Interview: The Keys to Success in Chicago

Getting “buy-in” for devices and digital curriculum—a Superintendent and Tech Director team tell their strategy
David Kafitz, Ed.D

“For us it was all about transforming teaching and learning and that’s how we started. We didn’t start talking about devices, we didn’t start talking about ‘we WILL be 1-to-1 in ‘X’ amount of years’.  We talked about ‘What does teaching and learning look like in this new digital age and how can we develop capacity among our teachers and students and their parents to support that transformation.’”

Dr. David Schuler is the Superintendent of Township High School District 214 and President of the National School Superintendents Association. On a sunny spring day in Chicago I sat down with him and his Director of Technology Services, Keith Bockwoldt to speak about how they got started on their transition strategy, the mindset that helped them push through barriers and how they achieved overwhelming buy-in from instructors, parents and administration.

Dr. David Kafitz, Learning Counsel, Question: You are known to us as one of the gold standards in the United States for the work you’ve done making this transition. Can you talk a little bit about the origin of the shift to digital content and devices in your district?

Dr. Schuler, Answer:  We created a pilot process where teachers could submit a pilot proposal and it had to be about how teaching and learning would look different in their classroom and how they would assess the impact of that device or whatever that new technology was in the classroom at the end.

They presented to a panel of individuals and that group decided, then, whether to support or not to support that individual going forward.

It was an amazing process and over the course of about three years, we went from a handful of teachers expressing interest that first year to professional learning community teams of teachers presenting in year three - and it was all through this really organic, supporting teaching and learning, use of technology by teachers who really were going to use it differently in their classroom. We were not interested in purchasing technology that was going to just sit on the sideline or was only going to be used on Thursdays or was still going to require us to buy textbooks and when I walk into the classroom, nothing was going to look different.  I think by splitting the work of quality teaching and learning, we’ve been really successful.

We also had told all of our staff that if everything we’re doing is working, we’re not pushing the envelope hard enough. So it was made perfectly okay to fail, they just needed to be honest about it and learn from it.  I think that removed a huge burden off of staff to say “Look, it’s okay if it doesn’t work for you right away, we just have to figure out how it will work for us as a community for the long term.”

Keith Bockwoldt, Answer: It was really pretty amazing because as Dr. Schuler’s vision came to light, we had the Board’s support.  They talked about us taking risks. Dr. Schuler talked to us about taking risks, “Don’t be afraid of failure” and I think that eased a lot of the concern among staff because when you talk about “fail”, you talk about folks getting blamed and it really wasn’t about that, it was trying different things and learning from those failures that made us a success. 

So, with Dave’s [Dr. Schuler] vision, getting that in place, having the Administration part of it, all the way down to the teacher level and understanding what this meant for them – to move through this whole process…  Organically, it really grew from the bottom up and when we had these proposals come in they started a little bit slower so we may have 9 the first year but then the following year we had 23.  I think the following year from that we had 57.  So it really just kept growing from year-to-year. To see that kind of growth and acceptance from the staff was the reality that we were able to move this thing forward and build it into a full, complete program for the District.

And as Dave said, it was really about transforming the teaching and learning in the classroom, it wasn’t typically just about “What device is it?”.  I perceived that teachers had stake in that and they tried different devices along with transforming the way they were delivering lessons. The teachers were the ones ultimately who made the decisions about what device it would be and what would be used in the classroom to transform that instruction.

Additionally, taking it to another step, we provided the professional learning along with it, the PD – and that was really a big part of that.  And not only did we have it then, we still have it now.  So using the SAMR model—it doesn’t matter the model—just as long as you have a model in place for support, you’ve got some mechanisms to help the teachers continue to succeed and change their practices in the classroom.

Question:  It sounds like a more organic timeline of letting this evolve over a period of time rather than a proscriptive timeline;  “Year 1 we’re going to be here, Year 2 we’re going to be here and by year 3 it’s everybody.” Was that a deliberate choice or is it something that just came out of it as you were watching how it got started and how it evolved?

Dr. Schuler, Answer: It was very deliberate. We knew, if we told staff “In 3 years you WILL be doing this”, we were going to have fierce resistance.  And we should have.  We needed to be able to move at a process where our teachers felt comfortable if we, again, wanted to truly transform the classroom.

If we just wanted them to use new technology, we could have done the 3-year timeline but we needed to provide time for professional development.  We needed to provide time for them to dabble in the sandbox a little bit until they felt comfortable and confident.  Because the reality is, all of our teachers are excellent, they all are doing a tremendous job, transforming teaching and learning with the use of a device now.  But it was new for them, you know, and we needed to give them time to experience that “newness” and develop their own comfort-level and confidence-level.

Question:  What were some of your early wins and the wins that you’re seeing now that continues to feed this evolution of teaching and learning?

Answer: One win, early-on, was we had a human geography pilot and the teacher used a device to transform what was happening in his classroom and then he had another class that did not.  So he had a control group and an experimental group and he got through much more of the curriculum at a much deeper level and the students did much better. That was a really easy win for us to be able to go and talk about. 

Then we had a world-language experience where it would normally take two weeks for them to do presentations in front of the class and, instead, we had one student videotaping and another student asking questions and another student presenting. They did that and they were uploading the files to the teacher and in one class period she was able to get done what would normally have taken two weeks.

So sharing some of those stories was really, really wonderful.

Then we had other situations where we had a principal really encourage a rock-star teacher to try and apply for a pilot and, when we talked to her at the end, she said “Well, I just couldn’t find enough resources out there”.  She wasn’t ready, you know, and so that was an awesome, awesome successful-failure for us because it reinforced that we had to focus on capacity first if we really wanted our classrooms to look different when we went full scale. 

Answer (KB): It’s really important to know that this was ultimately a six year process with us.  It just didn’t happen.  It wasn’t proscribed that “We’re going to do stages, one, two three, four”, it was six years of an evolution to get to this point and we weren’t afraid to pull back on some of the pilots that weren’t ready just yet.  One of the things that we ran into was, two years ago, we were at 75% capacity with all of our students having a device and unbeknownst to me, what was happening… I started getting a lot of calls from parents saying “I have my son, or my daughter, is in a classroom with 3 to 5 kids that don’t have a device but the teacher is using the iPad.” 

What came out of that was a conversation with the leadership about “We need to fix this” because we didn’t want to hold the teachers back at that point.  They might not have had a pilot that was approved but we certainly didn’t want to hold them back.  So it was really important to figure out a way that we could make sure that the students had a device in a classroom and the teachers had the ability to go ahead and use the device.  So we said “Let’s go ahead and get these”.  I pulled the numbers together and got together with the Superintendency and said “Let’s make this happen” and then the teachers, all they had to do, was make sure they take the “Teaching with the iPad class One” to make sure they had the essentials, even though they were on their way already.

Question:  Those are some great examples of early wins. What about challenges—ones that either popped up or ones that you knew to expect and what you did to address them?

Answer, (Dr. Schuler):  I think the biggest challenge we had, using the process we used, is that some students would have an iPad one year, and not the next year.  That was really hard and we had to just own that;  that it was going to be a difficult transition but we believed, that our approach was going to lead to transformational change.  That was probably the biggest challenge. 

And then, trying to decide when we were right at that tipping point.  Where is the tipping point?  We weren’t comfortable at 75%, most change theory says you have to hit that 80% and we were really kind of committed to that.  But organically, that kind of took care of itself.  Then, the other challenge is really the Tech Department (Keith).  We had different devices, different age-level of devices, different versions and trying to say “Okay, how do we plan for the long term sustainability and then who and what grade gets which device?”, that allows, then, for us to be able to sustain it long-term.

Answer (KB): I think on our side, it’s really the eco-system on the back-end, the management eco-system where the educational eco-system was superior on the front-end but it was the management eco-system on the back-end that we had challenges with.  What we tried to do was work through those challenges to make sure the students and staff had a really good experience on the front-end.  That was really critical for us.  I think one of the things that we could have done better is explaining or sharing the assessment data with our staff.  I don’t think we did a really good enough job, while we had really good data on some of the successes, some of the challenges that were out there, I think we could have really shared that information a little bit differently so everybody was aware of exactly what was happening as the transformation of instruction took place in the classroom with the technology being the vehicle to make that happen.

Question:  Talk to me about your current state of transition.  You’ve reached a nice point, you’re known nationally for the quality with instruction, using digital curriculum and content and devices in your district.  How do you assess where you’re at and where do you see yourself evolving to?

Answer (KB): It’s kind of interesting because working with Dave [Dr. Schuler], we’re not, ever, just sitting status-quo.  “Where do we go next?  Where do we need to change our professional development to help our teachers continue to transform learning?  How do we personalize learning for our students?  After meeting with students the last couple of weeks, it was really interesting that they love to have a tool to use because they’re able to access technology, their resources from school at any time, any place that they want. 

So some of the feedback that I’ve gotten was that “I can really personalize my learning using this tool”.  So I think, as we continue to look at it, it’s about “How do we continue to help our staff?  What are those things that we really want to do in the District?”  I’m getting some great initiatives going; we have the Entrepreneur Program, we have the Mobile-Makers which is coding across the curriculum, we have the Internship Program – Career Discovery we call it – giving Students these external experiences to be able to explore different careers, different pathways and we know that not every student is going to go to College either so it’s about, “How do we give access to all these students, give opportunities to all these students no matter what their path in life is going to be.  I think we just have to be prepared for that and I’m going to let Dave talk about trajectory and changing student lives.

Answer, (Dr. Schuler): The reality is, we have a moral imperative to prepare our students for the world in which they’re going to live—in a world that’s going to reinvent itself several times over during their lifetimes.  We have to create students who have critical thinking skills, who are adaptable, flexible and will understand coding.  Because the reality is, coding is the next digital literacy from my perspective and so we have integrated coding in all of our curricular math departments.  Owning it so, every one of our students, regardless of ability level is being exposed to basic coding principles, which I think is wonderful. 

I’m very proud of our school district and where we’re at but we will never become complacent.  What we’re really transitioning from is graduation from High School being the end-point. The reality is, is that High School is a critical piece of that cradle-to-careers pipeline.  And I do put the “s” on careers because I think that our students, many of them, are going to have more than one career and we should acknowledge that and affirm that and say that up-front. 

Our students all select a career cluster by the end of their sophomore year and then, we will guarantee them an external experience in that cluster at some point in their Junior/Senior year.  We also believe very, very strongly that access and affordability are the two biggest challenges facing students in higher-education today so we’ve addressed both of those.  If you come in as a freshman and you meet 5 criteria over the course of your high-school career, you can earn up to two years of free community college credit.  Every student in our District will have access to 15 early college credits if they so choose, at a minimum. 

We’ve just created a partnership with National Louis University where if a student at the end of their sophomore year identifies that they want to pursue business administration or elementary education, they will guarantee them a degree three years after leaving a High School near or at debt-free and those courses are held in our district at their campus.  We are just about to announce a new partnership with a University for a Secondary teaching program that will look exactly or very similar to the elementary program.  So we’re continuing to explore these different pathway opportunities for students.

And, again, not everybody is going to be a 4-year college or university graduate, that’s okay.  But I think we agree that all students need to be able to be ready for post-secondary education of some sort, whether that’s the military, a two-year or a four-year and that’s what we’re preparing our students for.

Question: I’m hearing the origins of an initiative that you’re at the forefront and leading – you’re redefining “ready”.  Would you like to talk a little bit about that and then how the work here in District 214 has brought that whole program out.

Answer: We’re very proud of “Redefining Ready” which is a new National Initiative to redefine what it means to be college and career ready based on the research.  And so we conducted a meta-analysis last Spring and Summer to see “what does the data really say about being college and career ready?”  And the reality is, students learn in a variety of ways, they should be able to demonstrate readiness in a variety of ways and so this is a research-based multi-metric way to identify and demonstrate readiness at both college-ready and career-ready levels.  We launched it two months ago at the National Conference on Education through the American Association of School Administrators and since then, CoSN, the Consortium of School Networking, along with NASSP, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and PDK, Phi Delta Kappa have already endorsed the initiative as well. 

Everywhere that I go and speak and have an opportunity to talk about it, it’s been received incredibly, incredibly positively.  And the goal really is to transform that national conversation away from solely focusing on assessments and opting-out from tests as the “bookends” which they have right now, to really engaging in a conversation about teaching, learning and readiness.  I think the work that we’ve been able to do in this district, really showcases that it can be done.

So you take six schools in our District, High Schools, all look very different and, yesterday all were announced as in the top 35 public High Schools in the State of Illinois.

Regardless of demographics, it’s working, our students are succeeding and that’s what it’s all about, I mean we have to address access and affordability, we have to provide real-life external experiences for our students if we want to re-create the middle class in our community and that’s really what we’re all about.  I think there’s a lot of noise about minimum wage, we’re focused solely and really laser-like on ensuring our students can access living-wage jobs to support themselves and their families.

Question: As I watch the two of you interact, one of the things that we don’t see in a lot of school districts that are struggling, is the relationship between Superintendent and their Director of Technology Services or Chief Technology Officer.  Talk to me about this relationship.  What’s worked so that you two can have a conversation about the ins-and-outs of this and the success that has followed?

Answer:  I think you have to respect your CTO enough to be completely honest with him/or her.  And so, while it looks like we get along incredibly well right now, that doesn’t mean that all of our conversations have lacked messiness because they definitely have had messiness.  But because I respect Keith’s leadership and his technical skills, it provided me the opportunity to be really honest with him about “This is a pain-point for me right now, can you help me through it?”.  Now, I know what I know, but probably more importantly, I know what I don’t know and I don’t know Keith’s technical world, I don’t try to, I respect him and his skillset enough to not get involved in the weeds, that is his lane in our organization, and then trying to support him the best that I can by having those authentic, engaging and honest conversations.

Answer (KB):  I think what’s really interesting is; the conversations that Dave and I are able to have.  CTO’s, Directors of Technology in School Districts really need to start adapting a little bit differently because it can’t just be about the Tech.  I always can say I can hire someone with technical abilities but I need someone to be able to talk to people as well and understand the educational environment.  So, through this whole transition, being able to understand what Dave’s Initiatives are, the District’s Initiatives, the Administration has helped me to formulate my team a little bit differently so Dave and I can have real conversations and we’ll really talk about “What are the needs of the District?” and it’s really interesting now that we have an environment where staff trust so much in technology that each day, each week that goes by, I’m constantly being asked for a different thing. 

That’s a great place to be because we have systems at work and it’s about trying to utilize your resources and make sure that you can support the initiatives in the district and then have those conversations with the leadership about what the needs are.  That’s what I’m here for, I’m here to support students, staff, administration and the community at large.  But I love having these conversations because it really brings me back to why I’m here and when I’m out at the buildings, talking to students, they’re the one’s – why we’re here.

So it really is change and I think the narrative with CTO’s and Directors in leadership across the US, if folks aren’t talking together, if they’re Tech Teams and their Instructional Teams are not having conversations now, they need to start doing it because it’s just going to be a matter of time where the one-to-one conversation is going to be coming up or Transforming Learning is coming up.  How do we make it happen? But everybody has got to be on the same page with it.  If they’re not, they’re going to be at odds, right?  So I think that’s why we’ve been really successful here is to move things forward and really make things happen, we have a common understanding, common vision and that proliferates all across the Team members, across the District.

Dr. David Kafitz, Learning Counsel:  From the Learning Counsels’ perspective, from what we’ve seen over the years of relationship with this District – hats-off to you both and the work you’ve done and the good you’ve done for the students in your community and the success you have and great advice from both of you, thank you for sharing today, we appreciate your time and look forward to being back here again in the Future.

Expert and charismatic change-agent helping schools move forward with a well-reasoned strategy for digital content and curriculum, professional development and IT strategy. Former Superintendent, Director of Technology Services, Principal, and Teacher in North Carolina Public Schools.

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At the Learning Counsel’s Digital Transition Discussion events, there’s a lot to take in. At our one-day events, one of the highlights is the Panel Discussions where area professionals discuss key experiences.