James Batson recently received the Innovative Technology Director Award at Tech & Learning’s recent at Tech & Learning’s Innovative Leader awards in Illinois for his work promoting accessible technology in Fenton Community High School District 100 in Illinois.
Batson, is an Ed.D and the director of technology for the Illinois district in Bensenville, a suburb of Chicago. For Batson, being innovative isn’t about finding a silver bullet. “It’s not searching for that new shiny gadget and deploying it and hoping it does something,” he says. ”It's how you thoughtfully and creatively use things that are available to the fullest extent.”
Edtech Equity: Supporting Inclusivity with Tech
Fenton Community High School District 100 is a majority minority and Title 1 district with more than 50% of students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program. However, the school offers a wide range of advanced placement courses and was named the 2019 National AP District of the Year by the College Board.
Equity is at the core of every initiative the district implements, Batson says. However, the district isn’t reinventing the wheel in the way it supports all students' success. Programs include supplying every student with a 2-in-1 Chromebook (a device that can act as a tablet or laptop), providing hot spots and tech repair, giving functional tech to teachers and staff, and making sure this tech is used effectively.
“Sometimes I think, 'Are we really doing anything different from other schools/districts?'” Batson says. “I keep coming back to it's not necessarily ‘what’ we are doing but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ we are doing what we do. For example, many schools have Chromebooks, but are they really supporting the students to use these creatively, recording their music performance, creating a podcast, editing a video for a class project, etc.? Are these other schools supporting the teachers in a way that they can creatively leverage new tools to enhance the learning?”
Measuring More Than Test Scores
The district also has a number of dashboards that provide actionable data on student performance and other metrics. Once again, Batson stresses the use of technology is not just a gimmick. “It’s important to not just give lip service,” he says. “A lot of people talk about, ‘We put up a dashboard,’ but if you're not using these tools, it doesn't matter.”
Batson and other leaders in the district believe student growth is the most important metric. “We’re looking at the bigger picture, putting all those pieces together to really address the needs of the individual student to make sure that they get the opportunities they need to improve,” he says. “It's all about student growth. We're less concerned about having a perfect score on your SAT as a junior, and more concerned that that kid that takes that SAT has grown.”
Batson studied computer science as an undergraduate and spent the first half of his career working in IT in the industry. His wife is a teacher, and he would volunteer at her school to help set up tech. He realized he had a passion for making technology more accessible to students and ultimately made his way into the world of education, first part-time as an adjunct professor and later full-time in K-12. Along the way, he studied business leadership for his master's and earned a doctorate in education.
“It's important to never stop learning,” Batson says. “It's also important as a leader to really figure a way to step back and look at the big picture, and how what you do fits into that.”
In addition to his work at Fenton High School District 100, Batson serves on the school board for Community High School District 128 in Lake County, Illinois. While this district is less diverse on the surface, he says being involved with it has taught him how equity is important in every district. “You walk in some of the buildings where I'm on the board, and you don't see that diversity. It's not obvious in your face, but it's there, and it's important,” he says. “Whether it's a special needs student, or it's somebody that's struggling financially, or it's somebody that's struggling emotionally, or it's somebody that's struggling because of their gender identity.”
Batson is passionate about helping these students achieve. “Whatever I can do from a technology perspective to help break down those barriers and help give all those students the support they need to maximize their potential, that's what I'm going to do,” he says.