Weslaco Superintendent on Embracing Digital Learning

Tech 7

By Dr. Ruben Alejandro

Weslaco ISD is located in deep South Texas, just a few miles from the Rio Grande River and a 45-minute drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Situated in Hidalgo County, our location plays a significant role in the characteristics of our community and student population. Hidalgo County has a 35% poverty rate which is one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. The county’s unemployment rate of 9.6% is well above the national average. Our proximity to the border results in a high number of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The City of Weslaco is experiencing rapid growth in population and industry. Consequently, there is an influx of professionals moving into the city. These factors create a diverse community with many immigrants, professionals, Spanish-speaking families, and affluent families.

The student population of Weslaco ISD is a direct reflection of our community’s diversity. Weslaco ISD has nearly 18,000 students of which 98.2% are Hispanic, 85.7% are economically disadvantaged, 57.4% are classified as at-risk, and 26.6% are classified as English Language Learners. Our diversity has shaped our district’s vision and new motto of looking at “The Whole Child, The Whole World, The Whole Universe.” Understanding the needs and diversity of our students is paramount in the education of 21st Century Learners. Only by meeting the needs of our students, will we be able to fully prepare them to take on the world and any challenge the universe may place on their paths to a successful future. And as we welcome Space X to our area in South Texas, the universe is now more relevant in the lives of today’s youth.

In June of 2012, when I began serving the district as superintendent, we began our 21st Century Vision. Implementing this vision meant collecting data from our state’s assessment (STAAR), college entrance exams such as ACT and SAT, and from our stakeholders. I created Student and Parent Advisory Committees that I meet with monthly. The data I collect from these committees is just as valuable to me as any report on scores. This data shows that we are being successful with the implementation of our district’s initiatives. By meeting with parents and students I am able to gauge the effectiveness of our vision and make informed decisions on the future of our vision.

As Superintendent of WISD, I must say that implementing digital learning and preparing our 21st Century Learners has not come without its fair share of challenges. While Weslaco ISD has traditionally enjoyed a very low teacher turnover rate, so many of our experienced teachers have mastered the art of nurturing and developing lifelong learners and now have embraced the transition of using technology in the classroom. Many of our teachers are digital immigrants in classrooms filled with digital natives so Weslaco ISD has taken on the challenge of not only training teachers, but all staff members.

To build our teacher capacity we are utilizing two key groups of staff members. The first group is our Campus Technology Coordinators (CTC). These campus-based staff members are certified teachers with several years of teaching experience. Our district CTC’s are responsible for implementing and supporting the innovative use of technology to support teaching and learning. The CTC’s provide direct support of innovative teaching by providing ideas, workshops, mentoring to help our teachers create 21st Century classrooms.

The second group is our Innovative Teaching Task Force (ITTF). This is a group of nearly 60 classroom teachers who have volunteered to be 21st Century leaders by providing staff development and peer mentoring at their campuses. These ITTF members also provide staff development at the district level during our district Tech Day Conference, which are full working days dedicated to teaching teachers how to use innovative tools in the instructional setting. They are also our early adopters of new technologies and thus serve as role models for others and a source for best practices with these new technologies.
The goals and ambitions that I have for the children of this school district are about making today’s classrooms relevant to the way students learn today. I am not the one to coin the phrase 21st Century Learning, but I am overly concerned that if we do not alter our “one size fits all” method of learning, we are cheating our students out of a future that is already highly competitive and evolving faster than we can keep up with. My leadership ambitions are more about changing the culture of learning.

Weslaco ISD is preparing students to be successful in post-secondary education and a career until the day they choose to retire. Students leaving our schools will more than likely change professions far more times than most of us in the workforce today. To be able to do that successfully as educators, we need to prepare them with problem solving and forward thinking skills, creativity, collaboration and adaptability.
Doing so, means making sure that students have access to a variety of digital programs, devices, and applications to enhance the critical-thinking process. This means that our teachers and administrators must be up to date on the latest technology initiatives and practices. Therefore, teachers will be in a position to better prepare ALL students for a world that currently does not exist. Our multifaceted approach is allowing us to prepare all stakeholders for the ever-changing challenges of the 21st Century.

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