S. E. Williams |
“It is important for us to all work together in this social, political climate that we have. It is so easy to be divided coming from various backgrounds but for the good of our students and the children in the community we have to find a way to work together, to do our best for them,” said Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) Superintendent of Schools Renee Hill during an exclusive interview with Black Voice News.
Hill shared the comments as a message to the community reflecting on her first year leading the RUSD while also looking optimistically toward the future.
She shared insights from an event she’d attended where she learned that 85% of the jobs projected for the year 2040 are yet to be created. “So, I’m preparing [incoming kindergarteners] for a world where their jobs haven’t even been invented yet. So, we have to bring all of our good things we have to bear to help them by thinking, partnering, problem solving, collaborating with people to deal with the unknown in order to keep our city competitive and safe, in order to keep our nation competitive and safe.”
Though new to the job when she assumed her role as superintendent just prior to the onset of the 2021-2022 school year, Hill was not new to the district or the Riverside community.
Hill came to the Inland Empire more than 40 years ago to attend the University of California Riverside where she earned a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of California, Riverside, and a Master’s in Business from Stanford University’s executive MBA program. She then taught for years at Longfellow Elementary School.
Hill left education for a stint with the telecommunications industry, but as she explained, “The work pulled me back.” On returning to the field of education, she would become a math specialist before transitioning to an elementary school director and subsequently an assistant superintendent. Then, she retired.
But things changed three years into her retirement. “I got a call from the district and they invited me back as chief academic officer. Then, the board promoted me to superintendent.” Although the 2021-2022 school year was her first as superintendent, “It was my 29th year in the district,” she highlighted.
Providing the tools and support students need for success
As an administrator, Hill believes, “[I]t is our responsibility to serve each and every student, every day.” This includes making it a priority to ensure students from low income and disadvantaged communities have all the tools and support they need to be successful.
“I know to a lot of people that might seem obvious,” she advised, but added, “I think that in public education, it is a responsibility to discern, to serve each and every student. I think we have some established practices that may reach a broad swath of students but then we have to take more special care with other student groups.”
Members of these groups can include low-income students, those with special needs or those who are going through something. “Sometimes those student groups need something a little different then what we might do when we’re trying to address all student needs,” she said.
Speaking on the driving force behind some special programs in the district she added, “That’s really where it comes from. In order to help students meet their aspirations, we have to take care to look beyond the average so to speak, or look beyond the standard things we do, and see if there is some action we can take or a hand we can lend.” The objective is to help students get a little bit further along in attaining educational goals, Hill advised.
To this end, the district has at least three core programs focused on this. One is the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). The program is specifically designed for low income students to build school habits like self-advocacy, understanding the importance of having assignments prepared on time and so forth. The initiative was originally designed to prepare low income students for college and to enable them to thrive in college.
According to Hill, the program is now being extended to lower grades. “Some of our high schools are actually AVID demonstration schools because they have their practices down pat. This is definitely one of the programs that helps support an identified student group.”
Heritage is another special program, designed to support African-American students in completing their college eligible coursework and qualify for admissions to University of California and Cal State institutions of higher learning. “There are 15 courses that must be completed with a B or better in order to be eligible,” Hill expounded. “There are so many benefits of course.” Those benefits include being college eligible at a high-quality college or university, as well as the money college students can save by not having to pay for other remedial classes.
“We did a district-wide study in mid 2013 and saw that we had a gap for African-American students completing those courses – the only group that we did not already have an organized response or organizational response for. So, we decided to try some things,” said Hill.
Now the district has a formula and a site contact at each of the comprehensive high schools that complete transcript reviews each year for students identified in the district’s information system as African-American. “They see which students already look fine–we have plenty of students that [are] already on track. We have another group of students who could be eligible if . . . and then fill in the blank “
According to Hill, it is the job of the site contact to figure out what is “filling the blank” for each of those students. It could be the need to improve a grade, the student might need to take a different course or or an additional course. The site contact works with the student and his/her family to determine what can be done and then talks to them about the pros and cons and their preferences about doing that. The site contact also follows up for completion.
“We’ve been able to narrow the gap quite a lot this past year. I believe African-American student achievement in [this regard] was above the district average.
RUSD also has the Legacy program for the English learner student group. It is designed with the same structure as the Heritage program but the support provided to students varies because they are language learners and there is a whole piece of work with academic language and access to academic courses that is required. “It is a similar idea but implementation specific to the English learners,” said Hill.
Beyond special programs, parents also play an important role in students’ educational success. Parental support ranges from the formal to the informal, according to Hill. “We have a number of parent advisories that are awesome. We have an English learner advisory at the school level where it is required and then we have a larger one at the district level and those parents know about our desire to support all students. And of course, it matches their desire to support students.”
It is a two way process, she said. “Sometimes we’re talking to parents about how to help their student do well in school and sometimes parents are asking how student groups are performing and what the district is going to be doing. We have the English learner parent advisory, an African-American parent advisory, a parent advisory for students with special needs and we have the PTA. Between those four groups there is a lot of two-way communications about student success.”
RUSD also boasts a Family Resource Center where the district hosts specific parent workshops and is there to help them navigate school. “I would also say the interest and involvement of parents is great. They may not know solutions but they can express an interest to let us know more about what they would like to see.” Hill said, noting how this really helps focus the district’s attention on family concerns.
Reducing dropouts and closing the school to prison pipeline
With all of her priorities Hill is also cognizant of the need to maintain continued focus on reducing the school to prison pipeline. “I think it’s connected with all the work we’re doing keeping students in school [something] our board has focused on for a long time.”
“We have a lot of ways to support students and make sure they finish school. That will keep them employable and able to work. For example, we have credit recovery at every comprehensive high school. The district also employs a dropout specialist in the district who can help students avail themselves to its Educational Options Center.
The Educational Options Center is for students for whom the comprehensive high school system does not work. Among the options available, students can participate in home-based schooling if that works for them or in independent study. “Or, if they have schedule problems and things like that, the district also offers some career tech programs that they can involve themselves in if that’s more attractive.” The district also offers virtual school if that works better for some students.
Dropout specialists and staff at the Education Options Center will sit down with these students and say, “Okay, to be successful one of the main ingredients is to complete high school, so considering your contacts and what we have available, what can help you make sure you complete high school?”
Recentering in the wake of COVID-19
Hill embraced her first year as RUSD’s superintendent during a really challenging time with districts having to recenter themselves after the COVID-19 shutdown. “The things that people were going through, there was no relief from. It was personal and professional and [with] the stakes being so high.”
“Over the year we came closer together as a team. We are coming together as a team, knowing each other’s strengths and needs and supporting that.”
Reflecting on her first year as Superintendent, Hill also noted how getting students back to school in person helped build community.