A little while ago we sat down with Superintendent Marylou Wilson to talk about why she signed the Future Ready pledge, her plans for her district, and where she sees education heading.
Below you will find more information on the St. Helena Unified School District and Superintendent Wilson—please scroll down to read the interview itself.
About the St. Helena Unified School District
Location: St. Helena, CA
Located in the rolling hills of California’s wine country, St. Helena serves over one thousands students in four different schools, which are St. Helena Primary, St. Helena Elementary, Robert Louis Stevenson Middle, and St. Helena High.
St. Helena is supported by a foundation called the Parent Groups and Public Schools Foundation, which supports schools through volunteerism and fundraising. These funds benefit classroom activities, field trips, and teacher projects. Technology is used in the district to enhance and support instruction in all classrooms. Every student in St. Helena Unified has an individual technology device available for their use, and the district has full control over the content available to students on those devices.
When entering her role as superintendent of St. Helena at the start of the ‘14-’15 school year, Dr. Wilson said, “St. Helena Unified is a school community that places high achievement and student success at the forefront of its priorities. Working together, we will continue to serve students well while preparing them with 21st century skills for their future.”
About Superintendent Marylou Wilson
Before joining St. Helena last year, Superintendent Wilson held various positions in education throughout the state of California. She taught elementary and middle school in Cajon Valley; served for ten years as a principal in various school districts throughout Southern California; and served as the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, where she was also a member of the Superintendent’s Executive Cabinet.
Dr. Wilson holds a Bachelors of Arts and Masters of Arts in Education from San Diego State University, and completed her doctorate at the University of La Verne.
The Interview Starts Here!
Q: To get started, can you tell us why you decided to sign the Future Ready pledge?
A: I signed the pledge in my first year as superintendent here in St. Helena.
When I read the pledge, it identified what was already happening in our district around technology, and it was in full alignment with our existing practices. 95% of our students are connected at home, and 100% are connected at every school site. We have 1:1 devices for every student, and the district has full control over what students can access.
After learning about the pledge we went through the application and it confirmed so many things that I had inherited as a new superintendent were preparing students for 22nd century. Kids are different learners now than they were twenty years ago, and the pledge acknowledges that fact in clear terms.
After signing we applied for, and were accepted to attend, the signing of the pledge in Washington D.C. along with President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Q: Can you tell us about your trip to DC? What did you learn?
A: The event in DC was amazing because I was able to meet people from all over the US, and we talked about how technology is working or isn’t working in their districts. There was such a spectrum of adoption—some districts had 45-50% of their students still unable to access wifi regularly, and it was interesting to hear how they are overcoming those challenges. This was one of the most important parts of the event for me, to get to talk with other superintendents about their district-wide initiatives and hear what they’re doing, and also to share the things that we’re working on here in St. Helena.
For me, one of the most significant experiences I had in DC was seeing how important the Future Ready project was to President Obama. When he spoke with all of the superintendents he kept leaving the script and speaking from his heart. His aide told us later that he only does that with projects he really cares about, and his concern with education and the future of our students really came across.
Q: Have you attended any of the regional summits?
A: Yes, we attended the summit here in the Bay Area. We took a team—me, our Assistant Superintendent, a teacher, and one of our media technicians. The opportunity to share best practices was very exciting, and it was great to learn about what other districts have in place.
One great outcome of the summit was that our team got a big affirmation for the work we’re already doing. I would venture to guess that we’re ahead of the game of about 50% of the school districts who attended, in part because of the funding that has enabled us to provide wifi and devices for all students, but also because of how we’re using those devices to support instruction in the classroom.
Q: Can you fill us in on the edtech-related initiatives you have in place in St. Helena right now?
→ We are a full 1:1 in the district. Every student has a device.
→ Every child in St. Helena Unified has a single logon that is unique to them. This starts in kindergarten, and stays with them until they graduate. The login takes students through everything they could possibly use or want within a district’s network. Students don’t have to login separately to each application being used in the classroom, but have it all centralized through one single sign-on. This allows the district to push everything out to our students easily, creating ease of access and also allowing for full control over what students can access with their devices.
→ We are very fortunate to have our broadband up to one gig right now. We’ve worked with AT&T and erate funds, and we have some tech bond money as well, which have allowed us to upgrade our servers and infrastructure.
Q: Can you tell us about a challenge you’ve faced in implementing the use of edtech, and how it was overcome?
A: Originally, before I joined the district our teachers weren’t really involved in the changes made in the district surrounding the use of technology, but they wanted to be.
When I joined the district, the out-going superintendent had already commissioned a report on the district by an organization called FCMAT, which helps districts improve. The report indicated that the teacher voice had not previously been included; that we were understaffed in supporting tech; and that decision making was primarily top-down.
My challenge was to shift that thinking immediately, and involve teachers in our decision making out of the gate. I believe we can’t move forward without including other people in the process, and it’s amazing how quickly we have already been able to shift things.
In my first year (’14-’15 school year) we put together a team to identify our top priorities in the district, and we came up with three goal areas to work on. Because everyone was involved, we were able to work toward each of the goals and make significant progress toward meeting them in the last school year.
The goals, and the solutions found, were:
Goal 1: Identify a systems-wide LMS (or Learning Management System). Parents previously had to login to 7 different websites, which was just too much to manage for everyone involved.
Goal 1 solution: In Nov, we brought considered some different LMSes, and our teachers determined that Haiku would be their LMS with the understanding that implementation would happen when school started in fall of 2015, so they would have time to roll everything out.
Goal 2: Make the decision between flat screens or Smartboards, and then move forward with purchasing.
Goal 2 solution: We were able to solve this problem in a few months by vetting the options and having teachers lead the way in the decision-making process.
Goal 3: What professional development do we need in order to grow?
Goal 3 solution: We put teachers in driver’s seat, and allowed them to help determine what would be good professional development for them. This way they have a role in identifying their needs and the solutions to their needs, instead of one person determining everything for them without their input.
Q: Can you recommend any best practices or give any advice on how to implement the use of technology in the classroom?
- → You have to involve everyone. We have a technology team of technicians that meets monthly with teachers, admins, and classified employees. If you don’t include your community members, you’ll lose them. We’ve been able to move faster as a result of having all employees be a part of the decision. The tech team has been instrumental in making changes and improving instruction, and in helping to raise the expectations of their colleagues.
- → Think about the logistics. One challenge we faced with the rollout of 1:1 for every students is that we didn’t have charging stations, so students would be sprawled all around a classroom wherever they could find an outlet. Of course, kids don’t always remember to turn their computers off when they put them away, which isn’t something we originally thought about. Now we have airports all over the place now, and we know that as we’re renovating classrooms and buildings we have to consider power sources.
- → The pacing of change is important. If you move too fast you can run into challenges with the durability and quality of equipment, but you also don’t want to move at a snail’s pace either.
Q: What are some of the concrete benefits to signing the Future Read pledge?
A: Signing the pledge makes a real statement to your community, that this is part of who we are and what we believe. Continuing to build a positive culture for our students to learn and grow is a big aspect of what my role is as superintendent.
Signing the pledge makes it very clear that there aren’t any excuses—technology is a part of who we are and what we do, and students need to know this. It also helps the board be clear about decision making, and where to prioritize. Students are learning differently today, and we need to be taking real steps toward supporting them.