“The most important thing, when you take on something like this, is the people, identifying the right people, and then ensuring that you have a solid process in place for those people, because they will only be able to become as successful as the processes you establish. But if you have those processes tight, the teachers and the students can fly, and you get the best return in your output: a great student learning experience.” Stacey Gonzales’ final comment is most telling as she discussed her accomplishments in district administration.
Her focus on empowering teachers has become a hallmark of Gonzales’ leadership and the unmistakable basis of her successes, including her establishment of the eLo Online Consortium, a cooperative online learning program she pioneered in her former position as director of instructional technology for the Indian Prairie School District 204 in Illinois. That program brought together three school districts and introduced students to a new way of learning in the region.
“When we established the eLo Online Consortium, I wanted to be sure that any change that was needed occurred from more of what, in business, would be considered a horizontal approach, rather than handed down through a hierarchy,” she explains. “We really try to ensure that any learning enhancements, whether to the technology or to the curriculum, would be originated by teachers in the field bringing their expertise to the table to create improvements.”
Anyone familiar with the way changes generally occur in education will recognize Gonzales’ approach as a significant shift in the status quo, which, more often than not, is oriented from the top down. “For example,” says Gonzales, “with blended learning, where high school teachers don’t meet with their students every day, we want the students to have some flexibility over the time, pace, path, and place of their learning, and we let the teachers decide what that’s going to look like.”
The consortium features three schools from three school districts that offer fully online classes. This enables students from any of the high schools to take an online course guaranteed to be taught with the districts’ agreed-upon curriculum, and taught by the consortium’s highly qualified teachers.
“That was really important to us,” Gonzales confides. “Anybody can sign up and take an online class and try to transfer it in, but we don’t know the quality of that course. The highest success factor for an online teacher is the teacher’s disposition. A teacher who is not naturally interested in the program will not be successful, so we identified teachers from our districts who had a growth mindset. They’re willing to try something. They’re not afraid to fail. They’re risk takers. They’re willing to give the honest feedback: ‘This didn’t work. This is working really well. How about we try this? Kids have told me this...’ We also open [the process] up to kids through anonymous feedback and Twitter-type comments via hashtags and different ways to communicate their experiences.”
Since establishing the eLo Online Consortium, Gonzales has accepted the position of director of curriculum and instruction at Consolidated High School District 230, in Orland Park, Ill., with full intentions of duplicating the project’s success at her new district. “It’s definitely something that I’d like to bring to this district, and possibly with the involvement of some surrounding districts here, now that I’ve put the model in place to show how it can be done,” she says. “I’m bringing it in slowly and in a little bit of a different way, and even including our middle schools, because right now we have some kids in our middle schools who want access to our high school courses.”
Another factor that is different for Gonzales this time around is the increased level of authority she wields. “In the role I’m in now,” she points out, “while it may have traditionally been called director of curriculum and instruction, I oversee all of our instructional technology, so the buck stops with me with regard to a shift away from textbooks and workbooks, into more curricular resources, a shift away from traditional instructional practices towards integration of technology to enhance student learning.”
The success that Gonzales has had with her program, implementing it and administrating it, and, now, reproducing it, appears to have come to her quite smoothly, not effortlessly, but with a certain amount of providence. But the reality, according to her, was nothing like that perception, like the synchronized swimmers who appear so serene above the surface, but, if viewed underwater, can be seen wildly flailing their legs. “There were times,” she confesses, “When you’re feeling like, ‘I just wanna quit. I don’t want to do it. There’s too much backlash.’ But then you have to remember why you started.”
In the end, she was left quite satisfied with the experience, with her achievement in general. “I would say the opportunity to bring all that together and what it took to bring three different districts and three different school boards and three different superintendents together to make that happen,” she concludes, “was certainly above and beyond anything I had ever anticipated. However, when I consider the experience and the learning and all of the things that I’ve kind of got with me now as a part of my repertoire, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”