9 Questions with Incoming APS Superintendent Francisco Durán
Durán comes from Fairfax County Public Schools and assumes his new post on June 1.
In early May, after a months-long search, Francisco Durán was named the new superintendent for Arlington Public Schools. He assumes his new post on June 1 amid a global health crisis. Previously, Durán served as the Chief Academic Officer and Chief Equity Officer for Fairfax County Public Schools. Prior to that, he was the superintendent for Trenton, New Jersey’s public schools system, and was a teacher in both Albuquerque, New Mexico and California.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
It’s looking like distance learning or a hybrid model are the two most likely scenarios when APS resumes classes in the fall. What might that look like and when will an official decision be made?
APS is working to prepare for all of those possible scenarios. Right now, we’re waiting on guidance from the Virginia Department of Education. The state’s superintendent put together a task force that’s going to give us a lot more clarity on these details. The hybrid approach could mean modified school schedules and rotating in-person and online instruction. That’s what we’re seeing across the country, but we don’t know what that could look like here in Virginia. Our understanding is that [guidance from the state] will be coming in the beginning of June.
The data show a significant difference in the number of coronavirus cases in Arlington compared with, say, Danville, Virginia. How will the statewide guidance on schools reopening be adapted to what’s going on here in Arlington?
There’s been a regional approach [to reopening]. Northern Virginia has a higher concentration of cases and a diverse set of students—such as English language learners and students with disabilities—that we need to serve. We also have to consider that we are much more compact as a community, with closer living conditions and larger schools, often with more students in the buildings than you find in smaller school districts. Arlington’s public health department guidance is going to be critical in creating a plan that protects the safety of our staff and students while also making sure we’re getting the instruction up and running as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
When will a decision be made about how APS will approach the fall semester?
APS is currently making decisions about summer school, so that should be out soon. In terms of the fall, we’d want decisions about that by the end of June or early July at the latest. We need to put plans in place as well as engage our community and stakeholders.
There’s been a lot of discussion, both locally and nationally, about the educational value of distance learning. What do you see as the pros and cons, so far, as it’s played out here?
The value of it is that it allows us to continue providing learning opportunities for our students when we’re not able to be physically present back in school. I think the challenge is, how do we adopt best practices and make sure we’re better preparing our teachers and parents? We had to quickly jump into distance learning to respond [to the crisis], but now we have a little bit more time to prepare. We also have to think about the challenge of some students not having access. It’s a really balanced approach. That’s what we will be working on in June.
Which brings up the question of equity. How will APS ensure all students equal access to resources, services and technology?
What equity means to me is meeting every student by name and need. We need to put supports in place for those students who don’t have access, whether that’s literally providing them with technology, internet access, or directly utilizing our staff to help. On the other side of equity, we need to make sure those students who do have access are also getting their needs met. Oftentimes, when we talk about equity, people want to use the term “either or.” It really has to be both. You have to meet the needs of everyone. I think we’ve seen decisions made across the country and the commonwealth, only thinking about one group of students and not others. My vision moving forward is incorporating everyone in our plans.
In late April, the Arlington County Board approved the 2021 budget. As expected, there were sizable cuts reflecting the impact of the pandemic. APS saw its budget slashed by roughly $21.5 million. How do you plan on navigating those cuts?
Having not started yet, my first goal is to really understand the budget that was just passed. We may need to think about how we repurpose some of our current expenditures. If we’re being set up to provide instruction that looks very different from past models, then we may need to look differently at the budget. I also want to make sure we’re addressing the social and emotional needs of our staff and students. That really concerns me. As we are rethinking the fall, we have to have a focus on mental health and social emotional support. We are going through challenging times and need to pay attention to that.
Can you elaborate on that point?
This has been traumatic to us as a nation and as a community. Obviously, physical safety is a priority. But we also need to have a strategy in place to help with the mental and emotional needs or we will not fully be able to meet the instructional needs of our students. That could mean having counselors and social workers supporting our families. Or setting up a crisis line people can call into. We could also build it into our curriculum and our instruction. There are actual lessons that can be taught about dealing with stress and changing times. Our response could be embedding it into our curriculum, infusing more social, emotional learning, and trauma-based instruction.
Tell us more about your background and what you bring to the table as APS superintendent.
I’ve worked at every level in education, starting as a special education classroom assistant. Having that experience and that lens is something I never forget. The other thing is my own experience as a student. I was fortunate to have adults in my life who provided opportunities and opened up doors for me. I have worked in both very large and small, diverse communities. What drew me to Arlington was the diversity and engagement of a community that really values public education. Arlington is smaller than Fairfax County [where I was most recently]. I feel there is opportunity here to have an impact that’s more personal. I look forward to getting to know every principal. In Fairfax, we had almost 200 principals. I like to build close relationships with the people I serve and work with.
In March, APS made the decision to close schools and focus the remainder of the school year on reinforcing material as opposed to teaching new material. How do you see that affecting the curriculum going forward?
APS teachers may not be introducing new content, but they are focused on teaching and engaging students in quality instruction. The challenge going forward is, how do we adjust the pacing to think about the content from the fourth quarter that was not covered? I think many students have been engaged with the learning, but some are not engaged. The challenge is to understand why and to make sure we are not in the same situation in the fall.