Two Days, One Pledge: At the Future Ready Summits, District Leaders Move from Vision to Action

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“Change is grief,” Aaryn Schmuhl said to the auditorium of over 300 school leaders drinking sweet tea and taking notes. “It’s a loss. That’s what I tell the leaders at my schools,” the assistant superintendent of Henry County School District continued. “You ask people to change how they do things and it’s going to take them some time to heal before things get better.”

Schmuhl spoke on a panel at the Future Ready regional summit held last week in Atlanta, GA--the third of twelve summits planned for 2015. These gatherings are one component of the Future Ready initiative launched by the US Department of Education in late 2014 to help K-12 schools create a more personalized and digital learning experience for students.

Underpinning the Future Ready initiative is a belief that schools need leadership from the top in order to successfully change outdated educational models. “Until you have a plan to support all of your teachers and make the necessary curriculum shifts, you’re not going to make a difference for kids,” says Sara Hall, VP of Digital Learning Advocacy and Policy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, which is co-leading the initiative with the US Department of Education and the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission.

Changing how schools approach learning is a lofty goal, but not a new one. So what, if anything, will set the Future Ready summits apart, and can they succeed?

Unique Approach: Dedicated Superintendent Time and Regional Focus

In order for a regional team to attend a summit, at least two district leaders have to attend, and at least one leader must be the superintendent. The goal is to get key decision-makers in the room so that plans made at the summit can be quickly put into action back home.

Dedicated time to focus on long-range thinking is a luxury that many district leaders can’t afford in their day-to-day work. Back home, superintendents scurry from meeting to meeting, putting out immediate fires. So for Steven Webb, superintendent of the Vancouver Public School District in Washington State, whose district co-hosted the regional summit held in Vancouver this past February, these summits offer valuable time. “[The summit] creates a space for people to be deliberate, thoughtful and reflective,” he says.

Mark Ray, Director of Instructional Technology and Library Services at Vancouver Public School District, agrees: “I think for other districts, this conference gave them the permission and cover to have these [larger] conversations.”

District leaders also welcomed the opportunity to learn from neighboring districts. “It’s empowering to hear and see other districts not only with similar problems, but raising solutions,” Ray adds.

The Future Ready organizers see this regional focus as another distinguishing factor of the summits. “We want [district leaders] walking out of these events with a team of collaborators that aren’t strangers across the country, but your neighbor down the street,” says Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education.

At the Summit

Over the two-day summit, teams talk with other districts in their region, listen to success stories, and participate in breakout sessions focused on specific issues such as professional learning and community partnerships. They also have built-in time to brainstorm, look for holes in their district’s current efforts, make an action plan and decide who will be accountable to each piece of the plan.

Data privacy emerged as a major concern among participants. As schools scramble to decode the flood of data that new tech tools collect, district leaders are anxious to understand the specifics of state and federal privacy requirements. Budgeting topics were also high on the priority list of district leaders. New initiatives can’t flourish without funding support, and many leaders want advice on how to convince school boards to finance their plans.

Looking Ahead

The Future Ready organizers aim to give district leaders continuing support after the summit has ended. They have created a dashboard where district leaders can take additional, in-depth assessments on each gear of the Future Ready pledge. In the coming months, they plan to build out the dashboard with more tools for districts to track and measure their progress, as well as a “leadership network” of Google chats, webinars and peer-to-peer mentoring.

Considering the diverse needs of these leaders, delivering on this continued support will be no small feat. Success of the summits will also depend on whether organizers can get the word out to more districts--something they’ve struggled with in certain regions. “We need a strategy to reach everyone,” says Joseph South, Deputy Director at the Office of Educational Technology, “but we can’t get to everyone immediately.”

Ultimately, Future Ready’s success begins and ends with the superintendents who have publicly promised to design a comprehensive strategy, shift their schools’ culture, and do whatever else it takes to bring personalized learning to their districts.

“Superintendents have dynamic and difficult jobs,” says South. “We understand that they are public figures and we’re asking them to stretch. But we know that they are the ones who can make the change happen. And we hope by getting them here with a group, it gives them the support they’ll need.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: EdSurge is partnering with the Department of Education on the Future Ready Initiative, along with over thirty national educational organizations.

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