Jan 25 2024

FETC 2024: 8 Ways K–12 Schools Can Diversify Tech Leadership

Panelists said that the best matches for school technology roles might be found through nontraditional methods.

When selecting the best candidates for K–12 IT leadership posts, are academic credentials and technology skill sets the only things that matter? Not always. That’s what speakers on a diversity in leadership panel said at the Future of Education Technology Conference, going on this week at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

It’s a timely conversation. According to the CoSN’s 2023 leadership report, K–12 IT leaders are overwhelmingly white and male. Only 33 percent of those surveyed were women. Four percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were Black.

Panelists said that increasing those numbers will require having some uncomfortable conversations and employing intentional strategies.

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1. Who Is Missing from the Conversation?

Denise Musselwhite, CEO and founder of Tech & Thrive and board chair for the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, said that throughout her 20-year career in K–­12, she was often assumed to be an assistant or note taker as one of the only Latina IT leaders in rooms of mostly white men.

When vendors or other people approached the school district about doing business, they did not immediately treat her as an IT decision-maker.

Kenneth Thompson, who is Black, a former CIO and now deputy superintendent for operations at San Antonio Independent School District, had a similar experience: He said that he previously served as CIO at school districts in Atlanta and Baltimore, and recalled that one vendor didn’t even acknowledge his team when meeting to discuss a $50 million contract.

Musselwhite said that representation matters.

“My story is about who’s not in the room with you when you’re making those really big decisions,” she said. “And what impressions are you giving to your vendors and value-added partners about what leadership looks like in technology? Who’s missing from that conversation?”

She said that it is a districtwide responsibility to create opportunities for women and people of color to be in decision-making positions with vendors.

DIG DEEPER: What does it take for women in IT to make it to the top?

2. Consider the Community When Hiring

Tami Lundberg, a white, female CTO at Fresno Unified School District, believes that school leadership, including IT and instructional roles, should reflect the community.

“Who is it that you serve?” she said. “That should be your goal around creating diversity. That really gives you the right lens to figure out what your team should look like.”

This approach is particularly critical in Fresno, where IT leaders work directly with parents through the district’s family learning and technology support centers. One of the services they provide is digital awareness training. Lundberg said that having the right diversity of staff influences how effectively they can serve the community.

Tami Lundberg
Seeing diversity from a leadership standpoint attracts others. Seeing a female leader, in my case, attracts other women to come into that department knowing that they’ll be supported.”

Tami Lundberg CTO, Fresno Unified School District

3. Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Tom Ryan, a retired CIO for Albuquerque Public Schools and Santa Fe Public Schools and a board member for CoSN and the Council of the Great City Schools, encouraged attendees to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

As the only white male on the panel, he encouraged attendees to see diversity as something that can make better leaders and CIOs. 

Ryan said that, over the years, it often took some prompting from his colleague Kenneth Thompson for him to see who was missing from the room. “At times, I didn’t notice how unwelcoming the room was because I felt comfortable,” he said.

DISCOVER: These former educators and administrators are sharing how they became IT leaders.

4. Nontechnical Candidates Can Still Offer Value

Marlon Shears, CIO at IDEA Public Schools, the largest charter in Texas, said that diversity is not only about race and gender but also about balance.

“Sometimes, it is about embracing different skill sets,” he said. “If you had asked me 10 years ago what a technology team should look like, I would have told you it should look like all tech dudes.”

Today, said Shears — a Black man with about 300 direct reports — he realizes the business value of recruiting leaders with academic backgrounds and then offering technical training.

“I like a mix,” he said. “And that mix leads to creativity. And then from there, you create a team full of excellence and a center of excellence centered around the organization.”

Denise Musselwhite
If the applicants I’m getting are homogenous, how are we as leaders stepping into those spaces where the people who are missing from the table are located?”

Denise Musselwhite CEO, Tech and Thrive

5. Diverse Leaders Attract Diverse Talent

The panelists said that there is a trickle-down effect to having diverse leadership teams: It appeals to a more diverse pool of candidates seeking careers in K–12 IT.

Lundberg noted that when she first started at Fresno, the IT organization was 19 percent female. Today, it is more than 50 percent female.

“Seeing diversity from a leadership standpoint attracts others,” she said. “Seeing a female leader, in my case, attracts other women to come into that department knowing that they’ll be supported and knowing that they have a representative and someone that they can reach out to and talk with.”

“When you’ve got that cultural swag, you can actually recruit from around the world,” Shears said. “People will move from California to come work for you in Florida. I came from California to Texas to work for my boss; I brought somebody from California to Houston. Those things can put people in leadership roles, but that takes time.”

WATCH: Why diversity must involve an entire learning community.

6. Break Exclusionary IT Recruiting Processes in Schools

For Ryan, the lack of diversity in leadership roles often comes down to organizational policies and processes that value a certain set of attributes.

“How do we move the people that are underrepresented on a team into a process that elevates them?” he said. “Because there’s probably a reason that certain roles lack diversity, and it probably wasn’t intentional.”

Change, however, must be intentional. “My job is to break that system that's preventing people from having that kind of success,” he said.

That may mean changing the recruitment process. Musselwhite agreed.

“If the applicants I’m getting are homogenous, how are we as leaders stepping into those spaces where the people who are missing from the table are located?” she said. “You have to really go beyond the process that exists and put yourself into spaces that are going to make you uncomfortable.”

She suggested advertising job openings through Black, Latino and Asian tech organizations and even going to their mixers to network.

“You will see an uptick in more diverse applications when you go after those groups,” she said.

Kenneth Thompson
If you’ve got those people in that building and they are providing input and sharing and supporting your student population in that district, then that is a win for the district and that is a win for you.”

Kenneth Thompson Assistant Superintendent, San Antonio Independent School District

7. Growing Tech Leaders from Within Helps Schools Win

Kenneth Thompson was candid: Schools often do not pay the type of salaries that attract certain tech skill sets. “So, 9 times out of 10, you grow from within,” he said. Part of that process might be working with human resources to create an entry-level position that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree but an equally valuable IT certification.

“One thing you can instantly do is say, ‘I'm going to create an associate’s degree opportunity with human resources.’ And then you help them move up with management training,” Shears said. “Once you do all that, you can just recruit from within, and you win.”

The panelists agreed that hiring diverse candidates is just a start. They said it was equally important to create a welcoming environment that offers mentoring, resources and opportunities so that internal teams can grow and maintain retention.

Thompson proudly noted the diversity of his San Antonio leadership team, which includes a woman, a person of Latino descent and a white man.

“The smartest person in the room is the room,” he emphasized. “If you’ve got those people in that building and they are providing input and sharing and supporting your student population in that district, then that is a win for the district and that is a win for you.”

Shears agreed on the value of investing in IT teams internally. “I’ve seen a lot of leaders fail because they don’t have real career paths within their organizations,” he said. “Forget the outside. The biggest game that any IT leader can do to fix diversity is to create career opportunities within your own organization.”

RELATED: A former CTO pushes for digital equity in leadership and learning.

8. Find and Select the Best Person for the Job

For those who ask why any school district should consider race or gender in hiring for IT roles, Lundberg is happy to explain.

“I know they don’t realize that the lack of diversity is so much bigger than just a skill set,” she said. “Because the answer is that when you include diverse thinking and diverse experience, you end up with the best person for the job.”

Make sure you don’t miss a moment of FETC event coverage. Keep this page bookmarked and follow @EdTech_K12 on X (formerly Twitter) for live updates and peeks behind the scenes.

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