Learning from School District Leaders

By Britten Follett, Executive Vice President, Follett School Solutions

Recently, Follett School Solutions hosted fourteen school district superintendents from across the country to discuss hot topics in education, while giving us valuable feedback on our products and services. The high-energy conversations revealed each educator’s passion as we covered topics ranging from equity and diversity to artificial intelligence. While many viewpoints were shared, one thing was clear: EVERYONE appreciated being asked their opinions. Furthermore, being asked what interested them (and caring about what district leaders know and want) helped us as a company demonstrate our dedication to being be a true partner, not just a supplier of goods.

It’s worth sharing some of things we learned from these leaders about key trends in education:

District Challenges

While districts face some similar challenges—like growth in student population, equity/access, managing complacent staff and even on-campus vaping—there can be wide variances in where a superintendent’s attention is directed.

We learned that student safety is of utmost concern to all leaders, and rightfully so. If students aren’t safe, or don’t feel safe, how much learning can take place?

As a district leader in Illinois shared that vaping was currently his biggest challenge, everyone in the room began nodding in agreement. New, deadly trends that take on a life of their own–creating a ripple effect of problems when no defined programs are in place to address them–can derail other programs and established protocols, requiring swift response and, more importantly, proactive attention.

A district leader from Colorado shared that his biggest, most complex challenge at the moment is suicide and mental health concerns. He’s actively looking for social and emotional resources to help his teachers and staff recognize danger signs, respond appropriately, and provide the support necessary.

Gang violence on the south side of Chicago is the top concern for a district leader there, as he shared that last year, four students at his high school were killed. Learning in an environment steeped in fear and grief becomes more than difficult; this leader shared with the group that the entire year was practically counter-productive because of the time spent grieving.

Upon reflection, so many of these challenges are outside of what many companies can remedy. These are socioeconomic trends that no collection of books or edtech product can solve. However, I left the session optimistic that these leaders were up to the task of working through these big issues and believing that it’s our responsibility at Follett to make the “other” things easier for them.

Artificial Intelligence

A big question that yielded a unanimous answer was, “Is artificial intelligence ultimately good for our communities and society?” All our attendees agreed that yes, artificial intelligence is inherently good for education and society, if used in the proper manner. The discussion illustrated that AI can improve productivity and provide efficiencies, which will allow for teachers to have deeper relationships with EVERY student.

However, that same efficiency solution can pose a threat. Teachers and staff can be intimidated by fears that the “robot” will ultimately take their jobs. These superintendents shared that they recognize the fact that artificial intelligence cannot replace the personal relationships teachers have with students.  Overall, these seasoned educators shared the belief that the benefits of AI far outweigh this potential downside, because with the proper use, we are all more intelligent as a result.

Personalized Learning

We asked each attendee to define personalized learning in their own words. Phrases like unique experiences, meet the individual needs of a student, discovery of resources were common responses. In the end the group agreed that a true personalized learning experience translates to any approach that would maximize each student’s potential. 

Equity

Equity was a hot topic with much discussion among our attendees. A superintendent from southwestern Wisconsin shared a story about the equity challenges associated with the softball team at one of his schools, and a required $1,500 trip to Florida for spring training. A definitive lack of empathy was on display when the coach and parents didn’t understand that some students couldn’t afford to attend.  The ensuing discussion brought forth many examples and obstacles to true equity, and one educator in the group challenged the Follett team to reconsider the entire book fairs business model, due to the fact that some students don’t have money to buy a book and therefore leave a book fair empty handed. It’s a topic we’ve considered in the past, and with this conversation fresh in our minds, we’re exploring ways to level the playing field.

The widely agreed-upon definition of equity was removing barriers, and the fact that equity differs from equality. A superintendent from a northwestern suburb of Chicago shared the graphic in this article with the group, highlighting that instead of giving students tools to see over the barrier, we need to consider how we remove the barrier altogether.

Biases

In between group dancing sessions to songs like “Baby Shark” and the cha-cha line dance (who knew superintendents and Follett executives had such rhythm!), keynote speaker Dwayne Reed, 5th grade language arts teacher for Chicago Public Schools, eloquently took the group through some difficult topics. Reed emphasized that for a student to learn and grow, he or she must first feel loved and cared for. Some students won’t get that at home, so it’s essential they make those connections at school. He challenged our superintendent panel to be intentional about connections and relationships; they don’t just happen. He encouraged the superintendents in the room to make a concerted effort to get to know every student and nurture a culture of “we.”

Reed also hit us with some tough love: he asked each of us to accept the reality that we all have racial biases and may use microaggressions. It’s up to each of us to make a change in our work and school environment. There is a need to review all structures, practices, policies, and procedures to remove barriers, and this rings true for education companies as well as school districts. It’s not acceptable for the boss to take action. If you want something to change you must start by making your own changes. Just saying it needs to change is not going to make a difference.

Reed admitted that due to our implicit biases, we will all make mistakes. The key is to apologize, learn from it, and grow as a human. 

When I reflect on these key topics in education, I am proud of Follett’s efforts to represent all students in everything we do. Our programs in recent years position us well to ‘walk the talk’ through our relationship with publishers and partnerships with Kwame Alexander and James Patterson, as we deliver diversity in content through #allbooksforallkids. In addition, our vision for MyDestiny is to deliver personalized learning via artificial intelligence, which will allow teachers to focus on what they do best… teach.

Do we have more work to do? Yes. Based on the valuable insights we gathered from these superintendents, we have work ahead, but we’re headed in the right direction, and if we truly intend on being an educational partner to the nation’s school districts, then their challenges are our challenges.

What is your organization doing to help solve the key challenges in education?


A fifth-generation Follett family member, Britten leads Follett School Solutions. She is a journalist. A marketer. A storyteller. A board member. A philanthropist. An advocate for libraries and education. Britten spent 10 years as an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning television journalist. In 2010, she made a tough decision to give up a career she loved and embark on a new career working for Follett Corporation. At Follett, she started as the marketing manager for the International team and has held various roles in marketing and communications throughout the organization. Today she is the executive vice president of the company.

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