Mapping a Path Forward: Cross-Sector Approaches to Strengthen Community and Individual Resilience
Jenny Betz: Hi, I’m Jenny Betz from the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd.
At the Center, we believe that when all children are educated in places of equity, safety, and learning, and when they receive the supports they need, they can achieve their greatest potential in school, career, and life.
Doing this work can be really exciting and incredibly hard. And given our current situation—a global pandemic, nationwide protests for racial justice, economic unknowns, wildfires, hurricanes, and the stress that comes with all of those—all of our jobs have gotten a lot harder, especially for those of you who work in schools.
Recently, I had a conversation with Pia Escudero, the Executive Director of the Student Health and Human Services Division in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She’s responsible for implementing policies and services that promote the health and well-being of students, families, and staff at the second largest school district in the country. We thought that she would be the perfect person to talk to to help make some sense of what’s going on and map out a path forward.
To start, we talked about existing research on disaster recovery and community resilience, collaboration, and the power of relationships.
Let’s take a look.
Pia Escudero: Jenny, it’s such an honor to be here with you and have an opportunity to talk about the important work that we’re doing today in Los Angeles, and hopefully learn what’s happening across the United States.
Jenny Betz: So let’s get started with our first question and just jump right in. As we look ahead to the new school year, how are you framing your thinking with all that’s going on?
Pia Escudero: Thanks, Jenny. I want to tell you that when we first found out that we were living through a pandemic, the first in a 100 years…at the beginning, I was sort of in denial and I kept thinking, “No, if it’s a pandemic, it has to be this way because we planned and I had a playbook for different situations in the district.” And so really tried to digest what was happening and try to go back to some of my textbooks, some of my learnings, and I want to share a couple of the documents that have guided my practice.
What I’m really talking to and training to across our district is this concept, this phases of disaster. So this one textbook slide about disaster is something from 2001, so it’s an oldie but goodie. And it really has this concept that we are accustomed to disasters that are maybe an hour, a couple of minutes long. What we don’t know—and this is the part that is our first pandemic, the last one was 100 years ago—is this duration of impact where…I think it’s the 18th week for us, that we shut down our schools. So what does it look like when we are in that phase of responding for 18 weeks, five months, six months? I think we announced this week that we’re going to be virtual starting in fall on August 18th.
What will that look like when we are mitigating and addressing crisis response, pandemic response, civil unrest response, and economic turmoil for this long? We don’t know. So I think that concept of when we’re in recovery, I hear a lot of people saying, “Oh, we’re recovering,” and we’re not even recovering.
I say that not for a doom and gloom moment, but knowing that science, what can we do to mitigate the after-effects? Especially for children and adults, we have to take care of ourselves so we can protect our children, but how do we remember it every day when we’re doing activities, when we’re doing planning, when we’re working with each other and helping each other so that we can go into this road of being well during a crisis so that we have energy, and the wit, and the intelligence to really work through that recovery and the reconstruction phase? So all these phases are really critical.
I’m sharing with you this map, and it’s really a road to resilience. It talks about shifting from being prepared, having that checklist, being disaster-ready, and looking at risks, and looking at narrowly defined framework to something that really has to be relationship-based, something that has to be whole community-based and long-term, strength-based, and it’s ongoing trying to figure things out. And it’s broadly defined because, as you know today, we started with a pandemic, we have uncertainties and civil unrest, we have economic turmoil. So there isn’t a matrix or a checkoff list that will say, “Oh, this is section A and section B.” And we’re all saying, “Where’s the playbook?” There is no playbook. So what does it look like to call upon the relationships that you may have?
So going back to this road to resilience is, how do we lever all these entities to really focus on wellness, improving access, supporting educational systems, and really becoming engaged and having all students, and parents, and educators, and all multi-sectors engage in this partnership and improving our self-efficacy, our community efficacy, and really being efficient towards this whole model.
So that’s a big topic, but I think we have to talk about that, number one, to say, we’re still in it and we need to be in it together; it’s not over yet, we can’t dismiss it. And some of us who are numb and just want to push it away, we have to really have the right recipe so that our well-being is in the forefront. And at the same time, how do we as systems prepare for those that were vulnerable before, and especially today, knowing that those with disparities and inequities and lacking access to resources are going to be in much more need of the right services? There’s no equality in this.
Jenny Betz: And as you speak about working to make sure every student knows that their community is with them and make partnerships across education, and health, and public safety, or whatever, how does that really happen at a time when we are physically distanced from each other and completely cut off in a lot of ways? So how is it that you all are figuring out how to actually improve it, increase those relationships when it seems like the normal avenues for doing so aren’t available?
Pia Escudero: The city of Los Angeles—we are so big, we are a large district. We have 600,000 students, 75,000 employees. I have to tell you, it is relationships. We do have a relationship with the Department of Public Health, and we do have a relationship with some of the larger entities, but we’re not constantly talking until today. We’re actually talking to Department of Public Health on a weekly basis, children’s hospital, and large institutions that otherwise we wouldn’t cross in an everyday experience.
Everybody’s going to hopefully think about, how do we embrace this recovery phase when it comes and reconstructing in a way that is hopefully very different than what we’ve done in the past. It’s a transformational opportunity, and I hope we seize it. I hope that we do this intersectional work because it’s going to be all of us that address this.
Jenny Betz: After looking at the challenges and opportunities facing schools, districts, and states from a big-picture lens, I asked Pia to talk more about how individuals respond to crisis and how we can meet those needs in equitable ways. Here she talks about the science of resilience and what students, staff, and families might be needing right now.
Pia Escudero: I usually find this in the lens of a child, but it’s interesting because there’s a parallel process with adults and as educators, you can identify with this as well. So we start in point A, every day is a new day and we are having good moments and bad moments. And sometimes depends if we’ve had a good breakfast, good sleep. We still tend to go up and down on that spectrum, on that baseline. But when there’s a sudden change, there’s a vulnerable state; say there’s a crisis or something happens, then trauma really is something that’s life threatening, that’s overwhelming. And the fear, it throws us into that vulnerable state. And most of us, as adults, have had numerous instances.
So say a child comes to school with that situation. And so, they are not in their full capacity. You can’t concentrate, you’re distracted, you may be even overwhelmed. And so, many times those are children and adults, we need buffers to bring us back to baseline. Science tells us that the strongest buffer, those levers of resilience, are feeling safe, they’re about feeling connected to somebody. So the majority of our children will get back to baseline if they’re infused with these levers of resilience.
But what we can’t take for granted is that those children that have had significant other traumatic events, cultural and historical trauma, and there’s environmental causes that make that student, that child, or individual really render hopeless and helpless that much more difficult to come back to baseline.
And so, what we’re saying here is that most students are in that H graph. They get back to baseline, they may have up and down days. We have about 10% of our children or individuals that go into that I, where they really have post-traumatic growth, a new sense of living, they have better understanding, sometimes it’s a spiritual and physical experience where they’ve been able to really thrive despite the difficulties.
We can’t assume that everyone, “Hey, let’s all be resilient, and let’s all get back to baseline,” because that child doesn’t have those skills. So those are the children that I feel that we need to talk about today a little bit because we are in a pandemic that’s lasted five months. And some of our children, families, and individuals had preexisting conditions that made them vulnerable and not in baseline already.
And now we have something that’s long term, there’s economic turmoil, physical turmoil, more and more of our families have someone or know of someone that’s had COVID, have had losses. And so, we don’t know where people’s baselines are, and when we do this work of teaching or working with, how do we really embed relationships with families and cultivate the work, knowing how sensitive the time is? That is new to us; that’s really interesting to know that, number one, most of us can get back to normal, but number two, we have to have a keen sense of who may need additional buffers and what do those buffers look like, because not everything’s going to work. We’re in the greatest scientific and research learning mode because this is all so new for so many of us.
Jenny Betz: LAUSD is so big and the needs can be really different in each school, each classroom, each family, each neighborhood. What are those bigger picture frames that you want people to know about and that you’re sharing to help them sort of organize, then, what they’re doing in their own context?
Pia Escudero: So, I think that’s one of the lessons that I’ve learned in the past decades of working in LA Unified, because we’re so big and we cover 700 square miles. What happens in the North Valley is very different than East Los Angeles, which is very different in the Westside, or all the way in the South to San Pedro. How do we really engage content that is very specific to each school and each community? And I think one of the answers that I can give you that we try to promote are these guidelines. And that can be adapted and ensured that the school can have sort of local control as to what they will initiate and practice.
What we’ve recently developed here is this guideline of, we’re calling it professional and personal protective gear, which is not the mask and it’s not the physical things that we will be getting. It’s really a stock of safety, maybe activities or exercises that intentionally address the psychological safety and the physical safety, of course, as well, but really sharpening the psychological safety.
We know, for example, that the ability to calm is really important to regulate children. But we’re not going to tell a school, “You have to have this program.” We give them a menu. And that way, some children do the meditation classes, or they lead them in some schools, or it’s schoolwide where the bells are arranged a certain way. But really, how do we encourage every school to adopt these activities to their own tune, to their own culture? And really, the other message that we say that honing in on self-efficacy, appreciating each individual resilience and strength, and then setting reasonable goals.
And then, there’s community efficacy. I think schools are well equipped to have that message, that school pride. And this, more messaging about “We’re in this together, we’re going to take care of you, we build a school community that will help during the most difficult times.” And the sense of connectedness—what does that look like in your school? How do teachers feel connected as well as children and how do parents get connected? It’s a wonderful time to engage parents virtually, I think, in multi-factors. Parents always want to help. And sometimes during school day, they’re working, but now that we’re mostly home, how can they be part of this connectedness?
Some of the great things that we’ve learned about virtual world is we’re having parenting sessions with over 1,100 parents that show up and they’re hungry to know. In the past, in a school, if we had 10 parents, 30 parents, that would be a success. But when you have a cross-section of parents that, especially in LA, don’t have to drive and they can hop in. And I just learned this tool where you can translate a session, so it could be multilingual and really build that cultural bridge across communities in this world, that’s something that we can definitely take away.
And then, all together, the last element that we teach is the hope—hope is teachable. We can teach each child that they could be anything they want to do, that their opportunities are eternal and that trusting that despite things being difficult, they can get better.
So that psychological PPE is something that is sort of a new term, but that encompasses SEL, restorative practices, mental health intervention, and the whole educational realm can really fine-tune that.
Jenny Betz: LAUSD’s model for PPPE looks at resilience and wellness in a comprehensive and interconnected way. Building on this idea, Pia then talked about the role of social-emotional learning, the importance of relationships, connection, and community, and the opportunities ahead of us to do things differently—and better.
Pia Escudero: I think that we’ve done that in the past where, “Get over it, here’s math time.” But regardless of this, we still have to move forward—“get over it.” We can’t get over it and schools are well poised to be protective factors. And we’ve said it, we’re safe and children choose to come to school and do well, but that’s not the case, and not all schools have been safe havens. They’re not all welcoming, they’re not all affirming.
I think the challenge today is that we’re opening a school year and we need to really explore how do we teach things a little bit differently. So the content, it’s such a major point that you just highlighted. I don’t even know where to begin, but I have to tell you that I think that is going to be the secret sauce. I think ensuring that children have a virtual community in classroom—how do we do check-ins? How do we make sure is everyone up, down? Do more social-emotional activities so that kids get to… especially because now it’s going to be six months that they haven’t had social skills and social opportunities, how do they get to, number one, know that they’re not the only ones being in this pandemic, everyone’s experienced it maybe differently?
It’s a wonderful time to think about the tools and the spaces that we need to create so that there’s time for that. I think that we have to speak out when we’re doing the planning as leaders to make sure that there’s dialogue time. I think that there’s got to be time for us to have student-led groups, whether it’s student unions, whether it’s black student unions, or whether it’s marginalized parents’ groups where they can speak and make time for them to speak so that we can learn from them. I think as educators, we’re so used to having the recipe and every instructional minute accounted for. And when I walk into a meeting in our district, we are in urgent need to make sure that children catch up, that children are reading by third grade, that children are getting the best instruction. But part of that instruction has to be social-emotional learning embedded in the science and the math.
I think…I keep talking about the academic achievement because our children are not doing well. Our children are not learning at their maximum potential, fully, across school districts. Our children’s attendance, we’ve been measuring chronic attendance. We have disengaged student population that we are not maximizing in the current systems that we have. How do we create instructional programs that are more adaptable to meet those students, for example, that have economic pressures? We have high school students that have to decide whether they have to babysit, or take care of their own children sometimes, or work and not have a menu of instructional opportunities that are available to them. Now that we know that virtually we could do other instructional mediums, what does that look like?
Jenny Betz: Can you talk a little bit about the role of collaboration in addressing any of this or responding to the current situation in systemic ways? There are all those structural things that tell us we have to get in this certain number of minutes and we have to be accountable for this or we have to do assessments in a certain way or I have to cover this material. What are the higher-level relationships or considerations that need to be taken so that the different parts of the system aren’t working against each other?
Pia Escudero: That’s a tough question because I think that it begins with having that as a goal, that looks like a goal. If you have that as a goal, a systemic goal and an intersected goal to build a community, that’s a whole new language here. To build an intentional educational community with owned, shared responsibility that everyone will succeed, that is strength-based. What are students bringing into the classroom that is their strength? It may not be what the teacher wants or what you want the baseline to be, but once you do that, then how do you build that strength?
I think that’s where there isn’t that matrix and it’s not outlined, but if you put that as a center, we always talk about the whole child, and if you put the whole child at the center that is going to be academically strong, what does that look like? And I don’t know that we’ve had that lens of strength-based in the classroom because we have to see our children as strong if they’re showing up every day, despite the challenges that they’re living with, despite the fact that there’s real hunger, there’s real poverty, there’s real disparity, there’s economic challenges. Our families are taking buses and don’t come home until really late and yet our kids somehow show up to school every day.
So it is transformational work and I don’t have the answers, but I’m happy to get in a room and break it down and I think we’ve done that a lot in education. If this is the goal, let’s study it, let’s design something, let’s check it out, let’s do that. Let’s do that with the intersectional opportunity that’s happening here.
The district has made…our LA Unified has made a commitment to wellness centers and to mental health and to nurses that is essential right now. I don’t think that we could bifurcate the health of a child with academic achievement. I think that is an investment that as we move towards building school communities that are healthy, the connection to health and mental health has to be embedded in the daily instructional day.
Jenny Betz: So at the end of our conversation here, I’m curious—what are your big takeaways? What are you going to be thinking about tonight? What do you want to talk to people about? What do you hope that people watching this video are going to think about, and talk about, and do something about after watching and listening to our conversation today?
Pia Escudero: At the end of the day, and I’ve said this many times professionally, I think we need to really hold this concept of professional self-care as an ethical responsibility. I think for us to ask children to behave, and children to do for us, and for children to act a certain way when it depends on us. I now know more and more people talking about regulation and children’s regulation, I think we need to be regulated as adults and well-rested so that we can be attuned to look at behavior with that trauma lens and saying, “What are they saying with that behavior?” Because when we’re off, our lid is off, then that child’s lid is off and then we blame the child and then we have behavior issues.
I’m not saying it’s that simple. I’m just saying that in the midst of this pandemic and with the severity, and the length, and the intense things that are happening, how do we look internally to strive to use our best strategies so that we can come to the table and to that classroom with our best sense of self and ability to really be ethically at our best.
Jenny Betz: We’re living in an unprecedented time, and as Pia said, we are doing all this without a playbook, without a matrix, without a checklist. It requires us to reimagine our education systems—what we do, how we do it, who it benefits, and why—and it’s really an incredible opportunity for collaboration, creativity, compassion, and change.
From the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd, I want to thank Pia Escudero for her insight and expertise.