Administration | Features

15 Apps Every Principal Should Have

Whether fostering collaboration, easing communication or tracking Common Core, these mission-critical apps keep today’s principals connected with their colleagues, students and parents.

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There may be hundreds of thousands of apps in the various app stores, but only a minuscule percentage of those are actually useful, and an even smaller percentage are relevant to the job duties of the mobile-minded principal. To help separate the wheat from the chaff, THE Journal asked five tech-savvy principals in five different states to reveal their favorite work-related apps. Candy Crush doesn’t count, even if it does relieve stress after a tough day.

Augmenting (and Staying Connected With) Reality

Scott D. Godshalk, principal at 400-student Tohickon Valley Elementary School in Quakertown, PA, indulges his taste for the cutting edge with a free augmented reality app called Aurasma from HP Autonomy. Aurasma’s commercial applications include holding a smartphone over a movie trailer, for example, then watching that picture come to life through the phone with full video.

“This is all about taking a picture, and then creating an aura for that picture, and it’s pretty wild actually,” said Godshalk. “I was trying to come up with a way to create a virtual tour of the building. We have new students coming in frequently, and I thought it would be interesting, because we have a lot of iPads here at school.” With the help of the Aurasma app, students and parents can take a guided tour of the school. At different points in the school, Godshalk said, “They hold their device, point it at the certain picture, and that picture kind of comes to life on their screen, and there is a teacher describing, in a video — what happens in the physical education classes, for example. They call it a trigger image. As your device recognizes that trigger image, it triggers the video that’s associated with it. As people walk through the school, they can learn more about individuals in our programs through this app.”

While it’s not nearly as exotic, Godshalk said the app he uses the most is Google Drive. Located at the top of his tablet and smartphone displays, the familiar app “drives what I do all day long,” he said. “When I say it’s a basic app, I mean it is a shared document. We deal a lot with online forms and documents. Having everybody with access to these documents has increased our efficiency.”

In the realm of classroom management, Godshalk seeks to help his teachers with the high-tech equivalent of a gold star for students. The free app ClassDojo is essentially a behavior management tool. “Teachers set up this app, and it’s a mechanism to give feedback to students,” he explained. “They bring this up on their computers through the website, but it’s also accessible through iPads and iPhones. When a teacher sees a student doing something that is appropriate, they touch that student’s icon on the iPad, which communicates with the website with an audible sound that is positive. Kids get that feedback up on the screen.

“I started using this in the cafeteria, the bane of every principal’s existence,” continued Godshalk, who is now in his 10th year as Tohickon Valley’s principal. “We had each class in the cafeteria set up with their own little icon, and as they were demonstrating the appropriate behaviors, lunch aides were using iPads and giving points to classes, and they would see and hear the positive signal.” 

Preparing for CCSS With Interactive Conversations

Kara M. Butler, principal at 1,400-student Cupertino Middle School in Sunnyvale, CA, keeps her staff on the Common Core track with Common Core Look-fors (CCL4), which is $2.99 on iTunes. The app allows Butler to go into classrooms and make specific notes about classroom activities connected to Common Core standards.

Butler, now in her ninth year as Cupertino’s principal, said, “I can even videotape and record things that are happening in the class for posterity, then provide feedback for teachers. All of that goes into a file for me to accumulate information as to what I’m seeing in my classrooms. We can look at specific activities that are happening in the classroom, and how students are responding. It is a great tool to bring together all aspects of observation in the classroom as we are making this transition to Common Core.”

For collaboration during meetings, Butler likes AirBoard by acrossair, a free app that essentially turns a tablet into a whiteboard that can then be projected, creating “interactive conversations.” Butler commented, “I have used AirBoard to work with other middle school principals when we’re having conversations about issues. We will be able to take notes and bring in video so that we’re collaborating even when we can’t necessarily sit in a room together. It’s great for working with the staff as well, because I can capture those notes or the multimedia presentation and push that out to my staff so that everybody has that information.”

Instant Chats, Attendance and Discipline

Nate Pierantoni, assistant principal at the 1,400-student Farmington High School (NM), calls FirstClass (by OpenText) his most indispensable app. The e-mail app enables Pierantoni to hold instant chats with people throughout the school network, while allowing direct access to any employee in the 10,000-student district. “It’s my home base for most of the work I do,” he said. “It’s not exactly the most exciting app, but it’s the first thing I look at when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I look at when I go to bed. I can update my calendar from a classroom while I’m talking to a teacher, and then it shows up in my inbox. I can check other people’s calendars. I couldn’t live without it.”

Like so many administrators, Pierantoni tracks adherence to Common Core standards, in his case with CommonCore (powered by MasteryConnect). “It’s a cool little tool that enables me to look directly into any of the standards that are part of Common Core,” he said. “As someone who must communicate with a lot of different stakeholders, I don’t have it memorized, but I have the Common Core at my fingertips at any time. It’s a great way to help all the stakeholders understand what we are trying to do in education.”

The PowerSchool app by Pearson is another handy tool that helps Pierantoni in the crucial realms of attendance and discipline. The app helps him organize facts such as parents’ phone numbers and students GPAs, addresses and even the buses they take.

“It is basically the district’s bank of information,” explained Pierantoni. “If we need to speak with a student because a teacher heard him saying something, no matter where I’m at, I get into PowerSchool, I find this kid, and I have a picture to confirm. I can walk to that class, get the kid, and have that conversation. It’s how I look at what is going on at the campus at all times. It’s super powerful, and I probably log into it at least 50 times a day just on my phone. I probably log in it at least 100 times a day on my laptop.”

For teacher observations, Pierantoni relies on Observation 360 by School Improvement Network. The free app is primed for formal observations, usually on a tablet, providing a template that has space for written comments and check-off boxes. “There is also a time stamp where I can enter a note and it automatically tells me that at 9:53 a.m. you walked to the back of the room and started teaching from the back blackboard,” said Pierantoni. “At 10:01 a.m. you moved the kids into a group exercise. It enables me to capture my observations in a really easy way.

“Lets say I walk into your classroom and you’re using a reading technique that we know just doesn’t help kids learn,” he continued. “I can direct you through the program to some professional development that might help you understand why a new strategy could be more effective.”

Telling the School’s Story in Pictures

Brad Currie, vice principal at the 1,200-student Black River Middle School in Chester, NJ, is enamored of Animoto, a free app that he said allows administrators to “tell the school’s story visually.” Throughout the week, Currie takes photos of educational experiences going on at the school. Those pictures get uploaded to social media feeds through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“I will take those pictures and upload them to Animoto,” said Currie. “The app takes your pictures and transforms them into a multimedia presentation with music and effects — like a week in review. We have a smart TV hanging from the hallway that’s connected to my laptop, and I’ll put it up on Friday on the screen where people can play it. I can also put it on our website, or through e-mail or social media. It’s a great way to really capture all the great things that we do in school visually for all stakeholders to see.”

In the never-ending battle to efficiently communicate effectively, Currie uses Remind. When Currie added coaching softball to his duties as vice principal and supervisor of instruction for the district, he used the app to notify parents and players about schedule changes and practices. “Remind is on your phone, and you’re able to text groups of people, whether they are your players or parents — and they can’t text me back,” he explained. “I can push out the information from an anonymous number. That was useful when I just needed to get out important information to a specific group of people. I piloted it this season with softball, and it’s something I’m looking to use on a much larger scale in school next year.”

Calendars and E-Mail on the Move

Allen Anderson, principal of Palencia Elementary, a 610-student school in St. Augustine, FL, considers “old reliable” iCal an invaluable tool on all his devices. Before he used the Web-based calendar to manage his schedule, Anderson would sometimes miss appointments. “Especially doing classroom observations, I’d get caught up in a lesson, and I would stay too long,” he admitted. “That would make me late for the next observation, which is not respectful of that teacher’s time. I use the alarm feature on the iCal to remind me that I have five minutes left before the next observation.”

Anderson remotely accesses his desktop via smartphone or iPad comes with Splashtop, an app that works as long as Anderson’s desktop computer is running. “Outlook Web Access is another specific app I use because we use Outlook for our e-mail,” he said. “With Pages, I can pull up and type right on my iPad. It has a text-to-talk feature, so I can speak what I want to type, which corrects a lot of misspelled words.”