$680 Million Project Spurs Collaboration in Ore. District
A $680 million bond project persuaded Beaverton's tech and learning groups to bridge the gaps between them
When voters in Oregon's Beaverton school district gave the nod to a huge technology project there, district leaders realized that a shift was needed in the departments that focused on instruction and technology.
In the past, those two groups—the teaching and learning group and the instructional-technology group—were siloed, each working on separate pieces of an issue, sometimes duplicating each other's work, and often doing so without a deep understanding of the concerns of their counterparts in the other department.
But with the approval of a $680 million bond in 2014, much of it aimed at modernizing schools, improving technology, and launching a 1-to-1 device initiative, officials in Beaverton knew that had to change.
"We were supposed to collaborate … and roll this out," said Ginny Hansmann, Beaverton's new chief academic officer. "But before, philosophically, we weren't always together. Traditionally, IT maybe hasn't understood instruction, and the instruction side didn't understand technology like they should."
Restructuring for Change
The 40,700-student Beaverton school district is the third largest in Oregon, located in the suburbs of Portland. About half of the student body is made up of students of color—mostly Hispanic and Asian American—and 36 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. The district's move toward greater integration started with the creation of Hansmann's position. The CAO job had existed in the district several years earlier, but was consolidated under another position. In 2015, the position was reinstated with Hansmann—who has worked in the district for more than 30 years—in the post. The CAO oversees the district's teaching and learning department, which includes curriculum adoption, assessment, and professional development.
She began work with her counterpart in technology, chief information officer Steven Langford, on the district's Future Ready project—an offshoot of a federal initiative that asks school superintendents to pledge to foster a culture of digital learning. Beaverton's version of Future Ready includes an overhaul of the district's technology infrastructure and the integration of iPads and Chromebooks into learning strategies. That work also means training teacher teams to become technology experts and leading integrators of devices.
But Hansmann and Langford quickly realized that staff members in both departments didn't know each other well and that communication was a barrier.
"We've always had very good people, but we were spread thin. It was hard to schedule meetings to get face to face," Langford said. "There was the desire, but we didn't have the right structure."
So the district made a move: In prior years, district librarians and innovation strategists whose missions were closely tied to technology had operated out of the IT department. But under the new structure, the group was moved to the teaching and learning department.
"It made all the difference in the world," said Hansmann, though she and Langford acknowledged that it was a challenging transition for employees switching departments who felt "a little lost" being pulled from their home group.
In addition to reorganizing positions, Hansmann and Langford met weekly as part of a leadership team and then scheduled one-on-one meetings regularly. They also made sure that project managers in their respective departments knew exactly who their counterparts were in the other department and met with them weekly.
Innovation strategists working with content areas now make sure the content is infused with professional development for teachers, for example, not just focused on the technology being used. And the two departments recently held a retreat day to bring both groups together for work sessions devoted to the Future Ready efforts.
The experience was eye-opening, said John Peplinski, the district's administrator for instructional digital design. The teaching and learning group learned that IT's job isn't as simple as flipping switches and installing routers. IT staff members got a firsthand view of the impact on a classroom teacher when technology doesn't work, Peplinski said. They learned how that can demolish a teacher's entire lesson and shake his or her confidence.
Planning for the 1-to-1 digital device initiative in Beaverton, Ore., began in 2014. The deployment will continue into next year.
Voters pass a $680 million Beaverton school district bond earmarked for construction and modernization of schools and an upgrade to technology.
Summer 2014- Summer 2016
District works to upgrade the network and technology infrastructure to allow for the use of 85,000 devices.
Position of chief academic officer, which had been scrapped several years before, is re-established.
In preparation for a districtwide 1-to-1 device program, Beaverton begins work on its Positive Change initiative to identify and train teacher teams at 13 schools to take the lead on using technology to improve achievement.
Departments overseen by the CAO and the chief information officer are reorganized to move some personnel, including district librarians and innovation strategists, from the information technology department to the teaching and learning department.
Beaverton joins the federal Future Ready movement and prepares additional teacher teams for the 1-to-1 initiative. Teachers in 13 schools receive devices and begin professional development.
Beaverton deploys 12,000 student devices, both iPads and Chromebooks, over a period of six weeks—a deployment that will continue until fall 2017.
Jenny Takeda, a district librarian who moved from the IT department into teaching and learning under the reorganization, said the change has helped staff focus on technology being used as part of a learning strategy rather than having an emphasis on the device or hardware itself.
"We don't want technology to be seen as an add-on," she said. "All of this work is connected, so those bridges are really important."
Hansmann said she can already see this new collaboration playing out in decisions around technology. The district is in the process of choosing a new learning-management system, and as administrators evaluate vendors, the teaching and learning staff and the IT staff are exploring the products together, taking into consideration assessment and instructional practices and lesson-sharing concerns, for example, along with interoperability issues and other technical pieces.
Similarly, as the district explores adoption of a English/language arts curriculum, both departments are represented on a project team.
"Some of the problems before were that we didn't have the level of expertise in teaching and learning to evaluate the resources [technically], and in IT, they didn't have the instructional background," Hansmann said. "It's a matter of having both in the room."
Same Issue, Different Lingo
All that is trickling down to the school level, where 15 schools are rolling out devices to students this school year. At Highland Park Middle School, a grade 6-8 school focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, school officials recently deployed 1,000 devices—both iPads and Chromebooks—to students, said Principal David Nieslanik.
Nieslanik said he's noticed a difference in the type of professional development his teachers are getting around the technology initiative. It's more of a marriage between enhancing learning and how to use the technology, instead of being just about the hardware, he said.
What's more, he said, the structural changes between the two departments have streamlined his ability to solve problems and get questions answered by not having to call two separate offices and having to explain the issue twice. The two departments are finally using the same talking points and terminology, he said.
In the past, "20 minutes into the conversation, you would realize they're both talking about the same thing, but using totally different lingo and attacking the same problem from different lenses without knowing it," Nieslanik said.
While the structure is still very new, and the Future Ready initiative is in its beginning stages, Langford, the CIO, said the close working relationship between the two departments and his partnership with Hansmann will, he hopes, help avoid future pitfalls.
"I've been here 10 years, and this is the most exciting 12 months I've had," he said. "We've changed the way we think about technology supporting instruction."
Vol. 35, Issue 24, Pages s30, s31, s32Published in Print: March 28, 2016, as Oregon District Dismantles Silos