Clickability tracking pixel

Chief Innovation Officers Make Their Way Into Schools

Education needs a complete makeover, some say, and chief innovation officers can help.

by / July 23, 2013

Chief innovation officers are slowly popping up in school districts around the country. Some say they fill a gap in leadership that's preventing education from moving forward.

At least four school districts have hired chief innovation officers at the district level since 2011, while Newark Public Schools has this position in a number of its schools. A number of large urban school systems including Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee public schools created this position in the last two years. And a smaller school district in Illinois jumped on board this year with a position that focuses on innovation in technology as well as other areas.

Right now, probably 70 percent of school districts need a complete makeover, said Art Fessler, superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 59 in Illinois. Oftentimes, students are more creative outside of school than they are in school. And that exposes a leadership and design flaw.

"Education needs innovation," Fessler said. "So regardless of what you call it, my position is that we're providing in most cases education that is not relevant to our students."

When Fessler took the job as superintendent of District 59 this year, he got board approval to hire a chief innovation officer to help address the leadership flaw in education. This month, Ben Grey started his new job as the district's chief innovation officer.

His mission? To provide visionary leadership and support school leaders as they help students learn how to collaborate, communicate, think critically and solve problems.

"That's the exciting piece of my job — to empower people and build capacity in a way that inspires," Grey said. "In a lot of cases, we've lost that perspective of inspiring our students, inspiring our staff, inspiring our community to get behind the work that we're doing in a way that provides opportunities for our kids."

The job description of the District 59 chief innovation officer includes at least five components:

  • Technology vision and leadership
  • Innovative learning
  • Administrative professional development
  • Communications
  • Community development

But this position looks different depending on the school district. For example, Detroit Public Schools hired a chief innovation officer to better prepare students for college.

"That may seem very small, and it sounds like a very simple task, but given the urban population that we serve, it's proven to be extraordinarly difficult," said Natasha Baker, chief innovation officer of Detroit Public Schools.

Having an Office of Innovation allows her school district to have a central think tank that not only comes up with ideas, but also puts them into practice to accomplish its goal. This position also pushes schools to try different methods and leadership structures.

"It's extremely rewarding work, and I couldn't imagine being in a position where I had to walk in lockstep with every single rule and every single traditional way of doing things," Baker said. "You really do get a chance to create and implement and see the results with kids, and that's a lot of fun."


Chief Innovation Officers in Schools
Date                School District                      News
Sept. 14, 2011 Detroit Public Schools Detroit Public Schools creates a chief innovation officer position and taps Doug Ross to fill the position. The former U.S. assistant secretary of labor was previously the founder and CEO of New Urban Learning and the University Prep charter schools.
June 28, 2012 Milwaukee Public Schools Darienne Driver becomes the first chief innovation officer of this school district, which pays her salary with grant funding. Driver was previously the deputy chief of curriculum, instruction and professional development for the School District of Philadelphia.
Dec. 19, 2012 Chicago Public Schools Chicago Public Schools hires its first chief innovation and incubation officer, Jack Elsey, who was previously the chief schools officer of Detroit Rising College Prep Schools.
Feb. 13, 2013 Detroit Public Schools Natasha Baker becomes the new chief innovation officer after Ross leaves. She previously was the chief schools officer for Detroit Rising College Prep Schools after Elsey's departure.
April 8, 2013 Community Consolidated School District 59 An Illinois district hires its first chief innovation officer, Ben Grey. He was previously the chief information officer of Oak Lawn-Hometown District 123.
Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.

Keeping Students Healthy, Safe and On Track in the New Normal

As education leaders strive to address unprecedented challenges along with ongoing trends, they are grappling with outdated, unwieldy and disjointed communications systems; inadequate collaboration platforms.

How Embracing the Cloud is Leading to Short and Long-Term Solutions in Education

When schools throughout the country transitioned to online learning in March 2020, they had to quickly address two challenges.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs