Change is never easy—but when you start with a clear vision that focuses on learning outcomes, and you involve all stakeholders in the process, and you model the effective use of technology to accomplish your goals, then transforming the culture of a school district is entirely possible.
That was the message behind a series of webinars in March honoring the winners of the 2013 Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards from eSchool News.
Chosen by the editors of eSchool News with help from last year’s winners, these eight exemplary leaders revealed the keys to their success in a series of webinars hosted by Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce.
A common theme throughout the events was that ed-tech success begins with a clearly articulated vision for how technology can support student-centered instruction.
(Next page: Hear directly from the winners)
“Begin with the end in mind,” said Kevin Baxter, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Elementary Schools in California, who has led a massive ed-tech initiative called the Catholic Communication Collaboration (C3) Pilot.
By that, he meant that K-12 leaders should focus on the learning goals they want to achieve, and develop their ed-tech vision around these.
“We’ve got to be willing to challenge our own assumptions about … how students learn,” Baxter added. “Often, what ends up inhibiting innovation is the thought that, ‘Well, that’s how it worked for me—that’s how it has to work for kids today.’”
Once you have a clear vision, you need to build your district’s capacity to achieve it. This requires bringing all stakeholders into the process.
“Support and buy-in are key,” said Theresa Dunkin, superintendent of the Aptakisic-Tripp Community Consolidated School District 102 in Illinois.
Her district invited members of the community to a series of meetings that created a consensus around the need to integrate the “4Cs” into instruction: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
Lisa Andrejko, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania, earned the support of teachers for the district’s online and blended learning programs by making them “a collaborative part” of these initiatives. As a result, her district has seen a 10-percent reduction of its dropout rate in just one year.
But building capacity goes beyond getting stakeholder buy-in.
“As we integrate technology, we need to have the infrastructure in order to support it,” said David Peterson, superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona. He said adequate bandwidth and wireless coverage are “essential” to ed-tech success.
Casey Wardynski, superintendent of Alabama’s Huntsville City Schools, agreed.
Under Wardynski’s leadership, Huntsville City Schools launched a collaborative, district-wide effort to move toward digital instruction. Textbooks were exchanged for interactive, digital curriculum on laptops and iPads, schools were connected with robust internet networks, and Wi-Fi was installed in school buses and expanded in public areas throughout the city.
Before rolling out the initiative, Huntsville invested about $200 per student on the network infrastructure needed to make the program a success. That amounted to about $5 million, some $3 million of which the district got back in the form of eRate discounts.
Training and support
Building capacity also involves training and supporting staff through ongoing professional development, the superintendents said, and not just one-time workshops. Finding the time for such intensive professional development isn’t easy, they acknowledged—but they shared some of their strategies for making it happen.
Duncan said this requires “maximizing every minute of every day.” Her district gives teachers common planning time and takes advantage of in-service days and release time for further development.
Randy Moczygemba, superintendent of the New Braunfels Independent School District in Texas, said his district has posted short videos to its network, demonstrating what effective teaching and learning using technology looks like. Teachers can watch these videos whenever their schedule allows.
Peterson said his district has converted an old bus into a wireless mobile lab, called the eCoach, that is used to teach both students and educators.
“We now take the training to our teachers,” he said, instead of requiring them to drive to off-site training. The eCoach program has “reduced a lot of … windshield time” and has made training more efficient, he added.
Andrejko said her district encourages teachers to join personal learning networks (PLNs) to continue their professional growth through Twitter and other social media.
Being a professional “involves creating your own personal professional development,” she explained.
In today’s economic climate, the funding to sustain ed-tech programs can be hard to come by. The Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winners discussed how they meet this challenge in their districts as well.
“One of the things we’ve really taken a hard look at is reallocation of resources,” said Andrejko. Rather than looking for new sources of funding, she said, “we’re saying, ‘How can we take what we have and use it in a better way?’” For instance, instead of buying textbooks, her district has allocated some of this money to buy digital devices and content.
Andrejko said “bring your own device” initiatives can help as well: “Where that was so taboo before, … we have to accept it now. Our kids have access to networks all over the world—so why would we not allow that in school?”
Wardynski said district leaders must continually monitor their progress toward ed-tech learning goals, because “you have to be able to justify the change every step of the way.” Demonstrating progress can help convince stakeholders to continue funding your ed-tech initiatives, he noted.
Peterson said he’s using technology to create new efficiencies that have freed up resources in his district. Using print management software is saving his district of 26,000 students more than $20,000 a month on printing costs, “which is pretty significant”—and these are dollars that can be put back into the classroom or other ed-tech initiatives.
Still, Peterson said, “at the end of the day, we have to be up front and say [educational technology] does cost money; it’s not something you can do for free. So, you’ve got to make it a priority” in your budget.
In leading the discussion, Pierce asked the superintendents how they would define a “tech-savvy” school leader. Modeling the use of technology and not pretending to have all the answers were common responses.
Tech-savvy school leaders bring everyone to the table—especially teachers—and “empower them to make change,” said Suzanne Lacey, superintendent of the Talladega County Schools in Alabama, which has overcome a heavy percentage of students living in poverty to personalize instruction for every child with the help of technology.
“It starts with us modeling that behavior,” said David Tebo, who leads Michigan’s Hamilton Community Schools. “I’ve said to all of my staff, ‘I’m learning alongside you.’ If I make a mistake, teachers see that, too, and they know we’re not out to get them—we’re here to help them grow.”
“For me,” Peterson said, “being ‘tech savvy’ means having the courage to know there are a lot of folks out there who are much better and more skilled than me—and giving them the ball and letting them run with it.”