I have been meaning to start a blog for quite some time. When I was first working the logistics behind the development of Get SET Tools, I spoke with #edtech pioneer and high school principal Eric Sheninger. I heard him speak at an NJPSA event and decided to reach out to him for his opinion. He was kind enough to lend me his time and hopped on Skype to discuss things with me. He liked the idea, recognized some of the difficulties behind actually getting it introduced into schools, and recommended that I start a blog. In retrospect, it wasn’t so much of a recommendation, but was more like a gentle command. Of course, I got caught up in teaching, coaching basketball and soccer, the beginnings of a new business, and whatever else life had in store for me. I was reintroduced to Eric at the NJ Techspo 2015, where he was one of the keynote speakers. One of the components to his preaching was telling people to start a blog. Here I was, years later, and he was still preaching the same thing. The only difference between now and then, besides the blog recommendations, was where he was and where I was. His influence in the world of education continued to grow exponentially and I was a first year principal still working on a fledgling business. His words and recommendations once again resonated with me, but this time I knew that I had to do it. Here we are, months removed from the conference, and I am just now writing my first blog post. I guess better late than never, right?
The craziest part about my slacking on starting this thing is that I have had so much to write about in the past year. I guess life gets a little hectic when you become a first year principal, get your business moving, run for your local school board (and lose), have a family with a 19 month old son, train for Spartan Races, and try to balance whatever else pops up. The past year has easily been the most intense and amazing year of my life. My next few blog posts will deal with more of the specifics from this time, but for now I want to focus on a few of the accomplishments that we have witnessed at Brookfield Elementary. Just a disclaimer, if you are not aware, my school is a private special education school. We act as an out-of-district placement for students that struggled in their home district. Our school is a K-8 with about 41 students (at the conclusion of last school year). We work with students who suffer from various behavioral and emotional disorders as well as students on the autistic spectrum.
Our first big accomplishment was creating a 1:1 iPad environment for my staff and students. In late August 2014, after two months of being hired, I proposed a 1:1 iPad initiative to my superintendent and she approved! Within the time frame of a month, we ordered 50 iPads to combine with our 10 (along with Otterbox cases), struck a partnership with eSpark for individualized instruction, also partnered with JAMF Software to utilize and implement their MDM program called Casper, and handled everything else that can accompany a 1:1 device initiative roll-out. We told the students that they would have their devices by a set date in early October and I had to do everything that I could to make that a reality. Trying to accomplish this feat while being a first year principal in a special education school, was very difficult to say the least. The only way I was able to do this is because of all of the help that my staff provided while I was running around trying to get everything situated. We were successful with meeting our deadline, which helped set the tone for the school year with our kids. Now, I’m not trying to plug a product, but I have been so happy with everything that eSpark and Casper have provided us with, that I want to dive a little deeper into them.
When it comes to true differentiated, student-driven instruction, eSpark seems to have the market cornered. Through the use of iPads (sorry ChromeBook people), students complete mini-lessons and quizzes and have apps assigned to them based on their own individual ability levels. Ideally, all students should have different apps on their devices as most are at different academic levels. My students have really seemed to enjoy eSpark as their native app and program work well and they dig the fun academic apps. Casper has also been a fantastic tool for us to manage our devices in a way that keeps our students and school safe. I can push apps out to any device from my computer, enforce any restrictions on any device at any time, protect our network by adjusting settings on the fly, or anything else that you can imagine! The products that both of these companies offer work incredibly well on their own, but eSpark and Casper will be pairing starting next school year and this will be huge! This integration should make managing the eSpark apps much simpler as it will utilize Casper. The thing that really impresses me about both companies is that neither shy away from doing business with a smaller organization like mine. They both found a way to make everything work within our budgets and to fit our needs. The products are amazing, but the customer service that I have received makes it even easier to want to stick with them.
Our second major feat was to propose, design, and create a sensory room from an existing empty classroom in under 4 months during the school year! In late November, I had two of my school therapists approach me about creating a sensory room for the school. Typically, these are used to develop student senses through special lighting, music, and various objects. They also can be used to help children with limited communication skills improve. Knowing this and knowing my students, I had to ask my therapists how they saw this being implemented. They told me that they wanted to take it in an entirely new direction and use it for behavior modification. The plan was to allow our students to enter the room so that we can get a baseline reading on what they like, what they play with, what calms them, and what makes them happy. Once we get that baseline, we can start having kids go to the sensory when they are about to have a major situation or right after they have an episode. The logic was to allow the sensory room to help us reduce the amount of time that our students would be in crisis mode and help them de-escalate quicker. Over time, we hope to see students improve their abilities to handle tough situations and have better responses to external stimuli that is out of their control. My therapists ran the idea by me, I spoke with my superintendent, they put together multiple proposals and presented them to her, she gave us the green light, and off we went! My therapists and our maintenance staff worked non-stop to get this project completed and we are very proud of what we have put together. Our students started using the room at the end of last school year and we are excited to see what a full year of implementation will allow us to do! I have attached some pictures at the end of this post, but they really don’t do the room justice. If you’re in the area and would like to learn more about our room and how we utilize it, drop me a line!
Before I move on to talk about one more thing that I am quite proud of, I know there must be some thoughts going through your mind about money. I just told you that in one year we became a 1:1 iPad school, implemented two new programs (eSpark & Casper), AND renovated a classroom to create a sensory room (which definitely was not cheap). If you are remotely involved in education, you have an idea as to some of the budget constraints that are experienced in schools. We face budget issues like every other school, but our iPads and sensory room were funded by donations! That’s right, I said donations! Our organization runs a massive golf tournament every year that is a very substantial fundraiser for our programs. The money that we have raised over the years has helped us to do some pretty awesome things for the students that we work with!
Finally, I mentioned before that my school is a private special education school. One of the major knocks on schools like ours is that once we receive a student from a public district, we keep them and never send them back. I am not too sure where this comes from, but I can promise you that that mantra does not exist in our organization. One of our main goals is to have our students come in and us provide services that will one day allow them to return and be successful in their home districts. To back that up, we had a total of 13 eighth graders throughout this past school year. We had 1 student transfer, 2 students move to another part of our organization, 1 student removed from our organization entirely, 3 kids move up to our high school program, AND 6 students go back to their sending district! I know that may not sound like a lot, but when you are sending just under half (46%) of your eighth grade class back to their normal placement, I think that is a major victory! To top that off, we also had a 6th grade student go back to his district this year as well, to give us a total of 7 students this year. I know that is a number that we are extremely proud of and hope to improve on next year!
Well, I feel like I have given you a good screenshot at some of the things that we have done this year at Brookfield Elementary. I know that I need to continue to utilize my blog to update you about the amazing things that we are accomplishing at our school, the progress my company is making to change education, and whatever other musings come across my mind. This is the start, albeit a long-awaited and overdue start. If you have any questions about anything that I talk about, please leave me a comment or send me a message! I look forward to having you along to enjoy the ride!