Three times Joseph Williams was asked to become technology director of Southern California’s Perris Union High School District.
Three times he refused.
The hold-ups: The former construction worker-turned-teacher wanted more autonomy, so he could respond to school information technology problems faster. He wanted additional staff, so that maintaining the district’s network wouldn’t take up all his time. And most importantly, Williams says, he wanted to stay connected to the real work of teaching and learning, sitting in on lessons and coaching his colleagues and helping run student clubs.
All three of those demands reflect the priorities and style that have made Williams a rising leader in the K-12 educational technology field.
“What I didn’t want to do was try to effect change by riding a desk,” he says. “I needed to be able to lead from the classroom.”
Eventually, Williams’ bosses relented. Now 49, he’s a member of Perris Union’s executive cabinet, overseeing a $3.2 million technology budget and helping bring big changes to the 10,700-student district that is 70 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Through a program called Scholar+, for example, every Perris Union student receives his or her own Chromebook—even over the summer. The district has won national acclaim for turning previously underutilized rooms in six of its school buildings into “maker spaces” for hands-on student building and creation. And over the past two years, Williams has dramatically expanded opportunities for students and staff members to learn computer science, a key priority in recent years of both employers and the Obama administration.
Such initiatives have been a boon to the largely low-income and minority communities that Perris Union serves in Riverside County, says Jonathan Greenberg, the district’s recently retired superintendent.
But it’s Williams’ relentless style that truly makes him stand out, Greenberg says of the man who thrice turned down his offer of a promotion.
“You can’t tell him anything is impossible,” Greenberg says. “One way or another, Joe Williams is going to get his way.”
Growing up poor in Los Angeles, Williams had an uneven home life, he says, with an absent father and a mother who regularly kicked him out of the house. Friends would take him in, but college wasn’t really part of the discussion.
He started working construction while still in high school. After graduation, he stayed on, advancing to demolition work and earning a reputation as a quick learner and hard worker.
But after getting passed over for a promotion in favor of (what he believed to be) a less-skilled candidate with a college degree, Williams decided he was ready for a change. He resolved to go back to school.
In a twist, he decided to study literature and education.
One surprise source of inspiration, Williams says, was Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers play-by-play announcer. As a child, Williams spent long hours with his old AM radio, listening to Scully weave narratives that transported Williams out of his immediate surroundings and nurtured within him a lifelong love of storytelling.
And on the job, Williams says, his bosses in the construction industry had showed him what good instruction looks like: lots of patience, plenty of hands-on learning, and a commitment to finding varied ways to teach and re-teach new skills to diverse groups.
Both influences served him well as a high school English teacher in the Perris Union district, where he started in 2006.
“Joe would take on the kids that everyone else wanted to get rid of, and he would turn them around,” says Greenberg, the former superintendent. “These were 14- and 15-year-olds, functionally illiterate, didn’t like school, were close to dropping out. He believed in them.”
At times, Williams’ passion and firm beliefs created friction.
As a new teacher, for example, he quickly determined that the district’s heavily scripted curriculum for struggling readers was “insulting” to his students. So he mostly scrapped it inside his classroom.
As a literacy coach, he sometimes pushed hard on teachers he felt weren’t doing right by kids, prompting one colleague to attempt to file a grievance with their union.
And Williams didn’t mince words with his superiors. In response to a staff revolt over one Perris Union principal’s leadership style, Williams and a colleague took Greenberg to lunch. Over In-n-Out burgers, Williams bluntly blamed the superintendent.
Greenberg says his initial defensiveness quickly gave way to admiration.
“Saying that took guts,” he says. “I recognized that while [Williams] might make me uncomfortable, it’s because he really cared about their school and wanted it to be better.”
By 2011, Williams had become a technology coach. Three years later, he was Perris Union’s director of technology. Last spring, he was elevated to the district’s cabinet.
During his rapid ascent, several themes have held constant.
Williams wants technical problems solved “at the lowest possible point.” One strategy to make that happen: His 17 IT staffers all use digital tools, such as Slack and Zendesk, that are more readily found in tech startups than medium-sized school districts. Such tools have helped to eliminate bottlenecks in communications, allowing staff members to make decisions and respond to help-desk requests more quickly.
Teachers at Forefront
Williams also wants teachers to help lead Perris Union’s conversation about technology. One of his proudest legacies is the district’s Educational Technology Council. Previously a forum for teachers to request software updates and air their tech-related grievances (“It was a committee attended by people who wanted to complain about upgrading to Windows 2003,” he says), Williams restructured the group in 2012. Now, a rotating cast of both teachers and tech staff lead the group in discussions about how technology can be used to improve instruction.
And Williams is adamant about never settling for “good enough.”
The results of that approach have been smooth launches and continued growth for a number of high-profile technology initiatives.
While the nearby Los Angeles Unified School District ran into big problems trying to quickly distribute iPads to students and staff, for example, Williams took a patient approach to rolling out Scholar+.
“He worked with the [teachers’] union and made sure there were no ‘gotchas.’ He lets people experiment and fail without worrying,” says Tom Ashley, a technology coach in the district who has worked with Williams for more than a decade.
Now, the district has about 12,000 Chromebooks in circulation.
What I didn’t want to do was try to effect change by riding a desk. I needed to be able to lead from the classroom.
When it came to expanding computer science instruction, Williams took a similarly collaborative approach. This time, it extended outward: Perris Union is an active member of the Inland Empire Code Consortium, a network of nine California districts that partnered with nonprofit Code.org to access instructional resources for classrooms and professional development for teachers. This school year, Perris Union has seen 621 student enrollments in nine different computer science courses—a five-fold increase over just two years ago.
And Perris Union has gained national attention for its forays into hands-on “maker” education. It’s a natural fit for Williams, the former construction worker, who has been known to wander the bowels of Perris Union facilities with a master key, opening up doors and imagining how unused spaces might be transformed.
Among those inspired by his work: Democratic U.S. Congressman Mark Takano, the co-chairman of the Congressional Maker Caucus whose congressional district includes Perris.
A tour of one of Perris Union’s schools led to a connection that has grown to include multiple invitations to Washington, where Williams has spread his gospel of hands-on education as a key component of workforce preparation.
Williams is “everything I like about someone,” says Yuri Beckelman, Takano’s deputy chief of staff.
“He’s excitable, he has a vision that he wants to tell you about, he has concrete ideas on how to follow through, and he delivers.”