Gearing up for his swearing-in just a few days from now, to-be Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Michael Davies-Hughes shared his plans with the Outpost this week, bringing students to the forefront of the conversation again and again, question after question.
Davies-Hughes was appointed to the position by the Humboldt County Board of Education in a 3-2 vote at a special meeting Monday, following the mid-term departure of Chris Hartley, who recently accepted a position with California Collaborative for Education Excellence as a deputy executive director. Davies-Hughes, current assistant superintendent of educational services at Eureka City Schools, will be sworn in on Nov. 2.
“I feel blessed that I love working with kids,” said Davies-Hughes, who began his career as a seventh-grade teacher almost 30 years ago. Since then, he’s bounced around the globe, earning degrees and credentials from universities in California, Massachusetts and Wales (where he’s from), and teaching several grades in California and El Salvador.
“I really felt drawn to be able to try to have more of an impact on a larger scale,” Davies-Hughes said. He left the classroom to become a school site administrator and eventually held district-level positions, including superintendent at McKinleyville Union School District prior to his current position at ECS, where he oversees programs from kindergarten to adult school. “I feel like it’s been pretty well-rounded.”
Davies-Hughes has a long list of short- and long-term goals in mind for Humboldt’s education systems. He wants to explore expanding existing career and technical education opportunities, maybe by pursuing more partnerships with local businesses, for instance.
Of course, a lot of his thoughts concern COVID’s immediate and long-term implications for education. A huge ongoing priority is keeping Humboldt’s students and school staff safe as the pandemic continues.
“As a county office, our responsibility is to support schools through this pandemic, making sure that we’re removing the barriers so students can be safe in their learning,” Davies-Hughes said. He’s also thinking about making sure that the few students who are off campus, learning by independent study, are getting an education as high-quality as possible.
“So there’s the here-and-now-living-in-a-pandemic focus. But then I also have to think about: what can I do to help my colleagues, to help the districts [and] see beyond the pandemic?”
One piece of looking forward is addressing interrupted learning, or learning loss, a concern that has been on educators’ minds since early in the pandemic, which is, unfortunately, coming to fruition.
“One of the struggles that our educational leaders are having in our districts, and then our teachers are having in the classrooms, is: How much time do we spend on trying to make up this learning loss that has occurred? So we want to push the academics, we want to push the standards, to make sure that our students catch up — while at the same time recognizing that our students, many of them, have experienced significant trauma, and social-emotionally, they may not be as ready to learn as we want them to be.”
Davies-Hughes wants to balance out academics with students’ social-emotional needs and physical health — both of which are productive avenues to bettering academic outcomes.
Likely coming later in Davies-Hughes’ term (assuming he keeps the position, as it’ll be up to voters in the June 2022 statewide election) will be post-COVID budgetary issues.
“It’s an interesting time, because in education historically, what we’ve looked at is the impact of budget cuts, right?” Davies-Hughes said. “We’re kind of in the opposite position right now, in that we have this influx of state and federal monies that have come into the coffers of school districts, this infusion of funds to help us through this pandemic.”
By funding everything from filtration systems to extra staff, emergency funds installments have been crucial for schools during the pandemic. But they’re one-time funds, which means educators will soon be facing tight budgets again in some more-or-less distant future.
“To what extent are we going to be able to sustain the programs and the personnel when this one-time money runs out?” Davies-Hughes said.
“We need to be responsible stewards of the resources that we have now while also planning to be responsible stewards for the resources that we will have — or the lack of resources that we may have — in the future. Because we can’t just come to a fiscal cliff and go, ‘Ah! We didn’t plan for this.’”
The pandemic highlighted one issue in education that’s at the forefront of Davies-Hughes’s agenda. He’s thinking about equity — specifically, differentiating between equity as a thing to strive for and equity as a factor to apply to all things.
“What we’ve seen through this COVID pandemic is that we have to pay attention to making sure that all of our students have what they need,” Davies-Hughes said, “which doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing, right? Because that’s not what equity is about. Equity is getting people — getting students, in this case — what they need, and some need different things than others.”
Davies-Hughes calls equity the core of the work ahead.
“My stance on the equity work that we need to do in schools is that it becomes embedded, that equity work becomes embedded in everything that we do — that we look through all our work with an equity lens — rather than equity being something separate.”
Education can be a great equalizer, Davies-Hughes said. “But if we’re not careful, we can also exacerbate those inequities that already exist.” He thinks he can leverage resources at HCOE to help districts with equity work, through things like rigorous and relevant professional development. He hopes people in all areas of education will keep leaning on each other and helping each other post-COVID.
“What I’ve learned and experienced through this COVID is that when we’re in the depths of challenges, and adversity, like a pandemic, it has the power to bring people together, because now we rely on each other more than we have before.”
He hopes it lasts.