Techie Teachers

Tech-savvy teachers build educational apps in pilot program

PHOTO: Lisa Larson-Walker/Slate
EDesign Lab members brainstorm ideas in group meeting. (Courtesy of Hsing Wei)

Dara Ross didn’t know how to write code or develop online software until she joined a pilot program that offered to help teachers use technology in the classroom last year. By the program’s end, the high school English teacher had helped build several of her own educational mobile apps, including one that assesses her students’ emotions after they read. Another one featured an animated robot that acted as a reading buddy.

She and five fellow teachers did that with the help of tech savvy mentors as participants in Digital Teachers Corp, a program launched last year by New Visions for Public Schools, a national non-profit organization, and as lab members in EDesign Lab, an initiative to bridge the educational technology gap between software developers and educators.

“It was valuable to work on education with teachers and technologists; I think that combination is not usually talked about,” said Ross, who teaches English as a second language at Brooklyn International High School. She became interested in incorporating technology in her curriculum when she started creating online videos for her students.

The EDesign Lab is entering its second year and looking for a new crop of teachers to join.

Getting technology into the classroom has been a slow process, in part because the people who develop software and build digital tools aren’t in touch with the learning needs of students. Participants in the pilot said the program helped them quickly bridge that divide by getting in the same room and working out problems together. 

“The main purpose of the lab is to enable the joint collaboration between two disciplines who rarely connect,” said Hsing Wei, a New Visions employee who was one of the program’s design facilitators and in charge of directing the lab. Wei said that teachers responded enthusiastically when they were approached to work on something that diverted from the traditional classroom setting.

The teachers had a yearlong partnership with mentors, who are software developers with expertise in developing apps and designing games. They met every other week after school or on weekends to share ideas on how to use technology to enhance their teaching skills.

“I would have never had that type of exposure of the kind of tips and tricks they taught us,” said Ross. Besides helping the teachers brainstorm and build educational programs, the developers gave Ross and the other teachers links to useful websites that they could make graphs and charts.

But the partnership also benefitted developers, who usually often have no experience teaching in a classroom.

“Everyone working in education software needs to run what they do by teachers because they’re the ones who are going to be using it,” said Scott Peterman, a lab member who acted as a mentor. “It’s a much richer environment and can lead to a much more productive way of making educational software when the teachers are in the room the whole time.”

The teachers in Peterman’s group began by asking their students how they could learn and still have fun. Many students mentioned the Discovery Channel television show called MythBusters, where scientific myths are tested through experiments.

Peterman and the rest of his team created the designs for a video-sharing website called Evident.ly, where students could pose questions and post videos of their experiments.

The other team created an app called the Reading Robot, which involved a small robot that could guide students as they read and ask questions about the material.

“The majority of students identified him as a friend,” said Nate Finney, a teacher at Columbia Secondary School. “This was part of the goal because they were trying to alleviate the stress involved with reading.”

For now, the EDesign Lab’s educational apps are still in test form. The emphasis is on forging the relationship between technology and teachers and allowing teachers to feel empowered to design tools they will use in the classroom, said Ralph Vacca, another design facilitator.

“Hopefully, funding dependent, we might be able to take one or two projects from this past year,” added Wei. “It’s okay if you don’t invest 100 million, it’s about the experimental process.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”