Tech leaders Derrick Brown and Don Wolff on modernising the classroom, dismantling systemic racism, and the power of teamwork at Portland Public Schools

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When it comes to technology transformation some sectors are more challenging than others… In public education, the barriers to IT progress are numerous – legacy systems and processes, scale, and of course funding. However, the right experts in the right positions can make the world of difference.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) in Oregon is a network of 81 schools, responsible for the education of over 45,000 students. It was founded in 1851 and, thanks to its focus on community, racial equality, and educational excellence, is well on its way to much-needed modernisation through recent funding successes.

Leading this dynamic shift are Derrick Brown, Senior Director of Technology Operations, and Don Wolff, Chief Technology Officer. Between them they have close to 60 years of experience, with Wolff starting off in teaching and Brown with an industry background. Now, at PPS, the pair have pooled their vast expertise to, in Brown’s words, “level the playing field with the utilisation and access of technology”.

Leadership

It takes a certain type of person to approach leadership in the IT sphere across the educational space. The end-users for Brown and Wolff are predominantly children, so they and their team need a specific set of skills to approach this somewhat niche area.

“Firstly, you need to know who your customer is,” says Brown, “which, for us, is students and teachers, and you need to get to know them at every level. We have almost 90 buildings across elementary, middle, high, and alternative schools, and it’s challenging to collaborate with them all but we’re working on it. Then once we know the audience, we have to actually meet their needs and continue to be relevant to them, rather than just being behind-the-scenes making sure the blinking lights stay green and not communicating.”

Derrick Brown, PPS

“If you want to be an exceptional IT leader, there also has to be an element of kindness, which the world can be so devoid of,” Wolff adds. “You’ve got to want to develop relationships so that you can understand what kindness looks like for each of the people you interact with, whether it’s people in your department, people that report to you, or it’s more about the soft skills than it is about the hard technical skills. Vision and roadmapping and figuring out where we want to go are vital, but that’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is the people and how you approach them that’s going to make or break what you do and how people respond to you. Derrick has that inherently.”

“You can tell who the real leaders are because they’re focused on everyone but themselves,” Brown adds. “Kindness can’t be taught. It’s a muscle that you have to work, but it’s in your DNA, and Don has it too.”

Don Wolff, PPS

Forging a modern path

Twice the technology leaders also means twice the brainpower and innovation when it comes to much-needed modernisation. This has been able to come into play thanks in part to a $1.2bn school bond granted in 2020, which has allowed PPS to continue revitalising its ageing buildings and upgrading key infrastructure. This includes health and safety projects, new materials, development of The Center for Black Excellence, and educational technology upgrades.

The bond was passed at the height of the pandemic – November 2020 – and is the largest public school bond in Oregon’s history. $128m has been dedicated to IT, allowing Brown, Wolff and their team to tackle several major projects.

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