Chris Gaines, known in AASA circles for his inimitable bow ties and a fondness for describing himself as “just Zack’s dad,” gave a preview of what association members can expect from him in the year ahead.
As AASA’s president-elect, Gaines will assume the association’s top elected post on July 1. He delivered an address at the AASA national conference’s 3rd General Session on Saturday morning in Nashville.
The superintendent of Mehlville School District in St. Louis, Mo., Gaines likes to draw on his son’s development when he thinks about his job ensuring academic growth for those students in K-12 schooling under his charge.
“I think about Zack’s experiences a lot — both in and out of school. How they are similar to what I experienced, and how they are different. Some looks the same, but so much is changing,” he told those assembled for the final event of the 2018 national conference.
“Sure, I sat in desks and chairs or on a carpet. But we didn’t use 3-D printers, program drones or build robots,” he said.
Too many policy makers think school still looks like desks and chairs in rows because that was their experience, leading Gaines to ask his colleagues to use social media, as he does regularly, and other communication strategies to show what is actually happening in today’s schools. “Invite them to see what a 21st century classroom looks like,” he said.
Gaines indicated AASA is working effectively to support the adaptations to rapid change through topic-specific programs and cohorts for school system leaders. More than two dozen such groups are active with leaders engaged in work around equity, digital learning, personalized learning, STEM, principal supervision and college readiness.
“We know now, perhaps more than ever, that all learning doesn’t have to look alike,” Gaines said. “If Zack is curious about something, he looks it up online. Our ability to learn outside the classroom is growing every day. We’ve got to reimagine what learning can look like.”
In that respect, he is following the lead of his predecessor as AASA president, Gail Pletnick, who set her year-long theme in 2017-18 on reimagining what school can be.
He pointed to AASA’s personalized learning cohort for bringing on board many newcomers in the past year. One of the newbies he cited was Jennifer Kelsall, superintendent of Ridgewood Community High School in suburban Chicago. Her involvement in the group led to the creation of the R-Gen Personalized Learning Program in her district.
Gaines said R-Gen uses a personalized and project-based approach to help students understand what to do with their life. “It brings 21st Century skills to the classroom to prepare them for whatever their future might be,” he added.
He also referred to his school district in Mehlville, which opened MOSAIC, a personalized learning school modeled after ePIC Elementary in the Liberty, Mo., district. “We were able to accelerate launching MOSAIC due to our engagement,” he said.
During his 10-minute speech, he also pointed to AASA’s Digital Consortium, calling it “a transformational opportunity.” The superintendents involved in this consortium feed upon one another to become better leaders. “They get to observe and understand strategies that make integrating modern education tools and practices in their home districts easier.”
In short, Gaines said, they engaged, they learned and, as a result, they are better leaders.
“So I’m asking you — engage, learn and lead.”
(Jay P. Goldman is editor of AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)