- The School District of University City
- Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley Blog
Past, Present and Future: Embracing Gratitude at ThanksgivingPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 11/21/2023 10:00:00 AM
The leaves are blowing. Morning frost dusts our lawns in silver. A golden twilight sinks low into darkness early in our evenings. Yes, the winter season is approaching. Next week, many of us will gather to give thanks and enjoy fellowship with family and friends. Whether you celebrate the traditional Thanksgiving holiday or engage in other meaningful activities during our extended break, gratitude is always appropriate.
This season is also an important time to highlight the positive contributions and traditions of Native Americans while acknowledging that our country has historically perpetuated one-dimensional misrepresentations of Indigenous People. It is important to recognize that the origins of our nation’s holidays sometimes come at the expense and exclusion of others who contributed so much to the beauty and culture of our country. Let’s be grateful for these origins.
Abbie Adams, a faculty member in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology, reminds us that, “It is important to set the record straight, acknowledge Native Peoples, debunk myths, and show Native Americans as contemporary people with dynamic, thriving cultures who have profoundly impacted our current food system.” She further states that when thinking about Thanksgiving, “It means going beyond the harmful ‘pilgrims and Indians’ narrative and focusing on common values: generosity, gratitude, community, and good food.”
Did you know that Indigenous America provided our world three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, including corn (maize), pumpkins, beans, squash, potatoes, chocolate, vanilla and tomatoes? What a tremendous gift they’ve given to humanity. If you want to learn more, here is a resource from the Smithsonian, entitled Rethinking Thanksgiving: Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, in particular, has a universal spirit behind it centered on love, respect, food from our soil and gratitude regarding our past and present - please remember to embrace those qualities when thinking about our land’s early ancestors.
For me, this season is a reflective time to embrace the many healthy traditions passed on by my grandmothers, affectionately known to me as “Granny” and “MuDear.” They epitomized family. Their love was everywhere. But at Thanksgiving, it was embodied by their warm, delicious and nurturing cooking. When I cook at Thanksgiving, my soul lights up with memories of the smells and tastes of their homemade cakes, their dressing, and yes, even duck! Long passed from this life, I do feel their love deeply in their enduring recipes and flavors. It is such a blessing to bring that love they gave me into my own family home. And, it’s comforting for me to know that I am creating memories through these rich and flavorful Thanksgiving traditions. Yes, gratitude is a gift for what we have been given in love!
This time of year, I’m also very aware that many of our students and families struggle during the winter season. Their worries are many, and they cope day by day. And yet, our students show up daily to our schools, classrooms and community. Educating and serving young people is a compassionate service that extends far beyond the function of the job. Educators know they are more than the topics they teach, but the firm and rich soil that nurtures the souls of our students. Our teachers are modern-day heroes, giving so much of themselves to the art of teaching and the power of relationships. It is inspiring to witness the deep wonder of learning in a child’s eyes and, then, the big ideas that emerge when they engage in meaningful and mentally rigorous activities. We do this in an atmosphere that intentionally balances high academic standards with our scholars' social and emotional needs. I extend my gratitude to our remarkable staff. I know you see their impact each day. Please take the time to share your gratitude and appreciation with them.
U. City has another fantastic tradition that has endured through time. We take care of one another. We help out and support those in need. Our generous partners are again supporting our families this holiday season. Thanks to the Hazel Erby Family Foundation, Refresh Church, and Holy Communion Church, our families with demonstrated need will dine well this Thanksgiving with turkeys and all of the fixings. It doesn’t end at Thanksgiving. Our school social workers are currently taking donations of gift cards to distribute to many of these families to help them through this upcoming holiday season.
To our excellent teachers and staff, students, parents and caregivers – and our entire U. City community – take good care, and know how important you are to our school district. Let’s exude thankfulness this season; remember, gratitude is a gift.
Building Vital Partnerships, Building Thriving StudentsPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley on 9/27/2023 8:00:00 AM
Fall is my favorite season for many reasons. It’s nice to be outdoors to enjoy the milder weather and beautiful autumn colors that signal change. The first full month of school has been similar. Our students and staff are adjusting to being back in school, and the world continues to change around us in bright but sometimes challenging ways.
Our teachers are navigating new curricular resources in math, social-emotional learning and social studies. We’ve had some challenges, and yet we are seeing tremendous progress. In our district, we understand the importance of meaningful relationships, and I applaud our staff for prioritizing small moments to build bonds and bridge gaps with students.
I also applaud parents and caregivers for being present in so many ways. One U City’s first event on September 12 truly showed “this is what community looks like.” More than 700 parents, caregivers, grandparents, students, and U. City Schools supporters gathered at Barbara C. Jordan Elementary School to kick off the school year. Their intention that night to build an inclusive, loving and equitable community among all of our schools was crystal clear.
It was also a deep reminder that there is vital power in our collective work. The golden partnership between school and home is nurtured by One U City’s growing school-family-community partnership. The research is clear: this bond between school and home improves academic outcomes. Specifically, when schools, parents, caregivers, families and communities work together, students:
- Earn higher grades
- Attend school more regularly
- Stay in school
- Are more motivated to succeed
Family engagement isn’t a cliché or fad; it is an essential part of the schooling experience and critical to the success of The School District of University City. Parent/caregiver-teacher conferences, like the ones we hosted earlier this month, are just one way we build that link. As a system, we work diligently to be true partners in many ways. We understand and embrace that our families have varying needs, and the partnerships we build must also be varied in the way we build them. We also seek and need your input to make the partnership work. Our children are counting on us to figure this out!
Currently, we are seeing heightened social-emotional needs among our students, caused, in part, by the tremendous impact of COVID-19. Some of our students are struggling with building a community with one another. We fully understand the responsibilities we hold as educators to nurture this essential link among our students and staff. Our trauma-informed work remains a cornerstone of this strategy. We leverage our people and deploy support where the need is greatest. And we use best practices to face these challenges and improve.
I’m proud of the collective work of our team, and yet, I acknowledge that we must remain focused and persistently work towards our goals. Seeing our new social-emotional, equitable and academic learning (SEEAL) curriculum implemented with fidelity in our K-5 classrooms is refreshing. This includes essential time in morning meetings. These meetings do not take away from instructional time but instead engage student minds and personal connections that will drive their academic learning for the rest of their day. These early morning circles help maximize instructional time. Think of it like a refreshing early morning social-emotional walk for our students that sets a positive presence for the rest of the day.
Our middle and high school teams are partnering more intentionally to ensure consistency and clarity across the two buildings related to academic learning, social norms and expectations. Yes, we are making progress – and we know we have a ways to go.
Now, more than ever, we must remain focused on our north star – our “Why.” Parents and caregivers, we hope you will also remain focused. We need you! I firmly believe that we can accomplish so much together.
In that spirit of togetherness, I look forward to seeing many of you this weekend as we celebrate Homecoming. Our theme, “Hometown Showdown: I’m from the U and I’m proud!” says it all. I will see you in your black and gold! Are you ready? I am!!!
Access Matters: Opening and Closing Doors to OpportunityPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley on 7/11/2023 3:00:00 PM
Hello University City families and community. Summer is in full swing. I hope you are enjoying time with family and friends and doing whatever brings you joy. I know the past week was very trying for those of you dealing with extended power outages, and it is my hope that things are getting back to normal.
In the District, we recently concluded Camp U, a rich representation of the creative spirit of our scholars, teachers and school leaders. Student experiences included exploration of our solar system, understanding the importance of healthy lifestyles, entrepreneurship, artistic expression and much more. Our incoming ninth grade scholars engaged in transition activities to help prepare them for the high school experience. High school students at various grade levels participated in a rich internship with Fresh Harvest 365, an innovative urban agriculture partnership based in Cool Valley. These types of experiences make our school district so unique. We understand and embrace equity and diversity in all that we do. Kudos to our summer school leaders, staff, students and our amazing partners.
As we ended Camp U, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action and removed racial reference from the college admission process. Since the ruling, I have closely watched universities swiftly alter policies related to the ruling. In Missouri, response by universities to comply has been very rapid, and not surprising. In my opinion, it is a moral imperative for higher education institutions, and all institutions, to explicitly work to create equitable opportunities. Access, opportunity and exposure to educational, service and professional communities serve as a way for children from all walks of life and backgrounds to realize the American Dream.
I am a first generation college graduate. I have lived the importance of equity in the educational setting. My success as an educator and an individual would not have been possible without teachers who helped me realize my dreams. I grew up in St. Louis in an impoverished community without even realizing it. My mother gave me everything I needed – from the clothes on my back to a strong work ethic and a passion to succeed. And she took the time to find what she believed were the best schools for me.
In doing so, she sent me on an educational journey that in many ways was challenging and traumatizing, but, in hindsight, turned out to be great preparation to lead a school district. I attended both a public and parochial school, and later rode an hour on the bus each way to schools in the Rockwood School District under the voluntary desegregation program.
I encountered all kinds of instructors on that journey. Some were ineffective. Some were racist. But others inspired me beyond all measure. They saw me not just as a shy, diminutive African-American with a hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-spell name, but a bundle of human potential. Were it not for them, I would never have gone to college, earned a doctorate and gone on to serve as the leader of this amazing school district. Access, opportunity and exposure (and yes, my hard work) opened opportunities for me I would not have known were possible had I not received access to strong educators, mentors and higher education. Historically, and even today, Black people and people in marginalized communities are hindered from accessing tools, resources and school systems that are equipped for meeting their needs.
My dear friend and UCHS alum, Amy Hunter, calls it “lucky zip codes.” In St. Louis, where a child happens to be born and raised significantly impacts his/her/their trajectory. Amy says that the “intersectionality between our zip codes and our humanity are connected. We are always connected.”
I argue that race is a social construct used to sort, divide and, in many instances, conquer. This unfair system is dismantled by intentional actions to foster equitable opportunities, growth and continuing progress regarding race and social justice. Access to higher education, and the American Dream, is critical for dismantling unfair systems and elevating children born in unlucky zip codes. Educational institutions must create opportunity and help communities overcome divisions that are dangerously harming our nation and our children.
I applaud University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin Guskiewiz for his statement, “Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond….While not the outcome we hoped for, we will carefully review the Supreme Court’s decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law.”
Let us, as a school district community, reflect on this court action and, more importantly, how it harms ALL of us. I hope other higher education institutions, including those in Missouri, will glean wisdom from Dr. Guskiewiz.
Let us remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
May is here! Commemorating End of School Year And Celebrating New BeginningsPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 5/26/2023 8:00:00 AM
Good afternoon School District of University City Community:
May is here! There’s so much excitement in the air as we commemorate the end of the 2022-23 school year and the start of summer. We celebrated with lovely transition activities for our students, especially in grades five and eight. Our preschoolers felt particularly special thanks to not one, but two car parades that wound through the nearby streets of U. City. What a way to show up for our future kindergartners!
Yes, our scholars are poised to move ahead on their learning journey! I am incredibly proud of them – particularly, the UCHS Class of 2023, which we celebrated on Monday, May 22, at a spirited graduation ceremony at Chaifetz Arena that included inspiring speeches, beautiful regalia and the spirit of U Time.
Our student commencement speakers, Zoe White, Aliyah Goodman and Michael Simmons, spoke about community, togetherness, excellence, social justice, and all our school district community has done to help prepare them for their next chapter in life. They shouted out to several staff members and reminisced about their journey that began in kindergarten for some.
Michael concluded his remarks by embracing the spirit of Ubuntu. His words tugged at my heart because I truly aim to create a school system that lives the meaning of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”
During my remarks, I shared that the Class of ‘23 holds a special place in my heart. When I began my journey as the District’s superintendent, our scholars were starting middle school as sixth graders. They were precocious – and so bold. As middle schoolers, they embraced challenges and took action on adult issues pertaining to environmental sustainability, supporting local immigrants, promoting well-being in their school, inclusion and equity. In the years to come, their leadership grew. They took on gun violence, advocated for social justice and created our signature Growing Together event that every year enables our community to garden and grow healthy fruits and vegetables. Their first year of high school coincided with a global pandemic. There was so much hardship and disruption, yet they persevered and kept moving forward with remarkable accomplishments.
On Saturday, May 20th, 16 students in our early college program received associate’s degrees from St. Louis Community College Forest Park and were cheered on by U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush! One of those students - Michael Simmons - sat on her Youth Advisory Council. The Early College Experience is a challenging program. Students take college level courses, starting at age 15, and spend most of their senior year on a college campus while still participating in high school athletics, clubs and student leadership groups. And, now they are poised to go to prestigious four-year colleges with two full years of free credits already completed. This exemplifies equity, resolve and courage, all in the spirit of Learning Reimagined.
Each student in the Class of 2023 has a story. Let me share just one, because it, again, demonstrates intensive courage and strength. New graduate Gia Ward maintained a B average during her four years of high school. She excelled in the District’s Construction Careers pathway. She and her fellow students have built sheds for our schools, rainwater collection systems, shelving for food and clothing pantries and more. Gia hopes to pursue an apprenticeship through the PATTS program (pre-apprentice tactical training school), where she will learn skills for a career in carpentry, or she may attend Ranken Technical College. She has hopes, skills and resolve for her future, even as she is dealing with a recent diagnosis of stage 1 ovarian cancer and surgery just a few weeks ago. Her treatment includes chemotherapy, including a session just before her graduation ceremony. Our staff was there for her that evening - and she walked across the stage with her diploma. Gia is a fighter. Her U. City family is with her, and I can’t wait to hear about her progress and her many chapters to come. And, yes, she is a proud member of the University City High School Class of 2023.
I left the Class of 2023 with a few words of inspiration when I channeled my inner Wakanda. I shared a quote for the late Chadwick Boseman, otherwise known as T’Challaas in his marvelous role in Black Panther: “Savor the taste of your triumphs today. Don’t swallow them whole without digesting what is actually happening here. Look down over what you have conquered and appreciate what…has brought you through.”
As we head into summer, please relax and enjoy time with your family/friends. I look forward to seeing you next school year. Remember, if your child is attending Camp U, the first day is Monday, June 5th!
Be well, UCity Community.
How Do Our Students Thrive Amid Uncertainty? It’s a Matter of Head and HeartPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 4/21/2023 10:00:00 AM
Spring is finally blooming, and I’ve enjoyed the freedom of being outside and sharing time with family and friends while enjoying simple pleasures. Each day is a tremendous gift and an opportunity to be a better version of myself personally and professionally.
I often speak about the head and heart of leadership. Yet again, another tragedy has crept into a school space that should serve as a haven for young people and the adults who care for them. The elementary school shooting in Nashville was heartbreaking and took the lives of six people, including three children. These acts naturally bring out emotions - fear, anger, shock, sadness and helplessness. We all feel pain in our hearts. The reality, though, is that we have to test our resilience and move forward with both head and heart - and this is especially true for our students.
We need to think and remind ourselves that amid these disturbing acts of rage, there are causes behind them, often centered on mental health issues, learned hatred and a culture that increasingly embraces rage.
School shootings should never happen. Period. Our heads and our hearts can rise above this and stop it. As a nation, we must work with each other to build relationships based on love and common sense to soothe our country’s pain and quell rage that threatens our public spaces, including schools, churches, malls, and, most recently, a bank in Kentucky. It gives me solace that our district demonstrates the head and the heart. We support our students who confidently speak out against gun violence and challenge our policy makers - all of them - to find empathy and partnership to solve this problem. It is an all-of-us issue, and everyone should use their anguish in the service of love and problem-solving to end these alarmingly frequent acts that are taking the lives of our loved ones and threatening our humanity.
So, we continue to persist amid uncertainty. I strive to move beyond a fearful state of mind into positive relationships, empathy and hope. I find hope when I see the smiles and eyes of our most vulnerable - our children. I find joy when our students find joy.
On April 3, our orchestra teachers organized a performance for 200 University City students of different ages to see the duo Black Violin at UMSL’s Touhill Center. This performance touched on the old and the new - both classical compositions and modern Hip Hop - all through the power of just two string instruments. I will tell you, our students saw not only the potential of their own growing musical talent, but the transformative power they can have through work, music and creativity to be heard and inspire others. Smiles and joy were such a great part of the day.
On that same day, Brittany Woods Middle School, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the USDA “Peoples’ Garden” in what’s informally called the BWMS Side Hustle Garden. This new growing space near the school’s prairie garden was envisioned by students under the mentorship of sustainability instructor Anne Cummings so the school could grow more food for the community. It came to life through the hands-on, physical work of those students. The People’s Garden exemplifies our schools’ and our students’ growing commitment to racial equity and food scarcity because many marginalized communities lack access to quality, nutritious food options. Our students were so proud of their efforts and did a wonderful job as ambassadors to show our USDA guests their gardens and the impact they are having on the University City community and beyond. Again, smiles and joy were in abundance.
As I write this, our students are preparing for state assessments as a measure of their learning and growth over the school year. We understand that our students are much more than test scores. They are strength, resolve, creativity, and persistence - all of the wonderful traits that come from the head and the heart. We await these scores to see how we are doing, but we are looking far beyond these scores to accelerate learning in service of our students.
We continue our work to merge well-being and joy with academics through our SEEAL (social emotional equity, and academic learning) approaches to learning. You can read more about our efforts in our most recent issue of PRIDE. Effectively implementing specific SEEAL strategies within the classroom enhances learning, but it takes time. Time remains one of our most valuable but rare resources. We are committed to dedicating our resources to SEEAL, because doing so is essential for our students’ success. Our students deserve high expectations and opportunities to engage in rich curricular content. They deserve meaningful, quality relationships in safe, supportive classroom environments. They deserve well-being and joy. These factors build students with both head and heart who can go into the world ready to solve pressing issues and connect with our world in a loving and intentional way.
Spring, New Beginnings and the Need for Well-Being and ConnectionPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 3/10/2023 10:00:00 AM
Spring is in the air. It is a time for new beginnings. It is also an apt time to pause, reflect and show appreciation for the things that we have been through and the pride that we share.
Three years ago, on March 15, 2020, I gathered with other superintendents in St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s office to discuss what we thought would be a very temporary and short closure of schools due to COVID-19. We, of course, know that was not what happened next. This year, we've gratefully seen the cases of COVID-19 in our schools dwindle to just a few, if any, on a given week. We are not dealing with sudden, large numbers of our students, nor do we have to test whole classes for the virus, nor cancel treasured school events. It's nice that things are calmer, and also a relief to know that our children are in school every day with the added protective factor of loving staff and modern, rigorous and relevant experiences that accelerate learning.
We just finished an amazing month of celebrations of Black history. Still, these are very trying times in education. While the day-to-day impact of COVID-19 is minimal, schools with traditionally marginalized students will continue to navigate the impact of COVID-19 for years to come. We know from a variety of reliable national organizations that deal with children's health, that youth around the country are struggling with mental health issues while also making up for lost learning. And, we see the need for additional social emotional learning support for our own students who are dealing with the dual pandemic of COVID and the continuing pandemic of racism in our region.
And yet, our students and staff still strive each day to demonstrate the Heart of a Lion both academically and personally. I particularly saw that during the month of February. Our school buildings were thriving with rich experiences that celebrated and honored the contributions of African Americans. Students and teachers clearly put their hearts into music performances, living history museums, poetry, dance, art, readings, and even an original production of "The Fight for Wakanda." That performance featured more than 65 students from Jackson Park Elementary School who spent their afterschool hours working diligently with librarian Pat Garvin to put this production together. As they performed in front of an audience of nearly 600 people, I could feel our students' passion and investment. They wanted to tell a victorious story about the fight to make Jackson Park a Wakanda Community Outreach Center. In my mind, the performance wasn't just a fight for that fictional community center, but a triumphant victory for the very real community that is their school. The students beat back the harm that COVID-19 threatened and continued to create a healthy and thriving place where relationships thrive and grow.
As I reflect on this victory, my heart is also with Janae Edmundson and her family. Janae is the high school athlete who lost her legs after a tragic accident in downtown St. Louis that could likely have been prevented. This incident represents a greater problem in St. Louis. As a community, we must begin to holistically address the root causes and the systems that create many of the inexcusable incidents occurring throughout our city and beyond. I often feel like a broken record. We must ask, "And, how are the children?" And, we must be able to intentionally act in the best and equitable interests of all children so that one day we as a society can respond, "The Children Are Well." If it takes a superhero mindset like that found in "The Fight for Wakanda," so be it.
I believe now, more than ever, in the District's three pillars to humanize, personalize and problematize learning, and our vision of Learning Reimagined. Its social-emotional focus integrated with academics is necessary and could serve as a model for other systems. I’m proud that our board of education recently approved a recommendation to hire the District’s first full-time therapist and also a new director of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). These positions are connected to learning. They are strategic investments in wellness to ensure that children thrive and succeed amid these very tumultuous times that disproportionately impact them. Again, children cannot learn to their potential if they are not well, and teachers cannot be expected to teach if they are not well. One does not exist without the other.
The Ferguson Commission’s report provides solid evidence and examples to support the crucial importance of well-being and further investment in youth as the driver of change. The School District of University City is implementing many of The Commission's recommendations, and I could not be more grateful to lead a community that values all -- and yes, I mean all.
As we move into March and Women's History Month, I will conclude by highlighting the words of educator Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, who is a forerunner in the approach to using culturally relevant teaching practices with students. Her text, "The Dreamkeepers," epitomizes what happens in classrooms where teachers value, see, and embrace all students with rigorous learning, inclusion, meaningful relationships and well-being at the core. Like "The Fight for Wakanda," we must fight for our students every day with the recognition that they are beautiful, priceless, human and the heart of us with the potential to change the world.
To watch Jackson Park School's presentation of The Fight for Wakanda on YouTube, go to: www.ucityschools.org/FightForWakanda.
Beyond Yoga and Donuts: Laying the Groundwork for Transformational Change for Well-Being and Student SuccessPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 2/3/2023 11:00:00 AM
It has been a busy start to the New Year as students and teachers undertake new learning projects. Our students have so many wonderful Black History activities planned for February. Amid these life-affirming activities, we are, again, dealing with a national tragedy with the cruel and horrific death of Tyre Nichols during a police traffic stop. These sickening and inexcusable assaults are culturally and socially traumatic. They ripple into our consciousness and stir deep and often overwhelming emotions, especially in our youth. This leads me to thoughts about well-being among our students and staff.
As a superintendent, I am privileged to be on the frontlines of student joy and success. I get to hand out awards, hugs and diplomas. I can walk freely through schools when I choose and almost always find a smiling face or a warm hello. And when I see a child that is upset or stressed, I get the chance to walk with them. When we can’t talk any longer, I guide them to a trusting adult so their day can get a little bit better. And when that happens, my day gets a lot better.
My position also finds me sometimes on the front lines of tragedy. Mercifully, these moments aren’t frequent, but they do happen. I can’t predict when they will occur, or when I will get the call or a text alerting me that a child is deeply in trouble or worse.
Many know that we have had two young men from our high school community lose their lives in the last two months. The losses were not technically related, and yet, there is still an ethereal force that connects them, because these young men were a part of our community, and this loss is indicative that all of our children are not well, and that our world right now is not well and fully servicing their needs.
These losses have rocked our staff and students, and I say that with deference and love to these young men’s parents, families and loved ones who are going through the unthinkable. When a student dies, our crisis response team goes into action. A phone and text chain forms between our school leaders, the students’ teachers, school counselors, social workers, well-being specialists, and our nurses. Their top priority is our students, who often learn of these tragedies on social media or by text chain. This is the worst way for a child or young adult to learn about something that they can’t and shouldn’t have to comprehend. For our response teams, it is, honestly, a race to get to them so they don’t feel these intense emotions alone, and that they have places, space and caring adults to healthily experience sadness, fear and grief that define us as being human. It is tragic that we have to have these types of response plans, but also indicative of our district’s belief that we must be there, always, to support our students' well-being.
Amid our joys, I write today to recognize our grief and the fragility of young life in our world. It is deep and heavy. Our students are our everything and they are beautiful as they grow and cope with the unfairness that life may bring to them. So when we identified Joy and Well-Being as a priority in our district’s strategic plan, it was not just the equivalent of providing enhancements like yoga, mindfulness and donuts, but building a staff equipped with tools and full-on love that is not afraid to delve into the abyss of the human experiences for our children.
Mercifully, this work is not every day. Most of the time, we are laser-focused on prevention and building relationships. Last year, our high school students and specialists urged our students to “Be the Change” as they worked to normalize talking about mental health. In every school, I see principals relating and teaching students to live with head and heart for themselves and one another. I see it in the passion and action of our parents as they build One U City into a vehicle for equity and joy among our families. While not yet a perfect organization, we are laying the foundation for transformational change and true parent/school partnership. I see it as our teachers grapple with identifying and mediating racial bias. I see it in our staff’s very keen ability to identify behaviors arising from past trauma. I see it in our students who develop public service projects that directly impact the well-being of our community.
This year, we are very intentionally integrating social emotional best practices into everyday classroom instruction and curriculum, because our students learn best when they are well. And, our teachers teach best when they are connected to our students with authentic relationships. This is learning and this is living to our best potential. I cannot help but think of the safety net this approach creates for our students. When we talk about joy and well-being, we are talking about encouraging humanity, and yes, in doing so, we have the power to change the course of our students’ lives.
In Praise of Our Hallmark Community SpiritPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 12/19/2022 10:00:00 AM
I have a guilty pleasure this time of the year as our student winter performances wind down and the holiday baking begins. It’s watching Hallmark holiday specials.
When winter arrives, there is nothing cozier than curling up on my couch with a soft blanket, a cup of tea and my remote in my hand. If it’s snowing outside, that’s even better. The movies are so predictable as the characters face fictitious hardships and come together at the end in community, love and comfort.
I know this guilty pleasure might surprise a few of you. Generally, I’m a complex and driven person with the weight of my role as superintendent on me daily. I have been given great privileges. I understand, to whom much is given, much is required. In my line of work, that means I strive daily for the success of your students in a U.S. public education system that is complicated, often shortsighted and not always inclusive, equitable or loving. The work to change systems in The School District of University City is urgent because I understand that many of you have not been given luxury, power or easy paths as you raise and love your children. The clock is constantly ticking for me, because when it comes to improving the lives of children, time is of the essence.
And yet, winter break is the time of year when I need - I crave - time and simplicity, and even a little escapism. We all need breaks. We need to be well. We need to care for ourselves.
I go into our winter break appreciative of this time for self care, but also aware that significant downtime and basic comfort may not be easily available to all of you. Please remember, we care. Our community is capable of great love. I am delighted that U. City, once again, rallied for our families whose lives are tough and in no way the script of a holiday show. Donations to the District’s Holiday Appeal organized by our social work team totaled nearly $24,000 in gift cards and other monetary donations that benefitted 102 families and 284 children. Each family also received care baskets with food and other necessities. Our very own University City Fire Department also arrived earlier this month with their annual pile of toys to help lessen the financial burden for designated parents and caregivers. In November, families horribly impacted by flooding this summer were given $400 gift cards thanks to more than $8,000 in donations from our community.
Finally, Mr. Gary Boyd, the crowned host of the television show Them Yo’ People, took our district’s children and families under his wing this month. He used his voice on radio and television to sponsor food, gift and coat drives for our families. He used his connections to surprise our students with a special assembly. And, on Sunday, he held a free holiday celebration for the entire community in the University City High School auditorium. He provided special invitations to families and residents who suffered severe hardship this year during the flooding. There were many happy surprises.
It’s heartwarming. Even with our complexities and challenges, University City has a spirit of community and love. So this winter break, I will sit down to watch my Hallmark holiday movies with the comfort of knowing that U. City, again, came together and had its very own Hallmark moment! With love and gratitude, I wish you all a wonderful and peaceful holiday break with your loved ones. I will see you in the New Year!
Relationships Make Schools Sacred SpacesPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 11/22/2022 11:00:00 AM
Schools must be vessels of love nurturing our students, staff and families. When they are, they become more than their walls and their people - they become sacred. Last month, I felt firsthand the rich intensity of what learning and thriving in schools can mean for a student during the greater span of a lifetime. On October 14, we welcomed dozens of alumni of all ages, professions, and backgrounds back to University City High School to induct 11 of their peers into our Hall of Fame.
It was the first time that we hosted the event in the school’s lobby and the auditorium instead of in a hotel ballroom. We worried a little bit. Was the high school fancy enough? Did we have enough room? Of course, our guests loved it! They were so joyful to come home to what was clearly their sacred space. One guest from the Class of 1977, a woman who runs the nation’s largest shipyard, giggled as she asked permission to run up to the band room by herself. Others snuck off to their own favorite spaces - just for a minute or two of quiet, personal reflection.
On the stage in the auditorium - the literal stage of their later childhood - our alumni talked about key connections and moments that changed their lives and sent them out of the nest to places like Princeton University and the Peace Corps and the U.S. Army. I like to think they have a collective heart that beats from their profound memories and connection to University City High School. And no surprise, their experiences were rooted in relationships. Relationships matter!
Ten days later, the lives of a student and a teacher were violently taken in the sacred hallways of a St. Louis Public Schools high school just around the time everyone was settling into second period. My connection with St. Louis Public Schools is deep. I have relationships with many leaders and staff connected with Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA). I am not alone. We quickly learned that the web of harm and hurt extends to all parts of our region. Educators are particularly connected in our area. And, because students attend so many schools around the region, our collective youth had direct and indirect links to CVPA and the adjacent Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience High School.
There is no silver lining to this. We are in an age when the children and the adults aren’t well, and our public spaces, even our sacred ones, are vulnerable to harm and rage. Fear is a reasonable response, as is anger. And yet, I have been heartened by the conversations since.
At a district strategic planning meeting held just one day after the shooting, there were certainly concerns voiced about building safety and resources - which we continue to address. More profoundly, our parents, caregivers and other guests gravitated to our second strategic priority in the District’s strategic plan: Well-Being and Joy.
There was worry for our teachers and students - were they really OK? Were we really doing enough for those in most distress? There was a general consensus that as much as we strive to strengthen locks and fortify doors, the real solution in keeping our spaces safe, well and sacred lies in further strengthening the relationships and support within our community and in our schools.
One parent asked, “How can we combat a misperception that our focus on [well-being] takes the focus away from academics? And I can only say that learning - and safety - is best fueled by healthy, authentic relationships. They are everything.”
In early November, I attended the annual Missouri School Boards Association conference in Kansas City along with members of our Board of Education. Much of the talk again centered on building safety and precautions. And yet, the Superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, Dr. Kelvin Adams - my dear mentor - was present. He stood in front of his educational peers just days after a tragedy and spoke not of loss but of hope. He said the power of relationships is the ultimate form of prevention and education, and that is something we can all build together regardless of resources.
Mr. Fred Rogers, known more familiarly as Mr. Rogers, got it right about the beautiful people in neighborhoods - including schools. He said, “The greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved.” I continue to be both joyful and sad in this world. Joyful for the love we show and I see shining bright in our students, staff, parents, caregivers and alumni, and sad that our love is not shining bright enough to be a salve and support to those youth and adults who are unwell. Let’s be clear, we must persist with our academic efforts so that our students are fully prepared for their post-secondary journey. And I firmly believe that, as the late educator extraordinaire Rita Pierson once said, “No meaningful learning happens absent a relationship.”
We need to keep on loving and building connections with the spirit of children and learning in our heart, so that, one day, when we ask, And how are the children?, we can respond without hesitation, The Children are Well. UCity Community, please continue to keep our CVPA and Collegiate school communities in your thoughts.
Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD, PHR
November 22, 2022
Picturing Learning Reimagined and the Work AheadPosted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 10/7/2022 11:00:00 AM
Pictures are worth a thousand words. And, they are also worth thousands of emotions. Our communications team has been preparing galleries of photographs for two upcoming public engagement meetings on refreshing the district’s strategic plan, Learning Reimagined. The meetings are scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, October 22 and 6 p.m., Tuesday, October 25.
Learning Reimagined is the vision for The School District of University City’s student, parent, caregiver and community experience. It was developed more than five years ago with intensive community input and a joint resolve to embed love, joy, equity, respect, intensive learning, empowerment, and paths to both academic and career success in our students’ lives.
The photo galleries present snapshots of children, staff and parents of all backgrounds and circumstances experiencing Learning Reimagined and its profound influence on our district and school cultures. Seeing these beautiful photos sparks many intense feelings in me. Mostly, I see that Learning Reimagined keeps the focus on the humanity of our children, which is so deep and pure. Look closely into the eyes of our children in the photographs and you will see strength and wonder; ambition and curiosity; and the yearning for more. All of these emerging qualities are just waiting to be affirmed, comforted, nurtured and positively engaged in the world around them.
Learning Reimagined puts structures in place for our children to emerge and thrive as learners, as thinkers and as future human beings. It nurtures brilliance. When I see a photo of our high school students rallying peacefully but forcefully for social justice in the aftermath of a police shooting of a Black teenager, I feel proud that our community understands that students should have a voice to act for social justice. When I see a photo of a class of fourth graders hovered over hundreds of coins they collected for refugees in Ukraine, I feel their awe at understanding they have power to make a difference. When I see a photograph of our middle school boys talking with a visiting businessman about their coding to create new video games, I feel their sense of importance and a belief that indeed they are connected to greatness. When I see our staff committed to togetherness during Opening Day, I feel pride because the foundation of Learning Reimagined is helping to foster relationships.
There are also pure moments of joy in the photos – one of five strategic priorities embedded in Learning Reimagined. I remember what it’s like to be a little girl unfettered by bias or limited expectations leaping in a playground. I can feel the confidence building in our high school Restorative Leaders tasked with empowering a culture of respect, dignity and relationships in their school. When two middle school boys willingly dress up as bees to rally our community to restore pollinators in our neighborhoods, I feel their resolve and their vision of a brighter future for our living planet.
I could go on about the dozens of photos and what they represent. But, instead, I encourage you to come and see them for yourself later this month during the community engagement meetings as we discuss ways to refresh the vision of Learning Reimagined.
And yes, we know that we still have much work to do.
For example, we know firsthand from the flooding this summer that devastated parts of University City, and the recent intensity of Hurricane Ian, that global warming and environmental sustainability are the challenges of our children’s lifetimes. Under Learning Reimagined, our students and staff worked to make the District a prestigious U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Awardee. And yet, we know that some of our facilities do not embody sustainability. We know that COVID-19 has stressed our children and staff. So, we have some work that we can do to sharpen the focus of our vision of Learning Reimagined.
I welcome you with my head and heart into this work to refresh our vision of Learning Reimagined for our children, staff and school community. I hope to see you later this month at these important community engagement meetings.
Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD, PHR
October 7, 2022