Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

School Leadership in the Digital Age: An Interview with 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale

obriena's picture

New technologies are dramatically changing how people learn. Unfortunately, many schools are moving far too slowly to adopt them, with classrooms today organized in much the same way they were in the 1950s. We in public education must do a better job incorporating new technologies into teaching and learning to prepare students for success in the changing world that awaits them.

But what does it look like when schools step into the digital age? And what can school leaders do to ensure students are learning in new ways?

We recently had the opportunity to hear about these issues from an expert, Ryan Imbriale, Principal of Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Baltimore, one of NASSP’s 2013 Digital Principals and a PDK 2013 Emerging Leader. In an e-mail interview, he shared his thoughts on how school leaders can promote digital learning and the challenges they face in doing so, as well as specific examples of what it looks like in his building.

Public School Insights (PSI): Before we discuss your school in particular, I want to ask a couple overarching questions. You were recently named one of NASSP’s 2013 Digital Principals. What exactly is a “digital principal”?

Imbriale: Well, a digital principal is actually real – it’s not some sort of virtual person.  That’s been the running joke at my school since my staff found out I won the award.  The award is designed to recognize principals who exhibit bold, creative leadership with new technologies.

PSI: In general, what is the role of a school leader in digital learning?

Imbriale: The school leader must be willing to fostering an environment of innovation, exploration, experimentation, and trial and error.  When a school’s culture is student-centered and driven by a collaborative spirit it’s really amazing what can be accomplished.  But I will also say that the leader must also be a user.  It’s impossible to get buy-in if you are not modeling effective use.  I try hard to continually model my own personal and professional use of technology, whether it’s social media or flipping professional development.

PSI: Now tell me about your school. What is your vision for it?

Imbriale: My vision for Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts is to provide students with quality comprehensive educational experiences that enable them to develop the productive habits of life-long learners.  Our students will be able to think critically and creatively, learn independently and in collaboration with others, value ethical behavior, and develop skills needed to function in a technologically changing and diverse world.

Patapsco is a comprehensive high school with a large magnet component in the arts.  We have approximately 1,500 students. Two-thirds of them are neighborhood students, with Patapsco as their home school.  The other one-third comes from all over Baltimore County to attend one of our magnet programs in visual arts, theatre, instrumental music, vocal music, and dance.  Students who are part of our magnet program attend their core classes with all students in the building, so the magnet is not seen as separate – it’s viewed as an integral part of the culture of the school as a whole.  Patapsco was honored in 2009 by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and again in 2012 by the College Board for our success in infusing arts education into all classes.  We firmly believe that we can expand student potential by promoting creativity, innovation and critical thinking skills through an arts rich experience.

From a demographic standpoint we have approximately 74% white, 18% African American, 4% Hispanic, and 4% other.  We have a FARMS [free and reduced school meals] percentage that is over 50% and growing.  In the four years I’ve been principal our FARMS rate has increased dramatically.  Many of our college bound student are first generation college attendees, so we work very hard partnering with our local community college and providing counseling services, and we’ve implemented a very successful AVID program. 

PSI: When you were appointed principal of Patapsco, how was the school using technology?

Imbriale: When I arrived at Patapsco in 2009 the school had a few business labs, a general computer lab, and most classrooms had a teacher desktop computer.  However, more importantly the technology was typically not used as a tool in instruction other than a trip to the lab.  Staff in general did not trust that the technology would work when they needed it to.

PSI: Can you give two or three specific examples of how students are engaging in digital learning in your school now?

Imbriale:  We offer a full blended learning course, Pre-College Science.  This course was developed as a pilot at our school with the help of the community college and C&I staff.  The goal of the course is to help college bound seniors who struggle in science by providing a course that incorporates physics, chemistry, and biology all together, taught through a historical perspective.  Since no textbook existed that met our needs it was an opportunity to develop a blended course using online content and face-to-face instruction.

We started a student app club last year, now called APPlied, that meets after school.  This club has now developed three native IOS and Andriod apps.  The club’s power is that students learn from the process.  Learning is truly authentic.  The students take an idea from brainstorming all the way to an audience of millions of users.  APPlied offers opportunities for exploration, collaboration, and innovation that are endless.  We’ve shared our app club model with other schools in our district and even schools in Spain and Australia.  The huge benefit of the club is that students learn how to be producers not just consumers.

We have many teachers who are now using Twitter in and out of the classroom as an instructional tool.  Teachers and students have realized the power of the hashtag.  As an example, one of my Spanish teachers uses Twitter as a tool in the evenings to connect with students and reinforce concepts learned during the class that particular day.  He tweets out a message in Spanish that might include a short video clip to watch on YouTube or a link to a website, and students respond to his tweet using the class hashtag. 

PSI: What was the first step in increasing the use of technology in the school?

Imbriale: We had to create an environment where teachers did not question whether the technology would work.  So our first step was to install the most robust wireless infrastructure we could and equip every classroom with a minimum standard.  This included a document camera, digital projector, and laptop.   

PSI: How were teachers initially prepared for the increased use of technology? 

Imbriale: We had to provide the necessary professional development opportunities.  We brought in some well-known leaders in the education technology field to help us get the conversations started, and then we built on those initial professional development offerings by providing job embedded opportunities to put the learning into practice and share strategies.  We been very successful the last two years with a program we call S3 (Sharing Successful Strategies).  Teachers sign-up monthly to open up their classroom to other teachers so they can observe the strategy or activity live with students.  We are now taking this concept a step further and creating 3-4 minute video clips of the strategy and posting them on our Professional Development YouTube Channel.

PSI: One major concern with digital learning is equity. Could you talk about how that plays out at Patapsco, both while students are at school and when they need to use technology at home?

Imbriale: Equity is something we monitor carefully.  In the classroom when students are using their own devices teachers provide the opportunity for pairing and collaboration if necessary.  The lack of a device is never an obstruction; instead it’s an opportunity for teamwork.  When students are not in the classroom we offer opportunities for them to connect by partnering with the county library, keeping our own school media center open late, and providing information on cost opportunities for home access.

PSI: What other challenges have you faced as you’ve moved the school towards a new vision of teaching and learning?

Imbriale: I don’t want to make things sound too Pollyanna.  Clearly not everyone has bought in like we would like.  It’s a continuous process of helping all of our teaching staff to see the benefits of using digital learning in the classroom.  We also continue to struggle with finding the resources we need to stay ahead.  Our vision for what we would like to have in every student’s hands, in every classroom, and at all of our teachers’ disposal is hampered by a shrinking budget. 

PSI: What benefits have you seen from the use of technology in the school?

Imbriale: Because of the work we’ve done with digital learning teachers are much more comfortable experimenting and thinking outside the box in and out of the classroom.  This innovative thinking creates an atmosphere that allows students to personalize their own learning like never before. When teachers use social media platforms to connect with students where they already are it provides a direct in school and out of school connection that we’ve not seen before.  Students are creating their own connections, collaborating and driving personalized learning experiences often without direction from the teacher. 

PSI: What advice do you have for other school leaders who are interested in moving towards a vision of digital learning?

Imbriale: I would say it’s essential to create a culture of innovation in the school.  Accept that there will be many successes and some failures, but those failures will drive even more success.  Have a solid plan in place that involves all constituents in the process, and ensure the plan has clearly defined outcomes.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint I would say ensure the infrastructure is where it needs to be.  If teachers do not trust the technology it will not be used.