Indianapolis school district CTO improves grad rates through digital learning

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Pete Just started as a biology teacher, but then he discovered technology.

Just, who works at the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, said a lightbulb went off in his head when he realized that “technology can really be a magnifier.”

“I started to realize the potential technology had,” he said. “People started coming to me when they needed to have problems solved, and when they wanted to integrate technology into their classroom, so I became the de facto go-to person.”

Just got his master’s degree in instructional technologies in 1998, and started working at the district the same year as a technology project supervisor. Now he is the district’s chief technology officer, with a magnified set of responsibilities.

In the 2014-15 school year, Metropolitan enrolled more than 15,000 students, of which more than 75 percent get free or reduced price lunch, and about 16 percent are English language learners. Though Just said the school staff are focused on getting students “college and career ready,” around 90 percent of students who took Advanced Placement exams in the 2013-14 school year did not pass the tests, according to state Education Department statistics.

“We have to deal with poverty and how it affects our families and students’ ability to learn,” Just said in an interview with EdScoop. “Technology can really be a great assistant in helping to level the playing field. It could be a magnifier of disparity if we’re not careful, but it can also be a magnifier that can equalize the playing field, and that’s how we use it here.”

One example where technology is helping is reflected in Metropolitan’s graduation rate, which over the last nine years, has increased from about 67 percent to 94 percent. Just attributes the bump to classroom innovations that have taken root across the district’s dozen or so elementary, middle and high schools, and other special programs.

The district has rolled out a Chromebook initiative in all grades, a new learning management system called “It’s Learning,” and built up the wireless infrastructure so more students and teachers can be connected at the same time. Administrators also scrapped a cell phone ban and now allow a variety of devices in the classroom.

In 2000, the district unveiled a new online school called Achieve Virtual, as well as an extended day blended learning program, for students who were unable to get to school every day because of challenging personal situations.

“We try always to focus on the ‘why’ before we focus on the ‘what’ or even the ‘how,'” Just said. “We want to make sure that what we’re doing is going to have a significant transformative impact on students for the better. We don’t start talking about devices or software until we have specific objectives in mind.”

Now, the district is raising the bar even further by creating a new Wayne virtual learning hub for students and teachers to share curriculum, lesson plans, calendars and other resources that will launch in the summer.

“It will be a one-stop shop for student and teacher to get all the learning objects that they need to be successful, and parents will have a window into this as well, which we have never been able to do before,” Just said. “We can look at this as a repository of everything that students and teachers need in order to successfully teach and learn.”

Just said he is seeing concrete evidence that the technology is enhancing what teachers are already doing in the classroom.

“I know what a great impact this is having on students,” he said. “Our graduation rate has gone up, our test scores have gone up. It really validates what we’ve been doing for the last few years.”

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

Know a school technology director who goes above and beyond daily duties and would like to be profiled? Email Corinne Lestch at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com. And consider nominating him or her for Consortium for School Networking’s NextGeneration Leaders program, co-sponsored by EdScoop (nominations close Dec. 4).

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