In Central Alabama at the junction of the coastal plains and the Piedmont Plateau, lies the swiftly growing, geographically diverse city of Auburn. Auburn boasts a nationally recognized school system that's as much a draw as the unique terrain and the anchoring presence of historic Auburn University.
With a mission to inspire, educate and empower all students and maintain his district's consistent reputation for excellence, Auburn City Schools Superintendent Terry Jenkins made in 2000 what he terms his "best decision ever" when he decided that sharing a technology directory in a joint venture with the city was not ideal and putting technology second-in-command, Debbie Rice, in charge. "For 90 percent of the ventures we presented, the answer was ‘no,'" says Jenkins. Since then, Auburn teachers have heard "yes" a lot, and the district has garnered a host of recognitions for its carefully crafted technology implementations.
Though Rice's many technology-infused initiatives have provided Auburn schools with cutting-edge resources—50-unit computer media centers at all 10 schools, laptop carts for core curriculum areas, whiteboards in every classroom, iPods, iPads and iTouches for elementary kids, a one-to-one laptop program in the junior high school, and individual Web sites and laptops for all teachers—perhaps her most enduring and unique contribution has been the exceptionally detailed and systematic change process that embeds deep research and input from all stakeholders.
Rice's development of Auburn Junior High's one-to-one laptop initiative is a good example. In 2005, Rice convinced Jenkins to support a fact-finding tour on one-to-one programs. After assembling a task force of high school and junior high principals, teachers, assistant superintendents, students and parents, Rice led a series of visitations to examine longstanding one-to-one programs. The team sat in classrooms, talked to students and teachers, and collected advice and best practices in funding, implementation and professional development.
Rice applied the same unhurried research process to choosing the best hardware device for students. Developing a set of criteria, such as ease of use, durability, device tracking and site blocking by adults, Rice told vendors they would need to provide devices for a two-week test drive by students before a decision could be made. Ultimately, the kids chose Gateway's convertible laptop/tablet, which has both a keyboard and a stylus.
Says Eileen Lento, Intel's lead K12 strategist, "Debbie understands the importance of involving stakeholders. She gets the people piece."
Bridging Gaps with PD
Ongoing professional development is another central piece of Rice's model of change and technology integration at Auburn. Increasing class sizes incrementally was her creative way of freeing up staff time to facilitate on-site coaches, Tech Tuesday training sessions, and mentorships between new and seasoned teachers.
Rice also focuses on classroomintegrated professional development for students, which trains kids in how to vet Web sites, use social network resources for learning and perform similar tasks, and she elicits annual feedback from students and teachers via polls, which help her plan training topics.
With a background in finance and information management, Rice also knew that to best fulfill her role as head of professional development, she would have to develop a deeper understanding of the issues and practical daily needs and challenges teachers face. In 2008, she completed a masters degree in education, and she is currently working on a PhD in supervision and administration of curriculum.
Rice's financial background has also helped Auburn achieve a sustainable technology plan in the face of $13 million in budget cuts over the past three years. With the help of the assistant superintendent of finance, Rice crafted five- and ten-year funding plans in which she built in scalability and partnerships with organizations and businesses.
"Auburn is thinking in new models and new ways," says Lento, who is also impressed with Rice's ability to focus on important but easily missed details, such as knowing to bolt whiteboards to the floor to give first-graders access to them.
It's a challenge to measure the impact of Rice's comprehensive technology initiatives in the traditional way, as Auburn students have historically earned very high test scores and continue to do so. But according to Cristen Herring, Auburn's assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, evidence can be seen in the junior high's one-to-one program, where instant access to multimedia images allows for on the-spot analysis of real-time events, and where the ability for teachers to send out class notes to students ahead of time increases opportunities for higher-order thinking.
Rice has this advice for others in her position: "Be flexible and willing to listen to students and teachers. They are the stakeholders utilizing the tools, and their input into the design and implementation is very important."
Susan McLester is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.