Trials and Joys of Leading ER9 Schools in the Pandemic

An Interview with Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison

The Easton, Redding and Region 9 school district comprises five highly competitive schools in two towns with three separate schools boards. The superintendent’s position demands exceptional governance in the best of times.

Dr. Rydell Harrison assumed the ER9 superintendent’s seat in the worst of times. Having shut down schools, businesses and most activities of daily living in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to rage with little respite over the summer. 

Dr. Harrison arrived at the tail end of all of the planning for the fall 2020 semester, following the retirement of Dr. Thomas McMorran. He spoke about the unprecedented times during a Zoom interview in his office at the ER9 Central Office.

School officials started off the year being very conservative about health and safety precautions, and reminding the community that they are looking at the data and effectiveness of the district’s mitigation strategies, he said. They worked to balance the needs and desires of the different constituencies.

“We were really trying to communicate to all of our stakeholders that we take very seriously the health and well being of our students and our staff,” he said. “We recognize that the decisions we make at the school level have a community impact as well.”

He focused on the health and safety of students and staff by getting to know the Easton and Redding communities and engaging with parents. Spending time with families and community members not only gave Dr. Harrison  a chance to get to know them, but also gave them a chance to get to know him and to increase their trust in him as a district leader. 

“I spent the first 90 days on what I call a listening tour to get a sense of who we are as a community and what our goals and aspirations are for our students,” he said. “What has helped is all of the opportunities I’ve had to establish relationships with our teachers, our administrators, our families, our students. I’ve tried to be in the schools, in the classrooms, and that helped me settle in.”

Zoom and other virtual ways to connect, while helpful, “are not the same as getting to know people over a cup of coffee or sitting at an athletic event and talking with a group of students or parents,” he said.

“I pride myself with building strong and authentic relationships with our teachers, our students, and our parents,” he said. “I’ve found the best way to do that is through informal interactions. Given that social distancing is the world we’re living in, it’s been hard to build those informal connections. I think that’s been the biggest challenge.”

He sought to reconcile divergent opinions about hybrid, distance and in-school instruction.

“Naturally that’s a challenge because everyone is looking at what seems like the same issue but through very different lenses,” he said. “My goal was to be very student-centered in thinking about how we make these decisions.” 

Dr. Harrison anticipates a time in the not-too-distant future when vaccines will make it possible to meet in-person, and emphasized that it can’t come soon enough.

Implementing His Vision

In the coming months Dr. Harrison will integrate the input he has received from various stakeholders into his action plan for the ER9 schools. He has found the best approach is to spend a good amount of time listening and then to craft a vision that represents his philosophy and reflects the goals and aspirations of the community. 

“When you’re able to do that in collaboration with the board of education it really sets a foundation for everyone working together because there are shared values,” he said. “I’ve been really careful not to come in and say ‘this is what I think we should do’ and strong-arm people, but saying ‘if this is who we want to be or if this is where we’re headed as a community, what is my role as an education leader to support and lead that work?’”

Connecticut is the first state in the nation requiring more culturally diverse courses beginning in the 2022-23 school year. The Connecticut Board of Education late last year unanimously approved the curriculum for high school courses on African-American, Black, Puerto Rican and Latino studies. 

Dr. Harrison said the ER9 schools are looking at the curriculum across all grade levels to ensure they reflect a diversity of racial and cultural perspectives. 

“That will give us opportunities to see in what ways we are giving our students a global mindset beyond Easton and Redding,” he said. “This is work that is dear to my heart. I’m happy the boards are committed to it.”

Rewarding Position Despite Trying Times

Dr. Harrison said the most rewarding part of his job has been a combination of the opportunity to interact with students and support school administrators. “I love leadership and I love students,” he said. “That represents the two parts of the job I enjoy the most.”

Whether visiting classrooms and seeing students engaged in instruction or watching them learn online, he greatly values his time with them. “I’ve Zoomed in with a class, and last month I did a read-aloud with all of our K-2 students. To see all of them on the screen was really good.”

He equally values his time with the administrators who “are doing the hard work of supplying high-quality learning and supporting our teachers. I really see my work with them as my extension into the building.”

Even in these difficult times Harrison said he is happy to be working with communities that are really focused on students. “Across the country we’ve seen so much division of people retreating to different corners,” he said. “It’s a really trying time for us as a nation.”

That said, he believes there is an overwhelming sense of unity when it comes to what’s best for the young people. “I have found that to be the case in Easton and Redding,” he said. “That has allowed me to feel like I’m building good partnerships and supporting our students.”

Growing School Population

With all the new families moving to Easton, the schools are seeing an uptick in enrollment, Dr. Harrison said. But some students have also left the district or have chosen to home school their students during the uncertainty of living through a pandemic. 

“Balancing it out with the projected numbers, I do expect it will have an overall impact, but it won’t be the greatest budget driver,” Dr. Harrison said. “Special education is the major driver. We try to think creatively around these issues and be fiscally responsible and transparent about how we are using the resources.”

He would like to keep more students in the district, connected to their home community, rather than out-placing so many students. He cited the educational benefits of typically developing students learning along with students who are learning differently. 

Family Life 

Dr. Harrison has five sons, ranging in age from 8 to 22, and a grandson. He and his wife, Monica, live in Litchfield with their youngest son, a second grader, who loves to read and play sports. 

“One of the things we like to do as a family is attend concerts and games,” Harrison said “There haven’t been any of those opportunities since the start of this school year.”

They were able to go to the Easton Town Party in September to celebrate Easton’s 175th anniversary, one of the only in-person outdoor events that took place during the pandemic. “It was great!” Dr. Harrison said. He and his family enjoyed meeting folks and said they felt very welcome.

“Our family, like many, are spread out,” he said. To stay connected, they set up a Zoom call, divide into teams and play games like Taboo and online trivia. “Our boys are really competitive against each other.”

Greatest Unifiers

From the moment he arrived in his new position, Dr. Harrison said he felt “an overwhelming sense of welcoming support from the community, from our families, from the staff and from the broader community. Children are one of the greatest unifiers. Coming in, there is that immediate connection I have experienced.

“My ongoing refrain in times like these is I’m glad to be an educator,” he said. “It’s a true gift that I try to remind all of our educators of it. We have the opportunity to build capacity in a generation of young people who can do better for us as they grow. It’s in them that we consistently find hope.”

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