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New superintendent faces challenges in the COVID-19 era of education

Wayne-Westland Superintendent Dr. John Dignan

By Carolyn Marnon – Wayne-Westland Community Sc-hools got a new superintendent in July, taking over from Jill Simmons who had been Acting Superintendent after the resignation of former superintendent Dr. Shelley Holt.
Dr. John Dignan grew up in Ypsilanti. His father had friends who taught in the Wayne-Westland district, so Dr. Dignan knew that the people here were hardworking, blue-collar people. This is what drew him to apply for the superintendent position more than anything else. There is so much potential in the school district he says. The challenge will be getting everyone working in the same direction.
Since starting, Dr. Dignan’s days have been fast-paced. Much of what he has done has been dictated by COVID-19 and the transfer of education from in-person classrooms to virtual learning. “It’s been a whirlwind, to say the least.” He speaks highly of the people who have helped with the transition saying “they wear their heart on their sleeve.” He’s been working with the various departments, collaborating with others, and relying on district employees to help get through the adversity thrown their way. He has found that everyone has rolled up their sleeves and come closer together because of this.
These educational times are unique. When the schools closed March 13, everyone thought it would last a couple weeks, maybe through Easter. The district was forced to go virtual at the time, something no one was prepared for. Dr. Dignan calls it “emergency learning.” He goes on to say, “You can’t compare anything to it.” He does foresee virtual education more mainstream five years or so down the line. COVID-19 has just sped everything up.
Virtual learning is intentional now. It will become another tool the district can draw on when students come back to in-person learning. He sees the current situation as one where they are creating 21st century learners through an online platform where they are now having to work out the kinks.

Wayne-Westland Superintendent Dr. John Dignan helps out during the district distribution of Chromebooks to students.

Teachers are working off the Google platform. He credits Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Instruction and Assessment Jennifer Curry and her assistants with running a summer camp for the teachers. Dr. Dignan made sure she had everything she needed, including the support of the tech department, to get everyone up and running on the platform.
“I think teachers are going to amaze themselves,” he says. Teachers amaze him. He says they find the best ways to serve the needs of their students.
In the opening days of school, Dr. Dignan had praise for the success of the food distribution program set up at all buildings for students to receive breakfasts and lunches. He praised Communications Director Jenny Johnson for creating messages consistently that keep families in the loop on what is happening in the district. He was pleased that the technology and special education forums held online were well-attended. The district also has a Return to Learn area on the website that answers questions parents might have. He’s also pleased how everyone has come together to do what is best for the staff.
The first challenge that Dr. Dignan has had in his new position is getting to know the community. “I like to meet with groups of people,” he says. He’s not able to do that at this time. When he interviewed for the job, he mentioned getting out into the community to meet parents, business owners and other stakeholders in the community by attending various events. Many of those events have not taken place due to social distancing mandates.
The second major challenge for Dr. Dignan has been the sped-up learning curve for virtual education. He has had to learn much more more quickly than he would have with a “normal” school year start.
As each day passes, he learns that you have to depend on other people and trust them as professionals to do their job and to know that it’s okay if there are failures. “People are scared to fail,” he says, “but that’s how we learn.” It’s okay to make mistakes. Just own your mistake and move on.
As the first term came to an end on October 24, Dr. Dignan was analyzing the COVID-19 situation and how it would be affecting the health and safety of students and staff. “When we return in person, it will have strengthened the whole process.”
He would like for students to learn in-person as soon as possible, but with the pandemic, the safety and well-being of staff and children is the number one priority.
Be patient and flexible, Dr. Dignan asks of the community. Provide honest feedback, but please be positive or provide constructive criticism.
No one knows what the future will hold for our community, but if we all work together for our students and staff, we will overcome what will eventually become a temporary blip on the field of education.

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