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Building a partnership for success

How a superintendent and technology director made a difference together

By Ann Marsh

Douglas Otto had been in his new job as superintendent of schools in Plano, Texas, for less than a month when he started telephoning James Hirsch in Otto's former northern Minneapolis district.

"I needed advice from somebody I trusted a great deal," Otto recalls about his 1995 move to Texas. Hirsch was the director of technology design at the Anoka-Hennepin school district where he'd worked for 21 years, the last four of them under Otto.

Otto, who had become accustomed to Hirsch's philosophy of educational technology, wasn't happy with what he found in Plano. While the district had a wide area network (WAN) in place for administrative purposes, there was no such infrastructure for the instructional side. Teachers and administrators were forced to shut their computer systems down, unplug them from jacks for the administrative WAN, plug them into jacks that connected to instructional servers, and reboot their machines. It was a cumbersome process, to say the least, with a strict separation between business and educational goals. Otto decided a change was in order. It took him a year to convince Hirsch to move south, but he finally succeeded.

The move kick-started the second incarnation of a partnership which, thus far, has served the technology needs of two school districts. Otto and Hirsch now find themselves speaking at technology and education conferences around the country about what they're doing right.

Their model for success is twofold:

1. The business and educational demands of a district should be served by the same integrated network.

2. The director of technology should sit at the cabinet level and answer directly to the superintendent.

"From my perspective, as a superintendent, the person in that role can't just be an infrastructure expert or just an educational technology expert," Otto says. "They've got to know the full range." Hirsch eventually took the title of assistant superintendent for technology.

Otto insisted Hirsch have a cabinet- level position to confer status on the district's technology goals and to convey to parents, teachers, and administrators the central role he sees technology playing in every student's education. He gave Hirsch wide latitude — perhaps unusually wide — in making technology decisions for the schools.

"I have a blind faith in him," Otto says plainly. "I would support any decision Jim made in technology." But that doesn't mean he disengages himself from Hirsch's work. Otto and Hirsch keep each other regularly updated on the status of technology installations, orders, negotiations with vendors, and with any controversies that arise at the board level or among parents.

For Hirsch's part, he takes it upon himself to make sure that Otto and every other cabinet and board member are informed of new technology innovations at the school district. "The superintendent has never felt unprepared on a technology question," Hirsch says. "I won't let him be surprised that way."

Otto arranged for Hirsch's office to be located close to his own, so that the two would be sure to bump into each other on a regular basis. The two rarely e-mail each other; instead, they speak in person and leave each other voice mails.

A NEW COLLABORATIVE SPIRIT

After arriving in Plano, Hirsch and Otto found themselves talking every day. The first item on the agenda was to clarify the district's vision for how technology would function at schools. As part of this process, Hirsch and Otto held meetings with the rest of the cabinet, the school board, and with administrators and teachers.

"The philosophy was, 'Never shall the two meet,'" Hirsch recalls of the divided system. "There was a constant tug and pull. You'd end up doubling efforts and sometimes tripling efforts."

With Otto's support, Hirsch boiled seven different technology departments down to four. He didn't let anybody go, but hired far fewer people. One immediate cost savings came from eliminating staff duplication. Today a single, integrated system for all of the district's technology needs serves 54,000 people, including kindergarten students — each of whom is able to access e-mail, use the Web, and keep their own personal accounts. The district's technology budget, not including the budgets of individual schools, is $12.5 million.

"What's happened is all groups now have a better appreciation of the importance of technology, whether they're in food service, payroll, or on the instructional side," Hirsch says.

Hirsch constantly urges Otto to experiment with new technologies, sometimes convincing him to drive to product demonstrations at nearby companies. On a recent visit to Texas Instruments, Otto tried out a new wireless projection system.

"All of a sudden you could just see the wheels turning [in Otto's head]," Hirsch recalls. "He was thinking what the teachers could do with this thing."

Otto says, "It absolutely changed my perception of where we're headed with projection. I was remembering going to presentations hauling 30- to 40-pound projectors with wires sticking out everywhere."

Otto knows that, as much as he relies on Hirsch, he has to let him go frequently in order to keep him. With technology moving quickly, Otto gives Hirsch free rein to refresh his skills and share his knowledge with others. Hirsch serves on multiple state, regional, and national education-technology boards. "There is no way I could keep Jim Hirsch if I didn't let him be involved elsewhere," Otto says.

Together, Otto and Hirsch are now overseeing a push into wireless and handheld technologies, as well as working to provide high-speed Internet access to students' homes. The district has negotiated with Verizon to provide discounted DSL service to families of students in the district for $47 a month.

Four student groups at different grade levels are testing Palm handheld computers. In one English class, students recently were assigned to read The Scarlet Pimpernel. On their home computers, a couple of the students found the book on a public-domain Web site, and loaded the text, with annotation, onto their devices. Back in class the next day, the students beamed the text, Palm to Palm, to each of their classmates. Now, teachers are finding that the technology is forcing them to keep up with their own students.

Not every school district has the means to enjoy the kind of technological enhancements Plano has; since Otto's arrival, the district has successfully passed more than $120 million in bonds for technology upgrades. Nor does every district have a James Hirsch. A former teacher, Hirsch first led teacher discussions about technology and education in Minneapolis in 1976. Nonetheless, the Otto-Hirsch partnership offers a model for what an integrated vision of technology can do for a district.

"In my opinion, you've got to give status to the whole area of technology," Otto says. "And you have to be willing to work at it."


HOW SUPERINTENDENTS CAN BEST CULTIVATE TOP TECHNOLOGY TALENT

ESTABLISH A CABINET-LEVEL POSITION THAT ANSWERS DIRECTLY TO THE SUPERINTENDENT.

This demonstrates to the district the importance of the role that technology plays in your schools. It also clears away a level of potential miscommunication.

LOOK FOR A PERSON WHO WILL HELP CREATE AND SHARE A VISION OF THE ROLE TECHNOLOGY WILL PLAY IN YOUR DISTRICT.

Attend workshops with your technology director. Schedule meetings on this subject with members of your cabinet, school board, and teaching staff. Make sure that together you create "buy-in" on the part of your district's community about the role technology will play in education.

MODEL THE EFFECTIVE USE OF TECHNOLOGY AT SCHOOL BOARD AND COMMUNITY MEETINGS.

If the superintendent and school board members are versed in new technologies, they will inform and inspire the teaching staff and community.

DON'T NEGOTIATE OR SIGN CONTRACTS WITH TECHNOLOGY VENDORS ON YOUR OWN.

Make the process of finding, evaluating, and contracting with software and hardware companies a joint project with your technology director. This will ensure that your technology infrastructure is tightly coordinated with your shared vision.

ENCOURAGE PROFESSIONAL GROWTH AND CONTINUING EDUCATION.

Technology moves quickly and your top technology director needs to grow with it. Give your director the freedom to participate in initiatives at the state, regional, and national levels. Doing so will keep this person abreast of developments elsewhere and help prevent defections to private industry.

MAKE SURE YOUR OFFICES ARE CLOSE TO EACH OTHER.

Close physical contact will encourage frequent meetings, both planned and spontaneous. This will keep you each informed about each other's work and prevent both of you from falling behind on the status of the district's many technology needs and projects.

About the Author

Ann Marsh is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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