In early 2009, as principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, Eric Sheninger would spend part of his days taking cell phones away from students. By 2011, the school was making headlines for encouraging students to use their phones in class.
Sheninger’s change of heart helped turn around his school. New Milford became the first school in New Jersey to have a bring-your-own-device policy and it has long allowed students to check out Chromebooks like their parents once checked out library books. The school expanded its Wi-Fi network so students could access the free internet from outside of the building and partnered with local businesses to give students additional places to get online for free.
The school has charging stations for devices around the building, thinking games like Chess and Trivial Pursuit in common areas, a makerspace and a nap room, all of which students clamored for.
At a Future Ready Schools Summit near Boston this week, Sheninger, now a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, told superintendents from dozens of school districts around the northeast that New Milford High School was known as a low-performing school before he spearheaded a flurry of change. The school was in a working-class community, students spoke more than 40 different languages at home, and fully one-third of the student population was classified as having special needs.
Still, five years into the school’s transformation, the graduation rate was up, AP exam scores had surged, and 10th graders’ PARCC scores put New Milford seventh in the state. The school was being named one of the nation’s best.
“It wasn’t the challenges, per se, that were holding us back,” Sheninger said. “It was the fact that we would use those challenges and turn them into excuses.”
Twitter opened up a new world for Sheninger. He joined in March of 2009 and first spent time lurking before turning his social media presence into a megaphone for the school. New Milford received hundreds of thousands of dollars in free technology and classroom tools because people and companies saw a transformation happening and they wanted to be a part of it.
Key for Sheninger was making school relevant for students. The makerspace brought the 21st century version of trades back to his district. A new framework for teaching and learning emphasized critical thinking, interdisciplinary understanding and real world problem-solving.
That meant a new approach to technology. Prior to the shift, New Milford staff members patted themselves on the backs for incorporating some digital technology into their classrooms. But they weren’t being critical about how students were using it.
“If you don’t get instructional design right first, all technology is going to do is speed up the rate of failure,” Sheninger said. “Pedagogy trumps technology — Pedagogy first, technology second, if appropriate.”
Future Ready Schools, a project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Alliance for Excellent Education, has spent the last few years helping districts plan and implement personalized, research-based digital strategies to improve student achievement.
Nearly 3,000 superintendents across the country have taken the Future Ready Schools pledge, committing to developing the human and technological capacity to personalize learning. The FRS framework focuses on collaborative leadership and creating an innovative school culture across seven key areas:
- Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
- Personalized Professional Learning
- Robust Infrastructure
- Budget and Resources
- Community Partnerships
- Data and Privacy
- Use of Space and Time
Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools is one of the superintendents to have taken the pledge. For district leaders who may not know where to start, the district's managing partner of innovation, Sujata Bhatt, advised her colleagues at the conference to find bright spots where there is a density of innovation, success or even interest and innovate from those strengths.
“You start where you are,” Bhatt said.