The 2021 Driving K-12 Innovation report released by CoSN selected the most critical Hurdles (challenges), Accelerators (mega-trends), and Tech Enablers (tools) that school districts are facing with personalized learning, innovation, and digital equity. In a recent edWebinar, sponsored by ClassLink and co-hosted by CoSN and AASA, education leaders reflected on the challenges of the past year and the possibilities of the upcoming school year.
According to the CoSN report, the standard definition of hurdles is a roadblock that forces schools to slow down, prepare themselves, and then make the leap. When asked about the hurdles that happened due to schools closing on March 13th, 2020, all four presenters agreed that broadband, not devices, challenged their districts to provide equitable access to learning no matter their districts’ geographic location or demographics. Dr. Carol Kelley, Superintendent of Oak Park Elementary District 97 (IL), stated, “We were not as prepared as we could have been to have made that shift in terms of our practices and pedagogy.” Director of Schools for Wilson County Schools (TN), Dr. Donna Wright’s hurdles included broadband issues and a tornado that hit the area two weeks before closing schools. “We were almost stunned into paralysis, which is a hurdle in itself, but then it became an urgency as far as what do we need to do next.”
As defined by the CoSN report, accelerators are megatrends that drive change. In Maury County Public Schools (TN), former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chris Marczak said, “As we had to hit the brakes on many things, parents demanded that their children continue learning, which is understandable from a public K through 12 sectors. So, we had to think on our toes about what we would do throughout those next couple of months to hit the needs of our parents while still dealing with the hurdles.” In Wilson County, they focused on students by understanding them intimately and identifying their strengths before determining their needs. In Township High School District 214 (IL), where Dr. David Schuler is Superintendent, they doubled down on how to personalize the pathway for every child and enhance the student voice and student choice.
A question put to all the presenters by Ann McMullan, Project Director of CoSN’s EmpowerED Superintendent Initiative, was, “Were there pieces of technology that you had in place already that enabled you to grease the wheels so that you could surmount the challenges that you were facing?”
Echoed by all four presenters, Dr. Schuler described how his district outfitted parking lots with internet and WiFi for students who could not access WiFi at home. His district also ensured that apartment complexes and mobile home parks could access WiFi with overnight placements of minibuses with hotspots. Dr. Wright’s district created a parent university that provided opportunities for parents to understand what their children would be experiencing and how they could support learning at home. Dr. Kelley stated her tech enablers included her amazing technology team that was instrumental in supporting technology during the transition to online learning. Finally, Dr. Marczak focused on the demand and need for a consistent and transparent parent community by launching a Facebook Live and Periscope blast to talk directly to parents and community members about what was going on in the schools.
Frankie Jackson, Independent K-12 Chief Technology Officer in Texas, highlighted the efforts by CoSN and the fact that all discussions by the advisory board regarding innovation in K-12 have happened over the last year. Personalization and digital collaborative environments identified in the fall of 2019 have accelerated due to the pandemic. When asked about which lens her district was looking through for the upcoming school year, Dr. Kelley reflected that tech enablers and system thinking would drive the following year. “The district is leveraging my departure as an opportunity to help the community come together to envision, build, and prioritize what they see as the future of learning,” Dr. Marczak stated. “We realized in the Department of Defense that we couldn’t go back to the way things were before March 13th of 2020. The world has changed. It is going to be different moving forward. So, we’ve worked hard on that cooperation around using tech to enable the work we’re doing moving ahead.”
Dr. Schuler said, “We’re excited about how we’re planning to accelerate the rate of learning for all of our students thinking through a school community lens. In addition, we are looking to bring in more supports through our ESSER dollars. The supports include providing more social work outreach to families and thinking through what trauma our students and staff may have experienced this year.” While at the same time, his district is also accelerating personalizing learning environments for every child to ensure that they have access to early college credit. Dr. Wright stated that it would have to be the accelerator because that is something that we stumbled into by accident. “With the virtual option that we built overnight, we were ready for remote and other small or short-term experiences.” Still, the virtual program has seen children thrive who failed in a brick-and-mortar classroom so that personalization became even more critical. McMullan concluded the presentation by stating, “What I see as an accelerator for all four of you is your incredible leadership. In the last year, we have learned that leadership does matter, and exemplary leadership and good leadership are what will drive this forward. The four of you are exemplars of the power of good leadership, which is an accelerator.