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Adaptive Tech Learners in the Rural School District

A seamless connection between technology, teacher, and student learner

by Dr. Rod Berger

It’s not often that a school district has homegrown leadership in the Superintendent’s office. Raised on a small farm in Wilder, Idaho, Jeff Dillon is now the superintendent of the Wilder School District. Jeff plays a dual role in his district, electing to maintain his position as principal while performing his superintendent responsibilities.

Jeff believes an attentive stewardship with state and federal funding gives the best overall opportunity for meaningful partnerships within the community. Using state funding most effectively allows for the establishment of meaningful and sustainable private partnerships that can best benefit students.

Personalized learning initiatives are equally important to Jeff, stressing the unique dynamics between parents and students. The district encourages students to take ownership of their education through a free flowing open model that supports communication between home and school.

Wilder is pleased to be chosen as an Apple ConnectED school district bringing a seamless connection between, technology, teacher, and student learner. Jeff has been pleasantly surprised by the adaptive nature of the lower elementary level in grasping technological skill sets. In many respects, it’s the younger learner’s mindset that is most prepared to adopt new technologies.

Interview

Rod Berger: Jeff, it’s nice to spend time with you. I think what’s interesting that I would love to chat with you about today is the dual role that our rural district often have leaders take on. And you were talking about not only being a superintendent but also a principal.

I would be so curious as to the ─ I guess we could say ─ challenges but also opportunities in wearing multiple hats. How have you adjusted to that and what can we and other districts around the country learn from that experience?

Jeff Dillon: I think the beauty of having the blended role is that I don’t lose connection with kids. I always have that personal approach, conversation, and connection with kids that I use in the superintendent role; so all the conversations that we have at the board level, at the district level really is focusing on the students.

RB: Let’s talk a little bit about resources. There are a lot of conversations around sort of new models that are looking at integrating into the private sector and corporate America to help offset any budget shortfalls or goals that we might have as a district in means and methods to move that along faster.

Where are you with incorporating corporate America into public education from a funding perspective to help support what you are trying to do?

JD: What I try to do currently is actually use the federal or the general fund dollars I receive from my state as well as my title dollars to make education effective in my district.

I think it’s great to use the resources in industry outside the district to help support the district. But, sometimes, we need to look at “Can we make it happen on the dollars we receive from the state?”

I think that we can do that first, and then be successful at that; then, the partnerships we create are very meaningful partnerships that impact our kids in a very special way.

RB: So it’s really being effective with the money that you have already coming in.

JD: That’s exactly right.

RB: Getting rid of the waste or being mindful of that.

JD: I’ve got two jobs here so ─

RB: You know full well. Let’s talk a little bit about students and how they’re changing from when you and I were students; we went from a consumer model of gaining knowledge to now creating. Students are creators, and they’re taking ownership of their learning.

JD: Yes, they are.

RB: There is now a lot of discussion around how we document that learning that they’re taking ownership of and communicating that out. How are you seeing that and how does technology play a role in providing that ownership for a student and then communicating that to parents and families in a way that is up to date with what we all expect in the way in which we interface with technology and our relationships with people?

JD: Great question! In our particular district, we have a personalized mastery-based environment K-12. So it’s a free-flow open model for all of our middle schools and high school students ─ no bells, not whistles ─ and kids own their learning in managing that.

It’s happening as well in the elementary level ─ kindergarten students managing their learning and owning their learning; developing habits, the soft skills, to be able to be successful in that learning environment is powerful.

What that has created is that an interesting communication is happening between the home and the school where now our kids are constantly sharing the successes of the daily work with their parents through apps, and conversations have increased exponentially from school to home.

But it’s not from the teacher calling because of their behavior or a student issue; it’s really about the student sharing: “Mom, Dad, look at this work.”

RB: That’s what you and I never went through.

JD: Right. So that’s changed the dynamics and, now, when I sit down with parents, they don’t realize the change that’s happening at home. But the first question I ask them is, “How have the dynamics of home changed now that kids come home from a personalized learning environment and what are they talking about at home about what they’re learning?”

And the parents continually tell me, “They can’t stop talking about what they’re learning every day in school.”

Where do you find that?

RB: It’s a new frontier, right?

JD: We had kids go home and parents would ask them what they did and they always said, “Nothing.”

“What did you learn today?”

“Nothing!”

It has wholly flipped. You go home and the parents are going, “Okay, that’s enough. We have to do something else.”

RB: “Now, let’s eat our dinner.”

JD: It’s changed the whole home environment for kids.

RB: You mentioned K-5 and the ownership of learning even at the youngest levels. I’m also curious in the way in which you’ve looked at the procurement of technology because I think we’re starting to mature in our discernment of technology that is either applied to the high school or the upper levels as opposed to the younger district and then making sound decisions based on understanding it.

Kindergarten through ─ they’re going to have different needs along with the way in which we support the teachers. Have you noticed that shift as well and how do you approach it so that it’s not a catch-all technology that we try to put on an elementary teacher that really doesn’t apply?

JD: We’re fortunate that we’ve had a bit of a blessing. We are a ConnectED school through Apple. Apple came and partnered with us and created a backbone structure system with their IT department to have a seamless environment for technology.

Then, we have devices, great professional development for teachers to be great users of the tools.

So our kids aren’t just consuming information. They’re creating; they’re learning; they’re using the device to share information and to share what they’ve learned in different capacities.

What we’re finding is that our younger elementary kids are more adaptive in this environment than our juniors and seniors in high school.

I sit there with the juniors and seniors and talk about what our kids are creating in the lower elementary levels, and their eyes are wide open; and they go, “Why can’t we that yet?”

So this idea that young kids don’t have the capacity is totally wrong. They have the capacity. They can do it, and they can actually learn a lot faster than the high school students.

RB: Let’s close with this, Jeff. When we think about the community of superintendents ─ and we’re in the world now where being able to share and connect with people all across the world is just at our fingertips ─ have you seen a way in which how you communicate with your professional colleagues around Idaho and around the US has changed and do you find that that ability to connect has impacted the way in which you even practise your leadership by learning from others that might be in urban districts, larger districts, or smaller districts?

JD: What’s important for me is being able to connect with these like-minded individuals in the personalized learning environment, and to work with these superintendents across America has been God-sent for me in Idaho. And, now, Idaho is developing its own mastery-based approach and network that I’m a part of. It’s the best of both worlds that we’re creating.

We’re communicating in the state and outside the state about what’s best for kids and the kids are going to win when that happens.

 About Jeff Dillon

Jeff Dillon was raised in Wilder, Idaho on a small farm. He attended Holmes Elementary for kindergarten through sixth grade then transferred to Greenleaf Friends Academy and graduated in 1984. He then went to Washington where he earned his undergraduate degree in Behavioral Science from Northwest University. He has served many communities as a Pastor and Youth Pastor for 17 years. Following his passion for teaching, he returned to school and in 2001 he received his Masters degree in Teaching from Heritage University and taught Middle School Science and Reading in a Title 1 District.

In 2007 he returned to his hometown as Elementary Principal and Title 1 Director for the Wilder School District. During his tenure as Elementary Principal, he has successfully turned around a targeted failing rural, 100% Free and Reduced Lunch, School-Wide Title 1 School. Increasing proficiency scores on the Idaho Student Achievement Test 60% in Reading, Mathematics and Language Usage in three years. His school was the recipient of the National Title I Association Distinguished School award in 2012, and the International Reading Association’s Exemplary Reading Program in 2011. As a result of his successful leadership as the Elementary Principal, Jeff was hired to lead the Wilder School District as the District’s Superintendent of Schools in December of 2012 in addition to his K-5 Principal role. His leadership is one of passion, character, team building, and creating a culture of success, with an intense focus on the success of every student and staff.

Most recently, Mr. Dillon has successfully led his team to a partnership with the Apple Corporation in being identified as an Apple ConnectED school district. This partnership has brought to the District a commercial upgrade in technology infrastructure, professional development for all staff, iPads for all students PreK-12, and internal controls to support and monitor all devices 24/7. This increased technology has allowed the district to lead the state in innovation, offering success for every student in providing a district wide personalized competency-based education environment. In 2016 Mr. Dillon was invited to the White House for a conversation with Leading Districts in Innovations in Personalized Learning.

In addition to his leadership within the District, Jeff is the Chairman for Idaho Association of School Administrators Legislative Priorities Committee; member of the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort; AASA Collaborative; AASA Rural Superintendents Steering Committee; Strategic Advisory Committee; Board-Savvy Superintendent; Co-owner of a consulting company, Rural American Resources for Education; and is a national education leadership speaker. Most recently Jeff has presented at the Idaho Title 1 Conference, Global MindED Education Conference and the Atlantic Education Summit in Washington DC.

Follow Jeff Dillon on Twitter

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger

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