The Promise

Dissatisfied with the mediocrity of the district where she taught for three years, Kelly left to pursue a degree in administration. She begins a research project in an area where schools face much greater challenges than in her home district, and yet are much more effective in reaching students and developing creative teachers. She's particularly interested in the role technology plays in building these dynamic institutions.

Kelly Winters, graduate student, begins the first phase of her research project at Glen Forest Elementary.

Students arrive at Glen Forest Elementary.

Walking into Glen Forest Elementary, I felt a rush of energy – partially from the double-latte I’d splurged on, but also from the buzz that seven hundred children can generate. This was what drew me to education in the first place, that sense of transformational power: Here is society in the making—the hope of the future!

Kelly taught for three years before entering graduate school.

My previous teaching experience in my hometown hadn’t lived up to my ideals. I loved working with students, but my administration provided little more than token performance reviews, misdirected initiatives, and a top-down leadership style that left little room for innovation. So I headed back to school to figure out how to serve students more effectively.

I moved to a big city, enrolled at a renowned university, and gave up my steady salary for a tiny stipend. Now, most of my coursework was finished and I was embarking on my first research project, a mini-study leading towards the more intensive research required for my thesis. My goal was to examine how school leaders impact what happens inside individual classrooms. I wanted to come away from this project with a strong sense of how to lead faculty through change and innovation so that I could be an effective administrator when I returned to my hometown.

I quickly swilled the last of my latte and headed in to my 8:15 appointment with Theresa West. While the receptionist headed down the hall to find her, I looked over the information I’d gleaned from the web about Glen Forest.

Glen Forest’s School Profile

Kelly’s information about Glen Forest from the Fairfax County Public Schools website

A brief summary of information about students at Glen Forest

Just then, Dr. West appeared and I recognized her as the woman I had seen greeting students at the main entrance. “Good morning,” she smiled warmly, “I’m Theresa West.”

Teresa West reflects on her school’s technology use.

“Kelly Winters,” I replied, standing up to shake her hand. “Thanks so much for letting me study your school.”

She smiled. “We’re delighted to have you, but, please, remind me again what you’re studying here.”

I stuffed my printout back in my bag and followed her down the hall, filling her in on the details of my project as we walked.

“Well, my advisor is Rachel Grayson and—”

“Rachel’s great, isn’t she?” she interrupted me. “Such a dynamo. You know, she’s got quite the reputation around here.”

“I bet,” I said. “She’s the one who suggested I come here for my research. In fact, she arranged for my visits here, at Glasgow Middle School, and then at Stuart High School.”

“I recall something about technology from when we talked, and that’s how I set up your observation, but I’m not sure of the exact nature of your project.”

“Eventually I’ll be doing a qualitative study of administrator impact on teacher practices, but right now my focus is much narrower. I’m interested in how technology initiatives like K 12nectsII trickle down into the classroom, how leadership initiates change.”

A description of K12nectsII

The bright halls of Glen Forest Elementary.

She raised her eyebrows. “Slowly!” she said with a wry smile. She stopped and pulled open the door to a computer lab. “This is one of our labs.”

I peeked in, afraid of disrupting students at work, but the lab was empty at this early hour. We continued our tour through the rest of the school and wound our way back to Theresa’s office. We settled in, and I began jotting down notes as we talked.

So far, I was impressed and couldn’t help comparing Theresa’s professionalism and leadership with my experience back home. I continued, “You mentioned your students here don’t have the regular practice with technology at home that some middle class populations might have. How do you make up for that deficit?”

“Good question,” Theresa said. “We—the county and this school—have tried many things. We really want all of our students and their parents to be able to use the internet. Here,” she said, handing me a brochure out of folder on her desk. “This was sent home in eight languages.” She began ticking them off on her fingers. “Spanish, Urdu, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Farsi.” She held up seven fingers. “Oh, and English, of course!”

The Internet Access in our Community brochure in English

“Wow! Eight languages?”

She smiled, “This was county-wide, too. Every student went home with one of these. And the county website includes these same languages.”

I said, “So you’re really trying to reach out to your entire community. I guess that means that access to technology is a major focus right now?”

“I’d say it is,” she nodded thoughtfully. “There are very real equity issues in this county; we’re a tiny pocket of poverty in a very wealthy area. The contrast is pretty glaring. Our students and their families just can’t compete. Funding is a big issue.”

“Are there companies that could donate services?” I wondered aloud.

“Most companies have national philanthropy efforts, and we just don’t make the radar. People think Fairfax County means money, so they don’t think twice about our students, or our budget constraints.”

“How about local companies? You’d think they would have a vested interest in helping local students?” I persisted.

She shook her head, “I heard that the county approached a local Internet provider, but they turned us down because offering service to our students wouldn’t grow them any business!”

“Oh, you’re kidding me!”

“I wish I were.” Theresa glanced at her watch and shifted tone. “I hate to interrupt our discussion, but I’ve arranged for you to observe a class this morning, it’s Wendy Rath’s first-grade class, about forty percent ESOL.”

Wendy Rath relies on technology for both her lesson delivery and student use.

Demographic information for Glen Forest Elementary. (Scroll to page 9.)

Once in Wendy’s room, I settled uncomfortably in a tiny chair at the back of the class. Watching her interact with students before class, I could tell she was in her element. I glanced through the lesson plan she’d provided, noting the places technology was integrated.

See Wendy Rath’s lesson plan below:

The kids were adorable, but very high energy. Wendy kept the lesson moving, making it look easy and fun. Leaving the classroom, I walked slowly up the hall, mulling over the lesson I’d just seen and glad I’d scheduled a follow-up meeting for the next week.

As I signed out at the office, the receptionist handed me an envelope. “Dr. West said you’d know what this is about.”

I pulled out a few sheets of paper, and then smiled. “Please tell her thank you so much!” Theresa had obviously picked up on my interest in the equity question and had taken time to pull together information for the three schools I was visiting.

I quickly scanned the pages. While the data wasn’t presented consistently, their significance was clear. The figures showed what these schools faced as they tried to improve access and level the playing field. The barriers weren’t insurmountable, I supposed, but it would take an enormous effort in terms of community outreach, education, and money to change things.

See results from the Stuart Pyramid Technology Access Survey below:

Kelly spends the rest of the day at Glasgow Middle School.

Glasgow Middle School.

Overview of Glasgow Middle School

Pulling into the parking lot at the middle school, I remembered my own middle school woes and dramas. The relief I felt at moving up to high school was still palpable all these years later. The Glasgow campus, though, looked pleasant enough on this warm spring day. I was early, so I pulled out my information on the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IBMYP) Glasgow had adopted several years ago.

Glasgow Middle School’s IB Middle Years Program

One sentence from the document particularly stood out: ” Glasgow students learn about Technology by exploring computers, materials, and design in every course.” I wondered what that meant in terms of actual time spent using technology on a daily basis. Collecting my things, I headed to the office to sign in.

Ray Leonard and Ninu Dora team teach eighth grade science.

Standing in the doorway of Room 129, Ray Leonard’s booming voice was heard easily over the bustle and conversations in the hall. He introduced me to his co-teacher, Ninu Dora, and explained that they had taught eighth-grade science collaboratively for the past two years.

Students swarmed in as Ray and Ninu greeted students and collected papers. The lesson started quickly and I found myself noticing how seamlessly the two worked together to support each other.

See Ray Leonard’s Sound’s Cool lab plan below:

Kelly observes a lesson.

Many times I couldn’t help but laugh during the lab as students, clearly caught up in the activity, played with their voices and the various sound waves they produced. It seemed that in this classroom at least, technology was fully integrated. Thinking back to my experience as a science teacher, I was struck by the wealth of resources available to these teachers compared to what I’d had access to in my former district. This baffled me because my home district was fairly well-to-do, while about fifty percent of students here qualified for free and reduced lunch.

Demographic information about Glasgow Middle School

When the lab was over, I had a chance to ask a few of the students about their experiences with technology.

I approached a small group of two girls and a boy who had finished the lab first. After asking their names, I began. “How often do you use technology in class?”

“You mean in this class or in all our classes?” Sarah interjected before anyone could reply.

“I guess all your classes.”

“I don’t know,” Justine jumped in. “Not that much. Maybe once a month?” She looked at her partners, who nodded in agreement. “Usually in this class.”

“Really?” I was surprised, given what I’d read and the initiatives I knew were in place. I wondered what was going on in the classrooms I wasn’t seeing. “What about at home? Do you have computers?”

Justine giggled. “I IM all the time.”

“Not me,” Keith said. “I hate computers.”

“Do you have one?” I asked, curious about his attitude.

He shrugged. “Yeah, my dad’s really into them and so is my brother, but not me.”

“Do you need one for school? For your homework?” I asked.

“Well, yeah. We have to do research and stuff,” Keith replied. “Sometimes write a report.”

“But not that much,” Sarah said. “It’s hard because almost everyone has a computer, but some kids don’t and they have to go to the library or something.”

“That sounds hard for them,” I responded, hoping she’d continue.

“I guess. But they don’t complain or anything.” She paused for a moment. “But I guess it’s not really fair because I know how to do more stuff, like with the internet and stuff. And I can type faster than them.”

Keith grinned at her. “That’s right. You can type fast. You should see her. Not me. I hate it.” He reiterated, in case I didn’t get his point, “I hate computers.”

Ms. Dora came over. “I hate to break up the party, but you’ve got a worksheet to do and there’s only five minutes left of class.”

Deirdre Lavery is relatively new to her position of principal at Glasgow Middle School.

I said good-bye to Ninu and Ray and headed to the office to meet with Deirdre Lavery, the principal. Deirdre was on the phone when I entered her office, but she signaled me to come in as she finished up her conversation.

“Welcome,” she said. “I can’t guarantee how long I’ll be available, but I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Just remember, I’ve only been here fifteen months, and for five of those I was out on maternity leave!”

Now that was interesting, a new-ish principal! At what point in her tenure would her leadership and values affect the school culture—or had they already?

I didn’t want to offend Deirdre, but I was so struck by what the eighth graders in the science class had said that I had to follow up. “You know, when I was talking with students, they all agreed they only use technology maybe once a month at school.”

Deirdre sighed. “Yes, it’s a struggle getting to the point where all teachers are regularly using technology. There are so many opportunities in this county, but teachers have to take the initiative.”

“But don’t they all have laptops? Can’t that be tied to some sort of training expectations?”

“First, no, it’s only the elementary teachers who are part of the laptop initiative, so that won’t work as an incentive at this level. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got a great faculty, but they’re under a lot of pressure to increase performance, and I think they see technology as one more thing they have to worry about. It’s tough to convince them that while they may have to put more time in up front, in the long run, technology can make their lives easier.” She shrugged and smiled. “We keep hammering away at it, though.”

My time was up, so I headed to my sun-warmed car, considering what Deirdre had said.

I’d explored the Fairfax County Public Schools website, and I knew there were many resources available to the classroom teacher: Blackboard, United Streaming, the School-based Technology Coordinators, and many training opportunities. If technology integration wasn’t happening here, why not?

The Fairfax County Public Schools website

On her second day of research, Kelly heads to J.E.B. Stuart High School to observe a first-year teacher’s math lesson.

JEB Stuart High School, located in a suburban neighborhood, draws from a largely urban area.

J.E.B. Stuart is one of the smaller schools in Fairfax County, with about 1500 students. Despite spending my university years in major cities, I felt like a small-town girl as I entered the building and saw the state-of-the-art attendance system at work. After walking through the main doors, students were channeled through several booths where they showed ID cards. Various beeps alerted students and nearby administrators of everything from birthdays to missed detentions. I’d heard about Stuart’s system, which was touted for its ability to keep close contact with students and parents, but seeing it in action was incredible. I wondered how students felt about such accountability.

In the main office lobby, I waited beneath a poster-sized enlargement of a National Geographic article featuring the school. I couldn’t imagine any major publication even mentioning my hometown school system. Reading through the article reinforced my positive impression of what had been achieved under Principal Mel Riddile’s leadership, especially given the school’s demographics.

J.E.B. Stuart High School Profile

Under Mel Riddile’s leadership, JEB Stuart High meets the needs of its diverse and transient students.

Twenty minutes later, a group of five people emerged from Mel’s office, still arguing about some change in the schedule, and it was my turn to meet with this clearly overbooked man.

“I can see that you’re busy,” I began. “So I really thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

“Anything for Rachel,” he said. “But I am busy today.”

“I won’t waste your time, then. Shall we begin?” He nodded. “Tell me about J.E.B. Stuart.”

I shook hands with Mel and thanked him again for his time.

Amy works with students.

When I arrived at Amy Tarala’s classroom, her students were seated in pairs solving equations. I pulled out my notebook and joined in, happy for the chance to test my memory of algebra.

See Amy Tarala’s lesson plan below:

Here, I was able to see how the use of graphing calculators and laptops has developed since I went to high school ten years ago. When did it become possible to hook up a calculator to an overhead projector?

Kelly reflects on her observations and then returns to each of the three schools to talk with teachers about their experiences.

Wendy Rath reflects on her lesson.

As a follow-up to my classroom observations, I had scheduled meetings with each of the teachers for the next week. I was looking forward to meeting with Wendy Rath to discuss the writing workshop I’d observed. I’d been impressed both with the variety of technology her students were exposed to and by her management of this diverse group. Sitting in the library’s conference room, we talked about the lesson, and, despite her laryngitis, she was able to provide insight into her integration of technology in the writing workshop.

As she finished talking, a woman tapped on the door. “Sorry to interrupt,” she began.

Amy Mullen considers the role of technology in her classroom.

“Well, hi, Amy,” Wendy interjected. “This is Kelly, the grad student I told you about.” Turning to me, she added, “And this is Amy Mullen. She teaches second grade here.”

“Really?” I asked, realizing that I suddenly had an opportunity to talk about vertical integration. “Would you have a few minutes to talk about your use of technology in the classroom?”

She hesitated, “Well, my class is pretty different from Wendy’s.”

“Perfect. I’m interested in a wide range of experiences.”

“Okay,” she agreed and then addressed Wendy. “But the reason I was interrupting in the first place is that Mrs. Witzenger needs you back in your classroom. Something about Amir and markers?” Wendy laughed, “He always gets extra-squirmy towards the end of the day!” and headed out, leaving Amy and me alone to talk.

The difference in these two teachers’ attitudes toward technology was striking. I considered what I would do as an administrator to encourage them both, a challenge I would certainly face someday as a principal.

Sheila and Denise have a hard time meeting technology standards when they don’t have working computers.

Since a meeting was scheduled to take place in the library shortly, I was directed to a classroom down the hall where I could finish my notes. The students were at P.E., and the teacher sat quietly, taking advantage of the chance to grade some papers. She invited me to take a seat, and we worked quietly, each focusing on our task.

I hadn’t been working for more than two minutes, when another teacher walked in. I didn’t look up as Sheila called out, “Hey, Denise.” I needed to get my notes done and head out before rush hour traffic hit. But when I heard what they were talking about I practically jumped out of my chair.

Now that had been an interesting eavesdropping session! While I hadn’t gotten my notes done, I’d certainly gained some insight into what was really going on.

The next day I was able to talk with Ray Leonard for a few moments during his planning period. I enjoyed hearing Ray’s perspective. Since his experience as a teacher and student spanned many more years than mine, he could paint a broader picture of the changes technology had brought to schools.

After talking to Ray, I headed back to JEB Stuart to meet with Amy Tarala, and found her in the

Amy Tarala discusses her lesson.

spacious teachers’ lounge, grading papers as she awaited my arrival.

Explaining that she had about twenty minutes before heading to Algebra class, I pulled out my notebook and asked “How do your students feel about math class?”

Amy’s comment about the four hours she spent each day preparing lessons resonated. I vowed never to forget, as an administrator, how tough that first year was.

I thanked Amy for her time, and began to consider what I’d gleaned. What challenges these schools faced: immigrant populations, poverty, literacy, diversity, inclusion, and mobility, to name a few. Yet, they’d turned these challenges into opportunities and were succeeding where other schools had failed. I looked again at the K 12nectsII statement of goals. These schools had a ways to go, no doubt about it, but they were making significant strides. I thought back to that sense of promise I’d felt when I began teaching. It had almost disappeared during my rather brief stint as an educator, but I’d felt it in each of the classrooms I’d visited.

The Critical perspectives below are provided by the School-based Technology Specialists (SBTS) at Glen Forest, Glasgow, and J.E.B. Stuart.

A job description of a School-based Technology Specialist