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What full-scale change looks like and how to get there

By Gail Marshall
January 1, 2017
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It was a searing message from its own students that awakened a transformation using technology in one Alaskan school district.

“A few years ago,” says Superintendent Mary Wegner of the Sitka School District, “high school students approached the school board and said they were not being prepared for the future.”

What? This was a district whose students scored well in academics and assessments.
But these ambitious students knew they were going to need to reach a much higher plane to succeed in the global economy they were entering.

They described “a pervasive lack of technology in the schools – so much so that the school didn’t even have a wireless network,” Wegner says. “The students knew they needed to be fluent in digital literacies to be successful in their lives, and they needed the school district to enter the 21st century.

“And the school board listened to the students.”

Excellent start.

What followed was textbook leadership: The board, which oversees the district administration serving 1,300 k-12 students, set the goal of technology fluency and committed to a sustainable budget to support this goal.

The district created a vision of engaged student learning. Administrators identified financial resources, hired a consultant and came up with a plan to build professional learning communities so teachers could help each other learn and teach with the new digital resources.

Thus began their journey.

And so it is with schools today, of all sizes and locations, that have plugged into the power of technology to transform learning and teaching.

That is not to say that all of it, perhaps any of it, is easy.  

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new,” said the ultimate educator, Socrates. Imagine trying to convince your board that the Greek gods are not omnipotent.

Fortunately, we don’t all have to face a hemlock cocktail if our ideas don’t catch on. Now there’s iste, a place to gather around the campfire with other seekers.

The perfect place to start is with the iste Essential Conditions, the 14 critical elements necessary to effectively leverage technology for learning, found at

Another is to use the famous method of Professor Socrates and his students: Ask questions. Discuss.

How did you get started?

While Sitka’s districtwide transfor-mation emerged from the bottom up, across the country in Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools, Superintendent S. Dallas Dance started at the top – with himself.

He found that the best way to cultivate a culture that is open to accepting your new ideas is to be open yourself. His advice is to be open in all senses of the word.

Be curious, honest, inquisitive and listen to others first before sharing your ideas. When other people see that you are invested in their ideas, they become invested in yours. Set up meetings, host town halls, visit schools and remain active on social media. Be accessible to colleagues, students, teachers, families, community members. Being accessible opens the door to honest conversations that benefit the school system.

At the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina, which has 20,000 students, Superintendent Lynn Moody says the key to starting the engine for any major transformation is by first answering the big question: Why? Educators, for example, deserve a thorough explanation about why instructional change is necessary.

“Specifically,” she says, “we worked with how education needs to evolve to fit an environment that is now so information rich. Teachers can no longer be the dictators of knowledge but facilitators of learning all in the common pursuit of knowledge. We believe that ensuring that educators understand why there was a need for change helped curb the adage that the initiative was ‘just another educational fad.’”

Dance, a member of the iste Board of Directors, leads a district of 111,000 students and18,000 employees with a budget of about $1.6 billion. The Baltimore district has 173 schools, programs and centers, and about 47 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Students speak almost 90 languages and hail from more than 100 countries.

Before developing his strategic plan, Dance and his team held more than 200 gatherings, meeting with almost 2,000 people from across Baltimore County. Folks were asked what they wanted to see in the future for the schools and how best to achieve those goals, taking steps to ensure that everyone involved felt supported as they moved through the conversations.

“Through that kind of collaboration,” Dance says, “we not only brought awareness to why change was necessary, but also developed a plan that balanced the needs of the organization with the capacity of those who would help to carry out the changes.”

From all of these voices, Dance discovered a common concern: equity.  
Moody, from North Carolina, made sure that transformation through technology wasn’t just a top-down message. Educators were encouraged to “go and see” other successful models around the country.

“We strongly believe that seeing is believing and that for educators to truly transform the way they teach, they must be able to see it work firsthand. We’ve sent staff members on buses to schools up and down the Eastern Seaboard to see transformation in action. Additionally, we’ve sent over 400 educators to iste conferences in the past three years to learn and bring back best practices for transformation,” Moody explains.

How did you do it?

“Technology is a key leverage tool for facilitating learner-centered environments across the district,” Dance wrote in The Baltimore Sun. “Through stat, or Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, educators there are using a dynamic digital curriculum and materials. The bcps One online portal helps teachers organize flexible groups and assignments and facilitates easy parent and student access to grades, assignments and added communication. All the elementary schools and seven middle schools have placed 1:1 devices in students’ hands to better engage and motivate learners,” Dance explained.

Instructional digital conversion schools at bcps, known as Lighthouse schools, are systemwide at grades 1-3, schoolwide at 10 previous pilot elementary schools and in grade 6 at pilot middle schools. A self-paced online program is supplementing fourth grade Spanish instruction at 25 schools to give students the advantages of second language proficiency by graduation. Last year’s 10 pilot schools have begun Spanish at grade 5. 

Moody says her district first established funding to ensure sustainability of their goal to embrace digital and instructional transformation.

“Priority was placed on examining current budgets to find areas for repurpose. Administrators used zero-based budgeting strategies to examine how every dollar is spent, including down to the number of crayons purchased each year.

“After examining all 35 schools and district budgets, budgetary emphasis was placed on ensuring that educators had the support to transform their instruction. Additional instructional staff members were placed at all schools. Now, each school has both an instructional technology facilitator and literacy coach to support teachers with just-in-time and job-embedded professional development,” she says.

When it came time to implement its plan, this district may have set a tech speed record. The staff had to do it; their district was on the state’s list of low-performing schools.

The idea of a 1:1 program was approved by the board of trustees on June 4, 2014, teachers got their laptops at the end of the school year, and they rolled out 17,000 laptops to their students with less than eight weeks of preparation.

“We are saying, ‘We need to be doing this next year,’” says Andrew Smith, director of digital innovation for Rowan-Salisbury Schools. “We really want to have transformational change, and we can’t wait. We can look at our test scores, and we can tell you we have a problem. It doesn’t take any time. We’re going to basically put our problems out front. Everybody knows what they are. We’ve got to find a solution, so we created this sense of urgency that this needs to be done now.”

How do your schools look different from other schools?

Moody says that the digital transformation of her district has changed the look of the physical classrooms and the instructional practices within them.

•          All students have access to MacBook Airs in grades 9-12 and iPad 4s in grades 4-6 for take-home use.
•          Students in grades k-2 have carts of iPads for classroom use.
•          Libraries are now “knowledge commons” that include makerspaces, collaborative seating arrangements and coffee shops that mimic real-world collaboration spaces.
•          The district completely redesigned learning spaces to include collaborative, flexible learning environments.
•          Student work is focused on authentic learning tasks that are collaborative, connected, relevant and personalized.
•          Schools partner with local industry experts to provide innovative coursework that prepares students for real jobs when they graduate from high school.

At Sitka, among the many physical changes beyond classroom devices, interactive whiteboards, document cameras and projectors, the team created a fabrication and design lab, known as the Fab Lab. Sitka partners with other districts in Alaska, Washington and Oregon to model real-world skills while solving real-world problems. The students work together long distance on projects, sharing equipment and other resources, just as modern corporations do.

On a YouTube video, you can see a student working with a businessman to invent a way to prevent cargo from shifting in an airplane on takeoff and landing. Their invention was designed and even fabricated in the Fab Lab using modern equipment. Without prompting, the businessman said he would be delighted to hire the high school freshman right now to join his company.

Their career-technical education (CTE) addition for the high school is something you won’t see everywhere, with students inventing, designing and building equipment. They are  even constructing a house inside, protected from the severe Alaska weather. 

Wegner points out that the contractor who was hired to build the cte addition is a graduate of the program. Likewise, many of the employees the contractor hired were also graduates of the cte program.

There are direct and indirect economic benefits to having a strong and relevant cte program, and the cte building expansion is one such example. 

Other grade-level schools in the district have duplicated the Fab Lab on a smaller scale. This was made possible by providing professional learning opportunities for teachers in the district.
They also recently started a Full steam Ahead initiative that includes a mobile makerspace cart and a portable planetarium to bring learning to life.

How do you know it’s working?

“We transformed from having no vision about the role technology could
play in the learning process,” says Wegner, “to a comprehensive understanding of the role.”

And they discovered how to define learning competency in the bargain.

“Sitka Schools is now a proud member of the League of Innovative Schools, and we continue our journey of transformation for our students’ sake.”

The league is a project from Digital Promise that connects and rallies the most forward-thinking leaders of the nation’s school districts, collaborates on shared priorities and partners with entrepreneurs, researchers and education leaders.

At Rowan-Salisbury, they’ve moved the needle far in the past three years.

The plan, says Moody, is to set “ambitious, innovative goals to provide students with world-class experiences.” These include providing all 20,000 students with an Apple device in less than six months; instituting a new framework for literacy; and adopting an “audacious” goal to have 90 percent of students reading on grade level by 2018.

“From technology to instructional goals,” says Moody, “Rowan-Salisbury Schools has dreamed big and implemented with fidelity. The work of redesigning schools to provide authentic, personalized and engaging experiences is impacting students throughout Rowan County.

“Over the past two years, administrators have seen a positive instructional shift in student work. Students now complete authentic learning experiences where students have choice, differentiated assignments and engaging lessons.”

And now, it’s time for a party. On Sept.1, 2016, Moody confirmed that the district received impressive state assessment scores. Best of all, Rowan-Salisbury was removed from the state’s list of low-performing school districts and received positive indicators in literacy across all grade levels.

Consider the numbers:

•   96 percent of k-6 schools met or exceeded growth in reading.
•   91percent of schools increased their performance.
•   Schools exceeding expected growth jumped from 3 percent to 23 percent.
•   71 percent of schools increased in science.
•   74 percent of schools increased their growth index.
•   College scholarships doubled to $18.4 million.
•   88 percent of school performance grade scores increased.
•   24 percent of school performance letter grades increased.

In Baltimore, there have been many advances, awards and accolades that point to the district’s success, but to Superintendent Dance, one defining moment said it all.

“A few years ago, this third grader came up to me at church. He was holding his mother’s hand.  He said, ‘I am so glad I have my own device! Now I can figure things out on my own. I am performing at fourth grade level!’” 

Gail Marshall is a writer and editor for the Fresno Bee, a major metropolitan newspaper in California. She also owns and operates a freelance business, Marshall Arts Communications Consultants.