Mark Finstrom – Highline Public Schools
In Burien, Washington, the Highline Public Schools bring together five cities with 39 schools and some 21,000 students, pre-K through 12th grade. The district is delivering classroom instruction a little differently than the standard chalkboard lesson. Once noted as an underperforming district, Highline is reaching new heights with higher test scores and increased graduation rates by implementing some technology-based changes that have proven to be a huge success.
With a focus on blended education, the district is employing technology as a tool to allow students to use software and research online in a way that is augmented with a teacher’s instruction. “Instructors have a framework they use to teach, and as the students go through the lessons, they often achieve at different levels,” explains Mark Finstrom, chief technology officer for Highline. “So we have moved a little bit away from the stand-in-front-of-the-class lesson to more personalized learning.”
Some students might be working on computers, some working independently, and others might be working with the teacher as they rotate through this station model. Students may be in separate groups within the classroom, based on their levels with technology and blended tools. “For math it might include ST Math, for language learning it might be Lexia, for content management it might be with Canvas,” says Finstrom. “Whatever the tool, we’re enabling the students, who are essentially taking a course, to fill in the gaps where they need information, and challenging them if they want to move faster, seek remediation assistance and ultimately master a skill.”
Rising to the top
Mixing up the traditional instruction model has been spurred by the district’s desire to boost performance. “We have a lot of innovation going on,” says Finstrom. “Our organizational leader, Dr. Susan Enfield, has played a huge role in driving the district in performance, using Highline’s invigorated model of achievement. Before Dr. Enfield stepped in we were a fairly low-performing district; although we’re not exactly where we need to be, we have made big changes over the last five years and really turned things around.”
Finstrom says there’s a greater emphasis on quantitative data, allowing district decision makers to analyze trends — good and bad — and adjust accordingly. One example is the Highline Benchmark Assessment (HBA). “HBA isn’t a test in the traditional sense. It’s a real-time assessment that teachers can use to identify if a student group — or an entire grade level for that matter — is understanding the content. It helps teachers understand if students are advancing and comprehending that material, or if there are hiccups in the framework that we need to examine and adjust. This tool identifies whether or not a student will pass the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the federal version of this assessment, which is tied to Common Core. Our real-time data access helps Highline’s staff to develop better math, language, literacy and other curricula used by teachers and students,” says Finstrom.
Finstrom now oversees 40-plus professionals in Highline’s information technology (IT) department, some of whom are student interns. “We work with our high schools, local colleges and tech schools to allow interns into our IT department and help them gain some real experience,” he says.
Supporting and planning for future growth
Finstrom has been in education in various capacities since 1994. “I started out as an entrepreneur and I owned my own business for 17 years,” he says. “I went back to school to become an educator, and I had an elementary education license in Minnesota, starting out.”
Finstrom eventually moved on to a middle-of-the-road organization that oversees schools and moved up the ranks on the IT side. “I’m not an officially trained technologist; I’ve learned about tech and services based on the needs at various organizations,” he says. After serving in IT operations management for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, Finstrom moved to Washington and assumed his role at Highline.
Today, Finstrom and the IT team have been tasked with the job of implementing close to 8,000 mobile devices districtwide over the last three years while also upgrading the existing wireless and network infrastructure. “Since I arrived, we’ve upgraded our incoming bandwidth from a 7-Mbps connection to a 10-Gbps wired/wireless network. Every classroom has a new wireless access point, and we facilitate web traffic through a new 10-Gbps network to provide the best bandwidth possible,” says Finstrom.
“The goal is for our network infrastructure to be able to grow alongside Highline’s changing instructional and technological needs. We’re building a network to grow based on the Smarter Education Networks by Design [SEND] model as defined by CoSN [the Consortium for School Networking],” says Finstrom, who serves on the committee that helped write the SEND initiative. “We’re helping our peer districts understand how to build a smart network that grows with students and staff, and planning for easy turn-up if more bandwidth is needed down the road.”
Defining the right device
Today, Highline has close to 18,000 devices deployed for student use – everything from Chromebooks to Windows Surface tablets, Samsung Galaxy tablets, Kindles, iPads, Mac and PC laptops and desktops. “The type of device really depends on the learning model and age range it’s intended to support,” says Finstrom. “For K-second grade, we’ve really found that touch is critical. These students need a device that they can manipulate with their fingers by touching the screen. For third through eighth grade, we tend to use a mixed model of iPads and Chromebooks, as well as other devices, because these students are consuming more than creating content.”
For higher grade levels, Finstrom says devices that allow for greater collaboration become more of the goal. “Our students are collaborating on a ton of curriculum-derived material with their peers and teachers, so they need a robust device that enables them to work from home, school or anywhere,” he says. “Our team works hand-in-hand with teaching and learning to identify how to adjust a device based on the curriculum and teaching approach. It’s really the student and teacher who define the device.”
Since incorporating blended education into its growth and performance improvement strategy, Highline has been noted by the Center for Digital Education for being a blended education leader. Highline’s involvement in the Race to the Top, the Future Ready Program, Digital Promise and Connect-Ed have all touted Highline for its efforts over the last several years.
“We’re not exactly where we need to be, but we’re steadily gaining ground,” says Finstrom. With Finstrom and the IT department behind this push, the Highline Public Schools are beginning to seamlessly blend technology and instruction, giving students the tools for success.