Clarke County School District superintendent Dr. Philip Lanoue was named one of four 2015 National Superintendent of the Year Finalists. Last night he was named the 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the year. We had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Lanoue, a distinguished Blackboard partner, about his district’s challenges, successes, and goals.

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Blackboard: What are the main challenges Clarke County faces in 2015? What keeps you up at night?

Dr. Philip Lanoue: We’re a very interesting community. We’re the home of the University of Georgia, yet we’re one of the top 5 most impoverished counties per capita in the country. We’re 82% free and reduced hot lunch, so we have a high level of poverty. But we have great kids. And they have great challenges.

We’ve made some tremendous gains in performance. One area we’ve been working really hard on and actually with AASA, is to ensure the healthiness of our children. Through this particular initiative, we’ve connected around 350 students with insurance, which we know will directly relate to success in and out of the classroom. Another major initiative is that we have our students in a very rich digital environment.

Our challenge is how to get students to a place they really didn’t think they could be, to give them confidence that they can succeed, to get them to set high marks and high goals for themselves and then just to keep them healthy. We try to ensure that when they walk through our door, we can challenge them with some pre-course skills with critical thinking, creativity, and communication. We’ve made gains, now we’re trying to get to all kids to that high level of achievement. That’s our challenge.

Blackboard: What role does technology play in addressing these challenges?

Dr. Philip Lanoue: Technology has played a tremendous role for us. We made some commitments early on to designing a robust infrastructure. We created 2 prototype school designs, and 1 full design. We’re building 2 schools now and undertaking a major renovation of a high school to create flexible learning environments based around what we think a digital environment will do for our kids and how to enhance that. One of our goals has been to update the instructional protocols in our classrooms. As a result, our classrooms look very different than they have before. We’re 1:1 in grades 3 through 9 – and in some places grades 1 through 10. Many of our kids take their devices home this year for the first time.

Our kids are highly engaged. They interact with their teachers and information to produce outcomes that, I think, affords them opportunities to really understand content and its meaning. There’s certainly a lot of research out there that would argue that the digital divide is getting larger in impoverished communities. I’d say, for us, we’re closing it.

To that end, we’re really looking at redefining what personalized learning looks like and how that incorporates real time progress monitoring, student grit, student persistence. If you just put a book on a device, it’s still a book. That’s not what we’re talking about. I think the introduction of digital tools that change instructional practice may be the biggest game changer in closing the achievement gap. I really do. Even though research would say it’s going to create a larger gap between those in poverty and not, I say it doesn’t have to. Only if you want it to.

Blackboard: In your panel discussion in Alexandria with the other finalists, three strategies were identified and published in the Washington Post: engage the community, focus on teachers, give schools- and students- individual attention. Do you have any specific success stories or innovative best practices related to any of these three strategies, with respect to students or schools that result from effective use technology?

Dr. Philip Lanoue: I think technology, through strong communication tools, has made us much more transparent. We can keep information updated at all times. We make school and district performance information available and we try to be interactive and partner with our parents.

I also think one thing is we try to model these tools from our district office to our schools. We use blogs as one of our primary communication tools. We’ll use a common web page so that our parents can talk to each and to the school. They can also go onto the student portal and get digital resources that are aligned to a state system we’ve been piloting and developing.

The interesting thing is that we just did a survey. I think it was of about 500 parents who are part of our program that had the digital tools. It asked one question, and it certainly is not scientific. We simply asked “By having digital tools, has it helped support you to be a more effective parent?” The answer to that was 99% yes.

As a result, I think today our community is just full of support – from the Chamber of Commerce, to non-profit agencies to the mayor’s office. We’ve been heavily engaged in economic development with a career academy. We’re very fortunate. I think we were a part of getting Caterpillar to put 1 million square foot facility here 2 years ago, and it’s going to bring 5,000 jobs to the area. I would like to think that’s because we’re on the cutting edge. Our community knows that we are very nimble. We can change when we need to and we have to.

We have also put a lot into the professional development and support of teachers. For example, we have 14 professional days for our teachers so they can collaborate and plan for quality instruction as well as engage in learning that helps them grow as professionals.  When our teachers grow, so do our students.

We are all in collaborative teams talking about performance and instruction. Last year we developed commitments for high performance practices. This is what we commit to in our schools and our classrooms every day. We align to walk through data—I could tell you what percentage are high order thinking or are tightly aligned to standards. Now we’re moving more into student efficacy, which is a new territory. I think our teachers are fully engaged in the work.

We talk about performance a lot. It’s about performance and practice. I just met with 2 schools early this morning to do impact checks—meeting with leadership teams of teachers. It takes about an hour and a half and their goal is to talk about their performance indicators, their improvement plans and the work they’re doing. It’s very sophisticated. It’s very refreshing, but we’re all about talking about the work.

In regards to giving schools and students individual attention. We’re built on strong relationships. I ask two questions at the beginning of each school year that I have teachers ask themselves when they see that first class. Those questions are “Who do you see?” and “What aspirations do you have for them?” If the answers differ because of the way students look or dress, then those teachers need to go somewhere else. It’s pretty simple. We’re heavy on data use. But, for us every data point has a face. If it doesn’t have a face, it’s not worth the conversation.

Blackboard: How does your partnership with Blackboard help enable your district to address these challenges?

Dr. Philip Lanoue: To be honest, we use a lot of different tools.Certainly, the website tools we use from Blackboard have been critical in our communication. We’re finding our website and the way it’s designed, the flexibility it provides, to be critical as we try to navigate our communication strategy. One recent addition was a performance tab for families and the community to easily track school performance.

Blackboard: What advice would you offer other superintendents and district administrators that are facing these same challenges?

Dr. Philip Lanoue: You could say all kids can learn, but if you can’t act upon that to support them, then it’s pretty meaningless. Our job is to take kids to a place they never thought they could be. It really is about schools and teachers that inspire kids because they’re inspired by the work. I think we have to allow risk-taking by our teachers and risk-taking by our students, and that’s become harder in some of these environments that are created around testing, etc. We do a lot with trying to take risk with our kids. I think sometimes in education, we ask kids to take risks and then we put up barriers so that they can’t. “You don’t have the prerequisites. You shouldn’t be in AP.”

So, one example, a year and a half ago we moved biology from 10th to 9th grade. I know it seems kind of innocuous, but we didn’t know what to do with high school physical science, so we said let’s offer it to 8th graders. The only prerequisite was you wanted to take it. That was it. Our teachers said, “Okay. If our kids take it, we’ll get them through.” I said, “Great. Let’s do that.”

Out of about 850 8th graders, we had 235 kids decide to take high school physical science. We put a safety net, but we only had 5 that dropped out and went back to regular physical science, but they took the end of course test. These are 60% economically disadvantaged students. They took the end of course test and out of 235, 229 passed. Of that 235, 195 scored 90% or better. That was amazing.

I would probably tell my colleagues and superintendents in order to do something like that, you have to be the instructional leader of the district. You are the lead learner. You set those expectations for achievement and practice. You need to be well versed in them. That’s something you can’t delegate.

There are several things that I do not delegate or believe I should as superintendent. One is the instructional program that we have. I have to know it, I have to talk it, I have to understand it, and I have to push it. The second one is that I’m the biggest advocate for healthy children because we have a strong initiative of educating healthy children.

I would also add, just when you think you got it, you don’t. Some of the challenge is to make sure you got it 2 years in a row, 2 weeks in a row, or 2 hours in a row. You have to keep pushing yourself forward.

Blackboard: We talked about challenges you’ve already addressed or begun to address. What is the next big challenge or initiative you plan on which to focus? What’s next for your district?

Dr. Philip Lanoue: Right now, we are actually looking at a charter system application of creating stronger local governance. We have neighborhood schools. I’ve been a strong proponent that neighborhood schools are the epicenter of our communities. If those neighborhood schools aren’t working, we need to fix them. We don’t give choice.

I’m working right now on some projects around youth development and coordinating our housing authorities with our county government and others to look at strong educational programs, the health of the children and housing. We’re looking at a way to really bring those together.

We’ve made tremendous gains, but we aren’t done yet. We’ve gone to the base of Mount Everest with a set of tools, but you look up at the top and the tools that you have now aren’t going to do it. So the new tools we need are really a coordinated effort with our health agencies to make sure we don’t have hungry children, make sure we have housing, and make sure they have support for parents.

Want to engage with us at AASA 2015? Heres how:

  • Visit us at our booths, #522 and #536.
  • Join the conversation using the handles @BlackboardK12 and @AASAHQ, as well as the event hashtags #NCE15 and #AASA150.
  • Visit us here for even more information and download the AASA app.

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Check out the rest of our AASA blog series:

Q&A: 2015 National Superintendent of the Year Finalist – Dr. Patrice Pujol

Q&A: 2015 National Superintendent of the Year Finalist – Dr. Patrick Murphy

Q&A: 2015 National Superintendent of the Year Finalist – MaryEllen Elia

 

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