Superintendent's Blog

  • In service of our Children

  • Beyond Yoga and Donuts: Laying the Groundwork for Transformational Change for Well-Being and Student Success

    Posted by Sharonica Hardin-Bartley on 2/3/2023 11:00:00 AM

    Pershing Student I Believe I Can book

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleyIt 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.

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  • In Praise of Our Hallmark Community Spirit

    Posted by Sharonica Hardin-Bartley on 12/19/2022 10:00:00 AM

    UCHS 121622 Assembly w Mr Gary, Dr Hardin-Bartley, Dr. Peoples and Golden Girls

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleyI 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! 

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  • Relationships Make Schools Sacred Spaces

    Posted by Sharonica Hardin-Bartley on 11/22/2022 11:00:00 AM

    2022 Pumpkin Carving Family

    Sharonica Hardin-BartleySchools 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

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  • Picturing Learning Reimagined and the Work Ahead

    Posted by Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 10/7/2022 11:00:00 AM

    JGEC Mud Garden pot girl stirringSHB

    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

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  • The “I” cannot truly exist without the “We” of University City

    Posted by Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 9/12/2022 3:50:00 PM

    Girl on playground

    SHBOn July 1, 2022, I began my seventh year as the Superintendent of The School District of University City. When I started, my daughter was a preschooler. The District’s current sixth graders had just started kindergarten. And, our most recent graduates were sixth graders. The changes I have seen in these amazing human beings have been profound. As they grew as thinkers and citizens and activists for positive change, the world around them changed dramatically.

    In August, we welcomed more than 2,550 students - your beautiful, remarkable and distinctive children - to the 2022-23 school year. On that day, I saw: Smiles. Hugs. Awe. Tears. Anxiety. Handholding. Pride. Confidence. Fear. Relief. Dreams. Hope. And so much Love. What a joy it is to live in the moment with children! 

    And yet, I can’t stop reflecting on the past seven years. We were still hurting deeply from the death of Michael Brown, and though voices had been heard in protest, the profound meaning of Black Lives Matter, equity, and humanized policing was just beginning to bubble up. We see more now than then the intense struggle to own and teach authentic African American history in a climate of intolerance. And, yes, COVID-19 and Zoom were not even terms in our language.

    It has been intense. Add to that the flash flooding in University City this summer that devastated the homes of many of our children and their parents or caregivers. The strength and fortitude of our families and U. City during this crisis was inspiring. None of us have really had the time or the bandwidth to process what the past seven years really means for our children’s futures. It all seems like too much. 

    The pandemic showed us, urgently, that public education must also be reinvented to rise to meet the demands of our youth, and, yes, our ever-changing society. It is predicted that our sweet new kindergartners (dubbed Gen-Alpha) will have, on average, six career changes and 18 different jobs in their adult lifetimes. Read that again: six career changes.

    I write this and ponder as we move ahead in partnership at The School District of University City in service of our children. I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. But I do have my compass. Positive adaptation and innovation in the world and in education cannot happen without an intensive commitment to community, equity, and respect for all children. We cannot move forward if we do not fundamentally love and honor children, even as we grapple with differences and sometimes chasms in beliefs. We move ahead together when we find a common purpose - and our purpose is always in service of our children.

    We began the 2022-23 school year with the joyful theme of Ubuntu, an African term meaning, “I am because we are.” The “I” cannot truly exist without the “We” of University City. As we move ahead into the next seven years of change, we must build and strengthen our We. We start in our school community by asking this traditional Maasai greeting, “And how are the Children?”  We ask it constantly and act consistently in our planning, adaptation and actions, with the goal that we can, one day, answer “The Children are well.” 

    When our children are well, our community is well. As a driven, united and purposeful community, we love and endow our children with the learning, tools, power, resources and voice to influence the future locally, nationally and globally. 

    So how do we start? Right now, at this very moment, go find and hug your children. Snuggle with them. Read to them. Respect them. Listen to them. Savor them. Lift them up. Love them. Because they are our why and your I. And they have important work to do in the future. 
     
    Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD, PHR
    September 12, 2022

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