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An Administrator's Perspective On Changing School Culture

An Administrator's Perspective On Changing School Culture

Written by Todd Lash
August 09, 2015

I am the principal of Kenwood elementary school. A school that has made a name for itself in a short time with its’ focus on computational thinking and computer science. I wanted to tell my perspective on what has made this a remarkable story that is still being written. I begin with my introduction to Kenwood elementary, one I’ve told countless parents who have visited Kenwood. I was previously the principal of Westview elementary school for 11 years and in 2011 I made the move to central office where I became the director of curriculum. I was in this position for three years and enjoyed learning a great deal about the dynamics of implementing curriculum from a district perspective and being apart of a federal magnet grant that provided over 5 million dollars to 3 elementary schools to help support and develop magnet programs that would focus on changing the demographics and improve academic achievement.

During the 2014-15 school year, I had the unique opportunity to fill in as a principal at Kenwood elementary school for the last quarter. I was there to fill in until a new principal could be found. What I discovered in my short 9 week stint was a sense of camaraderie and support for all teachers and students that was refreshing. I also found a school that had embraced CS/CT ideals and saw this as a fundamental piece of their vision. I found that I had begun to embrace the Kenwood spirit and wanted to stay at Kenwood. Lucky for me the feeling was mutual among teachers and parents and before I knew it I was appointed as the permanent principal of Kenwood School.

One thing that was evident from the beginning was that the Kenwood staff were very committed to CS/CT and through weekly meetings with a small group of committed individuals we tried to make real change at Kenwood. Early on in the school year we began discussions in earnest about making Kenwood a laboratory school since we had strong ties with the University of Illinois. One department that was critical to our success was MSTE (Math Science Technology Education initiative) part of the College of Education. Dr. George Reese and Dr. Maya Israel and others were instrumental in helping to provide professional development to our staff and had begun researching our implementation of CS/CT.

Becoming a CS/CT school begs the question, where do we fit this into the curriculum? Our teachers committed to 40 minutes of coding time a week, but realistically this still felt compartmentalized and was not connected to the core curriculum like we hoped. Professional development was provided throughout the year and several teachers began to incorporate this into other disciplines, but it was a slow process. A jump start we received was support through our board of education to begin writing Math units that directly integrated CS/CT concepts. This proved to be very instrumental in beginning the process of giving our students the ability to use CS/CT concepts in mathematics and seeing its’ value and connection to a subject area. This writing is planned as we continue to move forward.

So, the question that parents have asked as they tour our building and I’ve asked myself as I decided to become part of the Kenwood community is why? Why should we have students learn about CS/CT concepts in school? I think the bigger question is why aren’t we doing this in all of our schools? In many ways, technology by way of social media plays a large part in lives of the majority of our students outside of school day. Why isn’t it apart of the school day? More importantly how can we harness the engagement that this provides for students outside of the school day to become part of the school day? Social media does an excellent job of connecting students and providing collaboration and while we might not recognize these factors these are the same characteristics that ultimately we want students to have when they leave school. Working together to solve a problem, researching resources and determining the validity and credibility of these resources are all important skills that I’ve used in my own work. However, the litmus test for any school reform is often, how does this improve student achievement? I have no way of knowing whether we will ever show how this improves student achievement, but it’s relevancy in students’ lives is crucial and more over the use of technology in society are important for students in developing their digital literacy.

The hard part of this is while I see the value of what we are doing, we are still faced with the important task of ensuring that not only are our students digitally literate, but that they are well versed in all of the disciplines. The vestiges of No Child Left Behind still remain a real part of public school culture evident in the accountability on teachers and administrators. While most disagree with the means of achieving student growth through NCLB, evident from the punitive measures such as reduced funding, student choice, or reconstitution of a school staff, the goals of NCLB are something I embrace as I’m sure most teachers and administrators do. The goals of reading and math achievement for all students are something that I take very seriously and making that happen within a CS/CT school can be challenging. As I mentioned the competition for time is very real not only within the school day, but as it relates to professional development for teachers outside of the school day. This becomes a balancing act in itself trying to weigh the needs of professional development to support teachers in their reading and math instruction while also trying to balance the need for professional development in CS/CT instruction as well. We continue to walk the fine line between the two, but not without struggle.

By Trevor Nadrozny, Principal of Kenwood Elementary, Champaign, IL.