Logging On With...
Logging On With... Robert Parks
After 40 years of serving Broward County schools, the educator turned politician
remains a force for technology integration.
IN A LANGUID, COMFORTABLE drawl that he says
has notes of Virginia and Biloxi, MS, but is native to Key West,
FL, Robert Parks is recounting how he landed his first job.
A statewide strike had left Florida's Broward County desperate
for teachers. Owning a newly minted education degree,
Parks walked into Pompano Beach High School and asked the
principal if he had any openings. "He said, 'Can you teach?' I
said, 'Sure!' He said, 'What do you know about track?' I said,
'Well, they run in a circle.' He said, 'Good. You can coach track.'"
And so a career in education was launched, one that has
taken Parks through 40 years of service to Broward County
schools, the last 22 of them as a member of the county school
board, developing technology initiatives that have turned
Broward County Public Schools, the country's sixth-largest
district, into a model modern school system. Broward schools
have wireless networks, electronic newsletters, and online
school newspapers. Every teacher has a laptop. Parks refers
to a band teacher at one school who puts guitar lessons onto
his students' MP3 players that they take home to learn to play
guitar. "We believe in technology," he says.
Parks' job is to translate that belief into policy, and it was
his conceiving of and orchestrating the development of
Broward County's strategic technology plan in 2003 that is
guiding the district's use of technology in the 21st century.
He calls the plan "the best thing I've ever done," noting that
there was no precedent
for it in the district's
"Our technology was
spread out in bits and
pieces all over the
county," Parks says.
"There was a lack of
coordination. The divisions
and departments didn't talk with one another. This was
the first time we looked at things comprehensively. Curriculum,
Facilities, ETS [Education Technology Services]-- everybody
began to talk the same language. The one comment
that came out as I went to meetings and talked to people
about the plan was, 'It's about time.'"
Parks called together the superintendent, fellow board
members, administrators, and faculty and staff to hammer out
a plan for the coordinated implementation of technology in the
district. "My biggest challenge was making sure that the task
force was made up of the right people, the experts in that
field," he says. "What we discovered was that those experts
were already employed by the Broward County school system."
That is an abiding principle of Parks': He believes in
the people he works with. "That's the operative word-- with.
I don't tell people anything; I work with them. We all know
what our mission is: to use technology with a purpose. And
that purpose is to increase student achievement.
"I don't tell people anything; I work with them.
We all know what our mission is: to
use technology with a purpose. And that
purpose is to increase student achievement."
"If this were an election year, I'd take all the credit, but it's
been a real collaborative effort on everybody's part. Everybody
knew the need for the plan. I just happened to be the force to
bring people together to bring it forward."
By his own admission, Parks is no techie. His savvy extends
to being able to edit an iMovie and create a podcast. Any
further out than that and he's in too deep. His strength is in
seeing what can be, convincing others on the school board to
back that vision, and then executing a strategy for implementation.
"I may not know some of the vocabulary," Parks says,
"but I know what the results should look like."
He has his own kernel of homespun wisdom to define his
approach: "I know what I know, I know what I don't know, but
I always know who knows what I don't know."
The person who most knows what he doesn't know and so
is the one he leans on most is Jeanine Gendron, Broward
County's instructional technology director. For instance, Parks recently hired a public relations firm to create a website to pull
together all aspects of the district's green initiative. The firm
sent him an outline of what the effort would entail. "The first
thing I did," he says, "was send it to Jeanine and ask for her
feedback. My job is to listen to people like Jeanine Gendron."
He and Gendron met a few years after Parks was hired in
1994 to be the director of the Teaching and Leadership Center
at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), a position he stepped
down from two years ago. It was then that Parks took an interest
in promoting instructional technology in the public schools.
He found Gendron, then an instructional technology specialist
in the school district, to be of like mind.
"As we talked," he says, "we had the same vision of the
value that technology would have by being part and parcel
of the classroom."
It's Gendron and another of his advisers, Angela Coluzzi,
director of systems integration services, whom Parks credits
for conceiving of a program that became a linchpin of
Broward County's technology integration efforts. "I'd love to
take credit for everything," he says, "but the truth is, Jeanine
and Angela came to me and said, 'We have this idea.'"
With Parks' support, that idea eventually became the
Digital Education Teacher Academy (DETA). The academy
offers professional development courses designed to teach
teachers how to use technology in their classrooms. Tuition
is free to Broward educators. So far, Parks says more than
8,000 of the district's 13,000 teachers have enrolled.
Parks struck a partnership with Florida Atlantic University,
where he did his graduate work in education, whereby the
school provides instructors for the DETA courses. In addition
to the standard DETA courses, there is an advanced level, or
DETA 2, as well as DETA for Administrators.
"If we were ever going to get technology in the classrooms,
we were going to have to train the teachers," Parks says. "We
took teachers who were struggling to integrate technology, and
we showed them how to do it in a professional, systematic way."
Parks is currently working with the third of his advisers,
Phyllis Schiffer-Simon, on a plan to wirelessly connect all
Broward County schools. Schiffer-Simon heads the Broward
Education Communications Network, a localTV
station devoted to school news. The project, called OneBroward,
aims to link not only the schools, but to extend wireless support
to and through the sheriff's office, county government,
two major hospitals, and FAU. Parks calls the trio of Gendron,
Coluzzi, and Schiffer-Simon his own "kitchen cabinet." "If I
run into technology issues I don't understand," he says, "one
of the three will generally know."
Though he considers the strategic technology plan his
crowning achievement, he continues to have his handprints
on the district's technology programs. One is the Broward Enterprise
Education Portal (BEEP), a point of access to digital
resources for students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
The portal hosts extensive curriculum guidelines and readymade
lesson plans. Another is the Global Learning Initiative
Through Digital Education for Students (GLIDES). Parks says
the program is an effort to increase student achievement and
improve critical-thinking skills through project-based learning.
Parks himself created and is now stewarding the district's
environmental plan, in which a technology-forward approach is
integral: School newspapers and parent newsletters are
released digitally, either via e-mail or on school websites.
It was really all an accident that Parks ended up in
education. He owes his career to his own tardiness. As an
undergraduate in the late 1960s, he planned to go to law
school, so in his senior year he showed up to take the LSAT.
"The guidance counselor said to me, 'Bobby, you're about 15
minutes late; it has already taken place,'" Parks recalls. "Then
he said, 'But I'll tell you, I've got a great place for you to go.'"
With that, he was off to Florida Atlantic University to get a
master's in education, on his way to becoming a high school
history teacher. He traces his involvement in school politics
to 1976, when he joined the Broward County Classroom
Teachers Association. He also became chair of the local
teachers union's governmental relations committee and
would often lobby the Florida Legislature on behalf of education
issues. "After all this experience," Parks says, "I saw
the people on the school board and I thought, 'I think I can
do a better job than they can.'" So he ran for the board and
won in 1986. He has been a fixture there since, running
unopposed since 2002.
His background as an educator instills everything he
does. "I still classify myself as a teacher," Parks says. "My
focus is to bring about student achievement, to close the
achievement gap, to improve graduation rates. And I see
technology and a well-trained faculty as two of the most
important things in accomplishing that."
You could call Parks an early early adopter. In 1983, Apple released the IIe, the company's first successful
personal computer. Parks purchased one for his
classroom. He also bought an inexpensive program for keeping
track of grades. "I think I paid $29," he says. "It was a
hard disk called Gradebook; it calculated your grades. It would
print the grades out, and I would transfer them over to the hard
gradebook that I had to turn in at the end of the year. I thought,
'This is the greatest thing in the world!' That's when I realized
the advent of technology in education."
Now 63, Parks is still always on the lookout for a tech-based
solution. "I saw teachers standing by a Xerox machine," he
says, "and I thought, that's a waste of time. They're in a rush,
it's a waste of paper. We worked out a partnership with FedEx
Kinko's. The teachers go online, put in
their password, call up whatever needs to be printed, indicate
how many copies, and it's delivered the next day by FedEx."
It's for storytelling that those genial Southern strains in his
voice are so well suited. "When I was teaching, I'd have to
bring the woman who ran the Xerox machine chocolates so
she would do my work ahead of everybody else's." He lingers
on the recollection. "At Christmastime, she did well."
Matt Eckel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.