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Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the second annual conference of the Consortium of State School Boards Associations with Valencia Davis, Cathy Keeter, Mike Salanik, and Jean Thompson. 

This year’s conference “Leading for the Future” featured informative conference breakout sessions and inspiring keynote speakers. 

My favorite was Dr. Douglas B. Reeves, who is a prolific author and researcher on educational leadership and student achievement and who frequently contributes to the Education Leadership journal. 

Dr. Reeves shared the latest evidence on how educational leaders and policymakers can support — or undermine — the psychological safety that is essential for learning. In a fearful environment, neither students nor adults can learn. 

Dr. Reeves began with an update on current research on persistent learning loss, leadership for effective literacy, and teacher recruitment and retention. 

As compared to 2019, reading has only recovered 25 percent, racial gaps have widened, and high-poverty areas have the worst losses; the most effective support for students is during the school day. 

Everyone agrees that phonics are important, but we cannot stop there; writing (especially for students from low-income and multilingual learners) is essential; and we must create time for joyful and curious reading. 

Keeping teachers in our schools requires that we address their wants, which are the following: respect, time for collaboration, professional learning, relief from initiative fatigue, and money. 

Dr. Reeves’s message centered around fearless leadership, which includes three elements: trust (a cycle of promises made and promises kept), resilience (including physical, emotional, and organizational), and focus (on the key areas: learning, assessment, support, and enrichment — and nothing else). 

He gave some great strategies that we are excited to bring back into our classrooms and the Board Room including requiring decision alternatives — never just a “take it or a leave it” option, being clear about decision structure to ensure that decisions are made with discretion and in collaboration with other leaders, stopping responding to emails and text messages instantly (because of the time it takes to refocus), and remembering school success is a community health and safety priority.

Many of the conference breakouts and keynotes both challenged and inspired us about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the classroom and the Board Room. 

Speakers reminded us about how much of our society has already changed through voice recognition devices like Alexa, recommendation engines used by Netflix to suggest which films we should watch next, and the beginnings of driverless or flying cars. 

We saw AP applications. ChatGPT, a free natural language processing chatbot that is driven by generative AI technology, allows us to have human-like conversations, answer our questions, and assist us with tasks including reading a myriad of information and within seconds composing essays, emails, or code. 

Crystal (also called CrystalKnows) uses personality AI to predict a person’s personality using their online footprint and suggests how to improve communication by quickly understanding another person’s behavior, motivation, and personality. Education will be one of the industries most changed by AI, and some suggest that our education system will be barely recognizable by 2028. Speakers encouraged us to implement constructive uses of AI including oral defense of written work, practicing in class (not at home), and requiring students to use AI (like ChatGPT) to produce a first draft and edit it. 

Others challenged us by stating that we will not be able to tell when a student has cheated using AI on a traditional writing assignment. 

This was extremely thought-provoking for our team: our Vision 2035 (“Together, we succeed by building opportunities and fostering community for every student to reach their full potential.”) focuses on ensuring our students graduate “life ready” to succeed in the workplace, higher education, armed services, and the community. We must prepare students for a world that we don’t know that will be fueled by aspects of AI that do not yet exist. How do we do it? (Now, the conference would really have been worth it if we learned the perfect answer!) The message I have taken home is that we have to be fearless leaders who model how to embrace change for our staff and students. 

We have to overcome the fear that change implies that our past and present practices were not good enough, and we must not see change as an attack on a professional judgment and our character. 

But we still have to change because our world, and more importantly, our students’ worlds are changing. 

If RRGSD really is a student-centered school district, when there are conflicting priorities (such as changing our instructional practices), then we have to prioritize our students’ needs over our adult comforts. (We still focus on meeting as many of our teachers’ needs and desires as possible as long as they are not in conflict with what our students need to learn.)

As I have come back to RRGSD, I am struck by how much we have accomplished over the past few years, as well as how much more we have to go. 

On Thursday and Friday, I visited our Manning fifth graders who researched a historical figure and presented them to their younger classmates (as well as to our Board members, staff, and families) who visited them. 

On Saturday, I went with our middle and high school Quiz Bowl teams to their regional competition at Rocky Mount High School. 

I was proud of our students and the depth of learning and engagement they showed in each of these venues, and I am excited to announce that our middle school team has qualified for the State Quiz Bowl competition later this month in Greensboro.

As Superintendent, I am laser focused on increasing access and opportunity for all of our students. I am grateful that RRGSD has Chromebooks or tablets for every student in K-12, robotics and chess teams at all of our schools, and the opportunity for our high school students to earn college credits (or even their Associate degree) before graduating. 

All of this brings to mind lyrics from my favorite poet Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.” 

Have we arrived at our destination? No, we have not got there YET. And there is power in “yet.” We keep on keepin’ on building community and fostering opportunities like these for our students because TOGETHER we succeed.