Riding the Wave of Personal Technology

Once reluctant users, superintendents now find their hand-held devices an indispensable tool for leveraging their leadership by Priscilla Pardini

Doug Otto, superintendent of the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas, doesn’t leave home or the office without two hand-held computing devices: his BlackBerry, which doubles as a cell phone, and his Palm Pilot.

“I’m pretty much connected 24-7,” says Otto, who also has a desktop computer in his home and a laptop at his office.

The hand-held devices, he says, “go off constantly,” the result of incoming phone calls, text messages, e-mails and electronic reminders of meetings or other events. The most important get his immediate attention and often instant responses.

It’s quite a change from 26 years ago when Otto assumed his first superintend-ency. Then, he noted, “Unless people had your home phone number, you could pretty much divorce yourself from your work.”

But today, out of the office doesn’t have to mean out of touch for Otto and many other superintendents. Gone, too, are the hours they spent every day playing telephone tag or dictating letters or memos to school board members, parents or district employees out in the schools. Even the volume of voice mail superintendents receive these days is dwindling, replaced by e-mail and instant messaging — more often than not, it seems, accessed on mobile devices such as Palm TREOs.

However, as the availability and allure of personal technology devices proliferate, superintendents find themselves confronting a new challenge. It’s a matter, says Otto, of figuring out “how best to leverage technology to help us do our jobs, while not becoming enslaved by it.”

Managing Creatively
Helping Otto and other superintendents find that happy medium is someone such as Jim Hirsch, Plano’s associate superintendent for technology. His first job was teaching math in the Minneapolis, Minn., area 32 years ago. “If you were a math teacher back in the ’70s, you were the person responsible for technology as it came into the district,” he says, noting, “My hobby became my job.”

Over the years, Hirsch has watched the availability and use of educational technology explode. “One of the roles of any chief technology leader in a school system is to make sure the rest of the leaders understand the power of the tools they have to manage their work- load,” he says.

According to Hirsch, that’s particularly important when it comes to today’s superintendents, who are forced to “manage their enterprises” differently than their predecessors. That’s largely because the job has become so much more complex.

“Changing student demographics means superintendents have to be aware of new cultures and ever-changing regulations, and reform measures imposed by the state and federal government mean they have to provide more training for staff and additional resources for the classroom,” he says.

What’s more, there are the ever-increasing demands on school districts and school district personnel from the public. “As a superintendent you have to be in touch with so many people — and about everything from academic accountability to pedestrian density and the need for a new sidewalk — that the job has become a communication nightmare,” says Hirsch.

And unlike the days when constituents writing letters to superintendents were perfectly willing to wait a week or two for a response, “now we send e-mails and expect a response in a couple of hours.”

As a result, adds Hirsch, “Superintendents are operating under a whole different level of pressure than ever before.”

While CEOs of major corporations who find themselves in similar situations simply hire additional managers to oversee new areas of responsibility, Hirsch says superintendents have to “manage with much leaner resources than anyone in the corporate world.”

Technology, he insists, can help them do that. But the key to doing so successfully is for the process to be second nature. “They shouldn’t have to think about it,” says Hirsch, who sometimes spends his days off consulting with officials in other school districts on technological issues. “It has to be seamless, transparent. No more complicated than sending e-mail.”

Utterly Dependent
The School Administrator talked with a number of school leaders, some of whom have worked with Hirsch, for whom the new technology has become an indispensable way of doing business.

Take Tom Trigg, superintendent of the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan. Trigg is a relative newcomer to the world of hand-held communication devices, having had one for less than a year. But these days, he says, “If I don’t have my TREO with me, I feel absolutely inadequate — as if I’m not connected to the world anymore. I’ve become utterly dependent on texting, e-mailing and using my cell phone virtually 24-7. It’s kind of a scary feeling.”

Yet Trigg sees a lot of positives in being so connected. “I feel the ability to communicate is right there at my fingertips,” he says.

Trigg, in his third year as Blue Valley superintendent, also likes having the ability to access from home his files on everything from student test scores to budget figures. “I view it as a tool that helps me be more efficient and hopefully more effective in what I do,” he says.

Another of those tools is the thumb-drive data storage device Trigg took along when he traveled to Washington, D.C., in February to attend a Grade School by Design Conference sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation. On his device: a PowerPoint presentation on the new high school the school district will open in 2010. Trigg admitted being “very comfortable” making the presentation, which included schematics of the site and floor plans, a design layout, animations and even a video of a flyover of the building site.

Community Access
Don Phillips, superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in San Diego County, Calif., can remember when technology was barely a blimp on the screen of his typical day. When he assumed his first superintendency in 1990, he did have a computer in his office. “It seemed as if a superintendent should have a computer,” Phillips recalls. But he only turned it on once every several months, “just to see if there was any e-mail.”

Today, he notes, “We’re plugged in all the time.” Phillips carries a cell phone and a TREO wherever he goes and describes himself as a big fan of all the technology now at his fingertips.

Phillips particularly likes having new, more efficient ways to communicate with parents and others in the community. That includes the school district’s monthly newsletter, which is automatically sent electronically to 20,000 recipients. It focuses on the big issues facing the school district, such as those surrounding the opening of a new high school. “Historically,” says Phillips, “We’d have sent out a newsletter once or twice a year.”

A “hot topics” link on the district’s website also helped get out information about the new high school and, specifically, a proposal to redraw high school boundaries once it opens in 2009. Phillips said posting the findings of an advisory committee that drew up the proposal as well as the rationale and specifics of the plan helped allay fears about what could have become “a dicey issue.”

An even more immediate way to communicate with the public is the district’s Connect-Ed service, a school-to-parent communication system that allows principals and administrators to schedule, send and track phone messages to parents and staff. Phillips said in the event of an emergency, the system could dial all 33,000 district families within 10 minutes. Some district principals used the system earlier this year to get information out to parents about reports that a stranger had tried to entice a child into his car.

Superintendents also say their handheld devices let them communicate faster than ever before with school board members. “I can call one number, type in an access code and then send a voice mail message directly to my board members,” says Otto. “Within seconds they get a message on their cell phones or wherever they want it.” That way, in the event of an emergency or other crisis, “they hear about it from me first. And that’s important, because if they don’t, they wonder, ‘why not?’”

Managing E-mail
Monte Moses, superintendent of the Cherry Creek Schools in the Denver, Colo., area, has had to find an efficient and effective way to handle an ever-increasing amount of e-mail. “I find that people are more likely to send me an e-mail with some idea, thought or concern than to call me on the phone or send a snail mail-type letter,” says Moses.

It’s not unusual for him to get as many as 100 e-mail messages a day with the number increasing dramatically when a controversial issue arises. “For me, that’s meant getting up to speed using an e-mail device,” he says, referring to the TREO he often uses to download messages whenever and wherever he finds himself with a few free minutes.

When a big issue results in an avalanche of e-mail, he relies on an office assistant to help him organize it. “We treat each one like a phone call,” he says.

Moses, who has worked 16 years in the district and the last eight as superintendent, finds e-mail messages often reflect a greater sense of urgency than phone messages. “Sometimes they’re written in a moment of heat and have a sharper edge than a voice mail message,” he says. “People are sometimes a little more abrasive in e-mail than they would be in a telephone contact.” Because of that, Moses says it’s sometimes difficult to accurately gauge the level of concern of the person sending the message. “You have to follow up and make a personal contact.”

Moses also uses his TREO to access the Internet. Last winter, for example, the weather in Colorado was unusually volatile. Being able to access weather forecasting websites even when out of the office was a big timesaver, he says.

The device also has become a depository for his calendar, contact information and other data. “It’s especially helpful on weekends when I’m not in the office or don’t have an office assistant there to help me,” Moses says.

Leading the Way
Paula Gault, superintendent of the Forsyth County Schools just outside of Atlanta, Ga., has had her BlackBerry since she took that job six years ago. She agrees the device not only saves time, but also “helps keep me connected.”

But Gault says there’s another reason she’s worked hard to become comfortable using technology as she goes about her job: The school district places a high priority on using technology as an instructional tool. And as superintendent, she says, “I can’t expect other folks to do things I’m not doing myself.”

Forsyth County’s 28 schools feature interactive whiteboards in every classroom. Teachers are issued notebook computers and have access to telephones with voice mail. At paperless school board meetings, board members work off of computer screens rather than with traditional packets bulging with printed material. Maintenance men access work orders through Palm Pilots.

“It’s just the way we do business,” says Gault, whose district has been recognized by the Center for Digital Education in conjunction with the National School Boards Association for its use of technology. “The expectation is that our staff out in the schools is going to use the technology that’s available to them to improve instruction, and so it’s important that I model the use of the technology that’s available to me.”

James Phares, superintendent of the Marion County, W.Va., School District, says working on his TREO is like “having an office in my pocket.” He uses it to make and receive phone calls, access and send e-mail, keep track of his daily schedule and take notes on school walkthroughs. It’s loaded with all the information he needs to contact key school district personnel and also takes photos, which Phares says is a nice extra feature.

When he’s out of town, Phares’ TREO keeps him connected. Once when he was in Miami, he was notified of a bomb threat at one of his schools. “I was able to text message directions to members of my staff who needed direction,” he said, noting that the bomb threat turned out to be unfounded.

Principals in Marion County also carry TREOs. Theirs are loaded with special software that allows them to create student databases and teacher evaluations. “If a principal sees a child in the hallway, he can call up his schedule and find out where he’s supposed to be,” said Phares. TREOs also streamline the teacher evaluation process. “Principals go into a classroom, observe a teacher and create an evaluation on the spot,” he said. “Then, back in the office, they synch it with their computer.”

Phares says principals who are comfortable using the latest technology set a good example. “I like them to be on the leading edge. When teachers see their principal modeling the use of technology, that gives them the impetus to use it as well.”

Costs and Connectivity
Thanks to all the security measures built into the new technology, superintendents say they are convinced school district data is adequately protected. Phares, for example, points out that his TREO is password protected. What’s more, he adds, “If someone tampers with the password to get at the data, the same program that encrypts it takes steps to contaminate the file.”

According to Hirsch, it costs, on average, between $40 and $50 a month more to run a hand-held digital device, such as a BlackBerry or a TREO, than a cell phone. “The question,” he says, “is whether that investment of no more than $600 per year is worth your superintendent being notified immediately of potential issues that could impact the life of a student or a staff member or even a board member’s continued support.” In Hirsch’s view, that kind of benefit is priceless and, as a result, “that monthly amount seems like a small price in return.”

Hirsch points out that school districts may quality for discounts under the federal E-rate program to support some of this new technology. That includes wireless Internet-access service for portable devices such as BlackBerrys or TREOs. (The devices themselves typically are not eligible for E-rate funding.) But Hirsch said whether a district qualifies depends, in part, on its own policies regarding technology use.

All this increased connectivity, of course, begs the question of whether round-the-clock accessibility is actually all that desirable.

“I do find it’s a stressor,” says Cherry Creek’s Moses. “But superintendents never want to feel like they don’t know what’s going on. It’s better to know than not know, especially when things get intense.”

Trigg, from Blue Valley, Kan., is squarely in that camp. “I don’t view it as a burden at all, though I know it can get out of balance,” he says, referring to the degree to which he’s come to rely on his TREO. “But it’s almost a lifeline for me to know that I can be apprised of any kind of urgent or emergency situation immediately.”

Marion County’s Phares agrees that timely access is critical. “When it comes to today’s superintendents, it’s essential. It’s the name of the game.”

Priscilla Pardini is a freelance education writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: mppardini@sbcglobal.net