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Title I School Districts: Using Technology to Make a Difference

Ohio Superintendent Dr. Renee Willis advancing academics with technology

When it comes to making district changes for Dr. Renee Willis, Superintendent of Richmond Heights Local School District in Ohio, academic improvement is at the top of the list. Funding is first used to enhance academic programs that can further student achievement.

One area of improvement is technology. Title I funding allows districts like Richmond Heights to initiate STEM and computer coding programs that otherwise would not get off the ground. Willis realizes that Title I alone is never the answer – it takes additional outside support from private, philanthropic and grants initiatives to push programs to the next level.

Willis sees the impact of technology in school district communication. Parents expect to use technology to login and check on their children’s progress. Every aspect of the school environment is being influenced in some way by advanced technology. It’s imperative, according to Willis, that teachers receive the proper training through professional learning to allow technologies to take hold.

Diversity in school leadership is a hot topic in the education space. Willis feels more examination needs to be held on the subject. In Ohio, as pointed out by Willis, she represents only 1 of 5 minority superintendents in a field of 613. It’s a staggering statistic whose reason is varied and complex. In some cases, minority teachers and administrators are choosing to stop their career climb at certain levels opting not to pursue the highest position of superintendent. It’s an important narrative worthy of far greater analysis and discussion.


Dr. Berger: Renee, it’s nice to spend time with you. Let’s talk a little bit about the way in which superintendents now have to approach budgets and incorporating in the local community, the private sector, and corporate America even more broadly to find new and progressive ways to look at funding in manners that we didn’t experience in our own school districts when we were growing up.

Dr. Renee Willis: Great question! Actually, the priority with all funding matters should be your academics; that should be your driver. Once you’ve established your academic program, your priorities, and your needs, seeking the funding is what a superintendent is now burdened with.

And, of course, you have your local tax dollars, that’s also complemented by federal title dollars because we are a Title I district with high poverty. After that, I seek public-private partnerships because the reality is that we are a public school system but we’re preparing our students for the real world and, oftentimes, that includes the private sector.

Private philanthropic grants, and humanitarian gifts can help you. While that’s not long-term sustainability, it could be the catalyst for some phenomenal programming that will be sustained.

DB: Do you find that you have to be very mindful of the way in which you communicate those efforts or those objectives with the local community so that they have a more well-rounded understanding of why you are doing that as a district and how that arrangement or that partnership looks?

RW: Sure, because public schools serve the public where they are located. So our community’s values are what we take into consideration with setting our budget. If a partnership needs to be established around something that’s particularly important to the community, while it may not necessarily be a Title I-eligible funding stream or it may not be something that our local tax dollars can wholly support, that’s something that we explain to the public to get shared buy in.

The challenge then is finding the private funder there but that, too, happens.

DB: Let’s talk about the way in which you look being Title I. I’m curious as to how you approach technology and the way in which you can bring technology into your schools while understanding some of the challenges that are just inherent and in an underserved population.

green coding

How do you look at bringing in technology that not only serves the needs of students at all grade levels, but does so in a way that is mindful of that trajectory so that the younger students are experiencing it in a way that will help to support their interest in middle school and high school and then beyond?

RW: The first part of your question talked about using Title I to help advance the technology cause, and Title I is exactly for that – to enhance. Not to supplant but to supplement. So, our general tax dollars provide the traditional computer lab.

But in our district – and we have become a truly STEM-embedded district – we’ve gone above and beyond. We now have the coding curriculum which requires – even for a pre-K and K – ScratchJr which is something they have to teach me. Those are things that Title I will supplement.

With that technology piece, we’re building coders at third grade. So what do we do to expand that? As we move throughout middle school and high school, we now engage Code.org, a nationally known coding corporation. And then, the partnerships grow and begin a network of their own.

We now have the Bio IT field. As traditional lay people in education, we don’t know those worlds. But it brings in a network and it requires more support. Then, the funding gets very specialized and you have to begin to write grants and seek those private partnerships to make these initiatives blossom and bloom.

DB: Is another resource, Renee, the pilot studies where you have technologies that want to be able to get data to understand if their technology is working for students and teachers. Is that also a resource that can be easier to integrate in because of some of those challenges?

RW: The data to see if it’s actually working?

DB: Yes. I mean, a lot of technology companies want the opportunity to engage with the district. And so, are you finding that you have an opportunity there because of some of those challenges to create an opportunity?

RW: The challenge that comes with measuring “Is it working?” depends on what you’re measuring to be working. So the world and the accountability measures are strictly looking at your academic core subjects.

Our proposition would say that technology is enhancing the students’ overall critical thinking and preparation for career readiness.

To measure that, we would engage a particular company. But in terms of “Is it working with regards to the standards in the academia world?” the test scores will show whether or not your enhancement of technology is working. That’s a two-fold type of evaluation.

I could see engaging companies to talk about expanding careers or broadening students’ horizons around careers that, for all intents and purposes, haven’t even been created yet. I can’t measure that. We would need someone who specializes in that. But as far as “Is it working with regards to our academic disciplines that are measured with our state tests?” the state tests reveal that answer.

DB: Tell me about the needs or the request of your local community in getting information about their own children and the progress that they’re making. A lot of districts will talk about technologies that help to communicate daily progress, activities, and just the things that they’re doing so that it keeps engagement up.

Do you see that in your community as well that we’re trying to actively engage parents in the learning process of their own children, and how are you doing that?

blue screen coding

RW: Technology is powerful not only with regards to what I’ve talked about previously but just in the ways we communicate. Parents want answers and they want them now. They want to log into something, text something, download something to let them know how their child is progressing ─ or not.

Students want that automatic feedback in the classroom, so we now have Google classrooms. We have online grade books, attendance books by which parents can log in. I can log in. Even the medical histories ─ everything is technologically driven and available. So we have to learn at a quick pace because that changes so rapidly.

It’s very ironic that even with the school nurse just trying to get them to move from the school health records to everything being in the computer. It has been a quantum leap for a lot of educators that have been longstanding. Technology moves at a quick pace.

Social media ─ by way of marketing your district, creating your own narrative, and getting your story out there ─ is something that moves so rapidly, by the time we nail down Facebook and Twitter, they’re already talking about something new. So, we need training. But you’ve got to do that because theirs is a generation where that’s all they do. And we’ve got to stay engaged with them.

DB: Are we succeeding in diversifying our superintendents around the country? Are we seeing enough women and women of color? Are we seeing Latino superintendents? Are we seeing diversity that changes the model that is more representative of the communities that we are serving?

RW: It’s very interesting that you say that. I’m an African-American female in the state of Ohio. I am one of five out of six hundred thirteen school districts. I never knew until I became a superintendent that the statistics were that staggering, and I don’t think the world at large knows that.

But when you come to a national conference like this, it is very evident that Ohio is not an anomaly. It probably is the status quo in most states. So is it a problem? Yes, it is. What is a causal factor of it?

ladder to sky

That I’m reflecting on personally because there was a decision that had to be made at some point. Do you continue to climb the ladder? Even though your career is education, do you continue to climb the ladder or do you stop at teacher-administrator? Do you seek that top CEO position?

I don’t know. I’m still reflecting on this. What I do know is just fact, and it’s a fact that we don’t hear much about. But until you’re in it, it’s very real. And with our student population looking more like me in terms of a minority, it is very eye-opening to wonder, what is the gatekeeper? Is that glass ceiling real? What is it that does not have the senior leadership in education looking like the population at large that it serves?

A great question! I don’t think I answered it but great question.

DB: It just means that the conversation needs to be had on an active basis so that we can understand it better and support those who have aspirations that maybe they didn’t think were possible.

RW: Exactly.

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

About Dr. Renee Willis:

Dr. Renee Willis is Superintendent of Richmond Heights Local Schools in Ohio. Willis spent four years with Cleveland Schools first as Deputy Chief of PreK-8 Education and later as chief strategic implementation officer/chief of transformation. Willis works as an adjunct professor at Cleveland State University and is the CEO and lead consultant of Responding to Challenges Consulting.

She holds a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Spelman College in Atlanta; a Master of Arts in education administration from Baldwin Wallace University; and a Doctorate of Philosophy in urban education from Cleveland State University.

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