Future Ready Schools Summit

2014-11-19 07.21.47On Wednesday, I had the privilege of being one of only two Michigan superintendents, out of one hundred nationally, summoned to The White House to meet with President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a host of other U.S. Department of Education and senior administration officials.

The primary purpose of the summit was to:

  • Discuss the Obama Administration’s strategic plan (ConnectEd Initiative) for connecting all schools to ubiquitous high speed Internet and provide digital technology learning tools to every student.
  • Kick off the initiative with every school superintendent in the country by signing a pledge with the President to make districts “Future Ready.”
  • Recognize 100 public school superintendents who have already taken this pledge and significant strides towards achieving “Future Ready” districts.

2014-11-19 08.25.14Following lengthy security steps necessary to enter The White House grounds (understandably), we convened Wednesday morning in an auditorium within the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, once home to the State, War and Navy Departments and located at the west end of the complex. We were greeted by Richard Calcutta, Director of the Office of Education Technology (Twitter @rec54), Zac Chase, ConnectEd Fellow, and Seth Andrew, Superintendent in Residence. We discussed the actual pledge, it’s purpose, the role of the Office of Education Technology in furthering it’s goals, and future regional events planned to bring more school districts on board.

A teacher Ignite session “What is a Future Ready Student?” helped us to focus and prepare for our later meeting with the President scheduled for shortly after 11 am in The White House Green Room. Additional security screening on our walk over to The White House,  we eventually entered through the East Portico (front door).

2014-11-19 10.02.07

2014-11-19 10.44.04

Once in the Green Room, I managed to find a seat in the front row about eight feet from where the President would deliver his educational technology policy speech and lead us through the signing of the “Future Ready” pledge. The room was full as additional administration personnel and others from educational organizations joined us. Media was present along with a handful of student reporters. The session was set up for live-streaming on the web.

First to speak was Secretary Arne Duncan highlighting a number of key points from the ConnectEd and Future Ready initiatives as well as the Obama Administration’s vision and purpose of the Future Ready District pledge already signed by more than 1,200 superintendents across the country.

2014-11-19 11.02.46

Secretary Duncan was followed by Miami-Dade County Superintendent of Schools Alberto M. Carvalho, who first spoke of his district’s success in digital learning transformation before introducing the President.

2014-11-19 11.24.32 HDR

2014-11-19 11.24.47

The video below contains the President’s complete remarks.

In my opinion, here’s a key take-away from the President’s remarks where he provides convicting evidence that our schools are not technology-ready for 21st century learning:

These are all critical ingredients to our effort at continuous improvement in education. And one of the things that we also need to do is to yank our schools into the 21st century when it comes to technology, and providing the tools and training that teachers need to use that technology to prepare all of our students for the competition that they’re going to face globally.

Other countries are doing this. They are trying to out-educate us today so that they can out-compete us tomorrow. South Korea is replacing all of its textbooks with digital content, and training all of its teachers to use technology in the classroom. Singapore is equipping every school with broadband that’s over 40 times faster than the connection in the average American home. So we’re going to have to step up our game if we’re going to make sure that every child in America can go as far as their dreams and talents will take them.

And that’s why, last year, I launched an initiative called ConnectED — it’s a five-year plan to close the technology gap in our schools and connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed Internet.

And this is why it’s important. Right now, fewer than 40 percent of public schools have high-speed Internet in their classrooms — less than half. That’s not good, since we invented the Internet. (Laughter.) That’s not good. It means that in most American schools, teachers cannot use the cutting-edge software and programs that are available today. They literally don’t have the bandwidth. And even in schools where there is high-speed Internet, so often there aren’t enough computers to go around, so only a small percentage of our classrooms have the one-to-one ratio of students to computers or tablets. And that means that, in too many schools, if a teacher wants to use the Internet for a lesson, then kids have to crowd around one desk to follow along, or they have to break up into groups and sequentially come in.

I’ve said before, in a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee — (laughter) — the least we can do is expect that our schools are properly wired. And when many of us can’t go even an hour — my staff, it’s like every two minutes — (laughter) — without reaching for a tablet or a smartphone, we’ve got to make sure these devices are within reach of our students. Because outside of school they’re certainly understanding how to use technology. That’s where they’re living. And if we aren’t incorporating that into how they are learning in the classroom, then we’re not doing our job. We’ve got to bring the world to every child’s fingertips, because they’re already more technologically savvy than we are, but if they think that the school is 20, 30 years behind, then they’re going to lose interest in school.

At the conclusion of President Obama’s speech, all of the superintendents present as well as those tuning in to the webcast digitally signed our pledge to make our districts Future Ready.


From the President’s remarks leading up to the pledge signing:

So I know a lot of superintendents have stories like these. You’ve found innovative ways to reach your students and improve your schools. And today, the best news of all is you’re taking the next step — along with 1,200 other superintendents nationwide — by signing the “Future Ready District Pledge.” Don’t sign yet. (Laughter.) Because we’re all going to do it together and it will be fun. (Laughter.)

It’s a vision for digital learning in classrooms across America — helping schools and families make the leap to high-speed Internet; supporting teachers and principals who use technology in innovative ways; and helping every student gain access to digital devices and high-quality digital content. And it’s a promise to help other school districts do the same — that’s key. This can’t stop with you. Every kid need every superintendent in America to sign this pledge — and then follow through on the pledge. Our kids need every school district to make these commitments. Every child — whether they live in a big city, quiet suburb, the furthest reaches of rural America, poor districts, rich districts — every child deserves a shot at a world-class education.

That’s the promise we make as a nation great. That’s what makes our nation great — this fundamental belief that no matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, you can make it in this country if you work hard. You have access to the tools to achieve. If we keep working at this, that’s a promise we can make real for this generation and generations to come.

All right. So, with that, I think all the superintendents are ready to sign this pledge for our kids. Everybody get your tablets out. You ready? All right, go at it. (Laughter.) You’re being tested. (Laughter.) You’ve got 10 more seconds. I see some people lagging behind. (Laughter.) All right, time. (Laughter.) Everybody get it?

All the signees will be eligible to attend one of the dozen regional summits that the Future Ready Schools initiative is planning to hold around the country in 2015. Almost 30 organizations have also agreed to help support the effort.

2014-11-19 11.43.41 HDR2014-11-19 11.49.16

The President greeted several superintendents as he departed the room and then we headed back over to the EEOB for lunch and our afternoon sessions. But one last photo standing next to the President’s podium before I go. Just as quickly as this photo was taken, in the next instant a staffer grabbed the Seal off the front of it whisking it away for safe-keeping. On the way back, I had an opportunity to provide brief viewpoints on the President’s remarks to an NBC reporter outside the West Wing and press room. I was surprised to hear that our local NBC-affiliate WOOD-TV8 used my remarks in their evening broadcast.

2014-11-19 12.00.23

During our working lunch in the EEOB, we were split into small groups around a table for conversations between superintendents and senior leaders of the Department of Education. My group was moderated by Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle focusing on what it means to foster and lead a culture of digital learning in schools, what are the primary barriers to high-speed connectivity in schools and homes, and what has the use of technology allowed our district to stop doing that we viewed as no longer productive in teaching and learning. Our discussion group included several students who provided a different perspective to each of these topics and it was clear to everyone that student-voice is important in our continuing transition to Future Ready schools.

Following lunch, everyone reported back to the auditorium for a series of high-level White House speakers along with two panel discussions prior to a closing session with Secretary Duncan.

2014-11-19 13.40.53

First up was Jeff Zients, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy; in other words the chief economist for the United States.

He talked about the economic consequences if we don’t move forward to creating an education system that meets the future needs of our students, not our past. He reiterated some of the President’s remarks about other countries who have moved ahead of the U.S. in providing high-speed connectivity to every school, student and community.

2014-11-19 13.53.06Next, a panel moderated by Assistant Secretary Delisle focused on the question,  “How do we support Future Ready teaching & learning?” Voices included accomplished superintendents and instructional staff from a variety of schools. They provided insights from experiences at each of their respective districts.

2014-11-19 14.29.29Our next speaker was, in effect, the “Chief Geek of the United States,” and I say that with much respect. Megan Smith, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President, has not been on the job that long but it was clear she has a passion for students developing coding skills in school and developing a greater interest in computer science and engineering careers.

The second panel discussion was moderated by outgoing Deputy Superintendent Jim Shelton and included Pam Moran, Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools and a friend and mentor of mine.

2014-11-19 14.44.35The panel’s discussion focused on how we can measure Future Ready progress and success not only in our respective schools and districts, but across the nation.  A key topic was how to mentor and assist other districts as they take up the Future Ready mantle and begin transitioning into technology-rich learning institutions for their kids. The conversation also noted how schools can interact with edtech entrepreneurs–and measure results.

Pam Moran offered that she applies a rigorous screening process before trying new tools. Her team looks for “tech products that will help accomplish a higher level of work” and that will integrate into the classroom, rather than running parallel. Evidence of student progress also weighs in on Moran’s decisions to try something new. 

As the conversation developed, it was clear that Future Ready schools must focus on the learning process and not get caught up with the latest and greatest technology tools. If the focus is on learning, and the district supports an open policy for using technology tools, students and teachers will grab onto any device they need at the moment to take their learning even higher.

Jimmy Casas, principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa, said he never looks to new tools as silver bullets: “Great teaching is the equalizer, not a particular device.” His vision of Future Ready success: “Anyone can walk into a school or classroom and they all have the tools they need to do the work they need to do at a high level. That’s success.”

Future ready schools are all about creating multiple paths of student and professional learning with technology primarily used as a tool to leverage learning to a higher level.

2014-11-19 16.06.48Our final session was a two-part conversation with Secretary Duncan and Richard Culatta, Executive Director of the Office of Education Technology. For the first half, the moderator called on superintendents in the audience to indicate those pressing concerns that might have a district-state-national connection; in other words, “What is keeping us up at night.” The issues that surfaced included:

  • The need for greater flexibility in use of federal funds such as Title I, II, III and special education. Duncan indicated a “Dear Colleague” letter was going out this very day to provide districts with the leverage they need to overcome objections by state educational officials.
  • Helping reduce or eliminate the “Carnegie Unit” seat-time requirement that persists in 21st century schools despite being an outmoded and unnecessary restriction.
  • Flexibility in utilizing e-Rate funding to support connectivity outside of school and into the community. Both Duncan and Culatta shared examples of school districts that have successfully done this as well as other innovations used to expand Wifi throughout the community.
  • More rigorous teacher prep programs. Duncan indicated a draft plan is coming out even though he felt he’s about two years behind on what needs to be done to ensure only the best, brightest and well-prepared teachers achieve eventual certification. There was also a comment that received strong applause from the superintendents that teacher certification across the nation be standardized.
  • A more common-sense approach to high-stakes assessments that measure more than just reading and writing skills on bubble tests. Duncan basically tap-danced around this highly-charged political issue noting that the U.S. has a long way to go before we can be satisfied we are measuring the right things in the right way. My concern right now is the push to measure academic achievement down into kindergarten and eventually pre-school levels, a ridiculous waste of time and resources and danger to killing off any creativity and curiosity in our youngest children.
  • Greater direct working relationships between districts and the federal Department of Education when states are not willing to be involved or tend to create obstacles to Future Ready schools. This was not well-received by Duncan given the fact there are 16,000 school districts making a direct linkage unwieldy. He did encourage us to contact his staff when we need help clarifying federal regulations or dealing with significant stumbling blocks thrown out by the state.

The second part of this conversation involved responding to pre-selected questions from a handful of superintendents.

2014-11-19 16.38.31

Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia and now President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a major sponsor of this event as well as next year’s regional summits for superintendents who have signed the Future Ready Pledge, provided the closing remarks to a long but worthwhile day. He also pointed out that a new FutureReadySchools website to support our transition was as of that moment now online.

Following a quick group photo with Secretary Duncan, class was dismissed for the next phase of moving our Future Ready schools forward.



Future Ready Pledge Signed with President


And a sweet reward on our way out the door.

2014-11-19 16.57.32

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Emergency Closures Reminder

With winter-like weather upon us, it’s a good time to remind parents, students and staff about our communications plan for weather-related school closures.

First of all, unless an announcement is made by the district to close schools, always assume that schools will be open and if necessary, take extra precautions on getting to and from school in snow and ice. Michigan is a cold-weather state and winter snow and ice are to be expected. Schools will be closed only when a variety of conditions warrant doing so.

I am usually awake and up by 4:00 am each day throughout the cold-weather months analyzing the weather reports and out driving to test the roads and sidewalks. In addition, I am typically communicating with the superintendents from our surrounding districts (Wyoming, Godwin, Kelloggsville, Grandville and Grand Rapids) as well as our district operations supervisor before making a final decision. If there is a need to close schools due to weather conditions, I try my best to make that decision by 6:00 am and get the announcement out right away. Sometimes, however, conditions worsen after 6 am and a later announcement might be necessary.

Once I make the decision, here is the protocol for getting the message out:

1. Announcement is made on the district Facebook page (www.facebook.com/leerebels) and Twitter account (www.twitter.com/GodfreyLeePS).

2. Announcement is sent to GRAIL WEB which then posts it on all area television and radio stations. You will hear it on the radio or see it in the trailer at the bottom of the television screen, but the fastest way to know for sure is to go to your favorite TV or radio station’s website.  Please remember that it will say GODFREY-LEE PUBLIC SCHOOLS if we are closed. Do not assume if Grand Rapids, Wyoming, or Godwin schools are closed that our district is also closed. Conditions may warrant closures of other schools in other districts while ours remain opened.

3. Our emergency notification system or “Robo Call” will go to work getting the closure message to you through your primary contact information in your child’s Infinite Campus record. This includes a computerized message via telephone and/or email. If you do not answer the phone right away, a message will be left on your voicemail/answering machine. Please do not call the school back if you receive a call as its most likely no one will be in the office to answer your call at that hour. Check your voicemail, email or any of the other modes discussed above.

On very rare occasions, it may become necessary to CLOSE SCHOOL EARLY and send children home. Every parent must have a plan ready in the event an emergency early closure should occur. If you are likely to not be available to pick up your children as you normally do, you will need an alternate plan for either someone else to pick them up or another location for them to walk. Your child should know what to do. If you need to contact the school to deliver instructions to them, please do so but remember that many parents may be trying to call at the same time so please be patient.

If you have concerns or questions about what to do in any emergency closure, please discuss them with your child’s school principal or teacher to be sure there is not confusion or misunderstanding. Our goal is to ensure  we have a clear and timely communication channel with every home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Godfrey Elementary Situation Update

Godfrey Elementary received a hand-written (photocopied) threat in today’s U.S. Postal Service mail just prior to noon. The threat was somewhat vague and meandering but our immediate response was to call in law enforcement from the Wyoming Police Department.

Staff were notified and conducted a cursory search of their classrooms and other areas for anything unusual. At the same time, an assessment was made as to whether any of the other school buildings received anything similar. Subsequently, I directed the school to go through their evacuation drill by each teacher moving their students to the Early Childhood Center. Our operations staff assisted by staff from Godfrey, the ECC and other school buildings ensured a safe and orderly evacuation. At the same time, an emergency notification call was made to parents of Godfrey Elementary students providing them with the information that was available at the time and that their children were being safely housed at the ECC.

A Michigan State Police canine team arrived at Godfrey and conducted a thorough search of the building giving us the all-clear. However, students and staff will remain at the ECC for the rest of the school day to limit confusion for parents in picking up your child. Those that take the school bus will do so from that location. TEAM 21 Godfrey students have been invited to stay after at the ECC and will be combined with their program this afternoon.

Our elementary staff and students did a great job of going through the emergency response steps, assisted by law enforcement and other staff members. They are each to be commended.

We take the safety of our students and staff very seriously at Godfrey-Lee and we also want to ensure that our parents are informed in a timely manner. We are thankful that this situation did not turn out to be a serious threat however the Wyoming Police Department will conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether or not the perpetrator can be identified and prosecuted.

As with any of our programs or procedures, I always invite feedback from parents and staff as to how we can handle these situations even better in the future. Please don’t hesitate to contact my office if you have any suggestions or wish to voice any concerns.

Mr. Britten

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welcome Home, Soldier

Veterans Day remarks at the assembly for Lee Middle & High School:

Good morning!

Veterans Day is a day normally set aside each year to honor all Veterans — those who have served in time of peace and war, as well as those who are still serving in our United States Armed Forces.

So it’s a bit unusual, that this morning we’re taking a moment to honor one of our own who gave his life in battle so we might be free. Memorial Day is usually when we pause and reflect on those who gave their today, so we would have our tomorrow.

Howard Van Solkema was born in 1923 as the fifth child of parents Ralph and Wilhelmina. He eventually would have a total of eight brothers and sisters, a large family not uncommon at the time. His mother was from the Netherlands and spoke mainly Dutch. By the time young Howard was seven, we know they were living in the little village of Byron Center where his dad found work in some small area industry to support his family.

By 1935, Howard’s family had moved near Grand Rapids most likely so his father could find any kind of work, for the Great Depression was well underway. Howard, just starting the eighth grade, as well as his older sister Janet attended Lee High School. She would graduate from Lee in 1938.

Howard Van SolkemaHoward remained a nondescript student at Lee through the end of his sophomore year. His younger siblings may have attended the old Godfrey School but we don’t have any records to confirm that. Two older brothers and a sister most likely engaged in whatever work they could find to help the family through this difficult time. There were no handouts at that time, no government-provided welfare or other forms of assistance. There was only hard work when it could be found. It’s entirely possible that Howard’s father was one of 600 men who came to work everyday with nothing more than a shovel and perhaps a wheelbarrow, in order to dig out by hand the entire area where our football and soccer field sits today, just so they could make enough money to feed their families.

Following his 10th grade year, Howard and his family moved once again, this time south of Byron Center near the village of Dorr, where they rented some land and farmed. One of Howard’s older brothers, though, would remain in this area and work at the old Grand Rapids Refrigerator Company that once sat behind Lee Field.

We don’t know for sure what happened to Howard at this point but most likely he stopped attending school to help out on the farm. On January 28, 1943, just 12 days before his 20th birthday, Howard Van Solkema enlisted in the United States Army at Kalamazoo. He had been drafted to serve for the duration of World War II.

Howard went on to serve in the Army’s Air Corps, the forerunner of today’s United States Air Force. He was sent along with hundreds of thousands of men to England to participate in the Invasion of Europe we know simply as D-Day. He rose in rank to Staff Sergeant and was part of the 7th Bomber Squadron when on July 9, 1944 he was serving as the nose gunner of a B-24H bomber, known as the Captain John Silver, under the command of pilot and 1st Lieutenant Jerome Boshears. The plane was part of a formation of 39 aircraft dispatched on a bombing run over France, when enemy flak struck Howard’s plane and it was forced down in the English Channel near Selsey Bill, just off the southeast corner of England. The crew had attempted valiantly to get its wounded aircraft back to safety, but failed. Of the 39 planes on this mission, Howard’s was the only one that did not return home that day.

At just 21 years of age, young Howard’s life ended in what we can only think must have been a very horrible way to die. Listed first as missing in action, his body was eventually recovered, and following the end of the war, returned to his hometown of Byron Center, where he rests today in sleepy little Winchester Cemetery.

It has been 70 years since Howard left Lee High School and eventually gave his life in the fight against Nazi extremism, so that we might one day live in a Nation of freedom. Most likely overlooked by his classmates because he had moved away from this area, today we are able to bring the memory of Howard Van Solkema home, to the school where he was once a student and where he belonged. His name has been added to the memorial in the front hallway where he joins twenty-seven other Lee Rebels who sacrificed their young lives for us in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Those honored heroes include three young men who were Howard’s classmates back in 1939 – Lawrence Beukema, William Overmire, and Harold Schievink.

These four young men, these Rebels once walked the very same halls and sat in some of the very same classrooms as you. We can now take solace from the tragedy of this loss in knowing that Howard’s memory is once again with that of his friends.

So as we honor all Veterans this morning, we especially take time today to remember Staff Sergeant Howard Van Solkema, Lee High School Class of 1941, United States Army Air Corps, World War II, killed in action, July 9, 1944.

Welcome home, soldier.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Board Election Results

UPDATE: We were informed on November 12 that the Board of Canvassers had completed its review and the tie between Mr. Baker and Mrs. Coleman remained. They will be meeting at the Kent County Clerk’s office on Friday morning, November 14 to conduct the drawing required by state law to determine the winner.

On behalf of the Godfrey-Lee staff and community, I would like to congratulate Tammy Schafer on her re-election to the Board and David Blok on his election to a first six-year term.

Election results for the third Board seat are in limbo at this time due to a tie vote between Robert Baker and Josephine Coleman. The Kent County Clerk has informed us that once the City of Wyoming Board of Canvassers certifies the election results and if a tie still exists, a drawing will then be held to determine which candidate will assume the seat. This process may take up to two weeks depending on how quickly the Board of Canvassers completes its task.

I also want to thank Reta Hendriksen and John TerBeek for their interest in pursuing election to the Board. Many school districts failed to have enough candidates to fill open seats while our district had six candidates for three seats. That demonstrates the level of interest our community places on ensuring our public schools are operated efficiently and are quality learning spaces for our children.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thank you Godfrey-Lee Community!

On behalf of our students, teachers, support staff, administrative team and the Board of Education, I’d like to express my deepest appreciation to the registered voters in our community for showing continued confidence in our public school system by voting to renew our local operational millage.

Your support ensures that we can continue providing quality learning opportunities for our children while pursuing changes and improvements that lead to higher levels of achievement and college-career readiness.

We value your trust and will continue to be good stewards of the resources you provide.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Social Media and Teenagers – Yes, it is complicated #miched

I’ve been reading a fantastic book published earlier this year by danah boyd titled, “It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens,” which is available from any major bookseller or can be downloaded free in PDF format.

I highly recommend this book for any parent, teacher or just about anyone else who wants to know more about the how’s and why’s of young people using social-networking applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others you may not have even heard about, yet.

This book will destroy many of the myths and misconceptions you have about teens and technology. It may also convict you of your own behaviors when it came to (or may come to) raising teens in your home.

The following video provides a great overview of the book and the tremendous research danah completed over a long period of time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment