As school districts nationwide are re-envisioning learning and applying lessons learned from rapid technology integration during the pandemic, superintendents from the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools network are leading the way.
Last month, as a new school year began, Digital Promise President and CEO Jean-Claude Brizard sat down with three such superintendents on a panel to explore the ways in which their districts were better prepared or more successful than their peers outside of the network. What were the challenges? How did superintendents leverage strategies learned from the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program across their districts? What are their aspirations for greater technology integration and engagement in 2021-22?
All three superintendents explained that their entire districts—not just the select schools participating in the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative—were able to quickly pivot to distance learning when schools first shut down in March 2020 thanks to the lessons learned from the leaders and educators in the program, which were passed on to other educators within the district.
“Our district was able to pivot quickly to remote learning because of the knowledge and systems put in place within our five-year partnership with [Verizon Innovative Learning],” said Dr. Darin Brawley, superintendent of Compton Unified School District in Compton, California, which has 13 participating middle and high schools. “We were able to take those systems and scale them up…during the initial shutdown.”
Dr. Vivian Ekchian, superintendent of Glendale Unified School District in Glendale, California, added that teachers in schools outside of the program saw what Verizon Innovative Learning Schools teachers were able to do with the technology, which led to district-wide buy-in. “I think [Verizon Innovative Learning Schools teachers] became early adopters and trailblazers for the rest of the district,” she said. “Other schools became enthusiastic….It had a significant district-wide impact.”
Dr. Cecilia Maes, superintendent of Alhambra Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, agreed. “Not only did we have so many of our schools equipped with the devices and the high-speed internet, we now had a group of experts, that for those that weren’t participants in this amazing program, they were able to mentor, coach, and connect with those that needed the additional support,” she said.
Dr. Ekchian also raved about the professional learning opportunities the program provided. “The quality of professional development was incredibly unique and timely,” she said. “And the coaching…really gave that support necessary for every teacher….So it came as a natural transition, rather than an unexpected pivot.”
The superintendents discussed how the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program is helping them narrow the digital equity gap to ensure students in their districts graduate college, career, and life ready, equipped with 21st century skills, such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills.
“Through [Verizon Innovative Learning]…our students receive some of the best technology with their iPads; right at their fingertips, they have access to tools that really promote and allow them to be creative, to be innovative, to really engage in that analyzing and reasoning, problem-solving process,” said Dr. Maes, whose district has 12 participating middle schools. “Our kids have access to the best technology, and with the support from [Verizon Innovative Learning], we’re able to just add to that, so that all of our kids…are able to engage in and learn and develop these skills that are needed to be successful in the 21st century.”
The superintendents noted that closing the Digital Learning Gap does not just impact the students, but it impacts the entire family, as parents and caregivers are also learning to use the technology in many cases.
“Parent engagement increased tremendously,” Dr. Ekchian said. “In the past, parents had been hesitant because of their own level of literacy or comfort in using technology….[Now], the teaching wasn’t just focused on the student anymore, but it really became one that was participatory by the entire family. And it was transformational.”
Dr. Brawley explained that Compton USD began “training” parents when COVID shut down school buildings “so that they could be successful with working with their kids at home….We had technology nights, where the parents could be trained so that they could better assist their kids with accessing all the information that they needed to do at home.”
Heading into the new school year, all three superintendents agreed that moving forward, their districts would use lessons learned during the pandemic, particularly with the support of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program.
“I don’t think we want to go back to what we were before,” said Dr. Ekchian. “I think we’ve all agreed that there were so many things we learned that have added to the way we teach…so [we want to] carry forward all that worked and the acceleration of innovation that occurred.”