A Female Superintendent’s Path to the Top Job

Kelly May-Vollmar is the new superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District in California, a role she stepped into this month.

Her path to the job, through the district’s technology office, gives her a unique vantage point: She’s a female superintendent with a deep background in digital teaching tools, at a time when districts across the country are using educational technology in more sophisticated ways then ever before.

She rose up through the district ranks as an elementary school teacher, academic coach, International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinator, and principal. Then her curiosity about technology helped her land a job as the chief technology officer for the district, a leadership role in K-12 education still held mostly by men.

As assistant superintendent of educational and technology services for the district, May-Vollmar helped lead an initiative to build an LTE (Long-Term Evolution) wireless network for the school system, which provided more equitable access to technology for all students and supported the district’s strategy to use 1-to-1 computing to improve teaching and learning. And she has worked hard to help educators in her district see the important connections between curriculum and technology.

Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller sat down recently with May-Vollmar for a face-to-face conversation in New Orleans during the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference, the largest educational technology gathering in the country.

Here’s what she had to say about her own professional journey and the challenges ahead for schools. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kelly May Vollmar

Leaders in the tech industry—and school district CTOs—are still mostly males. What was it like entering that world as a woman? How did you build respect and get people to listen to you?

Really great question. Because it’s a reality, right? I can’t even count on two hands the number of times I walked into a meeting and I was the only woman in the room. So, you have to lean in and you have to just decide that you’re in the right room. You’re supposed to have a seat at the table and really engage. It’s not that any men in the room are trying to not have conversations with women, but being the only one can be intimidating. And then I’ve certainly had the other extreme of that where I’ve had people assume that I’m a vendor, not a CTO, because I’m a female. And so, you just have to not take that personally and know that you have a job to do.

How important do you think it is for today’s superintendents not necessarily to be techies, but to have a meaningful understanding of the connection between technology and teaching and learning?

In today’s world, it is important for a superintendent to be aware of how technology impacts not only teaching and learning, but every aspect of the district. There are almost no jobs left [that] technology doesn’t touch at some point—our sprinkler systems are managed through technology. Our camera systems are managed through technology. So it’s touching every aspect of the work that we do.

Tell me a little bit about how you landed in the chief technology officer job.

I just was trying to put my two cents in to try and help our district have a really forward-thinking CTO position. And when I read the job description, I honestly thought, ‘I want this job. I want to be part of moving our district forward as it pertains to technology and technology in the classroom.’ So I applied and got the job as the chief technology officer. That was in 2016. So probably the most fun job I think I’ll ever have, being the CTO, and not just fun because you’re playing with technology, but we got to do some really deeply meaningful things for our students.

You were a principal. What should principals know about using educational technology to improve teaching and learning?

You have to look at objectives and strategies before you even start talking about what tool you’re going to use. For the principal being the lead learner or the instructional leader, you’ve got to be aware of how to effectively choose the right tools—not just to have technology because it’s shiny and neat. Principals need to be very aware of what those technologies are and how to use them, and then to model them when they’re doing professional development for their staff.

What’s the principal’s role or responsibility when you have a district technology initiative—such as 1-to-1 computing—coming from the top down?

When you’re looking at an initiative that comes from the district down to principals and then to teachers, it’s really, really important that principals start with the ‘why,’ because we’re asking teachers to do something that they didn’t choose to do. We need to make sure principals communicate that because it helps people buy in and understand why it’s an important initiative.

Looking ahead, what do you think are the three biggest tech challenges for schools right now?

Well, certainly cybersecurity. That’s something that everybody’s grappling with. And a lot of districts are losing their insurance because they don’t have the right cybersecurity measures in place.

Something else that’s really, really huge is sustainability. We’ve just had so much money come into our schools and we all know that there’s a funding cliff coming. I’ve talked to so many CTOs and superintendents across the nation where the idea is, ‘well, we’ve put all this money already into technology, so we don’t have to put any more money in for a really long time.’ And we all know that’s not how technology works. It evolves quickly. And even if you’re looking at something as basic as 1-to-1 computing, you’re looking at about a five-year life cycle on those devices. So we can’t have the mentality of, ‘well, it’s one and done and we’ll look back in 10 years or 20 years.’ We have to talk sustainability and that’s a difficult conversation to have right now.

The third big challenge … teachers honestly don’t have the capacity to do 50 million different programs or use 50 million different tools. We’ve got to be really intentional in what we’re choosing and how we’re going to use it, then use it with fidelity. And I think that we’re still learning how to do that—we’re not there yet.

And when looking at schools from your new superintendent’s vantage point, what are the biggest challenges?

Everybody is, and rightly so, thinking about safety right now. We’ve got to be looking at not just what have we done, but what else could we do? And I know one of the things we’re doing is we’re taking inventory with our principals, walking the sites, talking about what needs to be done because I don’t think safety’s a one-size-fits-all for a district. Every school is built a little bit different, and it has a little bit of a different community.

Another huge thing we’re looking at is staffing shortages. And I don’t think anyone anticipated that. You have a workforce that is exhausted and has done heroic things during the pandemic, but they’re tired and education is receiving a lot of criticism. We’re seeing fewer people go into teaching and into administration at a time when we need more.

Any additional thoughts?

One thing is we really have to go back and look at our teacher preparation programs because we are not preparing teachers to leave their programs and come into our classrooms to utilize technology in a way that’s meaningful for students. We really need a major refresh, nationwide, on what our teacher preparation programs look like, so that new teachers come in ready to utilize technology in a way that’s meaningful, especially in a world where technology is changing so fast.