Suzanne Freeman, superintendent of the Trussville City Schools, is determined to make her school district a national leader in 21st Century learning.
A recent profile in School Administrator magazine describes Trussville school superintendent Suzanne Freeman as “the architect of a ‘profoundly different’ system.” An advocate of flattened leadership, Freeman would say she is one of many builders involved in the two-year-old Trussville City system’s quest to create cutting-edge learning experiences for kids. But she is “very clear,” she says, about the imperative to infuse technology and 21st Century skill-building into Trussville’s design plan for learning.
Freeman became Trussville’s first superintendent in 2005, after serving four years as chief executive of Cullman City Schools. She began her career as a primary school teacher in Auburn, where she was chosen as the first principal of the Early Childhood Center at the pace-setting age of 27.
In these excerpts from a March 2007 interview with Working Toward Excellence, Freeman talks about Trussville’s unified approach to preparing students for a world driven by digital technologies—and the importance of building understanding and trust within the larger community when new ideas about teaching and learning are introduced.
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You’ve recently been meeting with community groups to discuss a Time Magazine article titled “How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century.” Can you tell us more about why you’re doing that and what you hope to accomplish?
Pat Hodge (director of curriculum and instruction) and I have a lot of meetings with the members of our community. We joke and say that “where two or more are gathered,” we’ll be there. On our website and in our newsletters we have an open request to be invited, because we want to create a feeling of ownership and pride in the school system among all of the residents in our city.
We literally sit in people’s living rooms, around their pool, on their back deck, in their front yard, at a community center or church— wherever they have a meeting. And we talk about the changing world. In our first series of meetings, which took place as we were just becoming a new system, we asked people, “What are your hopes and dreams for your student.” “What do you want your school system to be?” We also shared what we thought school ought to be, and gave some examples of the different kinds of learning we thought were most effective.
Last year we did a series where we used a lot of information from Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. We also included our own focus group data from our students and parents. We do a survey with our 9-12 students every spring about the level of engagement and the quality of instruction. So we put all that together to spark a conversation about why schools need to change.
Our current conversations around the Time article are another way to talk about how our kids are doing and how there is room for improvement in terms of student learning. From there, we talk about the steps we are taking and why. We make it clear that we are committed to teaching the content in the state Course of Study – that’s non-negotiable – but we also describe how we are localizing that content to meet our students’ needs.
This "fantasy" map of School 2.0 was created with federal support. It's designed as a brainstorming tool for schools, districts and communities. To read some of the conversation this map has sparked, just google the phrase "School 2.0"!
What do you mean by “localizing”?
I had a math teacher say to me that (based on the Course of Study) she could teach 145 objectives in one high school course. Of course, there’s no way you can do that. So we describe to parents how we are identifying the essential things that kids need to know and be able to do. We talk about “going deeper with kids.” One of the ideas that’s in the TIME article is the need to target conceptual understanding – it’s not enough to just memorize the right answer. We want kids to know the right answers but when—for example—they divide fractions, we not only want them to know the division algorithm, we want them to be able to think mathematically about why it works.
In our community talks, we don’t get into the intricacies of how we’re going about this, but what we are doing is using curriculum mapping and vertical teaming to push these discussions among all the educators in our system. Teachers meeting across subjects and grade levels to identify essential questions, talking about how we address those questions across the curriculum. Rich, deep conversations.
How do digital technologies and the new skills needed for success in the 21st Century fit into the conversation with the community?
We talk a lot about student engagement. We have to design engaging and intellectually rich school work for kids. That’s our core business. We have to teach at high levels, and we use technology to get us there.
Technology is really a tool. Kids love technology, and it also helps us teach in new ways. We want to use technology to reflect real life as much as possible, because we think that’s what the learning that goes on in schools needs to be about.
We like to share the video that describes why Google was chosen as “the best company to work for” with various audiences, not so much because our kids might be working for Google but because it represents the direction many companies are going. The world where our students are going to work and live as adults is quite different than it was 20 years ago. Now we have to prepare kids to be responsible self-starters who can organize and complete tasks. More and more, companies are turning to employees and saying “you and your team get this done.” It’s not the old lockstep approach of do this, now do that, now do this.
We also want children to be talking to parents about what they learn in school and how profound and powerful that is. Many times the excitement the kids are sharing at home will have a connection to technology. You’ve heard about the activity at Paine Intermediate, where the students got involved in raising money to buy mosquito nets for children in Africa. They actually talked over the Internet to a Peace Corps worker in Senegal, and that interview was broadcast live throughout the school. When parents started coming up to me and saying how excited their kids were about the mosquito nets, I knew that the understanding about the power of this kind of learning is spreading in our community.
You’re also having these conversations with teachers?
That’s right. Pat and I block out a series of days each year to go to every school and talk to teachers in small groups. Most recently, we’ve been discussing the Time article and how it fits into our larger ongoing discussion about assuring that kids not only know the content but that they can analyze and synthesize.
You see, here’s what I worry about. For so long (in public education), we have told kids what to do every minute of the day, and so kids often just lose their eagerness to learn, thinking “well, they’re going to tell me when to do it, how to do it, how long it needs to be.” They become passive learners. They may be able to regurgitate it back on a test, but what we are actually doing is lowering standards for kids. We’re doing the work for them.
We know that for kids to learn at high levels, they have to be engaged at high levels. It’s not enough to just give us half your brain—we want all of your brain. So we are having conversations with our teachers about this.
What we need to be doing is raising the standards so that all kids will think and learn independently—so they will able to pull a team of the right people together, develop a plan, develop a budget, develop a timeline, follow through, run a test, run experiments, do everything they need to do to carry a project from start to finish. We believe those are 21st Century skills, and they must be built into our curriculum and our design for learning. What other skills are important today? For example, how do we assure that kids are information-savvy, so that when they are gathering research from all the different sources now available they can discriminate? How do they know what’s a good reliable source? That’s a new skill that teachers are having to teach kids.
We are also having a conversation about the quantity of what we teach. Don’t teach 145 objectives because it doesn’t stick and it’s not deep and they’ll forget it the moment they walk out of class. So let’s go for deeper understanding, and that’s where curriculum mapping and discussions across subjects and grade levels help us develop essential questions that we want to pursue as we teach the content. When kids leave third grade, what are the top five things they’ve got to know and be able to do?
Are you taking some risk as a district when you shift your focus from what’s on the state’s high-stakes accountability tests to the “essential questions” that you as a district determine are most important?
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Well, I think you are taking a big risk if you don’t do it. Because then I think you’re setting up kids for failure on the most important test, and that’s how well they are prepared for work and adult life.
Our students do well on the SAT-10. And I think to some degree that’s because we’ve done things the right way. Just to memorize things short-term is not going to really help you in the long term on SAT-10. But when you’re building on knowledge and going deeper, over time kids will be excellent readers and writers. Kids will be able to write clear and compelling paragraphs and papers. Those things will show up (in assessments that require students to apply knowledge). Once you have a deep understanding of math, and numbers, and fractions and place value and all those kinds of things, the tests are easy.
On the other hand, the graduation exam is quite a burden to us. Because, to me, it’s segmented knowledge and information. It doesn’t get at deep understanding of concepts. That’s probably our biggest obstacle right now in trying to match our expectations with the state’s expectations.
What about pushback from the community—or teachers, for that matter? As you create a sense of urgency around technology and Web 2.0 integration in the classroom, do you encounter resistance from folks who are fearful of technology, either because they don’t understand it or think it threatens the safety of children?
We’ve gotten resistance from a few folks who say things like “oh my, I’m not sure I like the direction of the system.” And that’s been kind of a hard thing, but a good thing. Because it’s helping us create a dialogue. The downside is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. But the end result is going to be that people are going to ask questions and come to meetings and we will have conversations that allow us to communicate accurately what we are trying to do. We’re trying to be very proactive, because we do value trust with parents. [See a letter Freeman wrote to the community last year.]
What we say to parents is this: We want your child to learn to use technology in a safe and supportive environment, and we want to do this as a team effort with you, so we’ll educate you and you educate us. Let’s do it together. Kids are going to have to use this technology throughout their lives, so let’s help them learn to harness the technology to really accelerate student learning. At the same time, we say right up front that although our system is as safe and secure as we can make it, it is not perfect and it’s never going to be perfect. Things are going to happen, kids are going to be kids, and something will get through, just like it might at your house. Most parents have been pretty understanding of that.
We are fortunate that a lot of our parents are professionals, and they work in situations where they are experiencing the rapid changes in the world themselves. I have a parent who goes to my church. She’s a global trader for Parisian – she talks to Japan and China and India every day. Her question is, “When are we going to offer Chinese?” (laughs) And one of our board members is a UPS executive—and UPS is actually mentioned in the Time article. When we talked about the article and the global economy in a board briefing, he just laughed and said, “Oh yes, we do a lot of things while you are sleeping!”
That helps us, that we people in our community who understand the urgency. But we also have people who are fearful. There’s a lot of fear about change and the Internet and what’s happening in the world. And we do stir up some fear when we go out and have the conversations about this, but we would rather be ahead of it and proactive about it.
One thing we say is: We didn’t cause globalization, so please don’t shoot the messenger. But the world has changed. It’s very different for kids. They have to use technology tools. They will have to communicate with people they haven’t grown up around. There are many social issues and diversity issues. Our kids are going to be learning online, and collaborating online with people they’ve never met. Our kids will have jobs and careers that don’t even exist yet.
That’s a far different world than many parents and teachers were prepared to live in. We are all having to adapt. We see this internally in our district – generational issues, where we sometimes have pushback from our (teachers) who have difficulty accepting how much and how fast things are changing. We present credible evidence to show that this isn’t just something we’ve dreamed up – we didn’t create this, this is happening everywhere.
What’s really been neat is that when we’ve shared information about the world and technology and the statistics from the Department of Labor about the job changes that our kids will experience, we may initially get a “oh yeah,” but then they talk to a cousin whose job has been moved to India, or something hiccups in the Chinese economy and we feel it in the U.S., and that really makes the point. Our people start noticing that many people are having this conversation, and where they were resistant initially, they begin to become more aware—and even proud that we are talking about this and addressing it. That we’re ahead of the curve.
How will you measure your success in this effort to transform teaching and learning?
I say this to our principals all the time: “When you get a call and a student (or their parent) says ‘I’m not going to be at school today, I’m sick,’ and they are devastated because they’re going to miss something at school, because the learning is so profound—when we don’t have attendance issues anymore, when kids aren’t late to school, when kids really care about being here, and we have awakened kids to the joy of learning, then we will know that we’re on the right track.
And it’s starting to happen. I can’t believe how far we’ve come in a year and a half. The way I found out about the malaria project was not from adults but from the kids at Paine Intermediate who started emailing me from school. All of a sudden, we’re seeing that not only is the world flat, but our school system is flat – there’s a real comfortableness with communicating with us.
Kids are realizing that they have a voice and that’s really exciting. We have a high school principal who’s on a blog with kids, asking them what they think about finals, teachers who are asking kids how we can improve our high school, a middle school principal who’s asking kids about scheduling. And the kids are really responding. It’s amazing.
To me it’s all about ownership, about creating the sense that all of us – in the system and in the larger community -- own the schools. My dream would be that I could go stand outside the Publix grocery store, and every person who came out of that store would have a sense of what we are doing as a school system and would have a sense of ownership and pride, whether they had kids in school or not. If they are a citizen in our city, they would see it as their schools and their responsibility. It would be very seamless. And that’s what we’re trying to create. It’s our kids, and what’s good for kids is good for our community.
What about next steps?
We’ve learned that the best way to communicate what we’re doing with technology and the Internet is just continue to share the good things that are happening and stay away from jargon and terminology. We offer examples from our teachers’ classrooms – “Once a week your child is blogging with the teacher to express what they think and what they’re learning.”
We tell them about the kids who are writing at all hours of the night, and they’re taking care about what they’re writing, because it will have an audience. That’s one of the design qualities for our district: Affiliation and affirmation for students – writing for a real purpose and a real audience. I have a ninth grader. He comes and asks me to proofread something because “I don’t want to look stupid and everybody in the high school is going to read this.” Whereas if it was just something his teacher was going to read, he wouldn’t care as much.
And internally, with our teachers and administrators, we’ll continue to use the approach Jim Collins talks about in Good to Great – we’ll discuss the brutal facts. We’ll keep talking about the urgent need for our students to become innovators and creators, using technology in a safe environment. We’ll keep pushing teachers to take risks. One of the things I say to new teachers is that if you haven’t made three to five mistakes this year, you’re not working hard enough. That’s our culture, to push yourself to try and do some different things, because we constantly want to get better.
One of the luxuries of beginning a new school system is you can hire all your central office people, so you can really look for people who are real clear that students come first. Otherwise, it takes years to get things the way you feel they need to be. To start off that way, that’s a rare privilege. Not that we agree on everything – we don’t, and I think that’s a good thing. But when we sit down together and talk through our various perspectives, the result is good. I think we’ve assembled a leadership team where we’re all kind of wired to think first about what is right for students.
To outsiders, it might sound like you think you’ve built the perfect school system. But we’re guessing you see Trussville City Schools as a “work in progress.”
We know we’re not perfect. Change takes time and we’re just two years old. We know we have some problems and we’re going after them. For example, we have some issues with kids dropping out of school. Why is that happening? Our data tells us that kids don’t see learning as purposeful. It’s not relevant to them. And because of that, we’re having to look seriously at how we do what we do.
First we needed to get clear about the content we teach. That was Part One. Now we have come to Part Two: Let’s make learning more engaging for kids. Let’s find ways to make hard-to-learn, hard-to-teach things more accessible. Kids need to understand force, speed and momentum; they need to know polynomials; they need to know grammar and historical milestones. But how do we do it in a way that’s very authentic for kids, so it’s not just something you’ve memorized to put on a test, but you’ve really learned it deeply because you’ve used it to do something that’s meaningful to you and analyzed the results. That takes us to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the higher levels of learning.
Kids have said to us in our own survey data, “I want to be challenged. I want to learn things that I can use one day in real life. And I don’t mind working hard to do it.” What they are really saying is: “Awaken me. Make learning so interesting that I wouldn’t even think of dropping out.”
Moving from “good to great” is hard work. Is it difficult to keep up the momentum?
You know, it’s easy to want to back off and slow down a little bit, but we’re pretty passionate about all this, and we don’t want to miss opportunities for kids. We really need to keep ourselves on this road. We’re trying to do a lot of things at one time, but we feel like we’re real close to turning the corner.