The pandemic upended the lives of everyone across the globe and greatly affected the way students and educators interacted with one another. The most glaring example was the switch to remote learning, which for most people was an entirely new pedagogical model. In many cases, it widened achievement gaps, most notably among vulnerable students who face food insecurity, housing insecurity, and trauma.
Where many school districts across the U.S. struggled, one district in Alabama thrived and actually made gains in academic achievements and accessibility for learning. Dr. Ron Dodson, former assistant superintendent for Hoover City Schools who retired this summer after more than 30 years, led the learning effort, and recently was recognized with an Innovative Leader Award during Tech & Learning’s New Orleans Leadership Summit.
Collaboration and Investment
Every organization’s strength can be measured by the level of its cohesion, says Dodson. Teamwork lies at the heart of any successful enterprise. “We have a very close relationship between the technology department and the instruction department,” he says. This extends to the relationships that he has fostered with the full-time technology coaches in his district and maintaining close lines of communication with the chief technology officer.
Dodson and his team had been building the infrastructure for technology in the classrooms long before the pandemic, investing in it for more than a decade after first seeing the need while attending a 2008 Tech & Learning event in Austin, Texas. The biggest takeaway from the event was the “engaged learning initiative” that he and his team brought to their board of education and got approved. The focus of the initiative is utilizing “technology to make our learning more engaging for students,” he says, adding that the program gets overhauled every five years as it is designed to provide continuous teacher training to teachers.
These investments helped Dodson and his team navigate the recent difficult times. “That's the reason why our teachers were able to pivot the way they did,” he says, adding that they had already embraced technology and had full-time support to learn how to best utilize it.
Although Dodson and his district had a plan mapped out early on to tackle the pivot to online learning, they realized the challenges that lay ahead. “We knew that no matter how good we put together that instructional plan, we could not possibly substitute for kids and teachers being in the same room together every day, for months on end,” he said.
When Dodson’s district transitioned back to in-person learning, everyone was on board to make sure students did not fall behind. To remedy any gaps in achievement, Dodson’s district put out a survey to all stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—to determine how to best use federal relief funds.
Those surveyed overwhelmingly requested more educators to address students’ needs. His district enlisted the help of 41 interventionists, professional educators with years of experience. “Their job was to find the kids that needed help and and get it to them,” he says. This targeted approach to remediation paid dividends.
A Focused Approach
Dodson continues to have a forward-looking approach to education. He demonstrated that earlier in his career by embracing technology in the classrooms and later by adopting online presentation models, such as Zoom and Google Meet, before the pandemic. As an educator whose background is in science, Dodson has an interest in data analytics. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that he readily embraced analytics to create formative assessments to help his team identify areas of concern, most notably a dip in math scores.
STEM courses are often difficult for some students, even with face-to-face interaction. Mathematics, in particular, is a challenging subject and one that does not necessarily translate well for an online medium. Dodson and his team focused on this area, working to keep students on grade level and reducing the number who need intervention. “We are actually a point or two beyond where we were before the pandemic,” he says.
Dodson again stresses the importance of teamwork and organizational strength: “There was a lot of hard work from teachers behind that,” he says. “I'm very, very, very proud of them.”