Superintendent Darryl Adams has turned a poor, rural district into a hotbed of innovation

profiles in visionFew superintendents can claim to have met personally with President Obama. Fewer still can claim they toured the country opening for Hall and Oates in the 1980’s. But Dr. Darryl Adams, of Coachella Valley Unified School District, isn’t your typical superintendent.

“I’ve always had a knack for making the impossible possible,” remarks Adams. In 1984, he was in the first all-black rock band in heavy rotation on MTV and had a hit song on the radio. After 8 years of touring with his band, he decided to teach his love of music, and became a music teacher at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Soon after that, he became a principal, and then got his doctorate, which led him to his current position at Coachella.

“As the leader of my band, I developed the ability to make things happen and serve people,” remarks Adams. “I’ve always been on the side of trying new things, exploring new ideas, continuously improving whatever is good, and never accepting the status quo. And this quality is as important for education as it was for music.”

CVUSD is one of the poorest districts in California. One hundred percent of its students are on reduced lunch. There are high populations of undocumented students, and students living on Native American tribal lands.  When Adams stepped in as Superintendent in 2010, one of his first goals was to show the community that regardless of their socio-economic status, the district can provide to them a 21st Century education that fully prepares their students for college, careers and citizenship.

(Next page: How CVUSD is bringing internet to every student without breaking the bank)

“One of the most important statistics that I saw when I began working here was that only 60% of our students who went on to college actually graduated with a diploma,” explains Adams. “They earned their high school diploma, but they weren’t being prepared for college. We want to prepare them for the three C’s so they can have a better life. But in order to do so, we had to transform the system in a bold way.”

In November 2012, Adams and his team brought the community together to approve Measure X, a technology bond that funds a pre-K-12 one-to-one iPad program. “We did a huge campaign to present this technology bond before the community,” explains Adams. “We showed them the benefits of using these devices, and we said we can do this, but you’ve got to vote for it, and you’ve got to be willing to tax yourself to do it. You can’t wait for the state or federal governments to provide this opportunity to our students. You’ve got to take your future into your own hands.”

The measure passed with sixty-percent of the vote and the one-to-one initiative rolled out with built-in buy-in from the community, the unions, the students and the local politicians.

The main challenge to the initiative’s success has been connectivity, both in regards to the district’s broadband network and in regards to getting affordable internet plans for the students’ homes. To that end, Adams was recently recognized for his efforts and invited to Washington for an event, called ConnectED to the Future, centered around improving student access to high speed internet, where he met with both Arne Duncan and the President as part of a select cotillion of superintendents from around the country. During the President’s speech, Coachella Valley was even highlighted for its commitment to providing students with digital access.

“We’ve promised the students and the parents 24/7 learning in a 21st Century teaching and learning environment,” explains Adams. “24/7 access is a critical issue, because if you don’t eliminate that digital divide, that gap between the students whose families can afford a connection and those whose families can’t will continue to grow.”

At the start of the initiative, in 2012, he district shared a 3GB broadband connection with two other districts in the county, which connects through a third party ISP to the node, meaning their network was quickly overloaded with 18,000 student devices, 800 teacher devices, computer labs and administrative systems connected to the network, which spans 23 school sites. The network has since been upgraded to provide 3GB—still not anywhere near the recommended 1GB per 1,000 devices.

(Next page: Turning school buses into wi-fi hotspots)

The district is working with the county to install equipment to bring their capacity up to 10GB, and in the process of doing so, Adams has begun exploring the idea of the district becoming its own Internet Service Provider, through a process called self-provisioning, taking connectivity for the entire community out of the hands of third party service providers like Time Warner and Comcast.

“If a third party service provider can provide a low-cost option for my community, I’m willing to work with them,” explains Adams. “But the goal is 24/7 access, and we need to find a way to provide that not only at my district, but across the state and the nation.”

It’s the issue of connectivity that best demonstrates Adams’ knack for making the impossible possible. While Adams works to get approval from the state and the FCC to light up existing dark fiber, which is unused fiber run by electrical or gas utilities, and connect directly to the state network, he is also in contact with the FTC, advocating for the approval to use E-rate money to buy connectivity for students’ homes.

In October 2014, the district put their first Wi-Fi equipped bus in service, allowing students to stay connected during their 40-60 minute bus ride. The districts full fleet of 100 buses will be equipped with Wi-Fi over the next 12 months. In addition to providing connectivity on the road, the busses will be parked in trailer home parks that currently lack an internet connection, providing 24/7 access for students who live in those locations. The program was one of the ones singled out in President Obama’s ConnectED speech.

“This is really smart,” Obama said. “You’ve got underutilized resources—buses in the evening—so you put the routers on, disperse them, and suddenly everybody is connected,” Obama said during the speech. “Now it’s not just students that can get online. It’s their families as well.”

Adams described the remarks as “humbling,” but it’s all part of a larger vision he’s working to realize. “Technology plays a huge role in my vision, and if you’re not going to give me what I need for my kids,” remarks Adams, “I’m going to do it myself. I am not going to deny them their education. My job as a leader is to open the doors that allow the experts on my team do what needs to get done in order to make 24/7 connectivity a reality for our students.”

Jennifer Welch is a contributing writer for eSchool News.