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Winners of eSN’s annual superintendent program share their technology advice

superintendent-technologyWhen it comes to school technology, having a plan, and having strong leaders to guide that plan, are two of the most important steps to success, according to the 2014 winners of eSchool News’ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards.

The eight winners of the eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards program, chosen for their commitment to educational technology and teaching and learning, shared their best practices for creating schools that boost student engagement and achievement by leveraging technology tools during a series of webinars sponsored by Lenovo.

From focusing on learning objectives first and devices last, to ensuring access to high-speed wireless internet and digital content, these eight superintendents have valuable advice and tips on what it means to be a tech-savvy superintendent.

(Next page: The eight district leaders share technology advice)

Dr. Dallas Dance, Baltimore County Public Schools (Md.)

Baltimore County Public Schools is in the middle of a digital conversion that will give each student a learning device in the next few years. The district’s Blueprint 2.0, built on the success of former Superintendent Joe Hairston, focuses on helping students to become globally competitive through digital learning environments and the chance to learn a second language–the two major hallmarks of a global education, as decided by educators, stakeholders, and community members.

To learn more about each superintendent’s advice for district technology success, watch Part 1 and Part 2 of our TSSA webinar.

One of the conversion’s biggest components is Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT), which outlines eight different conversion modules.

Also key to the conversion’s success is its emphasis on planning first. “We did not start with the device at all. Out of the 19 months that we’ve been planning, the device only came up in the last four months,” Dance said.

At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, all 173 schools and buildings in the district will have wireless access. An infrastructure upgrade was essential, Dance said, and that necessity was evidenced by the fact that principals were purchasing their own wireless access points for their schools.

Another factor in Baltimore County’s success is the way in which district leaders approached funding. They first went line-by-line to identify potential existing funding sources that could be redirected before asking for additional funding.

Above all, the district’s aim is to leverage technology to personalize education for all students.

“The status quo was just a little bit more dangerous than the unknown,” Dance said.

Dr. Christine Johns, Utica Community Schools (Mich.)

In Utica Community Schools, personalized learning is a key priority.

“We focused on personalizing our curriculum for all students in order to extend learning beyond classroom walls,” Johns said. “We’re really making sure our students are preparing for post-secondary education and that they’re really able to compete at a global level,” Johns said.

The district’s digital learning initiatives include upgrading the wireless infrastructure, revising an ed-tech plan using a research-based framework, implementing an elementary level personalized blended learning model, redesigning secondary school programs, and piloting digital content and assessments.

A middle school design and engineering course lets students explore chemical, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering.

Johns said some keys to success include building leadership capacity at multiple levels, starting with pilots and learning from successes and failures before scaling up, investing in the development of teacher learning, focusing on teaching practices that engage students, spurring innovation by rewarding risk-taking, using data to identify learning needs and personalize interventions, and empowering educators to review and vet digital content and tools.

“This really is an always-on, connected world, and our students need to have access to it,” Johns said.

Dr. Kamela Patton, Collier County Schools (Fla.)

A large part of Collier County’s success in its digital transition has been its focus on professional development, which Patton said accompanies educators every step of the way.

The district, at 2,300 square miles, covers a very large land mass, and it partnered with the county government to manage the cost of installing a district-wide fiber optic network that connects all schools. There are more than 2,000 wireless access points in 50 schools.

Collier County’s BYOD program launched in three phases–in August, 11 schools moved to BYOD, 21 schools adopted the policy in January, and the rest of the district’s schools will move to BYOD in August of 2014. Local company Arthrex donated 280 iPads so that schools would have classroom devices available for students who may not have devices.

“That’s been important, because you can see the increase in student attendance, the decrease in discipline problems, and all because the students are more engaged,” Patton said.

The district is piloting the use of electronic student portfolios in 5 elementary schools and hopes to expand to more grades.

Dr. Steven Webb, Vancouver Public Schools (Wash.)

Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) focuses on time and space–thinking differently about using time, space, and technology to maximize learning potential.

VPS began thinking differently about learning environments in order to make learning more impactful with its weLearn initiative, a one-to-one program that brings powerful learning tools and resources to each district classroom to accelerate student outcomes, Webb said.

“This initiative isn’t about technology; it’s about equipping each of our graduates with the adaptive skills they need to thrive in an interconnected and globally competitive economy,” Webb said. “Transformation takes time and intention–we’ve been very deliberate here.”

VPS is in its sixth year of implementation and is just now scaling its one-to-one throughout the district. Its four initiative phases include outlining a vision for the district, preparing the system, transitioning to implementation, and going to scale.

The district built staff capacity a year in advance of deployment so that professional development was already in place.

Overall district goals are to enhance instructional quality; improve student learning; develop safe, responsible, and productive digital learning; and promote equity of access to 24/7 learning opportunities.

“This is about creating the culture to empower teachers to take informed risks,” Webb said. “Rather than being the first adopter, be the best adopter.”

Dr. Luvelle Brown, Ithaca City School District (N.Y.)

Ithaca City School District leaders identified why they wanted to bring about a digital transformation, and then outlined methods, strategies, and tools. School leaders focus on how they can use those digital tools to change perceptions of teaching and learning.

To learn more about each superintendent’s advice for district technology success, watch Part 1 and Part 2 of our TSSA webinar.

“We want to create a community of 6,000 thinkers…and to do so, we’re going to educate, engage, and empower,” Brown said.

Since the beginning of its efforts, the district has seen its graduation rate increase form 78 percent to more than 90 percent, SAT scores have increased 36 points, attendance is up and discipline issues are down, and enrollment in advanced-level coursework has increased.

All school buildings are equipped with wireless, and the wireless extends to parking lots and playgrounds. A superintendent student advisory council links student opinions and surveys to district leadership. Contemporary learning spaces include workspaces on the floor, stand-up desks, and other non-traditional seating arrangements.

Chi Kim, Ross School District (Calif.)

Working within the existing district budget, Kim’s main charge was to use innovation, differentiation, and communication to effect change within the district.

Leaders increased student engagement and differentiated curriculum by leveraging technology tools and content to increase academic rigor and engagement.

New middle school course offerings include robotics and design courses, 3D animation, movie making, and app creation. Computer programming is embedded into core district content, including a math unit with programming elements for grades 6-8.

Teachers work with technology integration specialists to ensure their instructional methods incorporate technology but focus on student engagement. Professional development is individualized, which Kim said has increased classroom technology integration by 200 percent.

“We have to model for teachers what differentiation looks like,” Kim said, noting that if district leaders expect educators to differentiate their instruction, they themselves must adopt that same practice. “We honor teacher growth and support the technology team.”

Dr. Karen Rue, Northwest Independent School District (Texas)

The district embarked on its digital learning initiative first by examining its infrastructure and identifying what should be available to students.

Rue’s district installed wireless access throughout the district, teachers received laptops, and the district moved to a one-to-one program, first at the secondary level, and then at the elementary level.

During the first year of the rollout, Rue said that while teachers knew how to teach with technology and that though students knew how to use technology, “the work being designed by all of us was not coming across for students–they didn’t see themselves in that work and they weren’t being asked…to demonstrate their learning and collaborate with one another,” she said.

After a series of focus groups and summits, Rue said district leaders restructured their approach to lesson design. They knew that “the intent of lesson design and of student experience has been absolutely transformational,” she said.

For the past several years, students have presented their work and experiences with digital learning in an effort to let the community understand what they are capable of. The first year, 200 students presented, followed by 500 in the second, and this past year, more than 1,000 students demonstrated their digital work and accomplishments.

“It gave our kids a real and authentic platform for showing what they are truly capable of,” Rue said.

George Welsh, Center Consolidated School District (Colo.)

District leaders prioritize broadband connectivity and full wireless coverage to enable student learning, which is especially important and challenging in a rural district.

Center Consolidated began its technology initiative about eight years ago as district leaders started thinking about how district students might prepare for competition in a global world.

First up, Welsh said, was a strong network backbone offering full wireless throughout the district. Technology tools include laptops and iPads, and the district currently is converting to all iPads.

District leaders follow a two-step plan in order to offer robust technology access to students, and Welsh offered the same advice to other districts.

First, “find a way to get your preferred technology into the hands of teachers,” he said. District leaders must be careful not to assume that teachers have technology access outside of school. Establishing a cooperative purchasing plan may be helpful, and offering full support for teachers to become masters of at least one technology medium is key.

Second, “find a way to get your preferred technology into the hands of kids. The only way I can suggest this…if there’s not a lot of excess funding out there…make technology a non-negotiable part of your annual budget,” Welsh said. “We set aside the dollars for instructional technology and we don’t cut into that.”

Starting with small pilots can save money as districts seek to first prove effectiveness before scaling up.

The district’s graduation rate has increased from 33 percent to 93 percent, and post-secondary participation for students two years out of high school rose from 25 percent to 76 percent.

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