Marlo Gaddis – Wake County Public School System
There are times when hope for a better tomorrow seems to abound as Marlo Gaddis observes what even the youngest students can create with technology in the public schools of Wake County in the middle of North Carolina.
For example, during this past academic year Gaddis, the district’s interim chief technology officer since November, watched a 5-year-old girl casually building her own digital portfolio using Google Docs, oblivious to the fact that such a process has been known to give grownups fits. Then again, Gaddis reminds, many is the grownup who could learn a thing or two from a kindergartner.
“It’s not just that the kids have been introduced to technology early,” Gaddis tells Toggle. “It’s also that so many adults have the mindset that technology is hard and they just can’t do it. Kids don’t have that mindset. Even at a young age, they may understand that they have the tools to do something, and if they can’t get it right the first time, they’ll try and try again.”
Only that little girl didn’t have to try too many times. She seemed at ease adding photos and reflections into her own virtual profile, and probably wasn’t the only tot in the classroom well on the way to being technologically creative and advocating for herself.
To Gaddis, it’s another example of what she refers to as the “small successes” that accrue regularly in the Wake County Public School System—North Carolina’s largest—with a student enrollment of over 160,000 distributed among 180 campuses.
A virtual world of difference
“Each day, when we see the kids using technology to leverage their learning, I can go home with a smile on my face,” says Gaddis, who aside from being interim CTO has been, since 2012, the district’s senior director of instructional technology and library media services. “That’s how I know my department is making a difference.”
It’s a difference that Gaddis believes can be supported by sharing technology. While the school district initiated a BYOD program in 2013—Bring Your Own Device—it still finds a certain dynamic when three children can share one item, Gaddis says, thus putting the focus on collaboration and critical thinking. Maybe especially so when children sit not in rows, but around a table or on a carpeted floor, all working together to solve a problem, research a topic, create a program or simply explore just what information can be harnessed.
“Kids need the opportunity to grapple with content and build community,” Gaddis says, lauding the efforts of a partnering vendor, Camcor Inc., which installs and supports most of the classroom technology from projects, flat panel monitors, interactive panels, headphones and more.
Of course, they also need supervision, as every online device has the potential to be a Pandora’s box.
“It’s one of my goals as an educator and mom to ensure we’re focused on providing a solid foundation for all our kids to understand what good digital citizenship is all about,” she emphasizes.
A responsibility fulfilled
Wake County parents can rest assured that that matter is well-represented in the curriculum, along with other high-handed ideals such as readying the children for a virtual world that’s only likely to be spinning faster by the time they graduate.
“It’s become a cliché but we really are preparing our children for jobs that don’t exist today,” Gaddis says. “And for a lot of other things as well.”
Information, after all, is in abundance these days, but that doesn’t mean every blog, YouTube video, newspaper column or cable commentary can be taken literally. It’s among Gaddis’ hopes that children will also leverage the technological wonders as a means to weigh one set of purported facts against another, before arriving at a well-reasoned conclusion.
Time was when Gaddis had a more hands-on role when it came to reaching children, having spent the early part of her career as a primary teacher of math, science, social studies and technology at the Alamance-Burlington School System, also in central North Carolina.
“I enjoy helping others make sense of something confusing,” says Gaddis, who enhanced her Elon University degree in elementary education with a Master’s from North Carolina State University and a graduate certificate in administration and supervision from Johns Hopkins University. “I like lower grades. They have fresh eyes and make connections, just as I like to do.”
And how she can empathize with the curious little ones, Gaddis tracing her own problem-solving obsession to a childhood that evolved into an interest in technology when she was in her 20s. Seems her family detected an early bossy persona that’s since taken on the necessary diplomacy to make her an effective leader, at least for now, of the school district’s 80-member IT team.
Whatever role Gaddis takes on for the next academic year, she does hope in some manner, to carry on the mission of the previous CTO, Stacy Lee, who late last year became chief of systems and operations at Craven County Schools in coastal North Carolina.
Though Lee had only held the Wake County position for a year—it had gone unfilled since the Great Recession—he’s widely credited with upgrading and expanding the district’s bandwidth and related technologies, and was at the forefront of the distribution of over 50,000 laptops as well as the BYOD program. Under him, the IT department commenced using data analytics as part of a plan to increase graduation rates from 67 percent to 95 percent by 2020.
Big shoes for Gaddis to follow, but she’s been filling them quite capably.
“It’s a juggling act,” Gaddis says of her multiple roles since November. “But I have great people helping ensure we stay on course.”
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