Two high-profile superintendents from Washington state have announced they will resign their posts to take jobs with technology-related firms. Their departures–announced within a week of each other–highlight an issue of increasing importance to school districts: How to recruit and retain tech-savvy leaders in the era of the eSchool.

Mark Mitrovich, superintendent of Peninsula School District, and Tom Vander Ark, chief of nearby Federal Way School District, are counting down their last days as public school officials, though both will remain close to the education arena in their new positions.

Mitrovich will become a vice president for Copernicus Interactive, a leading K-12 educational gateway to the internet that the school district helped launch two years ago. And Vander Ark has been named executive director of the Gates Education Initiative, an off-shoot of the Gates Learning Foundation.

“After 30 years, it was time to look for a change,” said Mitrovich, who began his career in education as a high school teacher in 1969.

Tech champions

Though the two come from different backgrounds–Mitrovich a career educator, Vander Ark originally tapped from the corporate sector–the colleagues have at least one thing in common: Both have been recognized as champions for technology integration in their districts.

In fact, Mitrovich recruited Vander Ark and a handful of other Washington state school officials to help pilot the Anytime, Anywhere Learning laptop initiative. Launched in 1996 with the help of Microsoft and Toshiba, the program put laptop computers into the hands of students and teachers.

“Tom was the first person I called,” said Mitrovich, referring to his colleague as a “kindred spirit.”

The Anytime, Anywhere program has since spread to school districts across the country.

Talking of his accomplishments in the area of technology, Mitrovich–who was state Superintendent of the Year in 1997–said it’s not about how many computers you have or how advanced they are, “it’s the myriad of examples of what they do for student learning.”

At Copernicus, Mitrovich will continue to try to bridge the gap between technology and the instructional process.

Copernicus, an independent subsidiary of Stream Technology Group of Greensboro, N.C., actually owes a lot to Mitrovich and the Peninsula School District. Behind Mitrovich’s leadership, the district sought the help of Stream to compliment its laptop learning initiative.

“The problem is there’s so much out there (on the internet),” he said, “but how do you target it?”

Copernicus is an internet gateway to a wide range of free educational resources and community channels, hosted by the likes of USA Today and Encyclopedia Britannica, among others. School districts also can get services tailored to meet their local needs, though this customization comes with a fee.

Mitrovich’s first order of business with his new employer will be to oversee the completion of the Copernicus curriculum matrix, which offers teachers access to lesson plans, web resources, and activities that are correlated to state educational standards, essential learning objectives, and grade level performance indicators.

The build-out of the curriculum matrix is scheduled for completion by September. After that, Mitrovich will set his sights on two other projects, one a “sophisticated virtual classroom” for delivering instruction online, the other an eCommerce application that would help create a revenue stream for school districts.

Gates Education Initiative

Vander Ark, meanwhile, will be leading the charge for the Gates Education Initiative, a new program of the Gates Learning Foundation (formerly the Gates Library Foundation), one of two philanthropic ventures launched by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda.

The Gates Education Initiative will build on two existing Washington state projects: the Teacher Leadership Project, which provides equipment and technology training for teachers, and the Smart Tools Academy, a partnership between the foundation, the Technology Alliance, and the University of Washington that aims to bring training to K-12 administrators.

“Tom will bring an exciting blend of educational leadership and innovation to theFoundation,” said Patty Stonesifer, Gates Learning Foundation president. “Tom will design, staff, and execute the Gates Education Initiative, and his expertise will continue to benefit students in this new role.”

Vander Ark landed in Federal Way in 1994. He was the first superintendent in the state of Washington to be plucked from the corporate sector.

Since Vander Ark joined Federal Way, the district has been recognized for innovative advancements in instructional technology and has recently installed a high-speed network, established technology skill benchmarks for students, and actively trained teachers in classroom applications. Federal Way’s “Internet Academy” is nationally recognized as a leader in comprehensive web-based learning.

“Schools today face the challenge of helping an increasingly diverse group of students reach high academic standards,” said Vander Ark. “Though it is hard for me to leave the talented and dedicated school board, administrators, teachers, and students of Federal Way, I remain committed to the success of students in Federal Way through the work of the Gates Learning Foundation.”

Copernicus Interactive

Copernicus K-12 homepage

Federal Way School District


Gates Education Initiative

Peninsula School District