The Problem with ‘Learning Loss’ Part II: My Conversation with Jessica Calabrese-Granger, Chief of School Improvement in Renton, Washington

“Discipline is an outcome; engagement is an opportunity.” -Jessica Calabrese-Granger

In my last post at the close of the 2020/21 school year, I shared my conversation about ‘learning loss’ with Regina Elmi of the organization Supporting Partnerships in Education and Beyond (SPEB). We discussed that while much of the collective conversation in education was on the topic of ‘learning loss’, there have been unexpected gifts of distance learning – time with family, the chance for kids to focus and go deeper on a passion, closer sibling relationships, and authentic bonds between classroom teachers, and students and families. Regina’s experience reinforced that education must be centered around student experience and shaped by their specific context, like their family life.

About that same time, I had another Zoom conversation, this time with Chief of School Improvement for the Renton School District, Jessica Calabrese-Granger, to get a take from school leaders and teachers. Was learning loss weighing on them? Or something else?

Jessica squeezed our meeting between end-of-year reflection conversations with staff. As exhausted as they were, school leaders were also inspired – by the creativity, determination, and dedication of educators to respond to kids, to meet them where they are, and to connect in deep ways with families. They felt a huge sense of mission to capture all their learnings from the year. Jessica and Regina voiced the same thing – Let’s not let the moment pass. Let’s use all we’ve learned and put those lessons to work. To do that, Jessica believes the most important ingredient is attitude seeing strengths and building on them.

Strengths in the students. In the educators. In families. Jessica and her colleagues took stock – was their culture strengths-based? Do we trust our teachers? Is the administration open to new ideas that may look different from what’s always been done before? And lastly, are we prioritizing engagement?

What is engagement?

Zoom classrooms revealed something very important that we need to remember as we return to in-person school. Just because an educator is in front of a classroom teaching students who are sitting quietly in their chairs, students are not necessarily engaged. During distance learning, educators faced a patchwork of black boxes on their computer screens. Were their students there? Were they engaged?

Sound Discipline partner schools wrestled with this question. One educator our team worked with needed help supporting a student who was often late to log in and not doing his work. Knowing that this student and his father were dealing with housing insecurity, the educator worked with our facilitators to design a response. The teacher began meeting one-on-one with the student twice weekly and encouraged him to invite a friend. Working with his teacher, he came up with the idea of leading a learning unit with his whole class. Within a month, things changed. He began showing up consistently and engaged, practicing new social emotional skills, and taking leadership in his classroom. He told his teacher he felt like he belonged.

Other classroom teachers worked with our facilitators to use Zoom tools and the spirit of play to foster a culture of choice and community participation – instead of threatening punishment for students who did not turn on their cameras.

For Jessica and her team, this is a game changer. “Compliance is not a substitute for engagement,” Jessica says. Since engagement is difficult to measure, we end up focusing on discipline; What is the student’s attendance rate? Are they sitting quietly in class? Are they getting distracted? Jessica says, “Discipline is an outcome, engagement is an opportunity.”

The problem with data like attendance is that it exists outside of context. Attendance is affected by a wide variety of factors. For example, children living in poverty are 2-3 times more likely to be chronically absent. Discipline data is notoriously affected by situations, race, disability, and more factors. By tracking engagement through a compliance lens, we are missing what matters; how to address the needs of the entire student.

So what now?

The pandemic has changed our notion of engagement. If students weren’t showing up, the investigation went much deeper than it had before. Teachers started to understand the student as a person, building relationships with their families, and grasping context they never would have gotten with in-classroom instruction. Teachers began working with parents to solve problems to address their student’s need — together.

Students, possibly for the first time, could engage in myriad ways. They could have their video on or off, they could participate in the chat, or they could be in a co-working document with their fellow students. Engagement went from, “are students listening quietly in class” to “do I have a relationship with this student?”

This benefit was particularly pronounced for the student population Jessica always worries about; the quietly failing kids.

“The kids who are screaming and running down the hall get our attention. The compliant kid who is quietly failing doesn’t,” Jessica says. But distance learning flipped educators’ positional authority on its head and gave students more power. If they didn’t want to turn on their video, educators couldn’t force them to. Compliant students who previously could fly under the radar were now getting critical one-on-one attention and learning ways to engage that weren’t available in the classroom.

“Listening isn’t the only way for students to demonstrate engagement anymore,” Jessica says.

Flipping the script of compliance

One of the greatest shifts Jessica saw in her schools was this flipping of the script on compliance and engagement. By focusing on the student’s situation first, as opposed to discipline data with no context, her schools could start with solutions instead of problems. Families could become partners in solutions, as opposed to being viewed as challenges that needed to be overcome.

Jessica is working with a group of  students, guardians and educators in her district to reimagine student engagement, starting with the student. This group asked these essential questions:

  • If we took advantage of this past year as an opportunity to reflect, grow and adjust, what would we want to be true for students and families at the end?
  • How do we assess impacts, prioritize needs, and implement practices that increase the equitability of experiences and outcomes for students?
  • How do we respond in ways that avoid unintentionally perpetuating inequitable outcomes for BIPOC students?

She shared an image they are using to illustrate how students must be the beginning of all their conversations.



There does seem to be a collective consciousness about the COVID-19 pandemic and how students need to be at the center during a crisis. But when that crisis ends, how do we maintain that structure? How do schools truly shift their practices to start with the child?

We want to share your stories about how educators are integrating these lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic into their classroom, and how school leaders are centering engagement. Watch this space!

Andrea John-Smith is the Executive Director of Sound Discipline



Sound Discipline is working for a world where children know they belong and can learn and thrive.

We partner with educators, organizations, and families to transform schools into equitable learning communities.

We bring together science-based, trauma-informed, restorative, and Positive Discipline practices to facilitate change in the ways adults see and respond to students.

Courageous Educators:
We facilitate school leaders and educators to build classroom communities and model an inclusive culture school-wide that promotes student agency and well-being.

Equitable School Systems:
We coach administrators and educators to use data to identify and implement solutions that address damaging systemic patterns of inequity that target Black and brown students.

Connected Families:
We train and coach families and caregivers in a child’s life to apply solution-oriented practices that instill critical social emotional life skills.