felt it was best to be transparent with the community. They did not shy away from discussing police brutality and racial inequality after George Floyd died while in police custody on May 25, or Azerbaijan’s unprovoked attack on the Republic of Artsakh on Sept. 27 — an urgent matter for many local residents of Armenian heritage.
“We wanted to make sure that regardless of the topic, we heard all voices and then made the right decision for the community,” Hill said. “It has been challenging but if you don’t have those conversations, you’ll never move forward as a community.”
The district stood in solidarity with the people of Armenia and Artsakh and condemned the actions of Azerbaijan and Turkey. BUSD also jump-started its DEI initiative by crafting an anti-racism policy that “recognizes the impact of systemic and generational racism as traumatic to our country, community and school district.”
Board members and district staff heard from numerous current and former students who said they felt excluded at Burbank schools. Hill acknowledged that the road to providing a more inclusive environment is lengthy, with plenty of hurdles, but is worth traveling because students will “thrive when they feel like they are included and valued in the school district.”
“We’re not defensive about it. We acknowledge it and think, OK, we now know and we can do better. We’re hearing these stories and working through it. It’s not a linear path. We’re going to zigzag; we’re going to take step backwards, but we’re going to keep moving forward as long as we keep working at it. It will make us a stronger district.”
One moment that showed the district’s willingness to change came the week of Thanksgiving when Hill announced that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Cay,” To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” and “Of Mice and Men” were no longer part of its curriculum’s core novels.
BUSD sent an email to teachers in early September to remove the five novels from their lesson plans for the year after receiving several complaints from families.
“That’s one of those topics where there’s not a clear yes or no answer,” said Hill, who emphasized to parents and students that the district is not banning the novels and that they can be accessed at all school libraries. “As you dig in, you can see that it is complicated.”
Hill — who admitted that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of his favorite books — mulled over the formal grievances from the affected parties as well as numerous emails and comments from community members who felt the novels were essential to educating students about racism.
“I got plenty of interesting emails; some inspiring and some disgusting,” Hill said. “It’s hard to make such difficult decisions but we sat down and thought we had to do what was best for the kids. I stayed true to them. They are my north star, and I don’t regret that decision at all. I’m actually hopeful we can enhance our curriculum, that it’s going to be something parents and students can be proud of going forward, and I do feel like we’re getting there.”
The decision on the books and the district’s DEI initiative are part of the district’s ultimate goal of serving every single child in Burbank, a city that has grown more diverse over time. The social emotional wellness of students is regarded as more important than ever because of the pandemic, and the district staff is working on developing a plan that would allow for small groups of students to return to campus after committing to distance learning for the remainder of the year.
“The board and I wanted to make sure that we have a solid foundation and stability with distance learning,” Hill said. “Now that we have that, we can be much more creative about helping students who are struggling with their mental health. When health conditions improve, it will be easier to bring them back for activities, athletics, counseling, clubs, etc. And on the academic side, we have a development plan for student interventions, special education, English learners.”
There is hope with the vaccine around the corner, but the fluidity of COVID-19 has made it difficult for the BUSD to develop a plan moving forward.
Hill said he and the staff will have to be creative just as Burbank teachers have been since the sudden pivot to virtual learning in March.
Many instructors throughout California had to adjust and quickly learn to add technology to their repertoire to provide the best virtual classroom setting possible. It hasn’t been perfect and it certainly wasn’t easy, but Hill developed a deeper appreciation for teachers after a challenging year.
“I think the year gave us a good reminder of how important our teachers are,” he said. “They do so much for our students, and I don’t think people got to see all that hard work in the past. We just have a greater appreciation for our teachers and everyone else behind the scenes, including custodians and office managers.”
Hill believes that overcoming the adversity brought on by the coronavirus will only make the district better. He has already seen the benefits of integrating technology into the classroom.
“What I’ve seen more now is it’s easier to do collaboration between teachers amongst each other as well as teachers, students and parents,” Hill said. “I think we’re seeing more of a connection than in the past by sharing information.”
Though there is no replacement for in-person instruction, the idea of having teachers continue working online to establish more connection with students and parents intrigues Hill, so much so that he expects a similar change in how the district engages with stakeholders.
The BUSD has seen heightened response from the community since school board meetings went virtual last March. Hill said he received a lot more feedback from parents and students after the pandemic shut down campuses and district offices, and he wants that engagement to continue in 2021.
“It’s hard for a lot of families to be able to go home, take care of their children, dinner and then come to a meeting,” he said. “I’m going to be pushing that we do a lot more [virtual meetings] and recording meetings.”
Hill often wrote updates for BUSD families last year, and in his final one he said that three words came to mind as he reflected on 2020: resilience, empathy and grace.
“People are going to make mistakes during a crisis. I make mistakes every day, but having a board and a team and a community that allows grace [motivates me to do more]. It’s ‘OK, deep breath, let’s get back at this. Let’s do better.’
“I just think back at the year and the conversations of teachers making phone calls home if kids weren’t online, so many people checking in on all 15,000 kids day in and day out. That inspires me because any one of us can say, ‘It’s not for me,’ and call it quits. But there’s no quitting in BUSD.”