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Collaborative leadership is essential for schools to reopen

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks during a press conference at the Salt Lake County Emergency Management Center in South Salt Lake on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Wilson is among the leaders working collaboratively to ensure a safe environment for students this fall.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

One thing often missing in discussions around reopening schools during this pandemic is the recognition that everyone has a role to play if reopening is to be done safely. At the most individual level, this means following guidelines for minimizing transmission of the coronavirus. At the level of district, community and state leadership, it means working together proactively to align resources and solve specific problems.

An excellent example of this is the recent effort by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson to personally understand the specific challenges faced by school districts, to engage in the dialogue about potential solutions, and then to lead the effort. With the County Council, she designated $10 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to the immediate challenges faced by school districts in the county as they prepare for the return of students. These funds will provide critical support to all five school districts in the county and assist them in meeting needs related to technology, student support, health and safety.

Another excellent example of the type of leadership that produced this result was the community meeting led by Salt Lake City School District interim Superintendent Larry Madden — bringing education stakeholders and health experts together to explore ways in which a wide variety of organizations could help tackle the array of challenges schools face as they work to reopen safely.

Beyond the immediate challenge of beginning the school year safely, we know that the challenge of helping students that have fallen behind and supporting them through the uncertainty of the coming year will be ongoing and enormous. We also know that we must continue the work of reimagining the future of learning, and building a system that works better for all students — especially those that have been left behind. In this essential work, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson is modeling collaborative leadership through Stay Safe, Stay Connected — a Promise Partnership initiative catalyzed by the leadership of Mark and Kathie Miller and their $3 million investment.

Collaborative leadership like this reinforces itself and becomes the norm when there is an infrastructure that invites and sustains cross-sector partnerships. In Utah, the Promise Partnership, facilitated by United Way of Salt Lake, supports this type of collaborative leadership across nine communities in six school districts and four counties. Within the Promise Partnership region, mayors, district superintendents, business and community leaders, and state officials work together with a singular focus on improving a core set of academic, health and economic mobility outcomes — and closing the racial and economic gaps within those outcomes.

The challenges we face right now require a unique and sustained commitment of collaborative leadership at every level. It is not the simple collaboration of leaders just getting together — it is cross-sector leadership that shares personal accountability for results and looks proactively for ways to align efforts. It is leadership that commits to include the people and voices that have historically been left out and that co-creates a vision for a more inclusive future. Mayor Wilson, Superintendents Dickson and Madden, Mark and Kathie Miller — and all of the other leaders within the Promise Partnership — are working to do exactly that.

Bill Crim is the president and CEO of United Way of Salt Lake.