Leadership, persistence, and the importance of civics education were the prevailing themes as thousands of superintendents and other top-level school administrators convened in New Orleans March 1-4 for the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education.

The event, which celebrated its 139th year, aims to establish a “community of learning,” where the nation’s school district executives meet to network, share best practices in leadership, explore the latest in school technology solutions, and discuss the best ways to drive change throughout their institutions. Toward that end, several speakers addressed this year’s attendees–none more prominent than former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who stressed the importance of civics instruction and said she’s launching a new web site for that very purpose.

Much as the city of New Orleans showed resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, conference speakers said, effective school leaders must find a way to “weather the storm” in education, reaching out to and engaging students at all costs.

“As teachers, as educators, we know something about getting knocked down … about battling storms,” said AASA President Eugene White. No matter the challenges, declared White, “we need to stand up for public education.”

O’Connor echoed this point during her opening keynote speech. After stepping down from the bench in 2005, O’Connor–the first woman ever to serve on the High Court–has committed much of her time to lobbying for the improvement of public education.

In honor of her achievements on and off the bench, AASA granted O’Connor its American Education Award. Joining the likes of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, journalist Walter Cronkite, writer Jonathon Kozol, and others, O’Connor accepted the honor by encouraging the nation’s school leaders to exert their influence and embrace innovation in efforts to improve the quality of education in the nation’s schools.

Specifically, O’Connor spoke of a need for better civics instruction in classrooms. Where federal mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act have prompted schools to pay close attention to important disciplines such as literacy and mathematics, and an emphasis on global competitiveness has many educators pushing for more exposure to science and engineering-related subjects, there is little incentive these days for schools to teach history and government-related courses, she said.

It’s a reality that O’Connor says she finds troubling. “It’s imperative if we are going to survive as a nation that our schools teach civics,” the former justice told attendees on the opening day of the conference. To run a democracy effectively, she said, tomorrow’s leaders must have a firm grasp of how government functions–and that takes education and experience.

“Knowledge and understanding about our system of government is not something that’s handed down in a genetic pool,” observed O’Connor. “You have to learn it.”

Unfortunately, she said, throwing textbooks at students is anything but a solution. In an age when technology bleeds into all that students see and do, O’Connor challenged educators to find new and innovative ways of engaging learners, taking the resources children use in their daily lives and leveraging them in the classroom.

“I think that how we teach these things is very important,” explained O’Connor, who said she was appalled at the results of a recent survey that found more students could identify the names of the “Three Stooges” than could name the three branches of government. As part of her campaign to improve civics instruction in the nation’s schools, O’Connor said she is currently developing an educational web site that would let students act as virtual lawyers, trying cases and exploring what it’s like to work as part of the federal judiciary. If the project takes off, she said, the idea eventually would be to create similar programs for the other two branches of government, providing teachers with access to a free online tool for improving the quality of civics instruction in their schools.

Technology can help, she said, but it’s also important for schools to gives students firsthand experience in these fields, whether through school-sponsored mock-trial teams or the creation of actual amateur court systems, where youthful offenders agree to have their cases heard and judged by a jury of their peers.

“We are born free, but liberty is something we have to learn,” said O’Connor, who concluded: “It all comes down to education.”

News from the exhibit hall

More than 70 networking sessions and 300 exhibits showcasing the latest educational products, tools, and services, AASA was about much more than simply calling for change. For educators who found their way onto the show floor, it also was about finding the right solutions to achieve results. School safety seemed to be a prevalent theme; here’s a look at some of what this year’s exhibit hall had to offer.

ADT Education Solutions demonstrated its suite of customizable electronic security solutions for the education market. Options include building access controls, intrusion detection systems, video surveillance tools, panic buttons, intercoms, and fire alarms. ADT says it has a range of solutions designed to help schools tackle a variety of security problems, including weapons, gang violence, vandalism and graffiti, drugs and alcohol, fire and life safety, and unauthorized access or trespassing.

AlertNow, a provider of emergency and communications outreach services for schools, said its AlertNow product is being deployed in the 4,700-student Union County School District in South Carolina. The company says its “rapid communication service” enables schools across the U.S. to deliver “tens of thousands” of voice or text-based messages to telephones and other devices in “mere minutes.” Company executives say the web-based service can be used to reach out to parents in the event of an emergency, increase parental involvement in education, boost student accountability and attendance, and bridge language barriers between faculty and parents.

Altair Learning Management introduced the IQity Learning Suite for grades 9-12. This online learning solution provides access to an environment called IQity Liveboard, where students can interact in real time with teachers using videocasting and live, online interactive whiteboards; a full online curriculum; a practice test and study guide to help students pass high-stakes exams; and an online monitoring feature that lets teachers track student progress. Each topic combines standards-based lessons and instruction with rich multimedia and graphics for a more interactive and engaging experience, the company said.

AnComm demonstrated its encrypted web-based messaging service. Students can log on to the service from anywhere they have internet access and send messages to faculty and other stakeholders to discuss personal issues or other problems that might threaten their safety or that of their classmates. Topics that have been discussed through this anonymous communications network include abuse, bullying, depression, dropouts, drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, runaways, sexual harassment, suicide, and violence. AnComm executives say the tool gives students and teachers a secure, dedicated venue to seek help for issues they might not want to talk about in person.

Apangea Learning, a provider of web-based and one-on-one supplemental tutoring instruction for students, demonstrated its SmartHelp tutoring tool. The product, which was a finalist for the Software & Information Industry Association’s 2007 Codie Awards, provides differentiated instruction for each student–struggling and advanced–depending on need. Electronic drill-and-practice features are combined with online quizzes, assessments, and an online help tool that enables students to seek live assistance from a team of certified educators. Company executives said the latest version of the product contains a unique “life-meter.” Built to resemble the life-meters used in traditional video games, the feature helps students decide when to seek additional help and when to work the problem out on their own. If students seek help too many times, Apangea says, the program will force them to retake the lesson.

Lutron Electronics, a maker of customizable in-class lighting systems for schools, demonstrated its latest line of overhead lighting solutions. The company says the fixtures, which can be controlled by a touch-screen panel installed in the classroom and adjusted using a personal digital assistant, can significantly cut energy costs by helping schools reduce their use of electrical power. Apart from saving schools money, however, Lutron says it has evidence to suggest that customizable lighting solutions–products that give teachers more control over the learning environment–contribute to stronger student engagement and accelerate learning.

Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), an Oregon-based nonprofit, highlighted its suite of resources intended to help schools better gauge student achievement over time. Rather than simply provide schools with a tool to collect data, NWEA co-founder and Chief Academic Officer Allan Olson says his organization looks to partner with schools and districts to help them use data more effectively to improve student achievement. The organization provides a research-based model that Olson says enables teachers to place students on the appropriate “learning path,” based on their individual needs, and enables administrators to chart a course for each student and align students’ progress with state and federal goals.