The Sun’s Sarah Ford talks to new Sonoma Valley High School Principal Jessica Hutchinson.
How are things going so far with Distance Learning 2.0?
It’s going well so far. Everybody has had a can-do attitude – staff, students, teachers, and parents – which I really appreciate. I’m proud to be part of this team. We’re learning as we go – this is an unprecedented situation. But there is a strong structure including grades, attendance, and a consistent schedule. We are constantly reflecting and learning, assessing and adjusting things as needed. It’s incredibly challenging, but everybody is working hard to make it work, and there’s a good vibe in the school community.
Can you give an example of adjustments you’ve made?
We built the schedule based on staff, parent, and student input. When the schedule was in development this summer, their feedback was considered. For example, families had expressed a need for a later start time. Staff indicated that a longer lunch break than usual would be helpful, to get a break from screen time. At the recent Student Advisory Committee meeting, students expressed that they like the hour-long lunch break, and appreciate the 9:00 a.m. start time. As we go, we build and adjust according to need. Examples would be Back to School Registration, Materials Distribution, and Back to School Night. We want to be flexible to accommodate a variety of needs, and also consider safety and the need for connection to the extent we can offer that. Specifically, we adjusted our Materials Distribution to include staff being indoors, and Back to School Night had to be virtual, but we wanted to provide connection as best we could. So we offered virtual class visits in real time and shortened class time visits in consideration of screen time. This seemed to work well. There was a lot of positive feedback from parents.
How long have you been at the high school?
This is my eighth year, seven as a Vice Principal and now as Principal.
Has your long tenure at SVHS made the transition to Principal smoother?
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of departments and programs, and built a lot of relationships, and a network of support. So I guess the answer is yes. I would add that I know the systems well and this helps me navigate, and allowed me to hit the ground running so to speak.
What are your priorities right now?
On the heels of the recent WASC re-accreditation, we need to make sure we set goals for the school that are aligned with the goals stated in the WASC report, and with the district’s goals – so we can support each other. Other priorities include continually reflecting about the best ways to do things during Distance Learning, and striving to continue connecting with the kids.
Challenges of your new position?
The sheer volume of email. Part of that has to do with my new responsibilities, and I think a very large part of it is COVID – we don’t have the in-person contact where information can be shared as you pass each other on campus. Certainly a major challenge is COVID and Distance Learning. This is new for me too, I don’t have previous experience with a Distance Learning format, but I love learning and consider myself a lifelong learner. I think that is a common thread for all of us right now – we’re figuring it out as we go. I really believe we are all becoming more solution-minded and flexible out of necessity. A silver lining is that we are helping a generation of children to develop strong problem-solving skills. I see it in our students and my own children.
How is attendance?
It is pretty good, much better than spring.
What do you do about students who are not showing up?
The district has Wellness Callers who follow up with students and figure out what the problem might be, helping them get connected and logged on, and so forth.
How are teachers coping with the very changed circumstances?
They are adjusting really well. They are using Google Classroom, and Google Meets or Zoom. Many teachers took advantage of the Professional Development that was offered over the summer. They have adjusted and translated their craft in such a short time to meet the needs of students and Distance Learning formats.
What is your background?
I grew up in New Jersey, and majored in French and Government at Dartmouth. I live in Napa with my two sons – first and sixth graders – and my husband, who is a public defender. Life has its challenges right now – we are all very busy! The in-laws are helping with the kids’ online learning.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m so grateful for everyone’s work and support, and I’m inspired to do this work in service of our students. The amount of work from all that has happened to lift Distance Learning is impressive. I’m so appreciative of everyone’s attitude “to make the best of it” during Distance Learning and so appreciative of all the support and feedback.