Features

Russ Selken – Modesto City Schools

Modesto CTO shows students can learn from fun and games

Sports fans, the game is on here in Modesto today. Taking to the field—or rather, the air—are drones piloted by middle schoolers. And these middle schoolers came to play, showing dexterity and poise throughout this scoreless tie.

But wait! There’s a breakaway—just look at the No. 33 drone swoop down the right side—bobbing, weaving—soaring up and over the only defender left to beat. There’s a quick fake to the left and GOALLLLLLLL!!!!!

Russ Selken | Chief Technology Officer | Modesto City Schools

Russ Selken | Chief Technology Officer | Modesto City Schools

Although this is a made-up scenario, such drone soccer games are actually being played by Modesto Middle schoolers thanks to efforts led by Russ Selken. The chief technology officer for Modesto City Schools, Selken collaborated with other district leaders to use state, federal and general funding to set up the afterschool drone program, as well as an expanded afterschool esports program.

While the games are undeniably fun, he says they also help students build career skills, preparing them for the tech industry.

“I’m very fortunate to have strong support from Superintendent Dr. Sara Noguchi and our board of education for my team’s work,” Selken says. “Our goal is to get every kid involved in afterschool programs because they’re engaging. That increases attendance and enhances learning.”

Beyond COVID-19

Modesto City Schools serve 30,000 students at 34 schools, including students from outlying districts who attend the city’s seven high schools.

Selken joined the school district in 2019 after working for Twin Rivers Unified School District in McClellan, California. He arrived just in time to help guide the district through the COVID-19 pandemic, with initiatives including drive-up service for distributing Chromebooks for remote learning and extended student technology support hours.

Selkin accessed Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to buy 20,000 new Chromebooks, which expanded the district’s 1:1 device program throughout the district.

In June and July 2022, the district joined Modesto Junior College to host week-long drone summer camps for middle schoolers—setting the playing field for the afterschool program that started in February. Selkin says relief funds were also used to buy 100 drones and 10-foot-by-20-foot enclosed playing fields for five middle schools.

Selken and his team have arranged for nine educators and four students to take the Federal Aviation Administration drone pilot certification. They’re working with the FAA to create a regional testing facility in Modesto, too. Currently, the closest facilities are 80 miles away, located in San Jose and Sacramento.

Esports for all

Modesto City Schools was already offering esports as a high school extracurricular activity. However, by using ESSER funds and developing partnerships with CDW, Lenovo and Best Buy, the program was expanded to include kindergarten through eighth graders this year.

Selken and his team built 13 labs equipped with more than 180 Lenovo Legion desktops for the esports program. Through that program, students can play a variety of games depending on their grade, beginning with Lego STEM for kindergarteners and leading up to League of Legends, Rocket League and Valorant for high schoolers.

Russ Selken | Chief Technology Officer | Modesto City Schools

“Esports coaches focus on team building, communication, critical thinking, digital citizenship, and health and wellness topics,” Selken says, adding students can learn about digital journalism, broadcasting, production, video, and graphic design from the games.

He has also arranged a trip to the University of California Irvine to help demonstrate how esports can build careers—and even offer scholarship opportunities.

Added analysis

In fall 2020, Selken helped implement a data dashboard he and his team developed. The dashboard includes a data warehouse that is now being used to address issues in performance areas identified by district administrators.

The Modesto Data Dashboard, or MODD, as Selken calls it, provides an inclusion report that measures the rate at which special education students are taught in regular classrooms. MODD also tracks honors course enrollments, measuring how they compare to the general student demographic population.

MODD breaks down data into student demographics, English proficiency levels and school location to help district administrators, faculty and the school board address how to make education more equitable, Selken says.

“The goal is to get the student on a pathway into the future for college and careers,” he adds. “MODD allows the district to be more accountable to our students, parents and community.”

Getting funding, using it well

For more than 25 years, Selken has provided IT and technology expertise and leadership to local school districts and statewide education organizations in California.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance from Cal State Chico in 1989; and his master’s degree in international management from American Graduate School of Management in Glendale, Arizona in 1990.

Russ Selken | Chief Technology Officer | Modesto City Schools

From 1996 to 2015, Selken served as senior IT director for the Butte County Office of Education. While there, he also served as senior director for the California K-12 High Speed Network, where he worked with more than 1,000 school districts to obtain funding for IT and tech initiatives.

He has also chaired the California Teleconnect Fund and been a technical advisor for the California Emerging Technology Fund, among other leadership roles.

Selken says he’s saved Modesto City Schools more than $6 million in his first year on the job by negotiating better pricing or by not renewing contracts for hardware and software.

“I pride myself that I manage things like in a private company,” Selken says. “I require business plans for all acquisitions. I want my staff to show the educational or operational benefits of the technology, as well as the total cost of ownership for purchases and obsolescence plans for our technology.”

View this feature in the Spring I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: February 21, 2023

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