This article is part of a series where the Paper team connects with leaders in education to highlight different experiences and perspectives on the changing realities of education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Note: This article is based on an interview conducted in early April, and is centred around the final weeks of the school year. To read more from the leadership at SaMoHi about more recent developments since then, click here.


In Santa Monica, the community’s response to recent challenges is brimming with helpful acts – educators, parents, students, and local business owners are all finding ways to adjust to the new normal. To learn more, the Paper team reached out to Dr. Antonio Shelton, principal of Santa Monica High School. He talked to us about everything from his flooded email inbox, how a local Chick-fil-A is giving back to his school, and how distance learning made for a different type of senioritis in his 12th graders.

Dr. Antonio Shelton

Dr. Antonio Shelton has been the proud principal of Santa Monica High School (SaMo) for four years. He has a background in History and Educational Leadership, and before joining SaMo, he was a teacher, an assistant principal, and a principal in high schools in Ohio.

Everybody is in front of a computer

When asked about how he was handling the unexpected changes in his responsibilities, Dr. Antonio summed up his current situation by saying: “You have everybody in front of a computer.” This wasn’t a reference to his school handing out Chromebooks to every student (they already did that last year), but to the fact that the transition to online learning has led to more questions and concerns from community members in his email inbox that he can keep up with. These days, every hour he steps away from his computer, Dr. Antonio comes back to 60 emails.

Principals are already known to spend most days on their feet, managing different people and responsibilities. With the added need to coordinate distance learning, their plates have only gotten fuller: “I still have my site leadership team meeting every week, I still have my construction project meetings, department meetings, PTSA meetings – all these things are still happening.” Despite this, he empathizes with the concerned parents approaching him in greater volumes.

“I want to answer everybody I can, but a lot of times it seems to them that I am the only one that has the answer. And that's not true, because you can look at the website or contact other school staff, but I understand that there’s comfort for them in contacting me. Sometimes your comfort is the person you know,” he said.

Leading from a distance

The events that led up to school closure were nothing if not frantic. “That Thursday evening that we knew we were going to be off on the following Friday. So we started off with professional development in five groups of about thirty-five teachers in each.” he said. “We also sent out an email to students so they could come pick up their books, instruments and Chromebooks if they left them in their locker, so that they would have what they need at home. I then sent out an email on what things would look like starting on Monday.” he added.

After weeks of meetings, trainings, and check-ins with district and site leadership teams regarding all aspects of distance learning (getting students connected, instructional materials, PDs), they came up with their current system of block days. “As we get overwhelmed, so could our kids during this time. So we wanted to send weekly schedules to let students know that on Monday, you will have English, or Math. On Tuesday, you will have Social Studies, or another subject. So, two days a week, they focus on a specific subject and that's it.” Having the students anticipate and plan for schedules ahead of time was a priority for his leadership team, as they know the benefits that order and structure can have during this time. “We want our kids to understand balance,” he said. The efforts in creating balance go beyond instruction, too. There is a range of Mental Health Resources on SaMo’s website to support students and families navigating the effects of school closure.

There are other considerations they had to make too. Dr. Antonio described how in a recent PTSA meeting, he brought up the need to help food banks and increase aid for undocumented families that are not going to receive the same stimulus checks that documented folks are going to receive: “Not everybody has everything that they need.”

Earlier this year, the Paper Team had met with Superintendent Dr. Drati of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD). We told Dr. Antonio about how Dr. Drati struck us as an equity-first leader and asked him how his district leadership team is looking at equity with the sudden shift to distance learning.

“It’s the first thing that you have to look at. 36-38% of our students are on free and reduced lunch. We started looking at that, taking into consideration who has what and who doesn’t,” he described. Once they figured out how to deliver essential services such as meals and hotspots, the next matter of equity was grading. Most schools and districts have their own reasons for the various grading policies they’re adopting during closures, and at SaMo, Dr. Antonio’s team is continuing to give out letter grades:

“During all this, some [schools] are doing pass-fail, but we feel like our kids are working hard, therefore we should give them a grade.”

That being said, Dr. Antonio explained that they’re making sure that handing out grades to students doesn't do more harm than good: “We don’t want to negatively impact students with our plan, saying, okay you don't have internet access, so you don't get the grades that you deserve.” He outlined how his team is making sure to design their plan in a way that academic performance (especially of high-needs students) doesn’t drop so far down that these students can’t recover. Some of the ways they’re doing this are by handing out more resources as needed, checking in with students regularly, and keeping their personal circumstances in mind when accepting submitted work.

Every day is a different day

Despite the weeks of social distancing, Dr. Antonio explained that in many significant ways, his community is only getting closer. “For me, I think the biggest thing that I have seen is an appreciation for people, for being around them, no matter what it is you’re doing. You know, I never thought I'd say I'm missing in-person meetings, but now I can say, yes, I do miss in-person meetings,” he joked.

He went on to give a few instances of heartwarming and helpful acts he’s seen around him. Three days a week, the local Chick-fil-A owners, who have partnered with SaMo, give a hundred sandwiches to give to anyone that shows up between 11:00 AM and 12:30 PM. “They help us to provide a bit of that support to everyone that comes and we’re appreciative of that. As the owner said, your kids support our place every day, so why would we not support them during this difficult time?”

Dr. Antonio’s district strives to instill a sense of equity in its students, and he proudly explained how they are responding to the crisis in their community.

“Our kids are trying to raise money on GoFundMe pages, to buy masks for those in need, and collecting donations for the hospital. They’re also supporting food banks by buying and purchasing items for those community members that don't have the means,” he added.

The students at the high school are figuring out how to help each other, too: “They’re saying, I need to help reach out to this classmate or that classmate, because they may need help. Our kids are figuring out how to tutor other kids by using online tech.”

Similarly, the campus staff is getting closer in the face of adversity. “We have four hundred and three people on our campus that work in some capacity to support students, and they’re starting to collaborate like never before. We’re sending tips to them, and they're sending tips to each other,” he said.

Dr. Antonio is also seeing his teachers be flexible in ways that he didn’t think were possible. As they try to support their students through this process, they’re also dealing with technology that they may not be as familiar with: “There’s a lot coming at them, but I tell you, they have stepped up in many ways. Getting online has brought out a lot of creativity from our teachers.” To summarize all that he’s observed in the last few weeks, he said:

“Every day is a different day. We haven’t had the same day at all. But that’s the interesting part.”


Looking forward

Dr. Antonio knows these unprecedented changes in teaching and learning are going to have lasting impacts when SaMo reopens. Teachers that may not have tried technology before the pandemic are going to come back with newfound confidence and receptivity to innovation in instruction. “They’re going to trust this process more moving forward because they're going to see the benefits of it. They will either continue using Google platforms like we are now, or they’re going to come to me and say, ‘Hey, can you buy some other program to support what’s going on?’ And hey, I'm open,” he said.

With regard to his students, Dr. Antonio remains just as optimistic. He draws attention to the fact that students are learning how to deal with something very different from what they’re used to: “At first a lot of students were like, I couldn’t do this, I can’t do that. But now, in the midst of all that’s happening, you’re figuring out how to be creative in a mess.” For instance, Dr. Antonio recalled how their music department got together and gave the students an opportunity to play their instruments to the school song via Zoom, not just to share with their peers while also being able to receive a grade for their music class.

Lastly, Dr. Antonio talked about a yearbook letter he had recently written for his senior students. Students who are missing out on doing things one traditionally does in their senior year:

“Right now they’re supposed to be having senioritis – you know, you’re not supposed to want to do work, but you go to school every day to see your friends!”

With that being said, he thinks the best part about this whole situation is that it will lead to character growth:

“Class of 2020 is going to be a resilient group of people. As I told them, this too shall pass. And in the end, we are going to make sure they meet their graduation requirements, have their prom, all that. We’re gonna figure it out.”

Note: They sure did.