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Q&A: new West Contra Costa schools superintendent discusses bias in teaching, returning to class, other topics

on August 4, 2021

Kenneth “Chris” Hurst Sr. is the new leader of the West Contra Costa Unified School District, replacing Matthew Duffy, who led WCCUSD for five years. Before taking the job in May, Hurst was superintendent of the Othello School District in Othello, Washington, for five years, where he is credited with increasing graduation rates and decreasing overall student absences. Prior to his long career in education, he served 12 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Following that, he received his doctorate in education at the University of Southern California in 2011. He holds a master’s degree in educational administration and a bachelor’s in mathematics from California State University San Marcos. He and his wife, Crystal, have two grown children. Hurst is the district’s 10th leader and its first non-interim African American superintendent.

Here is a Q&A Richmond Confidential did with Hurst last week.

What are your top priorities for the school district in the coming year?

So I have a number of priorities but I would certainly say my top priority is improving student learning and student achievement. I’ve been looking over the trend data over the past several years and I’ve seen that, especially our Black students and our Latinx students have struggled in especially mathematics and English language arts, but also a number of suspensions, expulsions; we have a high chronic absenteeism rate. But also, there’s an issue with the learning loss that has happened as well with the COVID back in March of 2020, and making sure we have the right data in front of our teachers so that we can really assess our students and where they are to meet their needs. That’s probably the biggest piece for me as far as priorities, is really working with our students.

And I think another priority is meeting their social and emotional learning needs, because our students have been disconnected for so long, from an in-person learning environment. We really want to make sure that we have structures in place for every school, every classroom, so that we’re meeting the social, emotional, learning needs of our students. There are some other pieces that are priorities for me but I would say those are the top two priorities.

Why is the suspension rate for Black and Latinx students so high in Richmond?

I think it’s not just Richmond, I think it’s an issue across the United States and mostly found in large urban school districts, you see a high rate of suspensions. One of the things I’ll share with you is based on our research. … What the research says is that most of the growth that we’re going to see over the next several years is going to be from students coming from Spanish-speaking populations, and from Mandarin-speaking populations. So that’s really our growth. But what we see also across the United States and in Richmond is that, generally speaking, our teaching force is made up 70% of white women. So whenever you have all this diversity coming in, and you have a teaching force that really is not equipped and prepared to engage with the language barriers and the cultural diversity, that’s when you see as some of these issues that are happening. … So professional learning is going to be a very big key here in Richmond and across the United States. The question is going to be: How do we train our teachers and provide professional learning so that one, we’re addressing any biases that they may have in the classroom about a Black student or Latinx student or any student. And how do we get them to understand that students are bringing in differences? And how do our teachers address and work with those differences as well? I think also, you will see a teacher that may not be culturally proficient or culturally responsive or not exercising culturally responsive teaching, and they have this bias, say for instance about a Black student or about a Latinx student, and then that translates to that teacher issuing out discipline when they could have done something else. So there’s a lot of studies based on it, especially out of Stanford, and I was reading one a couple of months ago that actually addresses how teachers will bring in biases and implicit biases into the classroom. And that translates to them, saying, ‘OK, well, we’re going to discipline this student, ‘ where with a white student, or with even an Asian student, they may not have given the same consequence. So it really boils down to our teaching force and really preparing them to be culturally responsive to our students.

Do you have any plan for ethnic studies?

I’m a big proponent on ethnic studies, so you’re going to see that happening in our district. But I’m also a big proponent in culturally relevant teaching as well. So my whole concept is making sure that we get curriculum in front of our kids, that [we get] role models for our kids that look like them. I know that I’ve never had that growing up as a Black male. I think that really important that our kids see role models. I think ethnic studies is certainly a great way to start. So those conversations are going to happen and that’s part of my vision. 

What are your long-term goals?

My long-term goal is to really transform our system so that we are ensuring that a high number of our students are prepared for college and career. So we really want to do both. The long term goal is to really transform our system of education so that more and more of our students are achieving, high achieving and achieving their goals to either go to college, or going to a particular career. But that means a lot of work needs to happen within the district, because right now, as I look at our district, West Contra Costa Unified School District, we’re not set up for success. It’s an unhealthy system. So what we’re doing right now … we’re trying to build a system that allows that to happen, for more and more students to be successful.

What is your definition of success?

I think it’s really dependent upon our students — I think it’s individual success and individually defined. So really, my concept is that we get to the point where we’re planning individual learning plans for our students, starting from pre-K going through the 12th grade. I really believe in developing skills on a continuum, because I know that skills are transferable. … So my real goal is, and how we define success is going to be dependent upon those teachers working with the students coming up with an individualized learning plan, and then building this plan, all the way from pre-K to 12th grade so they are able to achieve that. So it’s going to look different for every single student. So some students may define success as being able to get into Stanford or USC or Berkeley or UCSD or something like that, and that they have that list of goals. Some students may define their success as going into a career field of their choice, or some may define success, another different way. I think for me, overarching, we’re going to be working on what we call a graduate profile, which is what we want our students to know and be able to do when they graduate. So that’s the conversation that we’re going to actually have. It’s going to be a community conversation. We’ll involve students also into this conversation because we want to hear from them about what they want to have when they graduate. So I think, just to go back to your question, I think success is going to be individually defined by our students.

What is your biggest concern heading into the school year?

I have a number of concerns. Actually, I have an overall safety concern from COVID, and then the Delta variant as well. We’re coming back to in person, so I want to make sure that our students are safe, and so we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we have mitigation strategies in place. Of course the masking. You know, you hear about the districts that are mandating vaccinations, we are not there yet, but we’re having conversations about strongly encouraging vaccinations because we know that’s one of the best mitigation strategies that we can employ. So I would say COVID safety and overall safety is a big component. I talked about [social, emotional learning] as well, that’s a big concern. Coming from Washington State as a superintendent, there, our students were back in January. So when our students came back in January, what I saw was a disconnect, like our students weren’t talking a lot, they weren’t engaging a lot. So how do we check in with them during the school day? How do we create spaces that allow us to really develop those relationships with adults and students and students to students as well.? I think that’s a big concern. And I think, as I shared before, we overall are not serving our Latinx kids and our Black kids well in our district on a number of different fronts. That is a huge concern, and we have been stagnant for years for a number of years. And ultimately, our parents and our communities, they want to see their children succeed. And it’s not been happening, especially with our Black and our Latinx students, so that’s a big concern as well.

Do you have any plan to address any trauma that may have occurred in the household during the pandemic? 

One of the things we do know is, we’re able to reduce class sizes so our teachers can really have smaller class sizes and be able to check in with students more frequently. We’re able to hire more counselors as well. We hired 20 counselors, additional counselors, so the case loads were at 750 per counselor but now we’ve reduced that down to 350. So a big reduction so our counselors could check in more. We also are partnering with a number of organizations that have reached out to me. And whether that’s either drug abuse, or some other sort of trauma that students are experiencing, we want to make sure that we partner with those agencies so that they can really check in either individually or with groups, those students. But also we’re doing what’s called a soft start to our school year, which means that we’re taking this whole social emotional learning piece and trauma that may have happened very seriously. A soft start just means that instead of just jumping right into the academics, we’re really going to have our teachers be really intentional about checking in with families — calling, texting, and even doing home visits, of course, taking the necessary safety precautions. We think that’s important to check in with the families. And then also building in that classroom time and space, like I shared, to really check in with students. So it’s going to be really important that our teachers check in individually with our students and really find out what’s happening. I think warning signs are important so our teachers receiving training on how to identify those warning signs of any type of abuse that’s happening, and then the referral process as well. So, another piece that I’ve talked to people about is instituting threat-assessment teams at every level of the organization, at the district level but also at the school level. So if there is some trauma that’s happening with a child at the home that our teachers know precisely the steps to take to get help or to refer to that child.

How will you address the systemic inequality that BIPOC students have had to deal with?

Yeah, I did address this a little bit. I really believe in investing in building teacher capacity and building leadership capacity, and that’s what it really comes down to when we talk about BIPOC and racism and implicit biases as well. It really means that we have to have our teachers trained in culturally responsive teaching, but also we have to look at the curriculum that we’re putting in front of our kids. We have to look at our training for our principals, because our principals have responsibility of going into the classrooms and being able to identify what are the elements of culturally responsive teaching, what does great teaching look like, and ensuring that they’re providing really good authentic feedback to those teachers as well, that’s going to build their capacity.

How will you improve graduation rates?

Graduation rate is a systemic issue and it really goes to building this whole healthy system. This is kind of a lengthy response, but what I will say, first we have to build a healthy system, which means looking at our organization and how we are structured. So right now we’re looking at support even at the central office level to make sure that we have the right support in place so we can better support principals and school sites, so that principals can better support the teachers and the teachers can better support the students. It’s really a framework I’m using and it’s called Central Office Transformation Toolkit and it’s out of the University of Washington. And their whole theory of action is, if we can really transform the central office, like people that work up here with me, and if we put the right people in place to have the right tools, then we could better go down to the school sites and support them and build capacity with the leaders. And if we can build capacity with the leaders so that they are expert observers of instruction, especially culturally responsive teaching, then they can better support the teachers and build their capacity. So it’s almost like if we do this, we can do this and we can better support our students. The theory of action is: build capacity across a system so we could better support the students, because that’s what it comes down to, how are we better helping and supporting students. But I will share with you, also, that that is a systemic issue and that it can’t just be that. You can’t just change the organizational structure and expect change to happen. It takes things like early literacy as well. So there is a gap that happens between parents who are reading to their kids when they’re young, and parents who are not reading to their kids. The research says that kids should be reading at least 20 minutes per day or parents should be reading to their kids 20 minutes per day. When that doesn’t happen, what the research says, by the time a student gets into third grade, then they are 30 million words behind those students whose families read to them — 30 million words. What happens is when kids aren’t being read to, they’re not reading, they come into kindergarten already behind. Then you have what’s called the summer slide, so they get even further behind because of the three months that they’re off during the summer. And the research says once kids are behind, they typically stay behind. So there has to be a big investment in preschool to make sure that we close that early literacy gap. That doesn’t happen.

Everything that I’m sharing with you ties to like the graduation rate. … If we build those early literacy skills, then we have more literate students and they’re ready to engage in the learning when they’re in kindergarten. If we develop our teachers and our principals, then they’re going to provide quality instruction, because there’s a lot of research between a good teacher, an average teacher and an expert teacher. We’re trying to build expert teachers and expert leaders as well. I think another piece that I’m working on that will tie into the graduation rate is student engagement. So sometimes when you walk into classrooms and even college classrooms, students are disengaged. Because of the professors or because of the teachers. So how do we really present curriculum in a way that really entices the student and engages the student. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the High Tech High School System, mainly in the San Diego area, but they do what’s called learn by doing. They focus a lot on design thinking, a process which is out of Stanford as well, which is a problem-solving approach. When you engage students, whether it’s K through 12 or college students, in processes like design thinking, or problem-based learning, or project-based learning, or learning by doing, then that changes everything. Then you don’t see students walk into the classroom, where they disengaged. They want to come to school because attendance matters as well, and that plays into graduation rate.

Are there strategies you used in the Othello, Washington, district that you hope to implement here?

Everything that I’ve shared with you is what I plan to implement: preschool to close the early literacy gap; project-based learning to really address student engagement; as well as focus on building leadership capacity; and focus on building teacher capacity, culturally relevant teaching as well; but also addressing systemic inequities by having implicit bias training for our teachers. So those are the things that I’m going to be bringing from Othello to here.

What are your plans for a successful reopening in the fall?

It’s really a focus on safety and COVID safety and having mitigation strategies in place. That’s really what our parents and community is worried about, they want to know that the kids are coming back to a safe environment. I think I’ve already talked to you about the soft start and checking with our students about their social social emotional learning needs. … I think those are the big pieces that I’m really focusing on coming back for fall.

Tell me about yourself and how did you came to be involved in education?

My dad was in the Army for 30 years and I was in the Marine Corps for 11 years and I loved it. I enjoyed it. I was a drill instructor and I was a communications instructor as well. And I always had a talent in mathematics. I was the type of student that really excelled in math and I used to love taking tests like an assessment, and I was the type of student that would go in and I would just excel, get 100% and do the extra credit. I just loved it, from low-entry mathematics to high-level calculus. And I loved it so much that I became a math teacher. I took my love for teaching in the Marine Corps and my talent for math and I decided to become a math teacher and computer science teacher as well. … But I also knew that in my growing up in high school expressly, there was not a lot of encouragement for me, being a Black male, an African American male, from my teachers and my counselors. So I sort of felt disenfranchised as a youth. I wanted to go to a military school. I knew there were resources out there but I didn’t have anyone to point me into the right direction. And I did not want people to have that experience and kids to have that experience, so that’s why I went into education.

The systemic inequities that I’ve seen in different districts that I’ve been in — I’ve been in high-performing districts and low-performing communities as well — it reminds me of my experience kind of growing up being a disenfranchised youth. And I really am now interested in making sure that that doesn’t happen to kids, which is why I’m really invested in education but especially in systemic inequities and vertical inequities within the system. And as I look at large, urban systems like San Diego or LA or Oakland or Long Beach and even, West Contra Costa Unified School District, these are large systems which for the most part are failing are Black and brown kids. That’s why I stayed in education, because there have to be people willing to challenge the system, and to really rewrite the script of education. I really believe that especially urban systems are fundamentally broken and are failing Black and brown students across the United States. I think that even our system of education is not as high-performing as some other countries as well. There’s this assessment that comes out on an annual basis, it’s called the program of International Student Assessment, and it has rankings in English language arts, math and science, and we’re close to the bottom out of 35 industrial nations. So, even though we have some high-performing districts across the United States, they’re not as high-performing as other countries, other developed countries across the globe. So we have a lot of work to do. There needs to be people like myself that are willing to invest in challenging the system.

What kind of role model do you want to be to your students?

I had a couple of few role models in my life. My dad was my role model and he showed me how to be a man, and he showed me how to carry myself, and he showed me how to be a person of integrity and a person with ethics and values and morals. I had a principal that was a mentor for me as well. They showed me how to be a leader in school, a great teacher is well. At USC, I had a professor that showed me how to challenge the system, and that you can’t just go on to public education and accept the condition that it’s in, that we have to literally rewrite the script. That’s the kind of role model I want to be. I want to be the type of role model where I’m pushing everyone, I’m pushing adults and pushing professionals and pushing students to be their best. I believe that every person, including you, has a big vision in store for them, and what I believe is that it’s my responsibility to give people the tools to unlock, like what is that vision, what is my purpose in life, what was I designed to do. I firmly believe that every single person was designed to do something big and to contribute back to society in a big way. It’s not just about getting a job and making money. It’s about accumulating these skills so I can use these skills to make the United States or the globe a better place, and to really tackle pressing economic issues and global issues like COVID. That’s a serious issue. So it’s my job to really unlock that potential in students That’s what I want to be for students, that person.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up all over the place. My dad was in the Army. I was born in Germany. I’ve traveled across the United States and lived from New York, New Jersey. We kind of moved every two years. We went back to Germany. I’ve been to Japan, I’ve been to Okinawa, I’ve been to South Korea, a lot of different places. I’ve been to France and Italy and Austria. I have a lot of rich experiences, so I can’t say that I grew up in one single place. I think I’ve spent more time in California than any place, because after I got out of the Marine Corps, we kind of settled in Southern California and San Diego. I’ve been in the San Diego area the longest, I was there for 35 years, so we kind of call Southern California our home.

How do you like to spend your leisure time?

With my wife. We’ve been married for almost 40 years, 39 years in December. Because I’m so busy, anytime that I can spend with my wife I do that. We love to walk. We love to exercise. We love to go to movies. Really, we love to read. So anything that involves her is what I like to be involved in. And sometimes we’re just like sitting on the couch and she has a book and I have a book and we’re just kind of reading together in the same room, or I’m working on a laptop or something like that. So I just love spending time with her. 

Your wife, Crystal Hurst, is also in education?

She’s an amazing person and she’s the wisest person that I know. She is visually impaired, she is blind. She wasn’t always blind. She actually contracted encephalitis at 9, which is a virus, and we believe it was an insect like a mosquito that was carrying the virus, but she’s had to go through a lot in her life and to prove to people that she can do anything, because sometimes people view people who are visually impaired as being disabled and not being able to do certain things. But she actually is very efficient in technology. She has a lot of Braille technology in our home, so she has devices that read books to her, that can download a book from this software. … She also has this Braille laptop as well. What she really loves doing is to teach those technology skills to students who are visually impaired. So she’s going to be working for California School for the Blind in Fremont, and she’s going to be working in the tech department, and helping students with technology.

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