Running the Distance

Winning technology insights from an innovative Illinois Superintendent.

INTERVIEW | by Susan Dias Karnovsky

Superintendent John Hutton - Gurnee District 56.pngJohn Hutton’s favorite sport is running. Like all good runners, he sets his pace with a strategy that includes planning, training, mental focus, and the patience to know when to run fast or slowly.

As Superintendent of Gurnee Illinois’ School District 56 , John has applied this same strategy to help his team become one of the premier school districts in the United States. They recently won ISTE’s 2017’s Distinguished District Award for “innovation in offering equitable and appropriate technology use for all students in a school system, with the goal of increasing learning opportunities and improving achievement.”

When did you decide to commit to implementing digital learning in your district?

John: About five years ago: We were buying more and more computers for classrooms because staff was expressing anecdotally that classroom learning opportunities were enhanced using instructional technology. Since we were approaching a new technology lease cycle with Apple, I made the decision to go to a 1-to-1 environment with iPads.

The other superintendents in the room had a vision for what they wanted to do. We were all risk takers and were highly motivated to succeed. We were all big-picture thinkers.

It was a unique opportunity to provide every student and staff member a device. The decision to move toward a 1-to-1 environment was the turning point for this school district in establishing itself as one of the premier school districts in the United States. 

As the leader of your district’s successful edtech evolution, what advice would you give district superintendents to help them plan this strategy?

John: I would tell every superintendent that a 1-to-1 only makes sense if it fits within the districts mission and vision statements. It cannot be a stand-alone initiative. Instructional technology, i.e., blended learning, is a conduit to bridge the gap from where a district is to the goals of its vision statement.

It takes four to five years to implement a successful 1-to-1 program for an average wealth district. That process may take longer with less wealth and may be accomplished in less time with more wealth. It is important to have an infrastructure in place that will support a 1-to-1 program. That is expensive and takes time. Skipping this step is a recipe for disaster. 

CREDIT Gurnee District 56 image.jpgWhat about training?

John: Professional development is equally important. In our district, we began professional development two years before students received their iPads. When the students did receive their iPads, the staff was ready to go.

Ready to go? Where?

John: Yes. A 1-to-1 environment is just the beginning of the process. Our goal with the 1-to-1 iPad initiative was to create learning opportunities that were not possible through traditional methodologies, and we put a premium on creativity and innovation. As such, the next phase in our blended learning platform is to include an immersion based coding system for all students to learn computer science concepts, develop on-line courses to provide all students an opportunity to expand learning opportunities in areas of choice (rather than typical homework), and develop maker learners to expand instructional technology into the areas of entrepreneurial education, the fine arts, and problem based learning. 

Regarding your 2017-2022 five year strategic technology plan: what do you consider the most important goal?

John: Although we are known as a “tech school district,” the thing we do best is to use data to improve learning. Our goal is that every child will demonstrate one year of growth for each year of school experience, and we use NWEA Map to measure student growth. The district’s strategic plan is to develop a robust assessment system that supports Map and provides data to be used to make mid course corrections between Map assessments. Triangulating data between Map, locally developed formative assessments, and standards based grades from our outstanding staff would provide us that robust assessment system. Although Map is fully developed, formative assessments and standards based report cards are still in the developmental stage for us.

What community and/or national partnership(s) would you recommend to other superintendents that would most benefit their strategic technology plans?

John: Our best partnerships are with Apple, the League of Innovative Schools, NWEA, and Code to the Future. Each of these partnerships has helped us in developing a framework for success. Apple has been our best partner and has really championed our success as a school district. We are not where we are today without them.

The League of Innovative Schools is a group of approximately 80 school districts across the United States that provides an avenue for progressive school districts to work collaboratively with the goal to develop innovative practices that can be replicated by other districts.

I discussed NWEA’s contributions to us in the prior question.

We started Code to the Future’s coding immersion program last school year to introduce coding as a platform to enhance learning for all students. Our first year was an amazing success for us.

In 2014, you were one of 100 superintendents invited to attend the “Future Ready” initiative at the White House. Did you recognized that the other superintendents you met shared a similar strategy?

John: First of all, what an honor it was to attend the event. And the answer is yes. In 2014, we were all trying to see the forest (big picture) but were being blocked by the trees (current practices). We were all doing some cool things at that time but were really just sticking our toes in the water. Many of the same superintendents I met at that event are now in the League of Innovative Schools. When I look back to 2014 and think about where we are today—wow! The other superintendents in the room had a vision for what they wanted to do. We were all risk takers and were highly motivated to succeed. We were all big-picture thinkers.

Establish a school climate that prioritizes innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.

CREDIT Gurnee District 56 Illinois.jpgBased on your first-hand experience, what advice would you give superintendents as to how to expand technology opportunities for parents, families, and their community?

John: We wanted to make sure that all of our students had connectivity at home and developed a goal using Title I funds to accomplish this goal. We partnered with Kajeet and Verizon to provide students from low income families a mobile WiFi unit with home connection included. On the first day of school, last year, we introduced this new idea to students and parents. To our amazement, we had no takers. It would be easy to blame our parents for their lack of engagement, but the truth of the matter was that I did not do a good enough of job of educating parents on the new initiative. After taking a few steps back and starting the process over, we were able to distribute all of the mobile devices to our needy families. My advice to superintendents is not get too far ahead of yourself and make sure that enough time is spent with families prior to introducing new ideas.

What would you tell superintendents to focus on now as the most important priority?

John: Establish a school climate that prioritizes innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. Sir Ken Robinson stated in a TED Talk that school experiences suck the creativity away from students. I want our school environment to place a premium on innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, and creativity for teachers and students. We are making good progress toward that end.

Susan Dias Karnovsky is an educator, writer, and improvisational lyricist. She has written for licensed characters at Sesame Workshop, Disney, Nickelodeon, Jim Henson’s Muppets, and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes media franchise. Her syndicated music segments for KIDS AMERICA were distributed by American Public Radio. Her non-fiction interviews and articles have appeared in MONEY and Converge. Teaching Artist credits include workshops at Berklee College of Music, Boston; The American Stage Theater, St. Pete; Boy & Girls Harbor, Harlem; and ODO SOUND in Austin. Find Susan and more of her work on wikia, soundcloud, and odosound.

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