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Chief Innovation Officers Make Their Way into Schools

At least four school districts have hired chief innovation officers at the district level since 2011, while Newark Public Schools has this position in a number of its schools.

By Tanya Roscorla

Chief innovation officers are slowly popping up in school districts around the country. Some say they fill a gap in leadership that's preventing education from moving forward.

At least four school districts have hired chief innovation officers at the district level since 2011, while Newark Public Schools has this position in a number of its schools. A number of large urban school systems including Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee public schools created this position in the last two years. And a smaller school district in Illinois jumped on board this year with a position that focuses on innovation in technology as well as other areas.

Right now, probably 70 percent of school districts need a complete makeover, said Art Fessler, superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 59 in Illinois. Oftentimes, students are more creative outside of school than they are in school. And that exposes a leadership and design flaw.

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"Education needs innovation," Fessler said. "So regardless of what you call it, my position is that we're providing in most cases education that is not relevant to our students."

When Fessler took the job as superintendent of District 59 this year, he got board approval to hire a chief innovation officer to help address the leadership flaw in education. This month, Ben Grey started his new job as the district's chief innovation officer.

His mission? To provide visionary leadership and support school leaders as they help students learn how to collaborate, communicate, think critically and solve problems.

"That's the exciting piece of my job — to empower people and build capacity in a way that inspires," Grey said. "In a lot of cases, we've lost that perspective of inspiring our students, inspiring our staff, inspiring our community to get behind the work that we're doing in a way that provides opportunities for our kids."

The job description of the District 59 chief innovation officer includes at least five components:

  • Technology vision and leadership
  • Innovative learning
  • Administrative professional development
  • Communications
  • Community development
But this position looks different depending on the school district. For example, Detroit Public Schools hired a chief innovation officer to better prepare students for college.

"That may seem very small, and it sounds like a very simple task, but given the urban population that we serve, it's proven to be extraordinarly difficult," said Natasha Baker, chief innovation officer of Detroit Public Schools.

Having an Office of Innovation allows her school district to have a central think tank that not only comes up with ideas, but also puts them into practice to accomplish its goal. This position also pushes schools to try different methods and leadership structures.

"It's extremely rewarding work, and I couldn't imagine being in a position where I had to walk in lockstep with every single rule and every single traditional way of doing things," Baker said. "You really do get a chance to create and implement and see the results with kids, and that's a lot of fun."

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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