As the Chandler Unified School District starts off a new school year, Interim Superintendent Frank Narducci is hoping CUSD's 44,000 students are ready to continue the learning that went unfinished last year.
As Narducci settles into a leadership position that hasn’t had a new occupant in the last 25 years, his transition comes during what is perhaps one of the most precarious times in the district’s history.
Enrollment has shrunk, health guidelines keep changing amid the looming threat of the COVID-19 Delta variant and a sizable achievement gap must be addressed in the coming months.
Yet, Narducci does not appear to be daunted by the circumstances he’s having to navigate at the start of his tenure.
“We are going into the year optimistic, excited – but also cautious that we move forward making everybody feel comfortable and included,” Narducci said.
The new superintendent’s priorities attempt to address lingering academic and social-emotional impact of the pandemic while looking ahead to a brighter future that ensures every CUSD student leaves the district properly equipped for adulthood.
Narducci’s goals include implementing more data-driven strategies, studying the district’s changing demographics and helping students catch up on curriculum lessons missed during the disrupted 2019-20 school year.
His one-year contract as superintendent doesn’t give Narducci an abundant amount of time to complete his benchmarks, but he seems eager to jump straight into all the complexities that come with running one of Arizona’s largest school districts.
Another superintendent would have to spend weeks getting to know the district, Narducci said, but he’s already spent 25 years at Chandler Unified.
When Narducci was picked earlier this year to temporarily replace outgoing Superintendent Camille Casteel, he brought with him decades of experience working in Chandler’s schools.
He started out as principal of Conley Elementary before advancing up to an administrative role within Casteel’s cabinet, where he got the chance to supervise 32 of the district’s campuses.
Narducci said his predecessor leaves behind an impressive legacy that’s intimidating to match, but he thinks CUSD has an opportunity to take a fresh look at the initiatives Casteel set into motion.
“Not only do we stand on the shoulders of those who helped us get here,” he said, “but now we have to take that next first step and walk.”
Narducci, a native of Tucson, is starting the job as CUSD continues to weave through the uncertain waters of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike the previous year, CUSD won’t have the authority to mandate mask-wearing or require students and staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Legislature stripped public schools of those powers during the last session.
Gov. Doug Ducey has additionally warned districts not to quarantine unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19, claiming any such policy would violate state law.
But state Health Director Dr. Cara Christ said last week that schools should be able to quarantine unvaccinated students and keep them out of class in at least some cases where they have been exposed to COVID-19.
Christ told Capitol Media Services she still believes that the best place for children is in school, though she said unvaccinated students should be wearing masks.
“I don’t think we want to be taking broad, sweeping, quarantining entire schools if they’ve got a case of COVID-19,’’ the health director said.
Christ said Ducey’s guidance is under review with the spread of the more highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. And it could result in recommendations for greater use of quarantines.
“One of the things that we’re talking about here at the department is, with how transmissible it is, that all close contacts should be quarantined potentially,’’ she said.
“That’s something that we’re working through right now because we want kids in school,’’ Christ continued. “We want to be able to use that as a tool but we want to be able to use it sparingly and work to implement other strategies to prevent spread.’’
Christ, in her interview, did not address what the governor has ordered. But she said the policies and guidance of her agency, including the use of quarantine for unvaccinated people who have been exposed, has not changed.
CUSD intends to make quarantining decisions based on what types of symptoms a child displays at school, Narducci said.
If a student is displaying the signs of COVID-19, then they will be asked to go home. Once they’re free of symptoms, they can return to school.
Narducci said the district will continue to work closely with the Maricopa County Public Health Department and follow their recommendations – despite any contradictions that may arise with other government agencies.
“We’re getting a conflict between what the governor would like and what has been best practices,” Narducci noted.
The mixed messages have been discomforting for the hundreds of Chandler teachers who are attempting to transition back into their familiar routines.
Katie Nash, a Chandler High School teacher and president of the Chandler Educators Association, said some teachers are nervous about working in classrooms without the mask mandate and worry how the recent rise in COVID-19 cases might impact Chandler.
The district’s hands are tied in trying to mitigate any spread of the virus, she noted, and it’s causing some anxiety among school staff.
Furthermore, Nash said Chandler’s teachers will have to focus this year on addressing the missed learning opportunities that occurred during the pandemic.
“Our educators know where the gaps are, or will be the first ones to identify where those are as our students return this year,” Nash said. “I have full confidence that our educators will be able to fill in those gaps.”
Narducci will be spending a significant amount of his time figuring out how best to utilize federal funds that have been awarded for reversing learning losses experienced during the pandemic.
The superintendent is currently working on a three-year spending plan that will outline how CUSD intends to use a $30-million federal grant.
At least 20 percent of the allocation must be spent on addressing learning gaps and the rest can generally be spent at the district’s discretion.
Narducci has already drawn up a preliminary list of goals he thinks the $30-million grant could best be spent on and plans to present his ideas at a public meeting in late August.
Most of his goals involve conducting an extensive data analysis to figure out where learning losses have occurred and which students have fallen behind.
“We need to help each of our 45 sites for 44,000 students so we know where they are,” Narducci said. “So we’re not treating a classroom or a school or a group as (if) they’re all on the same page.”
His plan promises to provide intensive tutoring, extended instructional time and more access to technology for disconnected students.
Narducci prefers to not describe the pandemic era as a “learning loss,” since some students didn’t struggle academically as much as their peers. It was more of a period of “unfinished learning,” he explained, because the pandemic didn’t inhibit a student’s capabilities to learn.
Regardless of the semantics, CUSD will have to contend with the fact that some students fell off the grid or didn’t show up for standardized testing last year; two factors impacting how the district is able to measure academic growth.
“We do know that we have a discrepancy in our proficiency so we’ll be looking at how we can grow that by addressing the unfinished learning,” Narducci said.
The recovery process is further complicated by the fact that Chandler’s 44,000 students experienced the pandemic differently; some immediately returned to school once campuses reopened while others stayed home for the whole school year.
The district has about 500 elementary students planning to enroll this year in a new online school that was quickly devised during the pandemic.
That appears to indicate some families are still not ready to send their children back to school.
Narducci said the online school has turned out to be a valuable resource for families and teachers have found a way to make the virtual experience resemble an in-person classroom setting.
The successes seen at the elementary level have highlighted some of the weaknesses CUSD has in its secondary online learning, Narducci added.
There’s not as much engagement happening at the high school level in online education, the superintendent said, and CUSD will soon be examining how to make improvements.
“We want to personalize our learning a little bit more, individualize our learning a little bit more,” the superintendent said.
That focus on personalized learning could be appealing to the many students who left CUSD during the pandemic. The district’s average daily membership, a state metric used to measure enrollment, has shrunk by about 2,000 over the last fiscal year.
Lana Berry, the district’s chief financial officer, said the enrollment loss has been a bit blindsiding for CUSD – which had been projecting continuous growth before the pandemic – and has resulted in a $15-million funding gap.
“We weren’t ready for that,” Berry said. “We were just fortunate enough that we have been (in) a great fiscal position to where we could cover those issues when they took place.”
CUSD has managed to stabilize its budget and avoid any massive layoffs, but the district still wants to try and recoup the students who fled this past year.
Narducci said initial data collected by demographers suggests there’s still room for growth in CUSD, allowing the district to potentially return to the position it was in before the pandemic.
But no matter the number of students CUSD may have in the coming year, the superintendent said his approach to teaching each of them will remain the same: accommodate their individual needs and prepare them for the future.
Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.