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A superintendent explains how she navigated a district tech transformation for her classrooms (and teachers) without breaking the bank.

How to direct a districtwide tech transformation on a budget

A superintendent explains how she brought her classrooms (and teachers) into the future without breaking the bank

Key points:

Irvington Public Schools is an urban district with the hometown feeling of a place where everyone knows each other. Our student body is predominantly Black, but we are quite diverse and have many cultures represented among our students. Approximately 20 percent of our scholars speak English as a second language.

I have been with the district for 20 years, though I didn’t become the superintendent until April 2020. When I came into the office, I had a tech-focused vision for the future of our district, but the pandemic was beginning to force us to move in that direction anyway, albeit without the careful consideration and planning we would have preferred. I gave our technology department marching orders to get every student and every teacher on a Chromebook and trained in the Google Suite within two weeks. It was immensely stressful for them, but they got it done and we haven’t looked back.

Here’s how we brought our district into the future without breaking our budget.

Beginning a technological evolution

When I first became an administrator in the 2013-14 school year, I started a coding initiative. I believed technology would be powerful for our scholars and I wanted everyone to have access to it, but only one student in the entire school signed up for the program.

Fast forward 10 years, and now thousands of scholars in our district are learning to code in elementary school using engaging, hands-on tools like Ozobots, Lego Spike, and VR Labs–and that’s just where their tech journeys begin.

We also have Chromebooks for every student and 3D printers and interactive whiteboards in our classrooms. We even bought virtual reality headsets that allow our scholars to visit places they might never see otherwise, a powerful way to bring cross-curricular learning to life for students. One thing I appreciate about the headsets is that they really highlight the belief that technology does not have to exist in its own standalone class, or even be the main point of any activity it’s used in. Sometimes it’s just a way to excite students, to immerse them in a different perspective or experience than they might otherwise have access to.

Our tech director, John Amberg, does an excellent job staying on the cutting edge of technology and finding ways to share it with our students. Not only did he help launch our first STEAM academy, he was instrumental in putting together our first AI community summit, and we are now preparing to open an AI academy.

Finding the funding (and partners) for a tech makeover

In order to fund these exciting initiatives, we have been able to leverage state and federal funds–specifically, ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds–and have secured various grants. We can (and will!) always hope for more funding. Regardless, our goal is to ensure that our scholars are exposed to what’s happening in the world, whether that’s new AI tools or Elon Musk’s new project. To that end, we have a department called Government Programs that seeks out and applies for grants, and we direct a certain amount of each school’s funding toward technology.

We spent time and resources to conduct research prior to making decisions, which has proven to be a sound investment. Part of that research is looking at what other districts do and reaching out to their leadership when I see something I admire. I’m part of several different superintendents’ groups, but I belong to one core group in which we share everything we’re doing so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It can be hard to build those relationships with neighboring districts because everyone wants to stand out and be the best district in the area, but nearby superintendents can make incredible partners. We have our STEAM academy right now because I had two phenomenal partners who let me visit their districts to see how their technology and systems worked.

During any large technology adoption, it’s important to partner with a vendor who has a human touch and can be consistently relied upon. They may be tech gurus, but if they don’t understand your entry points and where you want to go from that point–or you can’t reach them when things aren’t going well–it doesn’t matter how great their technical understanding is. We partnered with Bluum to provide a range of technology, including Ozobots, virtual reality headsets, 3D printers, interactive flat panels, Chromebooks, and more. It all works together to create a comfortable, user-friendly experience for both educators and students.

Using professional development to earn teacher buy-in

The transition was hard for some educators because none of us wants to look like we don’t know what we’re doing in front of a classroom of young scholars. Some teachers also felt like we were telling them how to teach. I stressed that the change wasn’t about the technology, but about our scholars. We need to meet them at their entry points, and technology is a powerful entry point for young people today. Another thing that has helped is reminding all our teachers what a powerful and wonderful teachable moment it is when a teacher has the opportunity to show their scholars that everyone needs some help sometimes and everyone, even students, can be in a position to teach from time to time. That’s a valuable lesson for our scholars.

We provided our teachers plenty of professional development on how to use all these new tools to make their teaching more efficient, convenient, and engaging. I use the analogy of a dark room. No one has to go into it alone. I’ll hold your hand and go in with you and I’ll make sure you have support there in the form of technology coaches, technicians, and others who can provide one-on-one help. You may not be able to see everything around you and you might feel afraid and vulnerable, but you have the support to stay safe and find a light switch. Through this work, we have made new technology non-threatening, which has been successful. We had teachers on the verge of retiring after 30-40 years in the classroom that caught a second wind amid all these transformations.

It has made a difference in our scholars’ lives, too. One of our scholars recently achieved a perfect score on our mathematics statewide assessment. We asked her how she did it, and she told us that she was using the Chromebook and one of the programs we provided, iReady, to practice at home every night. She wouldn’t have had that ability without our tech initiatives, but those tools and her own hard work enabled her to excel in an area that she doesn’t even consider her best.

As administrators, we can’t be afraid to get out on a ledge. All that does is limit our scholars to what we already know and understand. We ask our students to be vulnerable and take risks every day. We can model that behavior by taking risks and learning to use new tools ourselves and relying on the partners and team members we have to hold our hands in the dark.

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