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Impressive Leadership: 6 State and District Supers that Have Made a Big Impact

Posted by Kate Chesnutt

Mar 5, 2015 9:36:00 AM

When it comes to a state's attitude on and adoption of education technology, a lot of positive change can be driven by the state superintendent. "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," said Nelson Mandela. These superintendents know the weight of that truth and work to effect positive change in their districts.  In this post we highlight six state and district superintendents across the country for their roles in helping students through the adoption of edtech and other forward-thinking initiatives.

Schools are adapting to the 21st Century due to the hard work of superintendents. These superintendents have worked to ensure that the students, teachers, and classrooms are future ready. We salute these empowering superintendents: Dr. Tommy Bice of Alabama, Tom Torlakson of California, Alberto Carvalho of Florida, Mike Flanagan of Michigan, Luvelle Brown of New York, and Karen Rue of Texas.


Dr. Tommy Bice - State Superintendent


State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice and Alabama Department of Education’s Technology Initiatives Coordinator Earlene Patton have helped move Alabama to the head of the class when it comes to educational technology and blended learning integration.

The Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX) program aims to help administrators, teachers, students, and parents by providing an index of educational resources. The goal is for people to get to the material they need within three clicks. ALEX boasts more than 65,000 links to high quality digital learning resources. Earlier this year The Learning Counsel recognized the ALEX program for its achievements. Additionally, the site has several “Best of Web” awards.

Alabama launched the Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide (ACCESS) program in 2006. ACCESS Distance and Blended Learning was intended to remove the education inequalities that existed. By providing access to high quality instruction for all Alabama high school students, ACCESS has had great results.

The idea started in 2003 when Gov. Bob Riley noticed that some schools had only one Advanced Placement class. By integrating technology through distance and blended learning, Alabama now has five times more low-income students taking AP exams, and three times more scoring 3 or higher on a 5-point scale. The program has had several other benefits as well. It has helped many transient students complete their classes on time. By using tools like Edmodo, Facebook, Twitter and other online networks students who were once forced to take certain courses due to scheduling conflicts are now able to discuss and complete their assignments in their own time and meet once a week with their teacher.


Tom Torlakson - State Superintendent

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has worn many hats. He’s served as a teacher, a California State Senator, a coach, and was recently re-elected as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Torlakson recognizes that there is a “serious need to provide modern schools and build the bandwidth and internet access, new science labs, and career technical education facilities.” He led a successful campaign to get $1.25B to achieve those technological improvements and to “provide more education technology and professional development for teachers.”

Torlakson announced an Educational Technology Task force in March 2012. Their results were published in last year in a report entitled “Empowering Learning: A Blueprint for California Education Technology 2014–2017.” Torlakson writes in the opening message, “Those of us who have made education our life’s work know that we must ensure students are given the tools and opportunities they need to succeed, both in school and out. Education technology—if pursued thoughtfully—is both one such tool and one such opportunity.” For Torlakson, adding technology to the classroom provides lifelong benefits when students enter the workforce. “Technology can be a means to increase collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication – skills that employers tell us they need and value.”


Alberto Carvalho - Superintendent of Miami Dade County Schools

Alberto Carvalho is the Superintendent of Miami Dade County Schools, the fourth largest school district in the United States, with over 346,000 students. He has been profiled in Scholastic’s article “The Fantastic Five” (here). He has seen great succcess in integrating techology not only into the classroom, but also into the way the way the distict does business. These improvements have made his district much more effecient—not an easy task given its large size.

Some of his visions for the 2014-2015 school year include:

  • A mobile app to help keep parents, students, employees and the community informed of vital information, including class schedules and bus information, emergencies, school closures and upcoming events
  • Easier payment systems that allow parents to use credit cards to pay for necessary student services
  • A paper reduction initiative, designed to reduce use of paper by 75%
  • Streamlined tracking of maintenance projects through a digital dashboard
  • A carpool program for district employees facilitated by a mobile app

All of these improvements have been supported by new technology, which Carvalho has pushed for strongly. Anticipating President Obama’s 2018 plan to add wifi to all schools, all of the 400+ schools in the Miami Dade district have wifi with enough bandwidth to support their large student and teacher base. Supterintendent Carvalho has put 50,000 devices in classrooms and the school district has procured 150,000 additional devices. In Nichole Dobo’s Q &A with Carvalho on the Heching Report, he advises ’there has to be sufficient common planning time for the teachers to collaborateon the use of the environment, on the use of the technology, on the use of the content.”


Mike Flanagan - State Superintendent

Mike Flanagan has been in education all of his life. He has served as the Michigan State Superintendent since 2005, making him the longest serving state superintendent in the country.

Flanagan has pushed for “value schools” in the state. Leveraging technology allows the state to reduce the cost per student, but Flanagan says the plan is not necessarily about saving money. He believes that student achievement and success is the way to measure program effectiveness. Technology can help educate children to be college or career ready once they graduate. In Michigan, the number of “college ready” students, determined by an ACT score, is up from 17.3 percent in 2011 to 20.1 percent in 2014. Third grade reading scores are up too. This year 70 percent of students were rated proficient or higher in reading, compared with 63.5 percent the previous year.

Flanagan has opened the discussion of the Educational Technology Work Group to everyone on the internet, “not just the stakeholders.”  He launched this idea in 2013 here. By opening up the conversation to an entire online community on Facebook, Superintendent Flanagan has made the process inclusive and transparent.

He does not just espouse the use of technology in schools, he uses technology to communicate. Superintendent Flanagan’s has videos on Michigan Department of Education’s Youtube channel, an active Twitter account, and open Facebook discussions.  

New York

Luvelle Brown - Superintendent of the Ithaca City School Distirct

Luvelle Brown has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, CIO for a school system in Virginia and is now the Superintendent of the Ithaca City School District, NY. In 2014, Brown was voted one of the nation's most “tech savvy” school superintendents by eSchool News and was listed on the National School Boards Association's “20 to Watch.”

Luvelle Brown claims he is not a “techie,” but rather an “instructional leader.” Brown has pushed for instructional reform and used technology to achieve it. He has advocated for district wide initiatives including systems based on visual mapping, game based learning, and 1:1 mobile devices. As he sees it, the use of technology is not just for technology’s sake. The focus, according to Brown, should be on developing critical thinkers, problem solvers, and collaborators. Brown envisions a community of “6000+ thinkers.” To create these “thinkers” Brown focused on student engagement and the way schools delivered instruction. This led to an increased use of technology in the classroom.  For example, fifth graders write blog entries for their websites instead of journal compositions in notebooks. Traditional reports have become multi-media presentations on Prezi. As one student in his district put it, “It’s teaching us in a way we like instead of in a way that’s boring.”

As a result of Brown’s efforts, ICSD has seen great success. The graduation rate is now above 90%, up from 78%.  It is no surprise to those who know Brown ,who seems to love being a part of the Ithaca community as much as they have enjoyed having him. School Board President Rob Ainslie boasts of Brown, “Beyond the use of any particular device or system, he’s changed the culture of our district to embrace the use of technology.” 


Karen Rue - Superintendent of the Northwest Independent School District

Karen Rue has been persistent in her efforts to have technology available in her district so they “can offer the best educational opportunities to [their] students.”

Her path to a one-to-one school district at the secondary level was not easy, and initially the district faced challenges with lesson design. Rue noted in an article with e-School News that “the work being designed by all of us was not coming across for students—they didn’t see themselves in that work and they weren’t being asked…to demonstrate their learning and collaborate with one another.” After rethinking their approach to lesson design, they have had great results.

Rue’s persistence in integrating technology has ensured that all the students in her district have immediate access to the technology needed to learn and develop in a 21st Century environment. The district’s goal is to have students “use digital media responsibly and effectively to communicate, synthesize, and create new knowledge; solve problems and analyze critically; learn from mistakes and adapt to new thinking; and determine validity and relevance of information, among other skills.” To this end, all students at the secondary level have Dell tablets, and the classrooms in the district have been equipped to deliver effective and efficient instruction in a one-to-one style.  

Rue has even gone a step further to oversee that technology extends to the parents. She oversaw the design and implementation of a mobile app that contains news updates, staff directories, campus locations, and many other features. Stage two of the app will include other items that benefit parents, such as lunch account balances.

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