Marlon Styles Jr. is a tech-savvy superintendent and the first Black educator to lead the Middletown City schools in Ohio.
Now starting his sixth year as superintendent of the 6,200-student district, Styles has been recognized nationally for the work he has done for underserved students and the key ways in which technology has helped in that work.
Styles was honored in 2017 as one of the Center for Digital Education’s Top 30 Technologists, Transformers and Trailblazers for improving education through the use of digital tools. Under his leadership, his school district earned the 2019 ISTE Distinguished District Award for ensuring equitable, accessible, and appropriate technology use for all students. And he was recognized as the 2020 K-12 Dive Superintendent of the Year for his push to close equity gaps.
He also testified in front of the House Education and Labor Committee in 2020 about the need to close the disparities in access to high-speed internet and connected devices between groups of students.
Being the first Black superintendent of Middletown City schools, Styles has also made it his responsibility to be a role model for other Black men who are interested in teaching and to open doors for more Black men to come into the profession.
Here’s what he had to say in a Zoom conversation with Education Week about being a Black male educator, his philosophy for technology use in the classroom, and his top priorities for a school district where 20 percent of the students are Black, 15 percent are Hispanic/Latino, and 100 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What has it been like being the first Black superintendent in your district?
For me, it’s been more of a career of that. You see very few people of color in the profession. You see even fewer Black males in education. Even prior to my current role, I very rarely saw Black males like me in the classroom. I very rarely saw Black males like me in leadership positions at the building level, leading the building.
There are a number of Black male superintendents across the country that I look up to, that really inspire me, and I just try to do that here for the people that I serve.
I’ve taken a lot of responsibility to make sure I’m serving more as a role model. Leadership is leadership. But it’s a responsibility, an obligation, that I’ve really tried to own about the fact of being around other students of color—Black and brown—and being a role model for them.
I try to set the standard in leadership that Black males are more than capable of being classroom educators, Black males are more than capable of being district-level leaders, Black males can be superintendents. There are a number of Black male superintendents across the country that I look up to, that really inspire me, and I just try to do that here for the people that I serve. But oftentimes you find yourself in a room and you’re the only person of color, or even the only Black male. It’s an obligation to have a bigger impact on the profession to get more people of color that look like me and are males inspired to come serve.
What is your philosophy for using technology in the classroom?
It is my belief that technology is an influencer when it comes to student learning. The center point of any good teaching is the classroom educator—their skill sets, the strategies they use, the pedagogy in which they decide the learning experiences, the academic environment that they create. My belief is that technology simply serves as an access point for students to have greater access to learning opportunities. It’s an influencer. It is not the center point.
My approach has always been to embrace the presence of technology in many different ways, and embrace the fact that children these days feel empowered through the use of technology. To find unique ways in which we can enhance that empowerment is really the fun part about educational leadership right now.
My belief is that technology simply serves as an access point for students to have greater access to learning opportunities. It's an influencer. It is not the center point.
How has your district integrated technology into classroom learning?
We have really looked at this from an equity perspective. So the first one I’ll share is truly around equity. We wanted to make sure that every child is able to access an educational space. So in Amanda Elementary here in Middletown City School District, they have a product called the Lü Playground. The Lü Playground is an interactive board projected on a wall of the physical education classroom. Students are able to access the physical engagement of the course while also gaining experience around some core learning pieces. For example, we may be throwing a foam ball at an interactive board, and there might be a math problem on the board that has single digit fluency problems. Two teams are battling to see who can get as many questions right as possible. So the movement is present from the physical education standpoint, but we’re also leveraging some math fluency.
Another example is the idea of experiencing immersive technology, so not just virtual reality but immersive technology. Just this past year in our Algebra I courses, we introduced our students to a platform called Prisms of Reality. Students are accessing key mathematical concepts in Algebra I. As you know, when we grew up, we always ask, “Well, why do I need to learn this?” So in this immersive world, they’re able to access some of the learning with some real-world pieces. For example, you may be learning slope intercept form an amusement park as it relates to the hills of a rollercoaster.
We've really tried to reimagine professional learning and change adult behaviors when it comes to integrating the technology.
And the third example is more of a staff piece. We’ve really tried to reimagine professional learning and change adult behaviors when it comes to integrating the technology. We have a number of ISTE certified educators across the district. We do celebrate having at least one ISTE certified educator in every single one of our school buildings.
Why is that important? It’s an indication that our staff, those who are certified, understand how to integrate technology or how to leverage technology to encourage digital citizenship, to empower learners.
You’ve addressed some high-profile forums about the importance of closing the digital divide. Why is that goal so important to you?
It is about equity. I believe kids should have what they need, however they need it. And it’s our job to build a school system that can provide that, at any given point, for any given child. So in our district, right when COVID hit, we found that we had children who didn’t have internet access. Instead of just sharing the percentage of kids who didn’t have internet access, we wanted to know by name, by address, which child did not have internet access at home. We worked with a couple of local internet providers who were able to distinguish a list of households that had school-based children in them that did not have service.
Instead of just sharing the percentage of kids who didn't have internet access, we wanted to know by name, by address, which child did not have internet access at home.
The long-term problem that we’ve found is hotspots are temporary. We’ve been able to dig a little bit deeper into what the needs are of our community and our children while they’re at home. We found here locally we had a portion of our community in an urban environment that had no cell tower coverage. We partnered with the state of Ohio, and we received their broadband connectivity grant. We were able to put in an antenna and broadcast broadband across that portion of the community to increase access for those homes.
What are other barriers to effective technology use in the classroom?
We’re always, in this profession, experiencing vendors who are knocking on our doors with new, fresh products—and, in their eyes, they’re high-quality, designed to meet what they believe kids need at that time. The pace of which we are experiencing different platforms and resources coming at us to consider is rapid.
The barrier that I would say that I face is helping school leaders vet different resources and platforms and technologies to make sure that they have meaningful capabilities, features, pedagogy—make sure all those things are present in the resource itself so they can serve students who need it the most.
A barrier that we face right now is really coming up with a common practice across the profession, where we can vet the high number of resources and platforms that vendors are throwing at us, because they swoop in very quickly, they offer you a product and the presentation is phenomenal and looks fantastic. But we need to be able to determine which ones are most appropriate to serve our children—not the one that looks the best, not the one that serves the most kids, but the one that has the capability to serve all children.
The barrier that I would say that I face is helping school leaders vet different resources and platforms and technologies to make sure that they have meaningful capabilities, features, pedagogy
What do you think are the biggest tech challenges for schools right now?
One of the biggest challenges that we face as a profession right now is that the resources that we are being presented with, by our vendors, are one-size-fits-all. The challenge that we’re facing is: can we have access to resources and platforms that have been designed for the kids who are sitting in the gap—the historic gaps the country has faced. I have yet to meet a vendor who is proposing or presenting a product that is designed specifically for Black males in Algebra I who are unsuccessful, for example.
A challenge is: can we convince our vendors to sit alongside and co-design with practitioners products and platforms and resources that are focused on specific student groups. And to take that a step further, I would love to have those students, who are part of that student group that product’s being designed for, at the decisionmaking table as part of that co-design experience.
One of the biggest challenges that we face as a profession right now is that the resources that we are being presented with, by our vendors, are one-size-fits-all.
Another challenge is finances. Things cost money, and not everyone has it. I know ESSER funds are what they are, but they do have an expiration date on them. As exciting as it has been to celebrate the number of students who now have access to a device, the challenge is: can we sustain that post-ESSER funding so we can continue those benefits that kids have in regards to accessing and having their own device while they are in school?
What are your priorities for this upcoming school year?
The first thing on our agenda is to return joy in education. We’re going to focus on joyful moments. Trying to move away from the narrative that it’s a bad time in education, we’re going to flip the script and we’re talking about joyful moments and joy in education and celebrate this wonderful profession that we all belong to.
The second piece is we are evolving our system and embracing a shift to skills as the new currency. So in K-5, we have some new special classes that really take the idea of career-tech so students can experience some career exploration in the early grades and acquire some skill sets that will be able to be leveraged as they advance in the system.
Number three is to continue our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Right now, we have a consultant who’s providing some professional learning to our staff across the district. We have offered our staff access to seven different diversity, equity, and inclusion microcredentials through Digital Promise with the goal of changing adult behaviors.
The first thing on our agenda is to return joy in education. We're going to focus on joyful moments.
The fourth: We are on a journey to hire 25 Black male classroom teachers over the next five hiring seasons. We’ll be creating our own pipeline internally and in partnership with a few local higher ed institutions to get more Black males interested in the profession. We are kicking off this idea of an admiral squad. It’s an affinity group here internally in the district for Black male educators, where we will be able to come together in our own authentic safe space, we can be our authentic selves. But we can talk about inspiring one another in the profession, exploring career pathways, advancing professionally, being content experts. We can set the standard for Black male educators in our school system.