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Letter to the editor: A Strong Foundation for Global Acceleration

More than ever, our world is changing at an exponential rate.


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As I reflect on the past three years in St. Vrain Valley Schools, and all that we have achieved during a time of great global disruption, I am reminded of the strong investments we’ve made over a decade ago that have propelled our acceleration and success in a time of great uncertainty.  

More than ever, our world is changing at an exponential rate, and as former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs stated, “Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future.” In public education, we also share that sense that we have been given the incredible responsibility and opportunity to shape the future of our communities, state, nation, and world. In the United States, approximately 90% of all people either attend or attended a public school. Accordingly, we believe that second only to parenting, our education system has the greatest impact on our citizens, economy, public safety and national security, our residential and commercial property values, public health, our democracy, and so much more.

In the 21 years that I have been a part of St. Vrain Valley Schools, I have seen the world completely transform at a rapid pace. From my first year as a high school principal, observing September 11, 2001 unfold alongside our students and staff, to assuming the superintendency at the start of the 2008 four-year recession, to managing significant disruption during a 100-year flood in 2013, and now leading a public education system through a global pandemic, our system has been faced with many Rubicon moments, and together, we have bravely crossed over these challenges and emerged stronger.

Education today is incredibly complex for our children and society, and much more significant than anything we have ever experienced. Today’s high school students were coming into the world at the same time Apple introduced the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter launched, Hadoop opened the world’s largest open-source software platforms, Amazon launched the Kindle which could hold a library of books on a single device, and Github opened and gave everyone access to one of the world’s largest repositories of software development. The power and speed of microchips doubled every 18 months, and with IBM’s launch of Watson, artificial intelligence signaled a new era of infinite possibilities.

Given this, it is imperative that we as public education leaders understand the rapid pace of change and prepare students to be successful in our complex, globalized, highly-competitive economy. Over a decade ago, St. Vrain dedicated itself to ensuring that our students were future-ready, and that our teaching practices evolved to ensure that our students would excel in a time of significant acceleration.

To this end, in 2012, through a shared vision and our community’s generous support, we launched our globally recognized Learning Technology Plan in order to equip students with 21st-century technology tools that ensured equitable access to information, and equipped this generation with the resources necessary to expand their capacity to investigate, communicate, collaborate, create, model, lead, and explore solutions within their own schools, communities, and our world. 

In order to ensure that this investment aligned with sound instructional practices, an Instructional Technology Advisory Committee was convened and tasked with developing a set of recommendations for technology access. This is when our incredible partnership with Apple Computers began. Of the numerous devices our committee explored, the iPad provided the greatest level of power, reliability, flexibility, and quality user experience to engage students in creative, complex, and personalized learning opportunities. We started initially with a 1:1 device implementation at our middle schools, and sustainably advanced the program to now include a 1:1 device for all of our 33,000 students in PK-14.

A cornerstone of our Learning Technology Plan is to ensure that we equally prioritize our resource acquisition with the professional development that teachers need to feel and be efficacious, and our ability to sustain the resources as technology continues to evolve and advance. In many districts, technology implementation is focused on obtaining the devices (what can we buy and how many?). Training becomes an afterthought and is driven more by the purchase than by a vision for quality and future-focused learning. Additionally, devices are often purchased with one-time funds without a viable plan to sustain the program with regular device upgrades. In St. Vrain, our strategy placed equal emphasis on obtaining devices that aligned with our forward-thinking vision. We planned for financial sustainability to include regular technology refresh cycles and accommodated student enrollment growth, and delivered ongoing high-quality professional development for teachers and staff so that the tools are best leveraged to advance effective instruction and student outcomes.

We invested heavily in human capital and infrastructure to support a strong implementation. This included a Digital Learning Collaborative in which we convened a committee of teachers, administrators, business leaders, and parents to conduct a needs assessment at all grade levels to study what attributes we valued in our classrooms, such as authentic learning and assessments. We then identified what actions would support these attributes using 21st-century learning tools.

Additionally, we hired a number of instructional technology coaches to work within all schools in our eight feeder systems to support teachers as they infused technology into their instruction at high and engaging levels. They often co-taught with teachers,  problem-solved any issues with technology, and modeled best practices for the creation of new tasks and work products that were previously inconceivable. 

High-quality and timely professional development also played an important role for both teacher buy-in and confidence, as well as consistent implementation. To this end, we hosted an annual summer professional development institute for teachers and staff focused on technology. This experience, which we called Camp iPad, had hundreds of teachers learning from experts in the tech industry, and collaborating with one another on tech-infused lesson plans to be implemented in the next academic year. We also led similar professional development training for parents to become familiar with the new tools and understand best practices in supporting their student’s safety and success at home.

The consistent use of iPad technology across classrooms in St. Vrain, first and foremost, leveled the playing field for all of our students, in terms of ensuring access both at school and at home to digital curriculum materials, current open-sourced information on the web, and the ability to connect and communicate beyond physical boundaries and locations.

In addition to obtaining the powerful iPad devices, we also began to focus heavily on empowering students to think critically through a solutions-driven framework known as design thinking, which was developed at the prestigious Stanford University. The design-thinking process focuses on five key steps where you first empathize and define a problem, ideate a solution, develop a prototype, and finally, test your ideas. 

This is significantly different from the education that many of us experienced from our time in a K-12 school. When I was growing up, we lived six blocks away from our local high school and we would walk back and forth, and this was our neighborhood, this was our world, this was our orbit. For today's students, their neighborhood is our world. 

In earlier times we would read a chapter and prepare for our unit exam. We’d have eight or nine questions, we’d attempt to memorize what we read, we’d respond, and we’d receive our grade. Now it's about, can you empathize with a problem? Can you ideate a solution? Can you prototype it and test it? Can you come back and revise it? Can you work together in teams? Can you communicate what you're thinking? Do you have the perseverance to stick with it until you can find the solution? And, can you predict what might be coming next? And, then when things change, can you change, or are you stuck within that one chapter of that one textbook? These are the durable critical-thinking, advanced skills that we are promoting among our students in St. Vrain.

The design thinking process paired with a powerful device, such as the iPad, are so transformative that we quickly launched into other innovative programs and advanced technological practices. 

Over the past decade, our system has become a nationally recognized model of adaptability, creativity, and innovation. This has resulted in the launch of over 70 diversified and rigorous instructional focus academies and programs across all 60 of our schools, including aerospace, energy, medical and biosciences, leadership, STEM, and visual and performing arts, along with a 55,000 square foot state-of-the-art Innovation Center and 45 foot high-tech Mobile STEM Lab, all supported by our Apple 1:1 technology with robust technology infrastructure, including the second fastest internet service in the United States through our partnership with NextLight. 

This has also provided the opportunity to rapidly elevate our educational programming and student learning opportunities in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, virtual and augmented realities, advanced manufacturing fields such as optics, electronics, machining, and welding, and so much more. We currently have over 160 robotics teams that are competing on the global stage with two dozen teams headed to the world championships next month.

Furthering our mission, we have launched three Pathways through Technology programs, known as P-TECH, in which students earn their two-year associate degree simultaneously with their high school diploma at no cost to the student. Our current programs offer degrees focused on computer information systems, cybersecurity, and biochemistry. We are also continuing to leverage technology to implement new programs and further provide student access to high-quality coursework and instruction through the implementation of a systems-wide Advanced Global Interactive Learning Environment (AGILE) telecommunications program, which will allow students in any of our high schools to receive synchronous, live instruction in courses such as advanced world languages, micro and macroeconomics, computer science, etc., all from their home high school location.

As we have increased rigor, innovation, and technology integration, we have realized significant gains in student achievement. Over the past ten years, St. Vrain’s overall on-time graduation rate has increased 14 percent while our on-time Hispanic graduation rate has increased 31 percent. Additionally, fifth grade reading and math achievement continues to increase, outpacing our state average, with even larger gains in our Hispanic student population. St. Vrain Valley Schools is one of four Colorado school districts, and one of 373 nationwide out of approximately 14,000 school districts, to make the College Board’s Annual Advanced Placement (AP) District Honor Roll for increasing access to AP courses for all students, and in the past five years, our number of AP exams taken has increased 62 percent with scores also increasing greatly. We have also experienced a 201 percent increase in the number of concurrent enrollment college classes taken by our students in the past seven years, and added new opportunities for students to receive college credit through our CU Succeed programs. Accordingly, the Class of 2021 had the opportunity to start their postsecondary education with approximately 32,000 college credits on their transcripts, potentially saving their families over $8.1 million in tuition costs.

Throughout this journey, we have been supported by many leading business and corporate partners, such as Apple, IBM, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Otterbox, UC Health, Crestone Peak Resources, United Power, Amazon, Google, and Stapp Toyota, who help us understand what the future of workforce readiness will look like, as well as influence and develop the curriculum necessary to provide our children with a world-class education. These partners, and many more, have also provided us with industry experts to mentor our students, and inspire them toward their future endeavors. 

As President John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” It is critically important that we remember this alongside the common sentiment that tomorrow is a direct result of what we do today – we enjoy the shade of a tree today that was planted 40 years ago. As our schools emerge from the pandemic, I believe that it is imperative that we act with urgency, demonstrating that we understand that the future and success of our civilization is dependent in large part on our willingness to advance our practices. Education is the catalyst for innovation and community advancement. It is the common thread from which our children grow into the leaders who will shape the future.