Dec 26 2023

Independent Schools Face Unique Technology Challenges

Different sources of funding bring different regulations and scrutiny to these schools. One expert shares how IT leaders can navigate them.

IT staff and administrators at independent schools face many of the same challenges as public school leaders. However, when it comes to technology, the benefits and barriers are intertwined with much different funding systems, which impact regulations. As independent school leaders know, trying to navigate student technology use can lead to unique challenges.

In 2015, the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, was created to bring attention and resources to these challenges.

“When our founders realized that there are differences in the independent school realm in technology management, they put together ATLIS. What we have found in the past eight years is that they were right,” says ATLIS Executive Director Christina Lewellen.

Here are the key differences that technology leaders at independent schools should have on their radar in 2024.

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“Lone Rangers” Do It All in Independent School IT Departments

If you need to talk to the IT staff at an independent school, you might end up reaching the same person for computer repair, ed tech decision-making and districtwide training, among many other tasks. Ashley Cross, director of education and content at ATLIS, calls this the “Lone Ranger” role, and it means wearing many different hats.

“Some departments can be tiny, with one person who’s wearing all the hats, and others can be four campuses with a whole team. That impacts everything from the management to the funding,” Cross says. Some independent schools are turning to artificial intelligence to fill gaps for those who are doing it all.

“It’s not only the technology for learning; it’s the technology of a business, running a school,” Lewellen says. These schools use software for financial aid, enrollment and donor management. “They are expected to be heavy ed tech experts and also heavy IT security experts.” Given this, training and education for tech leaders might need to be a bit more customized.

In public schools, the Certified Education Technology Leader certification is well known as a measure of a technology leader’s abilities and training. However, Lewellen noticed that many independent school tech leaders weren’t sitting for that exam, pointing to extensive differences in the needs and responsibilities of independent versus public school tech leaders. “It’s a whole other world,” Cross adds.

In response, ATLIS developed marketplace research on a separate credentialing program, set to launch in the new year.

Less Government Funding Means Different Restrictions

For some independent schools, the biggest perk of being independent (meaning they don’t take government funding) is that they aren’t subject to the same rules and regulations as public schools when it comes to technology.

In a recent presentation, Lewellen shared some of the legal differences independent school leaders should keep in mind:

KEEP READING: Protect student data with ed tech policies.

Different regulations apply at the federal and state levels, so it’s important for IT professionals and admins at independent schools to understand what rules apply to their organizations.

“Some independent schools do not accept any federal funding because they believe there could be risk to their independence if they do, because then they’re subject to other privacy regulations,” Lewellen says, noting E-rate as an example.

Consider Protecting Sensitive Data, Even Without Regulations

While the government may not regulate independent school data in the same way it does for public schools, that doesn’t mean it’s not ethically important, Lewellen said in her presentation. She said schools should ask questions: Should we be assessing the personal data we collect? What are the risks associated with data. How is the data used? Lewellen and her team at ATLIS push school leaders to have a concrete answer to these queries.

She says explains that independent schools must be careful not to make headlines for lapses in following regulations for student data and privacy. In these instances, donations might hang in the balance.

Finally, she says, there is a “marketplace” dynamic: Parents expect independent schools to do everything public schools do and more.

DISCOVER: Communicate data privacy protections to families more effectively.

“That parent population is going to expect you are doing vendor privacy policy tracking, for example, even if nobody is standing there watching for compliance purposes,” she says. Community and connection help leaders to not have to reinvent the wheel in these respects.

High Expectations for a Targeted Student Population

In private school communities, where some families are paying $45,000 for kindergarten, Lewellen says there is a sense that families who donate want to have input in the education they are investing in.

“Those parents choose to make that investment in their kid because they expect a certain outcome. They expect certain treatment and customized education,” she says. “That includes technology.”

Christina Lewellen
They expect certain treatment and customized education. That includes technology.”

Christina Lewellen Executive Director, Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools

On the other hand, she says, public schools can generally make more districtwide decisions, such as giving all sixth graders Chromebooks. Independent schools, meanwhile, are “hyperlocalized,” she notes, serving a very specific population.

“Technology solutions tend to be pretty customized in the independent school space, and in a lot of cases there’s money to throw at these solutions,” Lewellen says.

Given the specific and widely customized needs that independent schools have, ATLIS equips tech leaders with ed tech, tech leadership, cybersecurity and safety, and long term and strategic planning resources. It hopes to fill the gap independent school tech leaders have long felt as they navigate uncharted waters much differently from their public school counterparts.

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