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District CIO

Schools walk the walk

How tech leaders model innovation, collaboration and communication for staff and students
  • CTOs need to make sure the learning engine is running all day. —Sheryl Abshire, CTO, Calcasieu Parish Public Schools
  • The data made everyone aware of issues they were facing and develop a plan to fix them. —Gary Brantley, chief information officer, DeKalb County Schools

When Gary Brantley began his career as an IT leader 14 years ago, he primarily provided technical support and made sure the hardware was running. “It had everything to do with techy stuff,” he says.

Since then, Brantley’s role as chief information officer at DeKalb County Schools in Georgia has expanded significantly. He now spends just 5 percent of his time managing technology infrastructure.

The rest of the time, he works as an integral part of the district leadership, using data to identify students at risk of dropping out and developing programs to help them succeed.

Other CIOs have experienced a similar evolution of their role. Melissa Dodd, CTO at San Francisco USD, spearheads an initiative to deliver professional development using Google Classroom.

Leo Brehm, learning evolution officer at Central Massachusetts Collaborative and former director of technology and digital literacy at Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough in Massachusetts, has brought a startup mindset to his district.

And Sheryl Abshire, CTO at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, leads an IT team that provides around-the-clock support.

CIOs and CTOs already live on the leading edge of 21st century technology. So, it’s a natural fit for them to use their leadership positions to model today’s most in-demand skills—creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication—for staff, teachers and students.

Creativity: Fostering an agile mindset

When Brehm was at Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts from 2011 to 2016, he reimagined the IT department as a research-and-development team, driven by the “iterative design process” of try-fail-and-try-again.

Brehm and his staff at Newton modeled that agile startup mindset for teachers during a three-year effort to incorporate technology into the curriculum. In the first year, the teachers tested their ideas within their own classrooms.

In the second year, Brehm’s team worked with the teachers to expand their idea across the school or grade level. If it was successful, the team deployed the idea across the district in the third year.

Among the projects that emerged from this design-thinking process was a second-grade lesson on inclined planes, in which students used 3D printers to prototype ramps. Another was a library program in which elementary school students learned Python code to program robots.

In PD sessions, Brehm has had to model “psychological safety” to make people feel comfortable about sharing their mistakes.

“Although sometimes people become a little too psychologically safe,” he says, explaining that people used the opportunity to say things that were occasionally inappropriate. “We had to develop a new phrase saying it’s OK to have an unexpressed thought.”

Critical thinking: Diving into the data

As districts adopt more online tools, curriculum and books, the performance of IT systems becomes increasingly mission-critical.

At DeKalb County Schools in Georgia, Gary Brantley uses data dashboards with predictive analytics to monitor the performance of computer systems and identify network problems before they affect classrooms.

When Brantley presented the data at district cabinet meetings, he says they were able to see the gains and struggles. More importantly, the data made all aware of exactly what issues they were facing and how to develop a plan to fix them.

That commitment to analytics also caught the attention of the school board and ultimately served as a model as the district confronted high drop-out risks at about 25 of its schools. Inspired by Brantley’s use of predictive data, DeKalb County adopted software to identify students at risk of dropping out.

The software tracks assessments, behavior and attendance to develop a complete picture of each student’s performance.

Over a period of about six months, the system flagged approximately 900 at-risk students. The district then implemented intervention programs that provide those students with social and emotional support, as well as housing and food assistance, to get them back on track.

Collaboration for anywhere, anytime

Sheryl Abshire has been the CTO at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana for 20 years and has worked in the district for more than 40. She says the CTO’s role has become a 24/7/365 job because technology is so integrated into instruction.

“Learning is not an 8 o’clock to 3 o’clock endeavor anymore,” she says. “And it’s the responsibility of the CTO to make sure the learning engine of the district is up and running every day, all day long.”

Despite the round-the-clock demands, Abshire has very low staff turnover. One reason is that Abshire practices the same 24/7 dedication that she expects from her staff, she says. “Whatever I’m asking you to do, you can be assured that the expectation of myself is double,” she says.

Abshire and her team support 34,000 students and 6,000 teachers and staff, any of whom may require tech help outside of regular school hours. The district offers online AP courses, summer school, and summer camps.

Teachers and students also connect to the district’s online resources on evenings and weekends.

When the network is down or a teacher is having problems with the learning management system, the IT team receives a text alert, and they don’t hesitate to call Abshire if they need her input. Some teachers even call her at home to ask for help.

“When I got this job 20 years ago, if the internet went down for a little while, I was the only person who was worried about it,” Abshire says. “Now if we have a blink in the network or something needs to be restarted, our phones light up.”

Using Google Classroom for PD

In spring 2016, San Francisco USD transitioned to Google’s “G Suite for Education” platform for communication and collaboration. CTO Melissa Dodd immediately began using it to collaborate with her team and encouraged other district educators to do the same.

She runs her team meetings through the G Suite, whether they’re in person or on Google Hangouts. She shares information using Google Slides and assigns tasks using Google Docs.

If Dodd recommends and introduces a tool, she says, “I need to use it in my everyday practice and help my department really leverage the technology to show the rest of the district what’s possible.”

Based on her example, staff, teachers and administrators use G Suite to stay in touch with colleagues. Principals record video messages and share them with their teachers through Google Drive.

In the 2017-18 school year, San Francisco USD will begin a pilot project delivering math curriculum through Google Classroom, where educators can share ideas about implementing the lessons.

Teachers are experimenting with the platform before using it with their students. Dodd and her team use Google Classroom to deliver PD on topics such as e-portfolios, digital storytelling, digital citizenship and 1-to-1 programs.

Next year the district will expand its use of Google Classroom to PD on non-technology topics as well.

“Each of those professional learning opportunities will have a hybrid approach,” Dodd says. “They’ll meet face-to-face, but then they’ll also have a Google Classroom that they’ll use to continue the conversation and to support their learning throughout the year.”


Leila Meyer is a freelance writer in British Columbia.