Back to School with Nia Rashidchi

The word ‘impossible’ seems to be passé for many, especially the working parents who have been put in the odd, acrobatic position of simultaneously working, facilitating distance-learning, conducting mental health and wellness checks, and providing out-of-class enrichment for children in what seems like a constantly shifting new-normal. According to Nia Rashidchi of Castro Valley Unified School District, these realities have been top-of-mind in planning how to provide quality instruction for kids in the fall.


Rashidchi has held the position of Castro Valley’s Curriculum and Instruction Director for elementary-age children for the past two years, but her experience working in education spans closer to 25 years. While there’s no test-run for this level of problem-solving, Rashidchi feels well-placed to address the complex circumstances of developing a plan for the next academic year.


Challenges, Meet the Challenger

The impact of COVID-19 on district families created a reactive environment as the schools jumped into distance-learning at the end of the 2020 school year. The focus was first on helping families with varying access to resources like technology, childcare, and even food security. The district leapt into action–spurring a flurry of check-ins with families, technology adaptations, and creating a lending library of laptops to help folks adjust to a distance-learning environment. But teachers also needed training in technology with hopes to create a uniform approach that’s easier for students and teachers.


“Initially, we thought we had a few days to switch and then it was all of a sudden— no you have to switch now. First thoughts were OMG! Such a tremendous change in a short time,” Rashidchi says, remembering the shift. “Looking back, the staff really took that change in stride. Within one day and some quick weekend work on the parts of our incredible classified staff, teachers and site principals, we were up and running and providing our students with instruction. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an amazing effort to serve our students.”


After the Mid-March to June trial-by-fire with teachers co-working and learning how to put their current lesson plans into a new context, the summer created space for conversations and planning for a complete paradigm shift in education. All the while, Rashidchi has been co-piloting with district leadership at the helm. Not only has she been coordinating multiple working groups that made sure to include every level of instruction in the planning for next year, she’s also been on a panel leading the series of Black Minds Matter workshops that has been a well-attended, voluntary program for all CVUSD educators and parents.

A Community Approach

Planning for next year’s instruction began at the beginning of May, only two and half months after shelter-in-place began. Facing a pandemic within the varying circumstances of district families, Rashidchi knew that solutions needed to be dynamic, and have contingencies to keep kids and their families both learning and safe.


“The county office of education and the state department started giving the message– you’ll be in this model for the long haul,’” says Rashidchi. “The overall message was, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know you’re going to need to plan and be flexible.” Rashidchi didn’t pause; she got to work. “We had input from the unions about assembling committees at the elementary and secondary levels. The union recommended teachers and counselors at the site level. We also had an operations team to look at on-site safety.”


In spite of the unique challenges of the current climate, Rashidchi describes the commitment and participation on every level of the school administration and community as “amazing.” She has nothing but praise for the amount of research, conversation, debate, and participation that happened within the meetings of the working groups. “The level of dedication and research–– I can’t speak highly enough about the research from the site level,” she says. “The teachers, principals, and all of the people in the working groups are extremely smart. They’re really amazing folks and they work really hard. That’s really the key, [they’re] good at what they do.”

Here’s how the working groups were organized:


1) Elementary and Secondary CORE Planning Teams:
Teachers, counselors, site principals and district office staff worked together for a few months to determine what models of instruction might work best in CVUSD. The teacher’s union made membership recommendations to both instructional planning teams.


2) Operations Planning Team:
This committee looked at the organizational coordination and physical campus maintenance and safety. Food and on-campus health and safety were also the focal points of the group. This planning group worked on safety protocols for students, teachers, and staff addressing questions like: how do you do lunch with the least contact possible? What does a safe campus look like? How do we daily disinfect in a safe and secure manner? What’s the signage that we need? How will students/families/staff enter and exit our campuses safely and with physical distancing?


3) Elementary grade level and secondary department planning teams:
These teams worked for multiple hours to build playlists which are virtual lesson plans that follow a familiar cadence (Learn About It, Practice It, and Evidence of Learning). These playlists will be provided to our teachers to assign to our students during the asynchronous student learning time.

Schools in Motion

If your organization or business has ever undergone a massive restructuring or a pivot, you might have some insight to how this looked for CVUSD teachers.

In the midst of so many challenges, these committees came together as a community to share, research, or—as Rashidchi calls it—“homework” on different models that have come up since COVID began impacting the United States and other countries. Each homework prompted a discussion about how implementing the plans might work at CVUSD, going through a series of questions about how to make sure every staff member could make it work.


“Sometimes we’d watch video clips about international tactics,” says Rashidchi. “Anything coming up from different [school] sites–– we’d discuss it, break it down, problem-solve, and then make some decisions.” Then there was always homework in prep for the next meeting. Each meeting lasted around 2 to 3 hours.

“It’s a lot of work, but the team just dug in,” Rashidchi says. “It was a real sharing of resources with people bringing information I would have never come across on my own.”


Over the last few months, these meetings have continued. Rashidchi mentions looking at approaches from doing a hybrid distance-learning/in-person instruction model, to a synchronous/asynchronous approach, to an AM/PM model, to an AB model, to a 10/4 Model. “The point is to think outside the box and build a system that can seamlessly transition back and forth from virtual to in-person.”


Rashidchi is also quick to credit the proactive and vocal parent community for stepping up with suggestions and support, not only for the teachers but other local families.


The steadfast and heart-centered leadership of Superintendent Parvin Amhadi was also front and center in the discussions and work. With new information and policies coming from the state, county and the unions, Rashidchi says it is important to have hard and deep conversations to ensure everyone involved is operating “at the top of their game.” Superintendent Ahmadi models this every day. She is present, sleeves rolled up, digging deep and working hard, collaborative, equity-focused, and always ready to lead the charge to make education work for CVUSD students. “It’s great to have a leader who walks her talk every day,” says Rashidchi. “You learn lots and get the work done.”

Emotional Health and Learning

This unusual time has required a new set of tools to manage the holistic wellbeing of children and families. “We know that the social-emotional learning and support for our students is on par with our academic support,” Rashidchi says. “Research says that kids are really going through it.” This facet of learning inspired the formation of working groups that were entirely dedicated to addressing social and emotional learning. That meant building content that deals with a variety of skill sets including understanding bias, racism, and culture. “We have to deal with these topics in the classroom,” says Rashidchi. “Identifying some of that emotion is wrapped in what’s happening in the world at the same time as we work on academic components– we’re really working hard to make sure that everyone feels seen, heard, and welcomed.”

A Teaching Community

With education typically being a moving piece when it comes to the chess game of budget discussions, much of the progress in CVUSD has been through the hard work and sacrifice of teachers that have worked tirelessly and often off the clock to make sure that district children will be met with an exemplary education in the Fall.

“We’re fortunate, we’ve collaborated before, and I think the pandemic has even brought us closer together,” says Rashidchi. “We can’t be physically present, but at the same time we’re not planning like we used to be planning. There are more types of huddles out of pure need.”

Rashidchi emphasizes that it’s important to get this right. To her that means building the virtual muscle to provide a fantastic and holistic education for local kids and ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice. “It’s a more closely calibrated and connected leadership team,” said Rashidchi. And it shows.

Within the whirlwind of activity that has challenged the job descriptions and daily routines of so many people, Rashidchi speaks only in terms of what can be done proactively and with an optimism centered in the multitude of realities being experienced by CVUSD families and staff.

“There’s a lot going on and I wouldn’t want to be in any other place than Castro Valley. I’ve never seen a more supportive situation. We had telehealth happening with our social workers and counselors, available to students and parents. If there [is] a student not showing up, each school has a process for following up. If they couldn’t get in touch, they did a hand off to the principal doing a call or a home visit— just to check on the kids and see how they were doing.”

For Nia Rashidchi, the “new normal” is full of promise, opportunity, and a future that centers the wellbeing of all kids and families.

“I love this place. I’m in it for the long haul,” she says. “The commitment to do things right for the kids–it’s at a high level of quality and expectations. I’m really proud to be a part of a team that works really hard to make things great for kids.”