What does it mean to be a digital leader? With technological advancements and social media taking a more active role in people’s lives, school leaders must consider ways to harness that forward momentum. The 2018 Digital Principals of the Year have excelled at integrating digital approaches in their efforts to improve instruction, student achievement, and their own leadership. Kristina MacBury, principal of Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, DE; Brian McCann, principal of Joseph Case High School in Swansea, MA; and Mariah Rackley, principal of Cedar Crest Middle School in Lebanon, PA, share how they use technology to connect with students, parents, and the community.

Leveraging Technology to Improve Schools

At Sarah Pyle Academy—a nontraditional, blended learning high school—technology amplifies personal learning. Principal Kristina MacBury believes in staying ahead of emerging research and technologies impacting the K–12 community. “[Innovation] is a powerful tool and vehicle to global connectedness and access. Digital and technological innovation have also provided more opportunities for students to access their education, demonstrate mastery, and collaborate,” she says.

Under MacBury’s leadership, each student’s personalized learning plan is converted into a learning portal with Google Apps for Education, an electronic platform in which students can maintain their plans and portfolios. Implementing this tool has created enormous results for students and teachers alike, enabling them to integrate more interactive practices into their classrooms. Teachers can now collaborate across disciplines on individual plans to guide and experiment with each student’s blended learning program, which helps remove barriers for at-risk students. As a result, school graduation rates have risen by more than 20 percent in the last three years.

Principal Brian McCann has also embraced electronic learning platforms and ways to use technology to amplify student experiences. His mantra of “modeling expectations” has guided his leadership practice to provide a future-ready education for his students.

“Attending my first NASSP National Principals Conference in Dallas many years ago showed me the possibilities when one leads digitally with courage. These leaders became my models,” McCann says. “I hope, in turn, that I model my expectations for my students, my teachers, and my administrator peers every day.” Under his leadership, Joseph Case High School hosts regular #edchats as well as local Edcamps to share best practices. The school also implemented a yearlong Tech-Know Tuesdays series for professional development, during which McCann leads teachers in 30-minute, lab-based trainings, each with a different digital focus.

During his time at the approximately 600-student school, McCann has loosened device restrictions, upgraded the school’s Wi-Fi, and increased technology access by converting the traditional library to a learning commons. All technology courses have even been revamped to include coding in multiple languages.

Additionally, McCann has harnessed and encouraged the integration of Google Classroom throughout the school. The school gets all incoming students comfortable with using Google’s G Suite to engage in connected learning activities. G Suite for Education gives educators access to various apps that enable them to create assignments, communicate with students, and send feedback all from one place. Teachers also use FlipGrid—a resource that allows them to create “grids” to facilitate video discussions—to curate and listen carefully to their students’ concerns.

With digital tools providing an excellent way to increase collaboration and communication within a learning community, Principal Mariah Rackley uses technology to focus on personalized education. “Technology allows us to explore opportunities to do things we have not been able to do before in education,” Rackley says, “We can personalize learning, encourage student agency, and create opportunities for students to engage in their learning.”

Rackley has used her years at Cedar Crest Middle School to turn social media into a powerful tool for teachers, parents, and students. On Twitter, teachers share snapshots of learning in their classes and participate in virtual book discussions. In the school, Rackley has implemented Edmentum products to address student growth and increase performance on standardized tests, provide data for teachers to tailor their instruction, and close the achievement gap prior to state assessments. Edmentum’s platform offers adaptive curriculum, assessments, and practice proven to improve student achievement.

Most notably, Rackley led the conversion of traditional student hall periods into a common period. Teachers created courses and content modules in Moodle—an open-source learning platform—to offer topics of interest that students can explore, and courses are accessible to all students thanks to their 1:1 initiative and upgraded Wi-Fi network. Students also have access to the school’s new makerspace, a communal area that allows hands-on opportunities for students to learn, experiment, and create something new.

According to Rackley, these tools are vital in the current trajectory of student learning. “Technology has changed the landscape of education. Technology and digital citizenship are the worlds in which our students will live and work. We must teach them to take responsibility for being the best thinkers, problem solvers, and advocates that they can be,” she says.

Digital Literacy and Community Connections

MacBury encourages social responsibility in digital interactions, especially in promoting responsible global digital citizenship. She stresses the importance of helping students learn to appreciate, respect, and cultivate a positive digital footprint, and she encourages students to think about how they can use technology and digital media to be of service to the world.

“Combined with intentionality and reflection around equity, technology can potentially be the most powerful resource to globalize and create solutions together worldwide,” MacBury says. “It is a tool that provides many different opportunities and options if we intentionally and deliberately maximize its potential and positive impact.” By cultivating students’ awareness of their larger responsibility, there has been a ripple effect as students recognize new ways to take global action through purposeful engagement in social media—for example, discussing gun-violence reduction and support for disaster victims in Puerto Rico.

For McCann, building community connections and positive school culture go hand in hand. “I was inspired a few summers back by NASSP Digital Principal of the Year Jason Markey to welcome students with a sign in front of the school on the first Thursday of the school year. I took some pictures and posted them on Twitter. Four years later, this has evolved into a national phenomenon with the hashtag #PositiveSignThursday in schools from Alaska to Massachusetts,” he says.

McCann also employs the #1st3days initiative—adopted from Ohio Principal Craig Vroom—to create a solid first impression on students’ first days back in school after summer vacation. Instead of formal learning, students participate in activities, tour the school, participate in icebreakers, and review the student handbook. By focusing on building relationships instead of overwhelming students with new curricula, the initiative aims to create a more meaningful, valuable learning experience. McCann engages the entire community by taking the #1st3days to social media and highlights his specific school with the hashtag #casepride. Parents are given a glimpse of their child’s initial school year experience, and that enthusiasm and connection create greater engagement from students and families.

“It shows the power of social media to promote positivity and relationships while telling the story of schools across the nation. … Holding a sign isn’t an innovation, but using Twitter and Facebook to tell the weekly story of your school are perfect cost-free examples of how digital innovation can better your school culture and climate,” McCann says.

As a fellow proponent of social media, Rackley sought to connect with families across a variety of online channels—but encountered challenges along the way. She encouraged her staff to tell the Cedar Crest Middle School story on social media to showcase the learning that was happening, the community they were building, and the positivity they were spreading around the school every day. Though her team rose to the occasion and took Twitter by storm, it was difficult to get families to engage with that content. On top of that, there were Instagram posts, school website updates, and other content that wasn’t cross-posted to every platform. Enter Wakelet, a curation site that allows users to store information in collections. Tweets, posts, website updates, Instagram pics—everything is compiled on a weekly basis, creating a single location for families to stay updated on events and activities throughout the school. This simple tool has created new efficiencies and ways for stakeholders to remain engaged.

“Posting the positive events, activities, lessons, and stories from our school day provides our families the opportunity to be involved in our school community! I love being able to shout out the positives from our school in a way that our students, staff, families, and community can celebrate,” Rackley says.

Looking Forward

The 2018 Digital Principals of the Year have learned from their experiences and offer advice for other principals to keep in mind as they make digital connections and pursue innovation. Ensuring all stakeholders are on board is vital. “My approach has always been in establishing great relationships and connections with my staff and students so we can build from a common foundation,” MacBury says. “When everyone is working toward the same goal, the momentum is tremendous.”

And when planning to implement any new initiative, be sure to focus on the end result for your staff and students. “Is this technology providing access, opportunity, or a vehicle to connect?” asks MacBury. “If it makes sense for my students and we can measure the positive outcomes, we are going to make it happen. If it no longer makes sense, we will find a new way, a new technology, or a new plan.”

MacBury also stresses the importance of balance—that while we have these amazing digital resources, we must model and practice our own healthy digital behavior. Social media can help us connect with peers, friends, and family, and although 2018 studies from the University of Missouri-​Columbia and Common Sense Media demonstrate that social media does not have a significant negative impact on social interactions, MacBury advises we shouldn’t put a higher value on our digital interactions over face-to-face ones. She offers suggestions to create digital boundaries, such as scheduling your digital time, sending work emails from a computer instead of a phone, keeping your device out of sight when not using it, enabling the Do Not Disturb feature and paring down notifications, and shifting your screen to grayscale to decrease the visual pleasure response in your brain.

“I whole-heartedly believe if we shift our focus toward happiness or overall well-being from success, we will see the academic excellence we all want to see our children achieve,” she says.

With the digital landscape constantly evolving, there are so many approaches principals can take when considering what’s best to implement for their schools. One thing they shouldn’t do, however, is be hesitant to try. As new innovations are adopted, McCann wants to see schools that are less afraid: “Even in 2019, many schools seem hung up on compliance and a world of ‘no’ rather than creating tech-friendly environments that students will eventually see in many workplaces. … You will only be successful if you’re OK with failure. I have failed in so many things, but [I] try to step back after my initial disappointment and see what I can learn from that particular failure. When I am told ‘no,’ I like to think it’s really just the beginning of ‘not yet,’ and I have to rethink my strategies. Successful leaders take risks and put themselves out there.”

Another consideration is that more is not always better. “Being a digital leader is not about implementing every new technology on the market,” Rackley says. “It is about being creative, innovative, thoughtful, and purposeful with how we integrate technology that benefits our students and schools. Leaders have to be conscious not to overwhelm people with new technology.” The critical component to keep in mind in terms of adopting any new initiative is what will most benefit students and enable them with the skills they need in a global society.

“If students can leave their school experiences as good thinkers and problem solvers, if they have an open mind and a growth mindset, if students can work with others and communicate their thoughts and ideas, they will have a skill set that is incredibly desirable. … Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication will be key skills for 21st-century learners. Helping students make connections between their interests and community partnerships is an important step in helping students make informed choices about post­secondary opportunities.”

In the end, digital leadership is about measured approaches—knowing when to take risks and learn from setbacks, ensuring balance in your own life, and keeping student success in mind with every initiative. These leaders have leveraged forward-thinking attitudes in their schools, and the results have demonstrated how digital integration is transforming the trajectory of education.