Susan Beltz – Oakland Unified School District
In and of themselves, report cards can be complicated to decipher—antics of the likes of Bart Simpson aside—but imagine the added challenge as parents try to make sense of them in a foreign or a second language.
Now imagine those parents receiving their child’s report card accompanied by a link to a personalized video; in their preferred language, they have a handy step-by-step guide explaining each mark and breaking down exactly what it means.
This is just one of the ways the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is leveraging technology as not only a tool, but an equalizer, for its diverse student base.
Representing more than 50 home languages and the full socioeconomic spectrum, the district is one of the most diverse in the country. This presents a challenge—but it’s also one of the California school system’s greatest strengths, says chief technology officer Susan Beltz.
“Our students and staff gain exposure to people from a lot of different backgrounds—that’s really valuable,” she says, adding that, “Diversity is a benefit to society as a whole.”
At the same time, the district has to ensure that it is serving all students equally, she stresses. “We need to find new and innovative ways to do so.”
Fluent in technology
One such method is the Spotlight Report Card, an initiative that has been rolled out over the last three years. With support for multiple languages (with new ones added regularly by its Davis, California, developer), it has been well-received so far, Beltz says.
About 60 percent of parents and caregivers opt in and access the video-walk-through content. And in ensuing surveys, they have reported that they are more likely to engage with their children and teachers about school matters.
Another initiative is the TalkingPoints app, which facilitates communication between teachers and families by automatically translating text messages they send back and forth to each other. For example, educators can tick off quick messages like “Your student had a great day today,” or “He/She got an ‘A’ on the big test!”
“It lets parents know what’s going on day-to-day, and the translation piece is a great way to reach people who may still be learning the language,” says Beltz. “These are interesting technologies that are unique to Oakland. Not every district is using them.”
Meanwhile, OUSD recently purchased and put into use a number of Chromebooks, implemented Clever technology to simplify and manage student access and track their data, and is consistently upgrading its networking and core infrastructure—for instance, it recently replaced its legacy storage system.
More broadly, it is in the “home stretch” of adopting a California-specific enterprise resource planning system that allows districts and schools to both exchange data and streamline processes such as payroll. Another big project is an upgrade to the district’s enrollment tools, Beltz says.
All told, she stresses, “Technology is not just part of running the operations of the district. It’s increasingly a part of how students experience their education.”
The challenges of the future
Which is no small task. Observing the motto, “Every student thrives!” the district, based just east of San Francisco, is comprised of 86 elementary, middle and high schools and 32 charter schools, enrolling around 49,000 students.
Beyond its wide array of cultural backgrounds and home languages, Beltz notes, the student body represents both established families and new immigrants, as well as a significant percentage of low-income households. The latter, in particular, are “most impacted by the digital divide,” she says, “making exposure to technology in the classroom even more important.”
But, she notes the ongoing challenge inherent in that, due to both the district’s size and budget. She runs a lean team of just 35—what she describes as far smaller than IT departments in districts of comparable size. What’s more, California is ranked 42nd in the country when it comes to funding for public education, which means she and her staff have to make tactical, strategic and often difficult decisions.
Still, she came to the position well aware of this: Beltz joined the district as director of applications in 2013, becoming CTO in 2017. She had no previous background in K-12 education, but was intrigued by the idea of making a difference in public education, and enhancing technology’s role in the district’s schools.
“It’s incredible to see the value that technology can add,” she says, “especially the direct connection between technology and students. It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”
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