As the video interview I recorded with Dr. Ehren Jarrett, Superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools (Illinois), indicates, he has been a consummate Energizer-in-Chief and master of crisis management during Covid 19. Working closely with his Board, administrators and faculty, Ehren has taken the lead in ensuring that his district’s students are safe and provided with nutritional meals. And on the educational front, he has spearheaded the development of a sophisticated remote learning platform aimed at keeping students on the educational track. On his watch, 2,000-some faculty have been trained in teaching remotely, and 15,000-some Chromebooks have been distributed to students. On the inspirational front, Ehren has taken pains to foster a sense of community in the midst of crisis – by keeping members of the extended Rockford Public Schools family abreast of Covid 19 developments and regularly recognizing extraordinary performance.
Although a highly effective crisis manager, Ehren made clear during our interview that he sees Covid 19 as much more than just a crisis to be managed. It is also a significant institutional growth opportunity that, as his district’s Innovator-in-Chief, he is responsible for ensuring the Rockford Schools capitalize on. Without question, he doesn’t see his district returning to business as usual when the crisis subsides. Rather, Ehren envisions a post-Covid 19 institution that is more nimble and educationally powerful as a result of the distance learning platform that was constructed to enable student learning during the district-wide shutdown. Although he used a homely example of a spinoff benefit of the district’s new distance learning capacity – the elimination of the snow days so common in Chicagoland – he envisions remote learning as a mainline educational tool in the years ahead – not a substitute for the physical classroom, to be sure, but definitely a tool for enriching the educational process.
The Rockford Public Schools, in company with districts throughout the nation, has demonstrated once again a phenomenon observed countless times over the course of human history: crisis can begat significant organizational innovation. Crisis jolts people out of tried and true – and comfortable – routines and forces them to seek remedies. But significant, lasting innovation depends on having dedicated, visionary, innovation-focused leaders at the helm. Superintendent Ehren Jarrett is certainly such a leader.