It’s not often that the superintendent of a 29,000-student district leaves her post to head the technology department of another school system. And it’s equally rare for a large, high-profile urban district to appoint a career teacher and administrator with no formal computer education as its technology chief.

But that’s just what happened when Seattle Public Schools tapped Judy Margrath-Huge, superintendent for the past six years at Adams Twelve Five Star Schools in Northglenn, Colo., as its new chief information officer (CIO) in June.

“Being a superintendent was wonderful, but [it] doesn’t mean you always have to be,” Margrath-Huge said. She said the Adams Twelve school board offered to extend her contract, but she welcomed the chance to make a difference with technology instead.

Dick Barkey, the executive director of information technology at Margrath-Huge’s former district, understands her decision to work for the Seattle Public Schools.

“Most of us in similar jobs work with budgets that range from $1.5 million to $5 million,” said Barkey. “To have [$26 million in resources] available would be very attractive, especially for those who think technology adds to the quality of education.”

As CIO, Margrath-Huge will assume responsibility for the district’s technology functions, including its computer systems and support, instructional technology, telecommunications, broadcast studio, and library services.

She’ll also get to spend a $25.9 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Magrath-Huge’s selection as Seattle CIO might signal an upgrade in how school technology managers are coming to be viewed. As school districts continue to boost their investment in learning technologies, the position of technology chief is evolving into an increasingly important role, a role in which political leadership and educational vision count as much as technical savvy.

“To have someone with superintendent skills and superintendent capabilities on our team to lead our information effort is really tremendous,” said Seattle Superintendent Joseph Olchefske.

“Judy’s role is going to be far more than a traditional technology CIO-type position,” Olchefske said. “Her role is to use the power of information technology to really drive school reform and transformation.”

Margrath-Huge’s abilities and skills make her “fluent in the operational areas—like budget and logistics and construction and technology—but also fluent in the instructional and programmatic areas of school reform,” said Olchefske.

She also has a superintendent’s ability to work well with large groups of people, he added.

“I’m not a software engineer by any means, and I couldn’t pull open the back of a computer and rewire it,” Margrath-Huge said. “That’s not the kind of experience I’m bringing to the position.”

Because superintendents are responsible for all facets of education, Margrath-Huge’s background provides a strong foundation for leading the implementation of both technology and reform, Olchefske said.

The opportunity to work in an urban, vibrant district with an unusually large technology budget was very appealing, Margrath-Huge said.

“Seattle Public Schools [are] at a very exciting time right now, implementing student standards and looking at how technology can enhance student learning and administration,” she said.

Margrath-Huge said she plans to use technology to reinvent schooling and instructional media.

“Not only are reinvention of schooling and structural processes important, but you need funding to do it,” she said. “This $26 million [grant] gives us the opportunity to do it much quicker.”

Her primary goal, she said, is to support the district’s vision of increasing student achievement.

“The Gates grant is not about buying hardware or software. It’s about meeting the students’ needs,” Margrath-Huge said. In particular, she wants to invest in technology that will target students who are not being challenged or who are being left behind.

Her other goals include merging the information systems team with the information technology team, implementing a new student information system, and having a say in the school’s reform agenda.

She also said she wants to coordinate technology activities into grade-level benchmarks and make those activities easily accessible to teachers.

Although she’ll have lots of money to spend, Margrath-Huge anticipates some challenges in her new position.

“There is an achievement gap in Seattle Public Schools,” she said. “All ethnic groups’ and gender groups’ scores are increasing, but there is still a gap in the scores.”

She also has to figure out how to address the various levels of technology in the district’s schools—and teachers’ disparate abilities to use it.

“Not all the schools have been wired,” she said. “We have different levels of needs. Some people are way farther ahead than others.”

The successful implementation of meaningful technology in the Seattle schools will require thoughtful planning, Margrath-Huge said.

“We need to keep this whole use of technology in perspective,” she said. “The goal isn’t to increase technology. The goal is to use technology to increase student achievement.”

Links:

Seattle Public Schools
http://www.seattleschools.org

Adams Twelve Five Star Schools
http://www.ad12.k12.co.us