Dr. Chad Gestson leads the Phoenix Union High School District, which educates 29,000 students in 22 schools from 32 different ZIP codes in Arizona’s capital city. When the pandemic hit and health officials labeled the state the “COVID hotspot of the world,” Dr. Gestson’s students, 96% of color and almost 90% economically disadvantaged were in crisis: School closures not only affected their academic progress but also their families’ food, housing, and health care.
To meet their myriad needs, this superintendent, with his administrators, designed a plan called “Every Student, Every Day.” Here is a slightly edited version of our conversation.
How did your district respond when COVID hit?
Back in March 2020 when we had to shut down, we knew our students and teachers weren’t equipped for remote learning. There was a rush to make sure all our students had hot spots and laptops — we were able to manage that — and provide our staff with the training they needed to teach virtually. But we were deeply concerned about the absence of a real human connection from our schools to our children. There was so much fear when the world closed down, a time of great anxiety for our students.
How did you provide that “human connection”?
We created a student outreach initiative called “Every Student, Every Day.” Our schedule during a typical school day is set up so that each student has an advisory period, one teacher for 20 to 25 students. We cut each advisory group in half and assigned one to the assigned teacher and one to another member of the team — office workers, librarians, central office staff, school board members, administrators. For instance, I had a caseload of 10 students. It was all hands on deck. The idea is to deliberately show love and support to all our students and their families in order to remove barriers to learning. We do this by ensuring that every student is contacted every day by a caring adult who is part of the district.
After all, our students have needs that go beyond academics — all our schools are Title 1 schools and every kid qualifies for free breakfast and lunch.
What did you find out from those initial contacts?
When we started making those phone calls to every student, we realized the depth of the food insecurity so that was our first major focus: How do we help provide groceries and staples for our families? We worked with local non-profits and our local education foundation to purchase massive amounts of food and provide people with gift cards to food stores. Throughout school closures, we opened every school every day for free breakfast and lunch. We packaged and delivered food to every house that needed it that day. It was quite the sight — our staff members, in the midst of all this fear and anxiety, going every day into students’ houses.
When the staff would call students, what did they talk about?
The handbook offers a script to get people started, and also to keep focused on the student and their family’s well-being. We advise staff to listen intently, validate students’ thoughts and concerns, and generate next steps with the family to make sure we follow through on what they need.
Eventually, you develop a relationship with the student and get a concrete sense of what they need. Eventually, you find that some students don’t need a phone call every day, they might prefer a text message. Remember, these weren’t academic calls but well-checks: Do you have food? Do you have electricity? Are your parents still employed? Are there concerns about homelessness? How’s your laptop working?
It sounds like you run a social services agency!
Well, Phoenix has had more COVID-19 than any other location on earth. Even today we’re all in the red zone [the highest risk level of transmission and contagion]. This is what our students need.
And, yes, I feel very strongly that during these times, more than ever, we must focus on the whole child, the whole family, the whole community. We’re no longer just an education system. We provide food, clothing, transportation, social work, family assistance, rental assistance, parenting classes, ESL classes, childcare. When you think about all the things schools do today, they really provide wraparound services for the entire community.
So, last year when the vaccines became available we led a massive drive-through vaccination effort for the whole city, for all traditional schools, charter schools, private schools, and childcare centers. Today we offer vaccines at every school building and we still do a large community vaccination event every Saturday. We just started providing booster shots too.
And it doesn’t stop there. We give out free backpacks, serve meals, and offer psychological counseling. We are able to provide childhood immunizations for the whole community, no appointment is needed. Also, we partner with nearby clinics so if a woman comes in and needs a mammogram, she goes directly to that clinic and gets appropriate medical care. If someone has diabetes and needs a check of their insulin levels, we can take care of that. It’s all free (although if people have health insurance, we ask them to use that).
How do you pay for that?
It’s all donation-driven!
You first came into the education field through Teach For America, plus you're an alumnus of the Broad Center and a member of Chiefs for Change. All these programs are reform-minded and focused on school improvement. How do you think your alliances affect your educational leadership?
We’re all shaped by our experiences. TFA, Broad, and Chiefs for Change shape who I am. At the same time, I have a core set of values, which preceded these experiences. I believe that school systems should serve other people. I believe that people who work with low-income America must come to work every day with a service mindset. It’s the core of who I am, the core of what many educators are. We need educational institutions to love and serve entire communities. That’s what we’re doing right now.
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...