Inside sprawling Cesar E. Chavez High School, the Houston Independent School District’s signature technology initiative is proceeding unevenly: Laptop computers are everywhere, but how they are being used varies considerably from classroom to classroom.
It’s all part of the plan, say Superintendent Terry B. Grier and his chief technology information officer, Lenny J. Schad.
“This is a culture change,” said Mr. Schad. “It takes time.”
That patient approach is why the 215,000-student Houston district is setting the bar for how to manage the digital transformation of a large urban school system.
Over the past decade, 1-to-1 student computing has become increasingly popular. President Barack Obama is among those now touting the importance of providing all students with access to high-speed Internet and digital devices in their schools.
Eager to ride that wave, large districts from California to North Carolina have plunged into new initiatives. But in their urgency, many have run into big problems.
Undoubtedly, Houston’s $28 million-and-counting PowerUp initiative represents an ambitious vision: laptops for all 65,000 students in the city’s 46 high schools, no more print textbooks at the secondary level, and a fundamental reshaping of the way teachers and students access digital content.
The program’s backbone, though, is its methodical implementation plan.
That balance is the byproduct of a close working relationship between the rapid-fire superintendent and his one-step-at-a-time technology chief.
“They have a very strong partnership,” said Keith R. Krueger, the executive director of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for education technology leaders.
“It’s the model that’s really needed to powerfully use technology.”
During his two decades-plus as a superintendent of nine different districts, Mr. Grier has developed a reputation as fast-moving and even arrogant.
Now 64, the North Carolina native hasn’t lost his edge.
“We’re not L.A.,” he said, referencing the iPads-for-all initiative that has led to an FBI investigation, a seemingly endless series of negative headlines, and high-profile resignations in the country’s second-largest district.
That’s not to say that Mr. Grier’s road in Houston has been easy.
When he assumed control of the HISD in 2009, its technology infrastructure was in shambles.
One reason: After a scandal in which district staff members were accused of accepting gifts and cash from vendors, the Federal Communications Commission in 2006 froze Houston’s access to funds from the federal E-rate program, costing the district millions.
Mr. Grier quickly oversaw an $850,000 settlement with the FCC, opening the door for $125 million in federal technology funds to flow into the district in the years since.
By 2012, Mr. Grier felt Houston was ready to embrace 1-to-1 computing. True to form, he proposed starting big.
“I wanted to do 30 schools,” he said.
That number, however, caused his staff to freeze, convinced their boss’s ambitions spelled disaster.
Mr. Schad, 51, became their champion.
“When Dr. Grier says these things that terrify everybody, [Mr. Schad] doesn’t get upset,” said L. Beatriz Arnillas, a senior manager for instructional technology in the district. “He negotiates the conditions for success.”
An infrastructure audit suggested that seven schools might be a reasonable number to start.
Mr. Grier was adamant that the program roll out with no fewer than nine schools—one for each of the single-member regions represented by the district’s elected board.
Eventually, PowerUp’s first cohort included 11 schools. Everyone, including the superintendent, was happy.
“That push and pull is extremely important,” Mr. Grier said. “You only get one chance to do this right.”
Now, those 11 campuses are in the second year of their digital transition, with 21 additional high schools taking part in the PowerUp initiative this school year.
Even some of Mr. Grier’s staunchest adversaries express support for the program.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten a single complaint in the past year and a half dealing with the PowerUp program,” said P. Gayle Fallon, the president of the 6,000-member Houston Federation of Teachers, which is currently involved in a lawsuit challenging the district’s use of controversial statistical methods to gauge teacher performance.
Erin L. Russe, a science teacher at Chavez High, explained the lack of backlash from teachers: “If you need to take baby steps, you can take baby steps. If you’re comfortable, you have the freedom to run with it on your own.”
That approach is largely the brainchild of Mr. Schad, a former college basketball player who was a pioneer of the Bring Your Own Device strategy during his previous stint in the 67,000-student Katy Independent School District, outside Houston.
Like many ed-tech officials, Mr. Schad is adamant that 1-to-1 computing is “not about the devices,” but about teaching and learning.
Making that a reality, he said, requires a chief technology official who “can take ‘tech speak’ and put it into ‘education speak.’ ”
In Houston, though, Mr. Grier has gone further, at times ruffling feathers.
Seeking to avoid the perception that PowerUp is the “Terry and Lenny Show,” the superintendent formed the district’s first “cross-functional” project-leadership team, with representatives from departments including curriculum, communications, instructional technology, and secondary schools.
The HISD is also paying more than $500,000 to the 6,000-student Mooresville, N.C., district (a national model of 1-to-1 computing) for training and professional development, and Mr. Grier retained third-party evaluators from the University of
Mr. Schad initially resisted both strategies, fearing that additional perspectives might cause the program to bog down.
Ultimately, though, the technology chief said the superintendent’s reliance on outsiders has helped keep Houston focused on both the trees and the forest.
“Terry pushes me to think about scale,” he said. “We’ve got 284 schools. We need to [make sure] this doesn’t take us 10 years to roll out.”
Hard Work Ahead
For students such as Janasia Powell, 18, the fruits of the back-and-forth between Mr. Grier and Mr. Schad are evident.
She and other 12th graders at Chavez High described PowerUp not as an exciting giveaway of free computers, but as an it’s-about-time step by the Houston district to make school as convenient as the rest of the world.
“The way they’ve made everything more accessible for us is genius,” Ms. Powell said. “My whole senior year is on that laptop.”
Of course, the hard work in Houston is far from over.
How will principals and teachers in existing PowerUp schools react next year, when the expectations from the central office become more rigid?
What will happen when less prepared schools attempt to deploy their laptops?
And what of Houston’s loftier goals? Mr. Grier and Mr. Schad have begun publicly evaluating how their technology vendors safeguard student data, and the district recently became one of the first large urban school systems in the country to demand that all its content providers meet specific technical “interoperability” standards.
Other districts could follow suit, potentially leading to significant shake-ups in long-established business models in the K-12
Mr. Grier, ever the fighter, gets a glimmer in his eye when discussing the coming challenges.
But the hard-charging superintendent also acknowledges having mellowed—just a bit.
He’s quick to acknowledge that Houston doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to going digital in a large school system—and to say that embracing that reality has been a key to the district’s success so far.
“We’re nervous, too,” Mr. Grier said. “That’s why we decided to roll this out slow, rather than try to eat the whole elephant at once.”