A little while ago we sat down to speak with Ralf Swenson, Superintendent for the Grossmont Union High School district, which serves students in multiple cities in San Diego County, CA. In this interview Superintendent Swenson talks about why he signed the Future Ready pledge, his advice from thirty-five years in administration, and where he sees education heading.
Below you will find more information on Grossmont Union High and Superintendent Swenson—please scroll down to read the interview itself.
About the Grossmont Union High School District
Location: La Mesa, CA
Locale: Suburrban/Large City
Grossmont Union High is a large suburban district located outside of San Diego. The district contains fifteen high schools, nine of which received gold, silver or bronze medals in the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings. In 2013 the growth in API at El Cajon Valley High School was greater than any high school in California, and two other schools were identified as California Distinguished Schools – Grossmont High and Granite Hills.
About Superintendent Swenson
Prior to becoming superintendent for the Grossmont Union High School District, Ralf Swenson served as superintendent for the Nevada Joint Union High School District in Grass Valley, California. He started his work in education as a teacher in North Dakota, and over his thirty-five years in education he has various positions, including coach, athletic director, leadership advisor, associate principal, vice principal and principal before becoming a superintendent.
Superintendent Swenson earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of North Dakota and his doctoral degree from the University of La Verne. As Superintendent in Grossmont, Mr. Swenson has led efforts to elevate student academic performance, improve student attendance, and provide a broad range of opportunities to help students become college and career ready upon graduation. Follow Superintendent Swenson @RalfSwenson.
The Interview Starts Here!
Q: Why did you sign the Future Ready pledge?
A: My belief is that this is simply what we need to do in education. We have to be preparing students for the world as it is, not as it was.
There a story that illustrates this point. I always meet with student representatives at the start of the year. One year, a student came walking in and he had a laptop under his arm.
I said, “What have you been doing this summer?”
He told me that he just got back from Stanford, where he’d been studying biotech and medicine. He held up the laptop and told me, “This is all we had for books over the summer. It’s kind of a shame we can’t use it this school year, since they don’t let us use our laptops in the classroom.”
Which meant that basically, what he just learned at Stanford won’t be useful in school. That was a real eye opener to me, and made me realize just how important it was to be making this shift to implementing the use of technology in the classroom.
At the same time, we had a really good conversation going on at the county level here in San Diego, where there are 42 superintendents. We took the Future Ready survey tool very seriously, and when we went to the Future Ready Summit in Phoenix this past spring we came away totally energized.
Q: Can you fill us in on the background of edtech adoption in the district? Where did you start, and where are you now?
A: Over the first couple of years as superintendent I became more and more interested in the value of integrating technology into the learning process for students. When I was first hired in 2010 I felt like the district was behind the curve on current tech awareness and usage—from using desktop computers in offices, to the use of Student Info systems, and beyond.
I have been committing to catching the district up. Early on we had some campuses doing BYOD work, and a few teachers emerged as leaders in their field. They were speaking at conferences about things they were doing that weren’t happening in all schools in district.
I tapped those teacher leaders for information, and out of those dialogues Dan McDowell emerged. Dan is now the Director of Instructional Technology in the district, and his work has been central to our successful adoption and integration of technology. Even though we have been battling budgetary issues and declining enrollment, we made a decision that we were going to find a way to use technology.
Q: What are some current initiatives you have in place that are Future Ready-aligned?
A: On the device and infrastructure side, we’ve developed a three year plan to move the district into 1:1. We’re calling the plan FutureForward, or FF. Right now we have three comprehensive tech schools, and a new school called the Idea Center. We’ll have four sites fully online this fall, three more next year, and three more the next year. We have six other schools that aren’t in full implementation this year, and they are implementing as they’re able.
On the professional development side, we have our Google Ninjas training program, which was created by our Director of Instructional Technology Dan McDowell, and which has been crucial for getting teachers up and running in the use of tech in the classroom. After this summer we will have trained between 150 and 160 more teachers, and trained 100 last year.
Were also committed to having every admin be trained in our Google Samurai program, which is meant to help administrators understand the role of edtech in the classroom so they can support their teachers and be on the same page.
Q: Can you share any best practices or advice for implementing the use of technology across an entire district?
→ It’s really important to be speaking with schools and with the board, and making sure you’re involving all the stakeholders.
→ Always focus on the students. The language I make sure to use is that this is not a tech innovation, but an increased learning opportunity for students. Technology allows for a more active form of learning.
→ I’m always connecting what we do in school to what kids do outside of school. Students have all this passion for informal learning, and we want to bring that to more formal learning scenarios like those that happen in school.
→ Don’t show me your vision statement, show me your budget. If you value something, you find money for it. The interesting thing about budgeting for this kind of change is it’s not enough to buy the computers—need to invest in high quality professional development for your faculty. Will have teachers all along the spectrum—need to meet them there, help them learn meaningful things and not be afraid.
→ Don’t forget infrastructure. Making sure your capacity is sufficient for the broadband you will need is crucial. You can’t suddenly go 1:1 without having built the foundation for it and expect your wifi to sustain all the new devices.
Q: What are some struggles and triumphs you’ve faced with implementing edtech?
Finding a way to pay for everything has been hard. It was a big investment to make the shift to using technology. One thing we’ve been doing is taking money that was traditionally spent on textbooks and spending it on training and technology. However, I believe right now we’re at a tipping point in the state of California when it comes to the use of technology. With the shift to the SBAC, students have to learn how to take their assessments on computers, and everything is trending toward tech adoption. The time is excellent to be putting tech into student hands.
Q: For superintendents who are considering signing the pledge, why should they sign?
A: As I said earlier, this is simply what we need to do in education. We cannot ignore the role of technology as a learning tool and as a tool in the future workplace of our students. We can’t ignore the role technology plays in our students’ lives right now.
School has to be a place where students are learning the skills they’ll need when they get out into the real world. We’re working to making that a reality here in our district.