Each year, CoSN’s Withrow CTO Award recognizes the extraordinary contributions of district Chief Technology Officers whose leadership has helped to transform their system. This year’s recipient, Phil Hintz from Gurnee School District 56 in Illinois, exemplifies the characteristics that the award intends to honor. His team’s successful 1:1 iPad initiative has resulted in higher test scores, a decrease in discipline issues, and declining absentee rates. More importantly, his team’s work with parents, teachers, and the broader community has resulted in the construction of a 24/7 learning environment designed to meet the needs of every student.

Located north of Chicago, Gurnee School District 56 serves 2,200 Pre-K through 8th grade students across four buildings. Unlike most of the surrounding area, Gurnee possesses a diverse student population – 44% Latinx, 21% African-American , 6% multiracial, 6% Asian, and 23% white. Many students do not speak English as a first language, some struggle with homelessness, and yet others come from more privileged households.

Over eight years ago, when Phil first considered how to get technology into the hands of his students, he had to make a critical decision: some students could get laptops (3:1) or EVERYONE could receive iPads (1:1). In other words, Phil realized that the district could provide equal access to technology in school or equitable access that would span from school to home. Given the cost-effectiveness of iPads, and their capacity to offer students with a suite of creative tools as well as learning supports that work both online and off, Phil chose the latter route and the district provided every student, teacher, and administrator with a device. As a result, this year’s graduating class of eighth graders has never known a day of school without access to an iPad.

From the beginning, Phil envisioned a program built on a foundation of student agency, responsibility, and equity. Though the district provided every student with an iPad, they did ask families to contribute $30 per device to finance a protection plan. Until technology became part of the culture, they wanted everyone to feel as though they had made both an investment and a contribution towards the success of the program. However, understanding the varying economic backgrounds within their community, the building principals worked with individual families to ensure that the fee did not become a barrier to equity.

With access to devices no longer a concern, Phil then tackled the challenge of equitable access to the Internet. He viewed lack of access as not just a homework gap but an opportunity gap. Four years ago, Gurnee became one of three districts in the state of Illinois to pilot e-learning days instead of snow days. As the only K-8 district in the pilot, they felt tremendous responsibility to show that online learning could work with even the youngest of students. However, they first had to ensure that every household had the best possible connectivity.

Beyond establishing partnerships with their local police department, village hall, library, local Regional Office of Education, and several restaurants and businesses to support Wi-Fi usage, Phil and his team determined to bridge the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” First, they surveyed the students to see who might have Internet at home. This proved to be a bit problematic. Some students claimed to have access when it was only via a parent’s phone; and others stated that they did not have access only to discover that their parents had blocked or hidden it. The principals leveraged their personal relationships with students and families to better understand the landscape. Eventually, the district identified the approximately 10% who required additional assistance.

Initially, Phil and his district worked with Comcast to provide families access through their Internet Essentials program. However, this presented a financial barrier as well as a challenge for some families who could not qualify for the program due to a past billing issue. Instead, the district used a portion of their Title I funding to qualify 200 families for Kajeet hotspots. Again, to ensure equitable access to opportunity as well as to e-learning, the district provided a hotspot for each student in the family to ensure that every student had access to their own Internet connection that was also filtered for safety.
Beyond establishing infrastructure and support for families, Phil and his team have provided his teachers with ongoing professional development, a host of tools, as well as open-source curriculum and content. Driven by the mission to provide an education that inspires… and opportunities for all, teachers have been encouraged to create the most engaging lessons possible so that they can enable students to become problem-solvers, motivated learners, and innovators.

Though many might see this digital success as the culmination of eight-years of effort, Phil views it as just the beginning. In addition to developing a new, web-based digital literacy program for all students and families in grades K-8, his team and district continue to address the challenges of equity and equality through professional learning, active recruitment of more diverse educators, and building stronger relationships with students to better meet their socio-emotional needs. Phil realizes that for his students, the digital world is their world. As such, he intends to make it as equitable a world as possible while they are members of the district.

To learn more about Phil’s work in Gurnee, make sure to follow him (@phintz) and the district (@GurneeD56) on Twitter. If you have questions or would like to share a story about your own district, please contact Beth Holland at bholland@cosn.org or @brholland.