Robert Parks: After 40 Years of Serving Broward County Schools, the Educator Turned Politician Remains a Force for Technology Integration

Article excerpt

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 history.

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"Our technology was spread out in bits and pieces all over the county," Parks says. "There was a lack of communication and 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.

"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. …