League of Innovative Schools’ Leaders Share Ideas, and Common Frustrations

Associate Editor

Washington, D.C.

A group of about 45 superintendents from the League of Innovative Schools shared success stories and described setbacks in their efforts to promote innovative practices in their districts, at a three-day meeting here that ends today. 

The Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools is now a national coalition of 57 school districts in 27 states that serves more than 3.2 million students. Digital Promise, the nonprofit organization authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education, recently welcomed 11 more districts from New York to California to the group of schools whose leaders it recognizes for their forward-thinking approaches to empowering teachers and using technology as part of efforts to transform learning.

Twice a year, the league members gather to learn from one another. In the off-the-record conference, the school leaders share what they’ve tried that’s worked, what they’ve tried that hasn’t, and what they plan to try in the future to promote practices they see as forward-thinking. 

On Monday, the district leaders and their staff joined researchers and education business representatives on visits to D.C. schools, from elementary to high school, to see first-hand efforts underway to promote blended learning and other strategies. Later in the day they met with Kaya Henderson, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, and other city school leaders.

They also broke out into special discussion groups to discuss shared challenges, including leadership for change, funding, assessments, and equity in access to technology and the Internet.

Districts’ Common Challenges

“Districts of all sizes are here, and fundamentally we have all the same issues,” said Billie Rondinelli, superintendent of the South Fayette School District in McDonald, Pa., which she said is the fastest-growing district in Pennsylvania.

Michael Nagler, superintendent of Mineola Union Free School District in Mineola, N.Y., values the opportunity to be with like-minded peers. “When you’re innovative, it’s important that you speak with other people who are also thinking in those terms. Sometimes you’re on an island to yourself, and sometimes it’s important to feel you’re not drowning,” he said.

For instance, efforts to promote innovation in instructional technology generate divided opinions in school communities, Nagler said. Some people see instructional tech as fluff while others see it as a powerful tool to tailor instruction to students of different abililies, he explained.

Bart Rocco, superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward district in Elizabeth, Pa., said he joined the league to help other schools and pick up ideas from other district leaders that he could bring back to his schools. At this League meeting, he led a discussion group interested in assessing student  learning beyond core academic subjects like math and English/language arts, to measure progress in areas from mindset to 21st century skills.

Businesses as ‘Thought Partners’

Michael Loughead, assistant superintendent of the South Fayette district, said this is the only large meeting he attends where companies who sponsor it are brought in as “thought partners” rather than exhibitors.

The approach means that, rather than selling districts what they think schools want, companies can benefit from districts’ “needs assessments,” then fashion their products based on that information, said Jason Tomassini, Digital Promise’s director of communications. For districts, this is a different way to think about procurement, a subject Digital Promise is studying, he said.

Nagler, of the Mineola district, is working on one such project with developers who are creating an app that allows teachers to create portfolios of students’ work matched to academic standards. He specified what he would like in the app, and didn’t start paying for it until this September, after the company had spent nine months developing the product.

In addition to that project, Nagler has hired two video producers to work in his high school, capturing teachers’ lessons in brief, well-produced segments so students and parents can access them to better understand concepts that students are struggling with, such as some aspects of Common Core math. “We’re trying to create dynamic digital conent,” he said, rather than PDF- or powerpoint-based material that he often sees.

In six months, the League will meet again to share innovation success stories. One of their goals is to expand the reach or their work beyond their 57 member districts and help school systems of all sizes around the country.

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