Superintendent addresses 1:1 technology review, efforts to increase access to mental health services

Dr. Mike Fulton at the annual Shawnee Mission Education Foundation Breakfast this past fall.

Six months into his tenure as superintendent of Shawnee Mission schools, Dr. Mike Fulton sat for an interview with the Shawnee Mission Post this week to discuss the process of getting acclimated to a new community, what he sees as the area’s biggest strengths, and where he sees the district heading in the coming years.

We published the first part of our recap of the interview yesterday, focused on Fulton’s big-picture take-aways after half a year on the job.

Today, we look at his thoughts on specific issues his administration is working on this year.

1:1 technology initiative

Students working with iPads in Susan Cunningham’s 2nd grade class at Briarwood Elementary last year.

The state of the district’s 1:1 technology initiative — which provides an iPad or Macbook to every student — five years after implementation has been a big topic of discussion the past few months, with a group of parents organizing earlier this school year to ask the district to reevaluate how the devices are used.

The district’s administration responded to those concerns by agreeing to form a task force to look at the program and make recommendations about how devices can be best used to support learning.

From Fulton’s perspective, questions about implementation of the 1:1 initiative are best viewed through a wide lens.

On the one hand, he said, in a district with a wide range of socioeconomic status, the 1:1 initiative was an important step to eliminate the access gap between well-to-do families that have their own devices at home, and lower socioeconomic status households that may not have a computer or tablet

“The equity and access piece is important,” Fulton said. “For some students this may be the only device that they have in their home, not just as a child but for the adults in the home as well. So 1:1 definitely helps with equity and access in that sense.”

On the other hand, the devices are just tools — like textbooks — and there’s no guarantee that access along will lead to positive outcomes. He said a review of how the devices are used needs to be a part of a larger examination of the systems in place to maximize academic achievement.

“If you want to get to higher levels of student performance, however, that is all about teaching and learning,” Fulton said. “That takes a lot of work. Sometimes maybe there’s this sense that maybe there’s this magic wand we can wave and everything gets better quickly. That’s actually not the way that school improvement works. You have to lay out a vision for where you want to go, be clear about the measurable benchmarks you want to hit, and then be patient as you begin to implement highly effective instructional strategies.”

Mental health resources

Signs with encouraging messages lined the entrance to Shawnee Mission Northwest after the school had two students commit suicide in 2018.

Work to bring Johnson County’s six public school district’s together in an effort to address mental health and suicide had begun before Fulton arrived in Shawnee Mission, but he’s been pleased with the communities’ willingness to address the difficult subject.

“Obviously, losing a single child is a crisis,” Fulton said. “The fact that they were willing to acknowledge that there were mental health issues in their schools and that they would come together to see what was possible to meet the mental health needs of all kids is tremendous.”

But, Fulton said, getting the resources in place to adequately support students at every school is going to be a challenge. The district is already struggling to find a way to get a social worker or counselor in every building. He believes that it will take a joint effort between the districts and other government entities to fund increased access to mental health staff and services.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re going to have to have some sort of mechanism to increase mental health services in schools and in the communities of Johnson County,” he said. “Whether that’s a county-wide tax, if that’s possible, or some other mechanism, we need an increase in resources.”

He knows that will be a challenge. Fulton says the district will be committed to making difficult choices about allocating its own resources. But he believes it’s going to take more than just a single district to get the issue solved.

“That’s going to be a difficult lift,” he said. “We’ll work internally to do it, but I think it’s going to take some external resources as well. Whether that comes from the state or the county, I’m not sure. But we’re going to need a game plan.”

Working with the Board of Education

Board of Education President Brad Stratton (left) and Superintendent Mike Fulton (right).

Fulton also stressed that he’s developed an excellent working relationship with the Board of Education.

“I think that our board is doing a great job of really staying focused on kids,” he said. “And I applaud them for helping me go through this transition. There’s a lot of experience on that board with different aspects of the community. So that’s been really helpful to me.”

He said he’s felt embraced by not just the board, but also the community at large.

“It’s been a very welcoming community, and I’m excited to be a part of it — and I’m still learning,” he said.