Getting ed tech to thrive at any high school is a tough job. But for a small school, it can be even more challenging.
Joseph Case High School supports 540 students and sits within a middle-class community of about 16,000. Many of our families have roots in the factories of Fall River, MA, now a mere shadow of its former identity. When I graduated from Case High in 1980, there was no technology other than a record player and some filmstrip projectors.
Today, we are in the forefront of ed tech, placing it as a curricular and cultural priority. And we did it without a debt exclusion, bond override, or a costly 1:1 initiative. We did it without a princely budget. And we did it in spite of federal and state mandates.
Our progressive offerings in ed tech are a result of keeping an eye on the future for all stakeholders while stressing the importance of relationship building between staff and students. No progress in an ed tech vision can happen without these relationships in place.
I’m a firm believer that teachers should begin each school year by creating a sense of community and trust. We get to know each other a little bit better in the beginning of the year, but more important, our first days become the catalyst for risk-taking to begin.
Beginning in the 1980s, before I became principal, computers comprised a separate department. We offered Visual Basics as our sole programming course. Later, we expanded to Java and embraced AP Computer Science as an elective for our top senior students. Looking back, there was a lot of gatekeeping; not all children were encouraged to take these classes.
When I started teaching—even when I transitioned to administration—I believed technology was for “other people,” not me. Boy, was I wrong.
We soon embarked upon a plan to use our existing programs and resources to upgrade our technological influence. Then we repurposed and recalibrated our schoolwide priorities.
Repurposing Curriculum Resources
One thing we had going for us was that computer science was always its own department. (In fact, I was surprised how many schools place these classes in the math department.) In the past five years, the department has evolved from computers to technology, embracing instructional technology, computer programming, and industrial arts.
Technology classes were at one time a requirement for the “college prep” student. Over time, this became a school committee-approved graduation requirement, with many routes available, including a video class. In the past five years, however, the classes to fulfill this requirement have been refocused to coding and computer programming.
Because of relationship building, we urge students who have completed or are taking Algebra II to consider Java Programming as a pre-AP class, beginning in their sophomore year. We are also in our second year of offering an additional AP course in this discipline after successfully piloting AP Computer Science Principles last year. My small high school is one of the few suburban public schools in our area to offer both.
Other curriculum changes have included the transformation of the video course to one focused on new media; the resurrection of the computer-aided design (CAD) class; and eliminating a class focused on rudimentary word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation skills.
When the district transitioned to Gmail, it only made sense for me to begin my Google journey. I taught myself how to use all the major components of the G Suite, and then led our local professional development efforts to bring my teachers on board. I offered Tech-Know Tuesday sessions, microprofessional development that took place once a week for 30 minutes for hands-on instruction and application using a predetermined Google topic, such as using Google Forms as formative assessments. These regular sessions also empowered our faculty to be early adopters of Google Classroom.
Our technology department is not the only part of the school that repurposed its resources. Last year, we revamped two half-time, ninth-grade courses into a full-time “Freshmen Academy” class that included focused instruction and application of major components of the G Suite. By the end of our last academic year, students were on a level playing field with their Google tools and strategies. We found that just because students were virtually born with access to technology didn’t mean they knew how to use it purposefully in the classroom. Freshmen Academy has become the great skill equalizer in the G Suite.
Finally, I removed all restrictions on technology during the school day. Teachers still have autonomy during specific lessons and situations, but the cellphone violation days are long past. Social media helps hone our identity and brand our priorities.
Beyond students, our other stakeholders need to be educated. Last summer, I became a Google Certified Educator and shared my journey with students, teachers, and families at the opening of school last year, modeling my commitment of our school’s priority.
The high school expanded professional development to include parents. We sponsored opportunities on a variety of ed tech topics, including locally producing a library of 10 ed tech asynchronous videos for families to access via a Google site.
Our granular focus to bring students, teachers, and families along on our ed tech journey paid off last spring.
The marriage of relationship building and making ed tech a priority resonated the strongest when we presented our first evening dedicated solely to local filmmaking. On a Wednesday evening in mid-April, our auditorium was packed with community members for our first Academy Award-style evening honoring Case High filmmakers. We screened short films produced by students and judged by faculty. We rolled out the red carpet, offered paparazzi photo shoots, and passed out fresh popcorn at the event, which reflected both our sense of community and how highly we value ed tech in our school community.
The films reflect the symbiosis of ed tech and relationships, showcasing how ed tech can be a cultural change agent. In many of the films, I am cast as the befuddled principal. Because we work collaboratively and laugh together in creating a new product, students are empowered to become leaders and have a chance to see another side of their principal. This combined focus and making ed tech a school priority has allowed soft skills and content knowledge in educational technology to merge seamlessly.
The small school population in my hometown has allowed me to know every student by name and model my digital expectations daily. Leading our small school has allowed me to shift our educational technology focus, which now emphasizes breadth from the perspective of a revitalized scope, sequence, and 21st-century offerings, in addition to a broader depth. Ed tech instruction begins on Day One of the Joseph Case High School experience. Our coffers haven’t changed much, but our commitment to being future ready has.
Brian McCann has served as principal of Joseph Case High School in Swansea, MA, for 14 years.