Thought Leader Q&A: Manuel Isquierdo, Ed. D.

June 24, 2014
Amy Wilson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Technology Integration

Sunnyside Unified School District in Tuscon, Arizona, serves 18,000 students in preK-12 across 22 schools. The percentage of students who are identified as minority is 94.4%, and approximately 86% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Since 2007, under the leadership of Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo, Ed.D., the teachers, families, and students of Sunnyside Unified have transformed the district from a "dropout factory" into a "tech-savvy district" with graduation rates higher than 73%. Isquierdo advocates for using technology to support the acquisition and application of knowledge. Sunnyside Unified, with its one-to-one technology initiative, is now lauded as a model of tech-forward education: The Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission now touts the school district’s approach as one to emulate, and the district has been named a Project RED Signature District.

1. Tell us about the one-to-one program implementation at Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson. What types of technology are being implemented?

Our one-to-one technology implementation reaches nearly 18,000 students, of whom more than 80% are from low-income households in an area where per-student funding ranked among the lowest in the country. In fact, John Hopkins University, in its 2007 study for the U.S. Department of Education, labeled the district "a dropout factory." Back then, Sunnyside was graduating fewer than 60% of its students. I came to the district seven years ago when, of the 1,200 incoming freshmen, only 500 achieved high school graduation. This is an urban school district struggling with high poverty and very low funding.

In the last four years, I believe we've made significant gains in changing our image and becoming a school district recognized at the state and national level not only as progressive with our technology, but as using technology to transform teaching and learning. There is a mobile computer in every student's hands from 4th grade through 12th. Technology today not only bridges the digital divide but also the economical divide and the parent divide.

In terms of technology, teachers received an HP system with a very robust mobile computer. Every new teacher gets a computer. Because technology changes rapidly, every two years teachers' technology is upgraded. Elementary schools have robust wireless networks. Now there are laptop computers for everyone. We also now are moving to Google Chrome, which is a game changer for us because it is more cost-effective and cloud-based. Kindergarten and grade one students have Apple iPads. Our future direction is cloud-based computing using Google Chrome. The software is cheaper, the management system, and access to technology are all cheaper, and it still includes a service plan.

2. What impact are you seeing on student performance as a result of the implementation? What does it mean for equity and access in your district?

We learned a lot from Project RED research, a national study of 1,000 schools using technology for teaching and learning. Intel, HP, the Pearson Foundation, and Smart Technologies sponsored it. Project RED is revolutionizing education through technology. Four years ago, we embraced its nine indicators:

  1. Integrate technology into every single classroom.
  2. Lead change by providing teachers time for professional learning and collaboration.
  3. Engage students daily with technology, including games, simulations and social media.
  4. Fully integrate technology into the daily curriculum across all core subjects.
  5. Conduct frequent student assessments online.
  6. Provide each student with a computing device with Internet access whenever possible.
  7. Excite students with virtual field trips.
  8. Encourage students to use search engines daily.
  9. Support principals to lead change through training of best practices in technology-transformed learning.

Our results so far show that student achievement has improved, and our dropout rate is down. We have doubled graduation numbers during the past six years. We are steady with test scores. Twelve elementary schools show improvement; and while we still have two D schools, both are high-poverty schools. Our middle schools are struggling somewhat but are better. Standardized tests are not where we want to be yet.

We are using a digital curriculum aligned to Common Core State Standards. It is more robust than any curriculum we've ever used. There was no money for textbooks two years ago. Arizona cut its "soft" capital budget. Now, laptop computers going home to kids and a state-of-art digital curriculum replace textbooks. We are in an investment period and haven't seen the return-on-investment in terms of greatly improved standardized test results, but for all other data points, we're on target. 

We've spent $2 million on digital curriculum. We have invested and purchased digital curriculum rather than open-source curriculum to ensure that it is aligned to Common Core, provides access and equity, and that all schools in the district are aligned to the district curriculum standards, not individual teacher’s curriculum. With an open source curriculum, teachers can use their own curriculum and you hope it is aligned to district scope and sequence. We are seeing a positive change for teachers and students.

3. What kind of professional development support did teachers get related to the technology rollout?

We've done it as we go along. Our approach is to be very comprehensive. We have a digital curriculum. We use Project RED indicators as the foundation for how to manage classroom and learning management systems.

Teaching kids with all one-to-one computers is very different than the old method. Our professional development for teachers is a coaching model with a coach in every school who teaches technology integration in the classroom. We encourage creativity and critical thinking. There's what I call elbow-to-elbow coaching about best practices. This is ongoing change management because these things, like software, are ever changing.

Today there are more resources to help teachers using technology to become proficient, excited, and innovative. We're at a critical junction to not overwhelm them and to make it easy for teachers to learn. It is an exciting time and an important time.

4. Tell us about the League of Innovative Schools and any positive impact membership in the organization is having on your district.

We are excited and proud to be member of the League of Innovative Schools. They honored us in March. Forty school districts from throughout the nation came to Sunnyside Unified. The districts joining the League now are different -- they are all eager to start one-to-one technology programs. We are learning with other risk takers and innovators.

The League is led by Karen Cator and Sara Schapiro, who are so committed to technology and the one-to-one and Digital Promise. It's the organization that walks the walk and talks the talk. They help superintendents push the envelope when comes to technology.

5. How is the Common Core transition progressing in your district? Are schools equipped with the necessary technology? Have students had a chance to practice computer-based testing? Is the district piloting testing this year or jumping right in? What’s the mood?

We are very much into Common Core. Our director of one-to-one technology is a Common Core advocate and guru. Any new digital curriculum and all assessments are done on technology -- getting ready for Common Core. We are stringent on the digital curriculum we pick. Not a lot of open-source curriculum is aligned with Common Core. While we don’t want to limit teachers, what is taught must be aligned with Common Core. We are piloting Common Core assessment for all digital curricula that are Common Core-aligned. We'll reach for Common Core assessments next year. We're in it waist deep today.

We had funding for Common Core professional development assessment planning. Common Core is a rallying point for politicians. Our state superintendent is a strong Common Core proponent, but our state politicians are not, so the funding is being held up. It's unfortunate. We've relied on the Common Core State Standards because we had to, and it's been very political. But in my mind it’s the right thing to do!!!

6. How could Common Sense Education's platform that helps educators find the best games, applications, and websites for student learning, impact teacher and district-leader decision-making around which educational technology to implement and how to implement it?

We signed up for the Common Sense Education Accelerator Program and we will be selecting teachers soon. My biggest challenge is how to keep this aligned. It will be one of our open-source opportunities for teachers. Our teaching coaches -- two in every school -- will be hooked into the Common Sense Education system. They are looking at games and websites. We see it as a new opportunity and are deciding how do we design that opportunity in a structured way. We want to use the right things in the right way aligned with Common Core. But it is too early to say what may or may not change on Common Sense Education. It looks very exciting.

As superintendent of Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., Manuel L. Isquierdo, Ed.D., has led the district, once labeled a "dropout factory," to being a technology-savvy school district. Sunnyside Unified School District serves 18,000 students as Tucson’s second largest school district. The district’s transformation through technology began in fall 2007 when Dr. Isquierdo created Project Graduation: The Digital Advantage, a mobile computer incentive program. As a result, student attendance, engagement, and achievement improved, which led to more Sunnyside students graduating from high school. Three education news outlets in 2010 and 2011 named him among the nation’s top education leaders focused on using technology to improve teaching and learning. Prior to coming to Tucson, he served as a top administrator in Dallas, Texas; Stockton, Calif.; and several school districts in Illinois and Missouri.