“We have to be very disciplined in how we’re managing our funds; we must consider the professional learning that accompanies a particular product or service, plus the sustainability piece. We are very careful when it comes to how we’re partnering with anyone.” – Verletta White, Baltimore County Public Schools
Verletta White, Chief Academic Officer for the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), discusses the magnitude and opportunity of working with a large district like BCPS. It’s no easy feat, as Baltimore County contains nearly 112,000 students within 173 school centers. White has made it her mission to improve professional learning for BCPS teachers while helping transition the county into the digital era.
In determining technologies that are most effective for her district, White points to the significance of examining innovation from the inside out. It’s important, according to White, that a vendor or partner be chosen with the district’s long-term scalable growth in mind. Flexibility and well thought out professional learning models are also key factors in making purchasing decisions.
Verletta White is proud of her district’s focus on providing a literacy-rich environment that not only prepares kids for the collegiate level, but also concentrates on advances in technology that benefit career growth. There are a variety of opportunities for high school internships based on robotics and STEM initiatives, as well as, coding instruction that begins as early as elementary school. It’s easy to see why other districts looking to improve are centering their spotlights on BCPS.
Rod Berger: Verletta, I’m interested in speaking with you today about Baltimore public schools and it’s national recognition. There are amazing things going on in Baltimore, including the growth, considering the size and scope of the district.
If we could start there, I’m curious as to what it’s like for you in your position at the district level with such a large size and scope? Is it something that’s just commonplace for you? I think districts outside looking in at Baltimore are amazed at what you can do as a team with so many students, a budget of your size, and the national focus.
Verletta White: Baltimore County, as you know, is a county that wraps around Baltimore City. We serve a hundred and twelve thousand students, and we have 173 school centers and programs.
Whenever we’re talking about professional development or any new initiative of any sort, we have to consider what the professional development and communication plan would look like for the entire district and approximately 9,000 teachers.
One of the messages that I emphasize throughout the district is to make sure that the type of professional learning still feels small. We have to have multiple opportunities to engage our teachers, administrators, and the various stakeholders in the district.
That means there are, sometimes, face-to-face meetings with folks; other times, there are webinars; and there are other kinds of online opportunities.
It’s not an either/or but it’s an “and” type of a conversation so that we can make sure that our central message stays our central message. We can only do that if we make it feel small.
RB: Verletta, I would imagine when you have that many students and that many teachers in a district that you’re trying to support not only with professional development, but with new technology solutions, it must at some level limit the groups with whom you can work?
I would imagine there are a number of technology companies (taking Ed Tech as an example) that feel limited in their support and infrastructure to work with Baltimore, whereas, in a smaller district, they would feel that they could and it would be an easier transition. Am I wrong in that?
VW: I think it depends on our needs. For instance, our engine behind our Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) One curtain was initially, a pretty small company. However, the flexibility and the options that they presented to us were those that would meet our needs.
It was really important to us ─ and it still is ─ that whenever we have any initiative or anything that is innovative in our eyes, it has to be driven by the district and not driven by the vendor or by an external partner. It has to be driven by us, and for us the vendor partner who seeks a partnership with us can be a small company, or a large company. It all depends on their technologies, and it depends on whether or not their technologies will speak to ours. It also depends on their willingness to be flexible.
I would not rule out some of the smaller companies because they certainly have a space and a place in BCPS as well.
RB: I would imagine for a lot of those listening to our discussion today that they would be very intrigued at that information. I think smaller groups are often intimidated by larger districts by way of their perception that a larger district may not want to engage with them because of the fears they have that they have not grown to an appropriate scale.
VW: I just think that their product, though, has to be flexible; that is the key there. Their technologies have to be able to be compatible so that there is a scaling issue. If that flexibility is not possible, then we can’t have a conversation. If it isn’t transferable, then we don’t have a conversation.
But, certainly, if there’s room for growth and flexibility, then, we can.
RB: Recently, I explored the approach of the freemium model that companies have with districts. I have my own opinion, but before I shoot it, I’m just curious as to how you look at that.
We see a lot of technology companies that do freemium. We see the larger ones that provide sort of these free resources as a way to sort of bring districts in, and then potentially sell on larger ticket items. Then, you have smaller companies that think that that may be the one way to draw the attention from a legacy system onto what they have been innovating for district implementation.
Where do you stand on a freemium approach?
VW: Are we speaking specifically about OER?
RB: Not necessarily.
VW: Tell me more about what you mean, so I can make sure I’m addressing your question.
RB: I have a lot of technology companies that I speak to, and they talk of drawing the attention of districts, such as Baltimore. The companies are developing great things, they might even have a background as teachers, but now they are entering Ed Tech. They believe that if they offer something for free through a pilot or other approach, maybe then, the district will see their value and they can move the conversation along.
On the flipside, you have the legacy systems, the publishers that may bring in some elements where the teachers get very excited about free offerings all well knowing that it’s probably going to entice the district for a larger purchase.
It seems to be two sides to the discussion around the “value.” I’ve had some people recently say that if you’re going to, as a district, take on free technology, it can, sometimes, be a deal with the proverbial devil in what happens down the line.
VW: Yes. That can be very tricky for any district, particularly in a larger district. We don’t want to have any sort of cliff effect for our students and teachers. Even though a product may be great and it may meet any given teacher’s need at that time, what happens if there are other scalable issues? If their professional learning is a topic that cannot be covered or we don’t have the manpower to do so?
Or suppose that there’s a funding requirement eventually that we are unable to meet?
Sustainability is really important to us; and so, we try to avoid that type of a “cliff effect” so that we have greater stability within our system.
Besides that, a lot of times, people say “free” – I always say, “free” like a puppy. Is it really free? (laugh)
We have to ensure data privacy for our students. It’s paramount for us to make sure that we’re not giving away more than what our students should have given away about their personal information.
We have to be very careful, and we are very careful when those opportunities are presented to us.
We, again, look for the fit. There is a very specific control mechanism in place for bringing on new vendors, new products, and all kinds of partners into the organization. We have to be very disciplined in how we’re managing our funds; we must consider the professional learning that accompanies a particular product or service, plus the sustainability piece.
We are very careful when it comes to how we’re partnering with anyone.
RB: Another hot topic right now, especially with the change in Washington, is around the level of involvement of corporate America or private industry in public schools.
Verletta, when you think about corporate America working with school districts, what does that look like to you?
VW: It sounds like a cliché, but we are all in this together. Fortunately, we have a lot of corporations and private businesses who are interested in the business of educating children; and that’s great.
As the educators and the instructional leaders of the district, it’s important for us to be involved in all kinds of educational-related conversations so that we can help shape those products; we can help shape the services to, ultimately, benefit our students.
When there is an absence of the educator’s voice in that corporate world, products and services are likely not shaped in a way that would best benefit our students.
We are with our students on a daily basis, and because we are licensed and certified in these areas, we know what our students and their families need.
By adding and lending our voice to that corporate conversation and partnering, I think that it can only benefit students overall.
RB: Let’s close with this. What trends are you seeing or things that are exciting you in your position at the district level that we should be paying attention to? Is there a technology or something you’re monitoring individually or as a leadership team that says, “This is a good trend that we see locally with our district.” Plus, is there “chatter” you’re hearing from other districts around the country?
VW: Again, the conversation is not just about college, but it’s also about career and technologies that are related to our Career Technical Education (CTE) courses, for instance. Trends are growing, and we’ve seen multiple opportunities for internships for our students based on the robotics and the STEM initiatives out there that are available to students ─ all, of course, with a foundation and literacy, but just as importantly, opportunities that can begin very early for students.
For instance, we have begun having our students interact with coding at the elementary level. Typically, this is something that we see at the high school level and in our CTE courses as well. We’re providing that opportunity for students at the early ages, so they are career-ready, as well as, college-ready to pursue programming and robotics. We know according to the Brooking’s Report and the Brooking’s Institution that these are jobs available now for students in STEM fields.
I see that as a trend right now, and I see it continuing. We’re excited about it.
RB: That is a very exciting trend whether we’re working in education or being parents. I know that you and I are both of those things. It’s a good trend for everyone involved.
Thank you so much and continued success, Verletta.
VW: Thank you.
About Verletta White
Ms. Verletta White serves as the Chief Academic Officer for the Baltimore County Public Schools, a position she has held since 2013. Baltimore County Public Schools is the 25th largest school district in the nation, with a diverse student population of 111,000 students and a teaching staff of over 8,000. A dynamic, innovative, and transformational leader, Ms. White serves as the chief instructional leader responsible for defining and communicating the vision of the school system while motivating a division of over 500 curriculum and student support staff.
Ms. White began her teaching career in 1992, as an elementary school teacher in Baltimore City and transitioned to a teaching position in Baltimore County in 1995. She received her first appointment to an administrative position in 1998, and continued her service as a school-based administrator through 2006. A Baltimore native, she continued her administrative career in her first central office position as the coordinator of Professional Development where she utilized her classroom teaching and mentoring experiences to foster the professional growth of teachers and administrators on a system level.
Ms. White has served as an adjunct professor in School Improvement Leadership for Goucher College since 2013, and is a state and national presenter on topics such as professional development, the transformation of teaching and learning, and leading through change in a digital era. She holds a bachelor of science degree in education from Towson University, a master of arts degree in Leadership in Teaching from the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, and she is currently a doctoral candidate in Urban Educational Leadership at Morgan State University.
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