When a third grader's mom called frantically searching for her son who was late coming home from school, Eastlawn Elementary School Principal Jeff Lauer was out of the building at a district meeting. Lauer's assistant reached him on his cell phone.
His first reaction: Make an announcement over the PA system to see if the child stayed after school. When the boy still couldn't be located, Lauer turned to his Palm handheld computer and pulled up some transportation system data. Moments later he had found the name of another third grader who rode the same bus and lived nearby. A call was made, and sure enough the boy had stopped at his classmate's house without telling his parents. Crisis solved.
"There's a lot of different problem solving I can do with that database," Lauer says. "If it weren't portable,
I couldn't do that."
The database that Lauer won't leave school without is one reason he knows using a handheld makes him a better leader. But the Palm-powered effectiveness Lauer relies on has taken years, and some professional training, to develop.
Lauer had just started using a handheld as part of his daily routine when he became part of the first group of principals and superintendents in Michigan to attend LEADing the Future.
The professional development program was developed with a three-year, $6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was part of the foundation's $350 million State Challenge Grants for Leadership Development, a three-year program that began in 2000. Like the programs developed in a handful of other states, LEADing the Future focuses on using handheld computers to integrate technology as a natural and intuitive part of leadership.
"Most people think of a handheld as something you keep your addresses and calendar on," says Marion Ginopolis, director of the Michigan Gates project and a former Michigan superintendent. "We've expanded the use of the handheld as a much more powerful tool."
Experts say Lauer is one of thousands of school administrators who use a handheld as a database.
"For principals, probably the biggest and most popular use is bringing student information system data into their handhelds, and being able to access student schedules, ID numbers. Some can even scan a student ID and immediately see where that student is supposed to be," says Karen Fasimpaur, president of K12 Handhelds, a consultant firm that works with K-12 schools and universities on handheld computing projects.
Geoffrey Balkam, superintendent of the Climax-Scotts (Mich.) Community Schools, says the tool will be just as valuable for district leaders.
"I can see myself using it for many daily activities, principal evaluations, accessing resources and research for board reports or special projects," says Balkam, a handheld novice who recently attended his first LTF training session. "I had no idea how strong these units were, especially with the built-in digital camera." Each training participant gets the newest version of a Palm handheld, with Balkam's group receiving devices with built-in digital cameras.
It's the Data, Dummy
The Gates Foundation lets each state design its own program, with a few guiding principles. The over-arching mandate: principals and superintendents must be taught to use technology to access and use data to make leadership decisions.
"If you want to make changes and understand what is happening in your school, you really have to have data," says Kathy Klock, a program manager with the foundation. "Stories are great, but you have to have data to support what you're saying."
LEADing the Future includes two one-day, face-to-face training sessions, along with required participation in an online learning community and optional online continuing education exercises. In designing the program, Ginopolis and her team incorporated the foundation requirements and standards related to Michigan's Education YES! state accreditation system.
So far, nearly 2,000 administrators have participated in the program, which has funding for 4,000. All are required to use their handheld devices during the training, which includes sharing ideas with other groups and presenting solutions. LTF allows them to share ideas on district and school accountability. Meanwhile, it introduces administrators to new ways to use the handheld technology.
A Tour Tool
One of the primary ways that LEADing the Future participants are putting their training into practice is by conducting formal and informal classroom observations.
Rande Horn, principal at Harrison High School in Farmington Hills, Mich., is a strong proponent of this application. He tries to tour his three-story, 1,100-student building several times each day, stopping in at least one classroom on every floor. With his Palm in hand, Horne takes notes on what he sees, and often takes a picture or two. Back in his office, the notes and photos often become the heart of an e-mail to a staff member.
"I can write, 'I saw this--have you thought about trying it this way?' and 'By the way, here's a picture. Take a look at yourself in front of the class,'" says Horne, who is now a facilitator for other LTF cohorts.
When it's time for formal observations, Horne also relies on his handheld. But for these visits he brings along a full-sized keyboard so he can type notes. This eliminates the work of transferring handwritten notes to a computer, or rewriting them in another form.
Some program participants take these observation tactics a step further by joining the informal and formal in a running critique of teachers, according to the International Society for Technology in Education, which conducts formal assessments of the LTF training. This results in evaluations based on more comprehensive data, rather than one single visit.
The increased efficiency and effectiveness of observations is one reason handhelds can enhance school or district leadership, experts say. "Leaders only have so many minutes, and we have to think carefully about how we use our time," says Klock.
Or, as Lauer puts it, "If you can get some of the minutiae out of the way, it leaves you time to explore your vision, dialogue with teachers, talk about important things about your mission in your building."
Leading relevant news stories, journal articles and other professional development material is a key part of leadership in any industry, but particularly in education, where No Child Left Behind and state assessments are placing new and more rigorous demands on schools.
"At one point we said, 'Too bad we can't read these journals for them,'" says Fred Trimble, president of Trimble Consulting and part of Ginopolis's four-member LEADing the Future team.
With that in mind, the team created what it calls the "GoLEAD" channel. It's part of a free service created by the company GOKNOW that allows LEADing the Future participants to download news or other articles to their handheld periodically and read them whenever they have time. (Anyone can access archived articles at www.goknow.com/golead/search.) GoLEAD provides 10 new articles relevant to education leadership every two weeks.
"I read every one of those articles ... and these are publications I don't have the dollars to purchase," says Mary Miller, principal of St. Isaac Jogues School, a pre-K-8 Catholic school with 415 students in St. Clair Shores, Mich. "I think in order to be an effective leader, I need access all the time, wherever I am in the building."
Superintendent Pam Campbell of Tekonsha (Mich.) Community Schools, agrees. "In a basic sense, [my handheld] keeps me more organized. But in a higher sense--and what the leadership portion is all about--it allows me to transport ideas in a more organized fashion," she says. "GOKNOW allows me to take a lot with me to read when I have time, so I don't have to have a big piece of paper or a magazine."
The ISTE evaluation found that LEADing the Future participants have particularly embraced the GoLEAD channel. In August of 2003 the Web site logged 350 distinct visits, and that number jumped to 947 in November.
LEADing the Future superintendents, who make up about 20 percent of the participant group, are apt to increase their support for principals and teachers who are frequent users of technology. When Climax-Scotts' Balkam returned to the district after the training, the first thing he told his four principals was that he'd like them all to attend as well. And beyond that, he hopes to introduce the technology into classrooms in his district, as many LTF participants have, Ginopolis adds.
"I think we all need to develop our thinking as to new technologies so our kids can also take advantage of these opportunities," Balkam says. "Even in a tight budget situation, looking to the future I plan to see if the handhelds could somehow fit into our curriculum."
Curing Administrators' Blues
After they've completed the foundation training session, program participants are required to take part in asynchronous online discussions relating to the handheld technology and leadership. The forum works like any other Internet bulletin board where users post questions and others reply with information or links.
Lauer says he checks in with the online community at least weekly, and he has gleaned valuable information about improving reading scores from the Web site.
"As a building principal it can be very lonely," he says with a laugh. "This gives us a global community, a place for administrators to dialogue."
Rebecca Sausner is an education writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.