Online education is not new, but digital education has never been more at the forefront of everyone’s mind than during COVID-19. Many brick-and-mortar school principals had to embrace virtual and digital solutions overnight. However, across the United States there are some experienced principals whose work and innovative solutions have been groundbreaking for education. In June, NASSP announced the three Digital Principals of the Year: Robert Eichorn, principal of Independence Nontraditional School in Manassas, VA; JoAnne Glenn, principal of Pasco eSchool in Spring Hill, FL; and Kathryn Procope, principal of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington, D.C.
Eichorn began his career in education as a teacher and manager of nontraditional programs in the Fairfax County Public Schools system, where he served for 17 years and taught all secondary English, social studies, science, and mathematics courses.
As a special educator, he facilitated those services as well as direct instruction in the core content and elective classes. Then, in 2008, he became the principal of a nontraditional high school in Prince William County Public Schools in Manassas, VA. During that first year, he proposed a state-of-the-art nontraditional campus. In 2015, his vision was adopted and, in 2016, multiple nontraditional schools came under his leadership. By 2018, all of the nontraditional schools merged to become the Independence Nontraditional School (INS).
“There is nothing more satisfying than having a diverse group of people uniting to ensure barriers to educational equity are eliminated for all students,” notes Eichorn, whose favorite aspect of being the principal of INS is the great feeling of family. He believes they all speak with one voice in an aligned vision and mission to develop integrity, intellect, and ingenuity in all students. He addresses students by name and teaches a class to keep his finger on the pulse of the student population.
Technology has played a key role in uniting students with diverse backgrounds. At INS—which boasts 1:1 access—they find out what students’ needs are when they enroll. Then, Eichorn’s administrative and student services team handcrafts each student’s schedule by talking with the individual and building the curriculum around the student’s strengths and interests. The digital program—along with hybrid and traditional classes—can accommodate any student’s needs. A K–12 school, INS has accelerated student achievement, including students with significant learning disabilities, students who work full time, and students who are married with children.
Technology is only as effective as the teacher who embraces it and the student who purposefully utilizes it to master content and apply it to future learning, Eichorn says. With that in mind, INS developed a fully digital learning program where students can access their learning 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to earn full course credit, remediate for mastery, or accelerate their learning. He believes that no school should wait until a student is in crisis before addressing their needs.
Under Eichorn’s guidance, INS initiated the Senior Scholarship program in 2009. This year-round program allows traditional students to graduate on time with some online assistance. In the past, all summer or night classes were fee-based, and many students could not afford to take them, leading many to graduate after their classmates or not at all. In the past 10 years, INS’ Senior Scholarship program has saved families $750,000, and roughly 1,500 graduates have completed their graduation requirements on time.
Equity drives many of Eichorn’s decisions. “Eliminating technology barriers to create education equity for the most at-risk students and those that serve them begins with our vision of learner- and staff-centered access, modeling applications as a team, and continuously evaluating and celebrating successes,” he says. In order to create this equity, INS provides systemic and continuous training—monthly meetings to address maintenance, training, modeling, teaching, and reflection to evaluate the application’s programs and outcomes. Monthly update services provide students and teachers with the very latest and optimal functions in their technology. They use student feedback—coupled with formative assessments—to enhance professional development. Five digital labs that run daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. allow for collaborative learning.
Prior to implementing online learning, the average number of students graduating from the alternative schools was 17. With the new format, that number became 257 and dropout rates fell to the state average.
Eichorn credits Teresa Zutter, the retired director of Fairfax County Public School’s Intervention and Prevention services, with helping to guide his career trajectory. He also gives credit to his wife, JoBeth, who is, as he says, “My reason for waking.” His father, a career military officer, and mother, an art teacher, modeled servant leadership and creativity coupled with follow-through and responsibility to self and others. When Eichorn is not at school or working, he loves to have outdoor adventures. He runs six miles each day and has been surfing regularly since the 1970s. He also enjoys fast cars—his current ride is a black Corvette. Eichorn also has a very unique collection of antique English pipes, which has been called the “most consequential collection in the world.”
Eichorn feels very fortunate to be the principal of INS. “My students define commitment, resilience, and passion,” he says. “They … empower me to be their advocate, trust me to be a confidant, and embolden me to be an agent for change. They are my superpower.”
JoAnne Glenn started her college career at the University of Florida in biomedical engineering. At one point, an old high school teacher suggested she consider teaching as a profession—and she did. After receiving her master’s degree in 1994 and beginning her career as a high school math teacher, she was given the opportunity in 1997 to open a brand-new high school as the head of the math department. By 1999, Glenn was teaching AP classwork online for rural communities and homeschoolers. She then became an assistant principal for a magnet school in Hillborough County, FL. In 2008, the state mandated that every school district must have a full-time virtual instruction program and Glenn was contacted about helping to draft a plan that would create an online school to assist all public schools in the county.
As the principal of Pasco eSchool, Glenn infuses technology into all curriculum as a strategy for engaging students. Their instructional model relies on consistent, personalized contact with families. She has made it her mission to “select, develop, and refine a suite of technology tools to improve communication with students, parents, and teacher teams, allowing our stakeholders to communicate in various formats within and outside the learning platform.” Currently, this model includes a monthly progress call or online conference, personalized feedback on student work, and opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous interactions between students, teachers, and parents.
Glenn has also expanded Pasco eSchool to offer part-time or shared enrollments with public schools in their district and across the state. Pasco eSchool supports blended learning programs for schools that struggle to attract and retain certified teachers, for hospital/homebound programs, and for accelerated or supplemental learning opportunities. “By partnering with principals and instructional directors, I have been able to provide instructional continuity that ensures students have access to a highly qualified teacher who visits campus regularly and leverages webinar and video conferencing tools to engage learners when working remotely,” she says.
The largest digital innovation that Glenn led was the selection and adoption of a web conferencing platform for hosting synchronous lessons. When Pasco eSchool first launched in 2009, it relied on free licenses for a web conferencing tool that was an “add on” to a contract for digital content. While the platform itself was adequate, it had some serious security flaws that created an unsafe learning environment for students and teachers, as users were able to sign in under assumed names and act inappropriately. “I began by scanning the field of web conferencing tools and features, sorting them into ‘must have,’ ‘nice to have,’ and ‘not important,’” she says. “I recruited key staff members with both technical and pedagogical expertise to participate in the demonstrations, narrowing the field to two viable products.”
Glenn arranged for a demo period for each one of the school’s “power users,” which led to the adoption of one platform. She negotiated a contract and began a professional development plan to build the knowledge base and comfort level of the entire staff. She created tiered training with specific milestones and measured the completion of the training sessions with badges—electronic and decals— to describe each teacher’s mastery.
The conferencing platform not only transformed the student and teacher collaborations, but it also allowed for professional development between teachers from other districts in Florida and across the country.
Gaetana Levinson, who served as the supervisor of secondary mathematics for Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa, FL, and Vanessa Hilton, the chief academic officer of the Pasco County Schools, most influenced Glenn’s way of thinking and encouraged her to challenge the status quo and become a strong systemic thinker. She believes this quality makes her successful in choosing and implementing new technology.
When she’s not working, Glenn enjoys spending time with her family. Her husband Scott is an IT professional in the Tampa area, and she has a 16-year-old son, Alexander, and a 12-year-old daughter, Sarah. Glenn is also a self-described “voracious reader,” reading two to three books per week.
Kathryn Procope really wasn’t initially interested in teaching—she began her career in information technology. However, her mother kept nudging her, “You are supposed to be teaching.” When her mother passed away, her husband said, “You need to listen to your mother.” Procope finally listened. She returned to college, earned her master’s degree in mathematics, and became a middle level math teacher at a charter school in Washington, D.C. After a short tenure, Procope swiftly moved into the role of mathematics department chair and then became a math coach at the high school level. When the assistant principal left, Procope was chosen as the replacement, but she still wanted to teach, so she continued as the AP Calculus teacher. When the principal resigned, Procope was encouraged to apply by not only her fellow administrative team and teachers but also the students.
Procope chuckles when she describes how she got her job at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science (HUMS) in 2015. The previous principal had had a falling out with the parents and teachers over some curriculum issues. The school was broken, and they needed someone to fix it. She applied to appease a sorority sister but didn’t expect to get an offer. Procope was in Aruba when they called her for an interview, so she obliged right then and there. When she returned, she met with both staff members and parents. They offered her the job exactly two weeks before school was to start for the year—and she learned that enrollment was down 50 percent, there were nine teacher vacancies, and the building had flooded. She accepted anyway. She had an immediate connection with the students and knew it was the right—albeit hard—decision.
HUMS integrates technology into the school as a transformative measure. “We intentionally apply technological resources so that all stakeholders experience learning in ways not possible without technology,” Procope says. They use the Summit Learning platform— a research-based approach to edu-cation designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student-teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Students set goals online each day that are then reviewed with them by their mentor-teacher during daily mentoring meetings. The students use digital tools in self-directed learning time to complete assignments, research projects with team members, and submit work to their teachers for feedback.
The technology management platforms help their students make good decisions when using the digital tools both at home and in school. Even though each student has an iPad to address any part of the digital divide that still exists, HUMS works with community partners to provide internet access to families: Howard University supports the computer science program, Verizon provides a technology camp on Saturdays, the local National Society of Black Engineers chapter provides coding classes to its students, and the community technology incubator—a forum right down the street from the school—provides mentoring to their students who want to pursue careers in information technology.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, HUMS had to make a very quick shift to distance learning. Summit Learning made that shift very easy. Some schools had to scramble to create lessons that would work online, provide devices for students, and ensure that families had access to the internet. At HUMS, that work was already done. “All 294 of our children had devices at home because we have a 2:1 technology program that provides the students with one device to use at school and one to use at home,” Procope says. “On the first day after school closed, 87 percent of our children accessed the Summit Learning platform. That percentage increased to 92 percent daily.”
For those students who had not logged on, the counselors called and checked in on them. One educator called each of his students every morning to wake them up and make sure they were ready for class. Students with disabilities had already learned to use the technology and got any assistance they needed from their teacher. Using Summit Learning, HUMS had implemented a school system that was designed to equip their students with the skills and habits associated with lifelong learning.
Procope credits her mentor and friend, Peggy Jones, head principal at Friendship Collegiate Academy in Washington, D.C.; as well as Corbet Houston, the HUMS assistant principal; and Tiffany Edmonds, the secretary at HUMS, with leading her toward success. “They are all about the children,” she says. “Whatever the students need, we will do—and these three helped me see how to do that.”
When she’s not at work, Procope enjoys spending time with her husband of 40 years, Norman. They have one son who lives in North Carolina with their three grandsons. She is currently learning to speak Spanish, reading some sort of spy novel, and pre-COVID—if she wasn’t doing one of those two things—you could find her on a roller coaster.
Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.