Spotlight

Modeling the Use of Technology

by Christopher P. Clouet

All eyes are on me. After all, I’m the superintendent and this is the welcome back to school rally, where allies and skeptics, administrators, teachers, support staff, board members and local politicians all await the beginning of the new school year.

It starts with me — ready to model the use of information technology as I set the tone for the coming academic year.

The rally must be inspiring, informative and entertaining. Above all, to make the connection with the audience, it must flow seamlessly.

Some baby boomer music pulses as people are taking their seats. Earth, Wind and Fire works — and hey, I like it! Flashing stills and video clips of students engaged in learning remind everyone that summer is over, and then the presentation, using a huge overhead screen and uncluttered PowerPoint slides, carries my message about consistency of practice and my theory of action on how meaningful collaboration among the adults results in a more coherent experience for students.

It goes well. Applause and smiles erupt, but how do I know it has worked? Because for weeks afterwards I get requests to meet with others to discuss some of the ideas of the presentation and to develop school-based projects around them.

Public Messages
Effective use of the technology tools both clarify and amplify the message.

Part of my practice is to use technology in a public manner. This takes many forms — sending of regular e-mails to all staff, posting of commentaries on the school district website, producing cable television shows and recording public service announcements on regional radio. I also use technology in other venues such as faculty meetings where I set up and run an LCD unit to clarify and amplify the discussion on my theory of action about my work.

Television still rules, so sometimes the way to go is with traditional technology. When the goal is blanketing the region with your message, cable TV is king. More people see and respond to my television programs than any other form of communication. Media context is essential if I am to have a presence in the community. It seems every anti-tax, anti-government and anti-public school advocate has a talk show, and I need to be in the mix, highlighting students and staff and offering a positive perspective. Interviews with students and staff, tapes of events and documentary evidence of classrooms in action all add to the development of a positive — though not disingenuous — vision of urban education.

Our school district website is a growing success. I receive frequent feedback on my posted commentaries on issues ranging from adopting consistent instructional practices to my theory of action as an educational leader. I’ve participated in blogs through our local newspapers. People e-mail me to react to a speech I’ve given on Martin Luther King Jr. or my outlining of a Next Steps perspective for the district. Above all, district policies are posted, as is student work, photos and school news.

Leveraging Excitement
Our School Administrative Student Information system, or SASI, is evolving into an organized structure of many data streams into a single system that allows for users to access, analyze and make critical judgments based on evidence, not anecdotes. My experience as superintendent in another district has helped me to be better prepared through the effective use of data. The Parent Link application, a Voice Over Internet Protocol tool, helps us to maintain easy contact with families through multilingual calls to homes on issues big and small.

Via the Waterford Early Reading Program, our youngest students use classroom learning centers to interact with text on a screen as a part of their daily learning as they build literacy skills.

Our students struggle with the effects of poverty in their lives. More than 75 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch and more than a quarter come from non-English speaking homes. About 80 percent of our students are members of minority groups segregated from our suburban neighbors. New London is labeled an economically distressed municipality. The lack of resources is a big challenge.

We cannot outfit every classroom with a technology-enriched environment beyond a personal computer for every teacher and pods in the elementary schools. To prevent sinking into a malaise flavored by what we cannot do, I have promoted a Technology Pioneers program. Using our limited resources we leverage the excitement and skills of teachers who are ready to use IT tools in their classrooms. They apply for equipment in return for welcoming colleagues into their classrooms to view effective use of technology.

On the other hand, we recently opened a state-financed Science and Technology Magnet High School enrolling 50 percent urban and 50 percent suburban students. It features a pre-engineering curriculum (Project Lead The Way) and use of a VBrick ethernet for viewing content on PCs, ACTIVboards and whiteboards as well as high resolution and digital microscopes.

We maintain a future-based orientation. We have the good fortune to work with researcher Don Leu of the University of Connecticut and his team on studies of how middle school students react to text on screen. We believe this partnership will allow us to design meaningful computer-based curricula.

Being Prepared
As a lecturer at University of Connecticut, I use Taskstream, a cyberspace environment for interacting with students around texts, projects and ideas. I believe it represents a step toward how many courses, at all levels, will eventually be organized.

We must educate and guide our students in a manner that prepares them for the unforeseen opportunities they will encounter. Being cognizant of and acknowledging such unanticipated opportunities is important. With this in mind, I feel we should resist adopting the swagger some tech experts exhibit.

My professional practice is about student achievement. Using technology to provide students with tools that clarify and amplify instruction is at the core of making it happen.

Christopher Clouet is superintendent of the New London Public Schools, 134 Williams St., New London, CT 06320. E-mail: clouetc@newlondon.org