AJ Phillips — Prince William County Public Schools
Located in Manassas, Virginia, the Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) are home to 88,000-plus students and 95 schools, making the district the second largest in Virginia and the 36th largest in the nation.
There have been many changes in the district in the last decade or so, including the construction of 22 new schools and a new elementary and high school built just this year. Along with new construction is the heightened awareness and emphasis on how to prepare these new schools — and others in the district — to generate future-ready students.
“The question we’re asking is ‘what does a future-ready PWCS student look like?’ and ‘what do they know that will give them an advantage in jobs and careers of the future’— some we don’t even know exist,” explains AJ Phillips, district director of information technology (IT).
As the district makes a push to integrate more technology and new media, from smartboard flat panel TVs in classrooms to 1:1 devices, Makerspaces, a bring your own device (BYOD) program to robotics and even encouraging principals to engage with teachers and parents through social media, Phillips has helped steer and shape the direction of technology in the district, putting student achievement front and center.
Teacher and technologist
Phillips brings a unique perspective to her role as director of IT with years of experience as an elementary and middle school teacher. “I’m the first person in PWCS history with an education background to serve as the director of IT,” she says. “In the past, it has always been a tech person.”
In college, Phillips studied elementary education with a concentration in history and English. She moved to Virginia in 1996 and became a middle school teacher and this role eventually evolved into a support position for the PWCS IT department. “I was the go-to person for teacher trainings and in 2011 I became the supervisor of instructional technology,” she says. “In 2015, I became the director of IT.”
With a strong teaching background, Phillips approaches her role and new technology programs and initiatives with one main concern in mind: “How is this [technology/program] going to affect students and teachers and what value will it bring to them?”
“Now my team comes to me with an answer to this question already prepared,” says Phillips. “They know that this is my main concern and it is going to be the first question out of my mouth every single time. Whether it’s us getting new items for our data center or a change in the firewall, I always go back to, ‘OK if I’m a student in the classroom, what is this going to look like?’”
Phillips also takes time to get into PWCS classrooms herself to meet with and listen to teacher’s concerns and feedback. “This has been a big cultural shift for the IT department because they are so technical,” she says. “I focus less on the technical side. I don’t have all of the certifications that my team does, but I do play a vital role in building the partnerships that helps us get the technology into the classroom and then understanding how it is impacting students and teachers and enhancing educational content.”
There has also been a paradigm shift outside of the IT department. “Now all of our employees [more than 10,700] have a goal for technology built into their professional development plan,” says Phillips. “This has been promoted by our superintendent Dr. Steven Walts, who is very much focused on technology and IT integration. He is very forward thinking and helps to promote our educators to get onboard and step outside the box. He visits every school every year. He makes sure that we put our teachers in an environment where they can be successful and where our students can be successful.”
Focusing on future ready schools
PWCS has BYOD programs across the district and has 1:1 devices at four of the twelve high schools. This fall the district will open two new schools, Charles J. Colgan High School, which will be outfitted with interactive smartboard flat panel TVs, and Kyle Wilson Elementary School, where a 1:1 Kindle program in grades K2 and a laptop/tablet program in grades 3-5 will soon roll out.
Phillips is engaged in discussions surrounding the planning and design of the PWCS’ new innovative middle school, slated to open in 2020. “I met with the construction department to talk about this middle school because they need to know what the school should have technology wise to prepare students for 2020,” she says. “We have been doing a lot of research, trying to think outside of the box about what this school will look like.”
Right now that vision includes a library environment where students can engage in social media and digital tools just as they would outside of school. “Picture the common area, coffee shop layout,” says Phillips. “There will be more common areas hooked up to TVs, laptops and tablets and more smartboards and areas for students to share and display what they’re working on. We’re looking at some really neat ideas, such as having charging stations in all lockers and even desks with devices built into them.”
Another idea Phillips’ team has envisioned is real-time classroom feeds. “We’re looking to live video stream classes and record the instruction, so if a student is absent or out sick, they can come into the social media center-library and get caught up on the day,” she explains. “The library will really be the focal point of the building — like the Starbucks of the school.”
The SPARK to exciting new programs
While Phillips and her team are busy planning the next innovative technology for PWCS’ future schools, the PWCS Education Foundation and IT team are making a big difference in the classroom with a robust robotics program districtwide. “Robotics is one of our most popular and largest areas of student involvement in clubs and afterschool activities — all the way from the elementary level where students are learning with Legos up to the full-scale robotics programs at our high schools,” says Phillips. “Dr. Steven Walts really believes in these hands-on programs that make our students future ready.”
The funding for these programs comes from the SPARK Educational Foundation, made up of a group of business partners. Phillips works closely with SPARK to secure funding for technology initiatives and more. “We’ve secured donations from Amazon. In February 2015 Amazon donated 430 Kindles to one of our Title I schools and we recognized them as our Business Partner of the Year,” says Phillips. “We’ve also been fortunate to have other local businesses donate to our schools. For example, one partner who has always donated school supplies decided to donate 30 tablets to an elementary class and this inspired another business to donate 30 more.”
Phillips continues to work with SPARK in building relationships with business partners small and large and helping to secure the funding and donations PWCS schools use to keep technology programs moving forward. “When people see these good things happening for students they want to be involved,” says Phillips.
All of these efforts come down to building schools and classrooms that serve as a steppingstone to the future. “The reality is we need our students to have a digital skill set and we’re not exactly sure of what that looks like just yet,” says Phillips. “We don’t know what the jobs of tomorrow will be, but we’re giving them access to experience as much as they can today to better prepare them for tomorrow.”
With this focus at the core of its technology programs and initiatives, the Prince William County Public Schools are growing future-ready learners and AJ Phillips is a leader moving this mission forward.
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