School Transformation with Dr. Luvelle Brown

A Discussion of the “New Gap” and Competing in an Experience Economy
Cebron Walker, Editor-in-Chief

Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent, Ithaca City School District, talked with the Learning Counsel about his district’s digital transformation and the systemic changes his team is making. Dr. Brown was a guest at the White House where he met with President Obama; named one of the nation’s most “tech savvy” school superintendents in 2014 and selected as one of the National School Board Association’s (NSBA) “20 to Watch” educators for the 2013-2014 school year.

During this conversation, Dr. Brown shares his district’s vision and mission, details about his network buildout for increased wireless access for all students and teachers, mobile hotspots for anywhere access and the redesigning of learning spaces. He delves into the “new gap” we have today of not just a child having a device, but how are they utilizing the devices effectively. And lastly, how he and his leadership team are confronting the consumerization of learning.

Learning Counsel: What is the biggest challenge you see re: networking and infrastructure?  What are your IT people doing?

Dr. Luvelle Brown:  It’s an ongoing issue for us. At the same time that we were having the conversation about technology tools and mobile devices, we were also building our infrastructure. I saw this day coming, we moved forward to accomplish ubiquitous wireless coverage in all our buildings. We immediately tripled the amount of bandwidth coming into our spaces. 

What I’m learning, and I’ve done this now in this school district for six years and previously I was a CIO in another large district—you can never have enough bandwidth. You can never have enough access points. The more we provide, the more that will be needed. Network infrastructure is an ongoing annual conversation for us. If someone had told me three or four years ago “the amount of bandwidth we have right now won’t be enough”, I would laugh.  But I’m here to say, if every device is on, that’s one issue, but now, young people are looking to stream, collaborate and upload. We’re uploading millions of Google docs every day. We have young people having skype conversations like this one all over the world. That eats up bandwidth the way you can’t even fathom. I couldn’t have fathomed that years ago. 

LC: So, your IT network and IT guys are working overtime.

Dr. Brown: All day, every day. And that’s their charge. It’s a great challenge and it’s an exciting challenge to keep up with the needs of our young people, not only providing the infrastructure but, when we talk about “filtering”.  As I say often, it’s hard to block students. We can block adults, but students are going to figure out a way to get around any filtering system. They’re going to hack into any device that we put in front of them. It’s our job to deal with this and protect the students. Our tech folks are challenged, I’m challenged as the instruction leader, to stay up to speed with them.

LC: Do you have a solution now for kids to have connectivity at home?

Dr. Brown: This is a difficult one for us. The solution varies, we’re working with our county to provide broadband access throughout the county for folks to purchase or to have access to it. For families who have access but aren’t able to afford it we’ve made arrangements to send home mobile hotspots. But the tools we use don’t require wi-fi access to complete work at home so that’s been a plus. In any case, this is an ongoing challenge for us. We’ve done surveys, we don’t have many families who don’t have access at home. Even harder is getting those families to tell us they don’t have access at home. So, we’re constantly outreaching and we have the devices to send home to provide that resource when needed and when we know.

LC: Referring to what’s behind you, can you tell me about how these walls that I see in your office work?

Dr. Brown: We’ve experimented with learning spaces, as I’ve mentioned. One of the things we did first was experiment with paint. We wanted our young people to be standing, creating on walls, having spaces that were flexible, so this paint here is called “Idea Paint”.  It’s paint that allows one to use a dry-erase marker to write. This is my office and we’ve done everything from the budget in the space to develop a leadership development program, and on the walls you’ll see some of that thinking. A lot of scribble, a lot of erasing, different folks writings, different handwriting.  It’s happening in our classrooms also. It’s just promoting thinking, promoting creativity. It’s promoting good collaboration as well and I feel, as the instructional leader, I should be modeling that as well so what you see is what we do.

LC: What excites you about the future of education?

Dr. Brown: What I’m super excited about is the way the conversation is changing today. It’s no longer a question of “if” but “when”-  when it comes to giving every young person access to a mobile device. Throughout my career, up to this point, it was “should we do it?” “should we not do it?”  “how do we afford it?” “should spend that money?”

I think with transition we can make that conversation now where it’s just an expectation in a 21st Century learning space that young people have access to these devices, and that’s a big win for us. 

Now the new achievement gap from my perspective is more of this access-gap, how many educators and young people are using those tools effectively to enhance teaching-and-learning versus those who just have it as a tool to surf the web or to download music. How many are truly using it effectively?  That’s the new gap we have now.  That’s going to require a lot of professional development, great leadership, many-many hours of conversation to get the full value out of all the work to build infrastructure and networks and provide every classroom with connectivity and the tools and software. We’ve got to take it now from having these cool things to using them effectively to truly enhance teaching and learning.

LC: How have you addressed the subject of the “consumerization” of education? More and more companies are making it possible to consume an education anywhere.  Is that coming across your plate? 

Dr. Brown: I’ve been using it to inspire and motivate folks here in our community. If we don’t work hard to improve every day, transform what we do for young people, the competition will eat us up. One can go out there and find their K-12 experience online, and cheaply. As communities, as leaders, as school boards who are grappling with that, we must make some decisions and make some shifts quickly.

There is a sense of urgency to develop a program in K-12 Public Ed that is competitive and the program-of-choice and to do it cost-efficiently. We, as institutions that have existed for hundreds of years, if not changing and if not being very good, we’re going to become obsolete and extinct pretty quickly. 

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