A Small District's Big Innovator
Superintendent Bradford Saron has always had a passion for technology. "My family makes fun of me because my iPod Touch is attached to my hip at home," he says. But even his family gets in on the act, as his children use the device to listen to music, watch movies or play educational games at different times.
Saron, who is also a heavy user of his Droid smartphone, has brought his personal passion for technology to bear in his job as superintendent of the 584-student Cashton (Wis.) Public Schools, a district that lies about 180 miles northwest of Milwaukee and 28 miles east of LaCrosse, which lies near the Minnesota border.
As a principal and then as superintendent, he introduced iPod Touches, iPads, wireless Internet, document cameras, SMART Boards and laptops into classrooms at Cashton Public Schools. While other rural leaders may find such technologies daunting, Saron has embraced them, says John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. "He is really up on all the latest theories and applications [of technology] in a way that benefits his small community," Ashley says.
But technology isn't the only area that the 35-year-old Saron has transformed within the district, which covers 120 square miles. From building "cardio" fitness centers to expanding summer school, Saron is bringing fresh ideas of all sorts to rural schooling.
He also is outspoken about what he feels is a growing threat to rural education—the tendency to thrust ever more responsibilities on a dwindling number of administrators. Saron is not only the district's superintendent; he is also the district's business manager, a function that in a larger district would be performed by a separate department. He has written a graduate dissertation, penned opinion pieces, and worked with other Wisconsin administrators to study the trend of overburdening administrators— which he terms "administrative compression." Compression is reducing administrators' leadership effectiveness by spreading them too thin at precisely the time when their attention should be focused on making reforms, he says.
A Natural Fit
Education was a natural career choice for Saron, who grew up in the resort area of Door County, which lies on a peninsula on Lake Michigan, more than 180 miles from Cashton. Like his father, who still works as an English teacher in Door County, Saron attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, majored in English literature, and played college football.
He credits both his parents, but especially his mother who has worked as a paramedic, for his people skills and ability to work under pressure. After graduating college, he spent a year teaching high school English in the rural Blair-Taylor District before moving to the urban School District of La Crosse, where he taught high school grammar and composition for five years.
In 2004, at age 29, Saron became principal at Cashton's middle school and high school, which share one building. As principal, he embarked on a series of academic reforms, including altering the high school course sequence so that students take physics in their freshman year. In addition to using the skills that students are learning in their algebra I course, freshman-year physics also teaches students about the fundamental concepts of matter and energy that form the basis of chemistry and biology, which provides a foundation for later science classes, including an advanced physics elective. Saron worked with other administrators to equip school buildings with fully wireless Internet access.
During his tenure as principal, teachers had access to carts of wireless laptops that could be moved from classroom to classroom. These technological and academic ideas helped Saron land the superintendent job in the district in 2007. David Amundson, president of Cashton's board of education, says he has been impressed with the eagerness with which Saron has incorporated "leading edge" technology. "It's really helped our students."
Cashton students' performance on state tests has improved over the last seven years, Saron notes. The percentage of Cashton students scoring proficient or advanced in reading on state tests climbed from 84 percent to 88 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The percentage for math rose from 74 percent to 88 percent over the same period. And the comparable figures for science jumped from 82 percent to 89 percent in that time.
In 2009, each classroom was equipped with a SMART Board, an interactive, touch-sensitive digital whiteboard. The video, audio and manipulative imagery allow teachers to reach students who have different learning styles as it makes learning more experiential.
Using federal stimulus and district funds, Cashton schools has purchased in the last two years about 80 iPod Touches and 10 iPads, onto which the district has loaded education-related applications. For example, one education app, ABC Tracer, teaches elementary schoolchildren handwriting skills by displaying letters on the Apple devices for students to trace with their fingers. Students also have used the iPod Touches to create podcasts as part of class projects.
Cashton Public Schools also trains teachers in the use of technology by bringing in outside consultants to do professional development, sending teachers to summer workshops, and providing teachers with common planning times to explore ways to use technology in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to use their training to experiment with technology, Saron says. For example, a group of lead teachers was trained in the SMART Board technology by the local Cooperative Educational Services Agency #4, one of 12 nonprofit, state-created agencies in Wisconsin that provide supplemental services and help to rural schools in areas like special education and instruction.
The agency trained Cashton lead teachers in the SMART Board technology, and the lead teachers in turn trained other Cashton teachers. In addition, the district used federal stimulus money to put a teacher on special assignment for a year to help teachers implement technology tools like iPods and SMART Boards.
Saron likes SMART Boards because they can be used to show videos and presentations. In addition, a teacher who demonstrates how to solve a math problem on a SMART Board can record each step of the solution. The images of those steps can then be combined to create a slide show that a teacher can play back in class or post on the Internet for children and parents to replay on their own. Students also can manipulate pictures, letters and numbers on the SMART Board using the touch screen.
Another teacher records her voice to create MP3 files of stories so that her elementary students can listen to them over an iPod Touch while their eyes follow the words in the actual text. "Great teachers find ways to constructively use technology on their own when there's a staff development program to help them learn the skills," Saron says.
To foster communication, teachers have been given access to NetVibes, a Web publishing platform that Cashton teachers use to write blogs, post classroom assignments and newsletters, share news feeds and post warm-up exercises.
Rural Schools Leader
Saron has also taken a lead role in Wisconsin on the issue of "compression." By having more routine managerial duties thrust upon them, "compressed" rural superintendents have less time to maintain good labor relations, implement reforms, drum up community support, and advocate politically on behalf of their districts—a problem Saron says has been made worse by budget cuts.
Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, says that as an active member, Saron has taken a lead role in the organization's effort to study compression. WASDA is partnering with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to survey superintendents and school board members on their feelings about compression to get a clearer idea of the extent of the problem. "There's no question that we have undergone a significant amount of compression, and there are fewer administrators in Wisconsin than there ever have been," Turner says.
Saron says he has been fortunate to have a school board that is understanding of his duties as a rural superintendent, and so he doesn't feel as compressed as some other rural superintendents who double as principals and even bus drivers. In a time of tough budget choices, Saron understands why sometimes—and in some cases—administrators are seen as less important than programs. But he believes administrators must speak openly to their communities about the cost of compression, so that communities— reflected through school boards—can make more informed decisions during budget time.
Longer Day, More Enrichment
Saron has advocated for more school time for remediation and enrichment activities. To accomplish those goals, the district applied for and won a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which allowed the district to add 90 minutes to the end of the school day in the elementary and middle grades. The grant also pays for a snack and transportation home for the students.
In addition, Saron added more summer school opportunities for elementary schoolchildren by providing a reading and math academy during the summer to prevent the academic backsliding many students experience over the long break.
Health and wellness of the community is another major concern for Saron. People in rural areas often don't have easy access to fitness and/or workout facilities, which drove Saron to apply for and receive a federal grant to purchase workout equipment such as treadmills and stationary bikes, for the student cardiovascular laboratory, or CardioLab. Located in a space off the middle and high school cafeteria, the CardioLab is open to the public outside of school hours and during the summer. In addition, fitness classes are taught there by a staff member from a local community health center.
Saron is a "very focused, very dedicated, very hardworking district administrator," says Turner of WASDA, who is "extremely dedicated to making sure that the kids in his district get the very best education possible."