School superintendents gather to share ideas on keeping pace with digital changes

Apr 26, 2015

Whether it's maintaining privacy online, or knowing how connected students are at home, even well-funded school districts can have a hard time keeping up with the speed of digital change. With that in mind, superintendents and administrators from more than 35 districts across the Midwest will gather for The Future Ready Regional Summit in St. Louis Tuesday to share ideas on how to weave technology into classroom instruction.

“We do not believe that computers will replace teachers,” said Tom Murray, director of state and district digital learning for the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Alliance for Excellent Education. “But we believe teachers using high quality digital learning will replace teachers that do not.”

Credit Remko van Dokkum | Flickr

The U.S. Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education are leading 13 Future Ready Summits across the country, which are free for administrators to attend. Murray said a central theme at the event will be breaking down silos of information that often keep best practices locked up inside individual districts.   

“I’ve even seen districts starting to share students for certain online classes to save each other money,” Murray said.  “We need to think outside the box, we need to think outside of our boundaries.”

But the move toward what's been called "blended learning," or the combination of more traditional and digital based instruction, can be a challenge for schools with limited resources.  There is a wide and well documented so-called digital divide in which many poor people don’t have access to high speed internet.  A Pew Research Center study from 2013, for instance, found that only 54 percent of people with a household income of less than $30,000 had a high-speed broadband connection at home.

Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the Jennings School District, makes a presentation during an education-focused Ferguson Commission meeting.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

Local examples of managing the digital age

In districts with a high levels of poverty, facilitating new learning techniques like flipped classrooms — in which students watch online lessons at home and complete assignments in class — can be a tall order.  

“Providing access to technology is huge in breaking the cycle of oppression and poverty,” said Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the Jennings School District in north St. Louis County.  

A little more than 90 percent of Jennings’ roughly 2,500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common way of measuring the level of poverty in a school district.  Anderson has earned praise for her ability to move the academic needle in a district that slid into provisional accreditation in 2008. On it's most recent report card from the state, the district scored above the threshold for full accreditation. However, state officials have said they want to one more year of progress before upgrading the district's accreditation status.  

Since taking over as superintendent in 2012, Anderson has streamlined the district’s central office and bolstered so-called wrap around services through community partnerships. She said the district has a tight budget, so district staff often have to get creative in finding ways to use technology in schools and to ensure students and families have access to the Internet. 

“We continue to fight the challenge of leveling the playing field and creating equity in environments that are high poverty,” Anderson said.

Anderson listed a handful of workarounds she uses in Jennings.  

  • Jennings keeps schools open until 6 p.m. and on Saturday, allowing computer labs to be accessed by students and families. “Just increasing access has been a big relationship builder,” Anderson said. 
  • The district gives away old computers to students and families, or sells them for a small amount.    
  • Administrators video tape and share lessons with teachers.    
  • Lesson plans are shared through Google Docs. Anderson said this helps her monitor what’s being taught at different schools and helps teachers generate new ideas. “If you’re a teacher and you started in Jennings in August you would have a year’s worth of lesson plans electronically saved for you from the teacher you might be replacing who might be retiring,” Anderson said. “You also have the lesson plans for every teacher in the district who teaches your grade level.”   

Robert Dillon, director of technology and innovation for the Affton School District in south St. Louis County, said there’s a growing sense of urgency to build stronger relationships between school leaders and to share solutions across district lines.  

“Somewhere in the St. Louis area, every best practice is taking place,” said Dillon.  “The fact that no one knows about that is really criminal almost. We do such a poor job of visiting other schools, collaborating with other schools, having inter-district conversations.”

Dillon also works with the St. Louis based non-profit ConnectED Learning, which puts together training events for teachers and administrators that focus on bringing new learning strategies into the classroom. He said because Tuesday’s summit will bring together superintendents from across the Midwest, it is more likely to spread the idea of collaboration between school leaders.  

“What we’ve found is that you have a teacher level group and that only gets so far and then plateaus. Or you’ll have an outstanding principal and that only gets so far,” Dillon said.  “But to truly change district dynamics you have to have the superintendent in the conversation.”