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6 ways to evolve from student engagement to student empowerment

By Team ISTE
June 26, 2016
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Three students eagerly passed around a microphone Sunday to share their enthusiasm for owning their learning. Unfazed by the fact that they were speaking to a room full of district and school leaders, they revealed how they show their comprehension of a book by writing a poem or creating a sculpture. They talked about creating lessons to teach younger students capstone projects and how they build robots to serve needs in their community.

It was part of Lead & Transform: An ISTE 2016 Town Hall, which brought together forward-thinking educators to explore the intersection of leadership, learning and digital age tools required to empower students to excel.

The students — Lilliana Arredondo, Samuel Navarez and Rhett Sandal from the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools in the Denver area — left leaders with this message: Controlling our pace and style of learning is exciting. We thrive under this trust, and we won’t let you down. All they want is for education leaders to take them at their word.

Keynote speaker Don Haddad, the superintendent of St. Vrain Valley, sees student empowerment as more than the next necessary step in technology adoption — it’s an ethical obligation for school leaders.

“Our students need less memory of the known and more exploration of the unknown,” he said.

But it’s that unfamiliarity that compels administrators to remain critics rather than role models, said Francis Gipson, chief academic officer of Los Angeles Unified School District. The good news? Pioneers in education are putting together a blueprint for districts to move forward.

Lead & Transform panelists suggested six ways to create a learning model that allows students to be at the center so they can learn anywhere and anytime from anyone.

Get the right people on board. Skills are necessary, but being aligned with the district’s mission is imperative. St. Vrain Valley district does not hire a leadership position until candidates interview with Haddad, and he’s satisfied that they pass muster.

Robust professional development. Commit to getting educators the training and information they need, because only then can you build a culture that is geared toward change. While you’re at it, bring the techies and the teachers together for a synergistic, single team.

A sustainable infrastructure and funding stream. This is where it falls apart for most districts. One-time grants can’t maintain tomorrow’s needs, and assuming you’ll increase wireless coverage and bandwidth later means you’ll fail before that date arrives. But, Haddad cautions, don’t shower tools on teachers and run. Plan to go slow at first and scale as you learn. 

And don’t assume the public isn’t in it to win it. Philip W.V. Hickman, superintending of the Columbus Municipal School District in Mississippi, related some discouraging statistics from his district: More than 80 percent of its 20,000 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, 60 percent are English language learners and many are from migrant families.

Still residents voted to increase taxes to improve infrastructure in the district. “Some of the poorest parents in America did that to change the trajectory of their kids’ lives,” Hickman said. “I now understand courage. It’s changed my life.”

Reach out to businesses. Tap everyone from large corporations to local businesses for not only resources, but job skills as well. Ask the owners of that mom-and-pop restaurant to let students help with their marketing and website needs, for instance. Large corporations like IBM, Apple, Discovery Education and Pathways to Technology also have a lot to offer when it comes to job-readiness training.

Lean on resources. We can’t memorize ourselves to success, as former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellence in Education said. Students should be learning to research and discover results on their own, rather than learning rote facts. Free workshops at is a good place to get started.

Establish a team of students to help with the planning. Student engagement is what occurs when adults lead, says Winston Sakurai, principal at Hanalani Schools in Hawaii. Student empowerment is when you hand students the reins and guide them to find their own unlimited potential. He credits that mindset for helping the district develop an international championship robotics program, achieve a national award-winning student government, increase the number of students passing the AP exam to 93 percent, and boast a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

Attending ISTE 2016? Check out the Leadership Strand to find more ideas, strategies and advice about how to empower students.