Jul 06 2022

ISTELive 2022: 3 Superintendents Discuss How Technology Drives Future-Ready Learning

K–12 school leaders use tech to support flexibility, mental wellness, professional development and more.

If you ask Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Ypsilanti (Mich.) Community Schools, to share one of the most positive ways that the pandemic impacted education, she will talk about technology.

“Our teachers didn’t have the tools and technology before,” she said, speaking on a panel of three superintendents during ISTELive 2022. “Now with the technology and the innovation that had to happen during the pandemic, I’m seeing classroom instruction look so different. People are taking more risks. People are utilizing technology in their classrooms. When I go into classrooms, teachers have opened up, and they are almost limitless in some ways.”

The panelists agreed that technology played a pivotal role in helping to propel learning and teaching in their districts. They also discussed how the pandemic influenced their use of technology in the classroom and their technology integration plans going forward.

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Don’t Do It Alone When Strategic Partnerships Provide Value

Dan Cox, superintendent of Community Unit School District 3A in Rochester, Ill., said leading a school district during a pandemic made him realize “we can’t do it alone.”

“Our collaboration and partnerships have grown tremendously,” he said.

The district now offers 24/7 online tutoring with the help of an outside partner. Initially, Cox said, he wanted to keep the tutoring local; however, he soon realized that the district lacked the people power and turned to an online provider.

“That's been a huge benefit, not only to our kids,” Cox said. “It’s also been a benefit for the teachers, especially in our language arts department. Teachers talk about seeing a higher quality of writing, and their grading is more efficient.”

RELATED: Check out this session discussing the benefits of educational technology partnerships.

Long-Lasting Tech Improvements Bolster Communication and Connection

The superintendents also spoke about some of the technological changes made during the pandemic that they will preserve going forward.

Zachery-Ross said technology has allowed flexibility around her district in multiple ways. 

“Many of us know that before the pandemic, scheduling parent-teacher conferences and individual education programs was a huge challenge, and it really took up time where parents had to come to campus,” she said. “Technology has allowed us to be flexible in terms of meeting parent needs, student needs, educator needs and to have documents that are shareable and accessible. I really found that the use of technology has given us back some time that all of us need.”

PJ Caposey, superintendent of the Meridian Community Unit School District 223 in Stillman Valley, Ill., said that prior to the pandemic, his rural school district had made incredible progress with technology.

DIVE DEEPER: Connected STEM classrooms break down learning silos.

“We literally went from zero email and zero wireless less than a decade ago to ubiquitous Wi-Fi for every kid with a device,” he said. “This seems like a really good success story, but during the pandemic we realized that we had massive equity and access issues because we did not have places within our community with Wi-Fi or students in their homes with Wi-Fi.”

His district went to work to rectify the issue and discovered along the way that it wasn’t just families with fewer resources that had no internet access; more affluent families lacked it as well. Now that there is connectivity throughout the community, he said, he would never go back.

Cox said one of the areas where his district made permanent changes is in how it approached professional development.

“We often hire new teachers, get them all pumped up, do some orientation, give them mentors for two years, and then boom, they’re on their own,” he said. “One of the things that we’re doing in terms of instruction is to hire more instructional coaches this year. For some districts, that’s a no-brainer; they've been doing it for years. But that was a huge shift in our district. And teachers are just now seeing the value of having that support. And not seeing it as a threat but seeing it as a support for them in the classroom.”

How Technology Supports Mental Health in Schools

Another topic the session addressed was how schools are managing some of the growing mental wellness challenges facing students and staff.

“I think what we’ve learned through the pandemic is that the social-emotional needs of everyone were escalated,” Caposey said. “I think one of the potential silver linings that has come out of the pandemic is that there is a much more heightened awareness.”

One audience member asked about student searches for troubling terms such as “suicide” and noted privacy issues associated with the filtering software that can discover such searches.

The superintendents noted that filtering software is part of a holistic approach to mental health that involves referring students making such searches to counseling and other support.

Cox said that in his school system, he’s received great feedback from families. “They like it. They feel like it’s not intrusive,” he said. “I think educating them and letting them know how we come across the information, who sees it, when it’s used and how it’s used is very important.”

ISTE 2022 panelists

From left: Dan Cox with Community Unit School District 3A, Doug Roberts with the Institute for Education Innovation, Alena Zachery-Ross with Ypsilanti (Mich.) Community Schools and PJ Caposey with Meridian Community Unit School District 223. Photo by Taashi Rowe

He noted that his district has increased the number of social workers, psychologists and counselors, not just students but for teachers as well. “We also have 24/7 telehealth, where students get access to 24/7 counseling,” Cox said.

“I think, when we start talking about the numbers and the interventions we're able to make due to this technology for the safety of our young people, that we can’t and we don’t need to be apologetic about using these tools,” Zachery-Ross added.

Caposey agreed. “In terms of what happens when things start to get hot politically, I think what 90 percent of superintendents are going to do is defer to what their legal teams tell them,” he said. “One of the questions I ask during interviews is always, ‘What are you willing to get fired for?’ And if I got fired for doing something that I thought was going to keep a kid safe, I could live with myself much easier than if I didn’t do what was necessary just to keep my job.”

DISCOVER: How software keeps mental health at the forefront for students.

Shifting from Traditional Education Models to Future-Based Learning

In response to a question about the future of education, Cox shared a sobering warning.

“As a superintendent, you may know all the research and the best ways to improve your school systems and to lead them forward,” he said. “But you’re never going to be able to do more and go further than your community and your school communities are willing to let you go.”

For that reason, he said, collaboration and communication with the community remains key to pushing education forward.

“For a very long time, schools have been one-way communicators,” he said. “And now, we’re seeing an environment where successful schools are partnering with their communities, their families. We have to show them a different way and just spend a lot of time in those conversations.”

PJ Caposey
If society is changing at an exponential rate, then I think schools have no choice but to try to make changes commensurate with that pace in order to stay relevant.”

PJ Caposey Superintendent, Meridian Community Unit School District 223

Zachery-Ross noted that prior to the pandemic, Michigan removed evaluations connected to assessment as well as some of the rules around seat time for pupils. These two moves allowed the establishment of an online school and gave teachers more room for innovation.

“People were able to be innovative and creative and talk about what seat time really meant,” she said. “We don’t want to take away the students growing and being accountable. What we do want, however, is to give that opportunity for innovation without the thought of a penalty for that education.”

Caposey agreed that some regulations can hamper innovation in schools. He also cautioned that lower test scores over the past couple of years across the country could be unfairly linked to relaxing those regulations and increasing technology use.

“There was poor performance for a myriad of other reasons,” he said. “But for the traditionalists, it's going to give them ammo to keep things the way they are. If society is changing at an exponential rate, then I think schools have no choice but to try to make changes commensurate with that pace in order to stay relevant. But good instruction is good instruction, and it is one of the things that kids deserve in every classroom every day.”

RELATED: Interactive flat panels support teacher-driven learning.

How to Avoid Possible Competition for Teachers and Students

Another topic that led to vigorous discussion among the superintendents was how schools can address competition for teachers and students.

It used to be that “families showed up because public schools were their only option,” Cox said. “That’s what they were supposed to do. Today, we’re seeing competition for families and kids who expect a different type of service, a different type of flexibility and adaptability. I do think we’re going to have to become more responsive to what our public wants and needs. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to lose families, which is not a good thing. That same thing is said for teachers as well.”

He also noted that remote learning, which his state and state board of education don’t yet allow, would benefit teachers. The panel agreed that, with a huge number of teachers leaving education for companies that offer more flexibility, online classes could support teacher retention in the long run.

LEARN MORE: Find out how technology offers families round-the-clock access to learning.

In Michigan, Zachery-Ross created an online school to meet the needs of staff and families.

“It’s not just online, and it’s not just every day coming to class,” Zachery-Ross said. “We know that collaboration is so important, no matter what the jobs they end up with in the future. So, students sometimes come to campus and participate in project-based learning.”

Ypsilanti is extending that flexibility into professional development by offering teacher trainings over Zoom.

Caposey also noted that “money matters in education,” and that, in addition to paying teachers more, “We are going to honor the work that teachers are doing and appreciate them as professionals. I think that's a sustainable approach.”

Keep up with EdTech: Focus on K–12’s coverage on our ISTELive page and via Twitter with the hashtag #ISTELive.

Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

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