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Leadership Profile: James Ponce

This Texas superintendent is confidently rolling out the biggest iPad deployment in the country.

Sometimes issues in education are complicated-they require nuanced explanation and careful thought before you can assess them. Other times, you hear about a new initiative and simply think, Are they crazy? McAllen ISD's plan to give each of its 25,000 students an iPad or iPod Touch within a year seemed to fall in the latter category, so I called James Ponce, superintendent of the Texas district, and asked him that exact question. As you might expect, he doesn't think so. In fact, he fully expects this model to spread throughout education. Eyes will be fixed on the quasi-urban district, located just five minutes from the Mexico border, to see how its bold experiment plays out.

Q Most people who have heard of the scale of your plan are amazed and somewhat skeptical. How did you reach this point?

A It started [three years ago] with my entry plan. We asked a cadre of 30 to 40 parents and staff, "Do we have a 21st-century learning environment?" The answer was a resounding no. We concentrated on our learning environment and asked, "What are the necessary tools?"

Q Rollouts this large usually occur over a longer stretch of time. Why are you planning to deliver all the devices to the entire district within one year's time?
A In education, we never go to scale, and that hurts us. The demands on public education are the highest they have ever been. A pilot can take five years. We don't have the time to take four to five years. I'm not very patient. I have a sense of urgency.

Q How is your district paying for this?
A We're using our general fund and trying to leverage special revenue from the feds as much as possible. We have to be creative at mixing up funding sources. We had $6 million set aside to fund desktop computers, document readers, and overhead projectors. That plan was archaic, so we shifted the money to mobile learning. We're also hoping for some cost avoidance down the line on paper and books.

Q Are you planning on getting rid of textbooks and using only digital materials?
A We have been moving quietly in that direction. Our entire middle school curriculum doesn't have textbooks as we know them. We were also one of the first K-12 districts in the country to join iTunes U, with our TLC3 program [Transforming Learning in the Classroom, Campus, and Community]. We use it to share information, in school and in the community.

Q What help are you getting?
A Mark Edwards has taken me on as a mentee. I have visited Mooresville [in North Carolina, where Edwards is superintendent]. I've taken a wealth of information from him and his staff. Abilene Christian University has been a good partner. They're renowned for their work in mobile technology. We did a lot of work thinking this through. We have conference calls every week.

Q How will you know if the plan has been a success?
A The whole idea is to move away from measuring what students consume to what they create. Hold me to the old measurements-I'll work to succeed there-but I'm excited about coming up with new ways to better define what students are learning. We are really banking on having an authentic conversation about learning, not a marketing conversation about a gimmick to get attention.
We also know that learning is a social entity now. Putting these devices in the hands of every student can impact a whole family, from parents to younger siblings.

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