From Clipboards to iPads: How We’ve Put Students—And Their Safety—First
At Community High School District 117, we always put students first. It sounds obvious, because everyone says they put students first. But when I talk to colleagues, I have to wonder if they have considered all aspects of "putting students first" as we do.
I’ve been in this district for 18 years, and I’m very proud of everything I’ve accomplished in that time. I began as a science teacher and made the jump to district superintendent, a feat which is rather uncommon in the same district. Along the way, I was assistant principal for curriculum and instruction, and a building principal at one of our two schools. These days I am proud to oversee the whole district, about 2,800 students divided evenly between the two schools. But working my way up has helped me better understand the actions we need to take to put students first, and to contribute more to the community.
Putting Safety First
Putting our students first means thinking—first and foremost—about their wellbeing. The one responsibility we all have—teachers, principals, administrators, and support staff—is student safety. But how do you prepare for an emergency? How do you conduct an emergency drill? What are the tools and procedures in place?
Reflecting back, few have ever questioned our emergency preparedness routine. As district supervisor, I became extremely conscious of this because this responsibility flowed upward to me. Every school used to have an enormous three-ring binder called a Safety Procedures Manual. Each one was three- to six-inches thick, and my deans painstakingly assembled them together over the summer, and delivered them to me in late July or early August.
It was an arduous and inefficient process. Information often went missing. Invariably, procedures weren’t properly updated. To make matters worse, more and more schools are having serious situations and safety breaches—not just in our district.
I had nightmares of the day I would need to use that binder.
I thought about ways to improve our process and about the ways educational technology had changed in the last few years. There are countless apps to engage students and enliven the classroom environment, but was there anything that could help me better manage our safety procedures? Could I automate everything?
I’d heard about NaviGate Prepared—a platform that helps K–12 schools with their emergency preparedness—so I asked my tech director to look into it. One of my biggest concerns was that it shouldn’t add to our workload. Teachers and administrators already have a lot of responsibility, and I wanted my team to work smarter, not harder. I wanted a tool that was more efficient; a system that was faster, more accurate, and easier to manage.
NaviGate Prepared was the system we’d been looking for: It was comprehensive, but not overwhelming. And best of all, it would make our process more efficient without adding more work for our staff. We started using it three years ago, and it changed our entire outlook and process. Those massive binders were gone, because if you think compiling and updating procedures was complicated, an emergency drill or an actual emergency was even worse.
This Is Not a Drill
Let me walk you through a typical emergency drill: The fire alarm sounds and the fire marshal starts his stopwatch. Teachers and administrators evacuate all the students and support staff. Then the emergency responders sweep the school, making sure everyone gets out.
As they sweep the school, teachers go around with clipboards, checking off students’ names. Administrators run around with more clipboards making sure the teachers account for all of their students. We would use actual physical buckets that would contain full rosters for every school.
Can you imagine the chaos? Each building has over 100 teachers and nearly 1,400 students. It was not the most efficient process. We took attendance manually and reported results by radio. “Yes, we have everyone,” or “No, we’re missing so-and-so.” What a nightmare!
Generally, a drill would take upwards of an hour. Then a debrief of the process, which took another 30 minutes. It was chaotic and relatively inefficient. I can’t help but think what might have happened in an actual fire.
A couple of weeks ago, we conducted a fire drill at Lakes Community High School using the Respond app in NaviGate Prepared. We were done in 28 minutes. All 1,359 students were accounted for in less than a third of the time it would usually take.
But it’s not about time saved. It’s about keeping kids safe. How could we explain to a parent that we couldn’t find their child?
The difference is monumental. No more cumbersome binders. We’ve gone from clipboards to iPads. We don’t even have an extended debrief session any more because we track students attendance in real time. As we check in every student the number goes down—from 1,359 to 0. It’s a tremendous tool. But after we started using it, we realized we could do so much more, just with Respond.
Putting Attendance First
The implementation of a new technology often opens up new conversations and provides unique insights. NaviGate Prepared transformed the way we managed safety procedures, but it also made me consider issues that had never occurred to me before. What if a teacher hadn’t taken attendance during the period we were having a fire drill?
This way of thinking led to further questions. In conversations with my staff, we discovered attendance is only about 80% accurate. Some teachers fail to take attendance, others take it at the beginning of the class while others took attendance at the end of the period. That meant that 20% of the time, our students weren’t accounted for.
Without NaviGate Prepared, we would have never known we weren’t properly handling something as fundamental as taking attendance. Additionally, we learned after the most recent fire drill that our student database wasn’t complete. None of these insights would have been possible when we used clipboards and radios.
These days, we’re taking attendance over 90% of the time. Right now, we have school administrators going from class to class with iPads, but what if all of our teachers were to install the app on their own devices and started using their phones to take attendance? A few of them are already doing just that. We still have to iron out the logistics, but I’d like to have my entire teaching staff handling attendance this way in the near future.
Putting the Community First
Administrators in other school districts can learn from what we’ve done here. If I could give them a piece of advice, I’d ask them to consider what would happen in a real emergency. What if they had to use the binder and it wasn’t a drill? Would they have the best tools and procedures in place? What if they took it further? When you have information in the system, like we do now, you’re not only more efficient, you’re also far more accountable.
I don’t just approach this mindset simply as a district superintendent—I’m also a parent. Both of my kids go to one of my high schools. Over dinner we talk about their teachers and what they’re learning. Friday and Saturday nights, a lot of their classmates come over and hang out in our basement. Sometimes I go down and ask them how things are at school. These kids are unfiltered. Even though we chat informally, I learn a lot about the impact of our practices and policies, and the work of my administrators. It’s not just part of my job, it’s also a part of being a father, and a member of this community.
When I look back over the last three years, I can honestly say we’ve made tremendous progress. NaviGate Prepared helped me improve safety and emergency procedures in my district. This new system made us take a step back and ask ourselves the tough questions. It made us question if we were doing everything possible for the safety of our students. Because if we aren’t doing everything we can, are we really putting our students first? I can now sleep easily at night knowing that we are.