As principal of Kodiak Middle School, Jethro Jones said he wanted to improve students' sense of belonging at school, so he assembled a group of staff members who volunteered to go to the students' homes one day last summer.
"Our goal was to visit the home of every single kid and make sure they knew that we cared about them," the 35-year-old principal said in an interview on Tuesday, a day after an announcement from the leading national secondary school principal association that he had been named a "digital principal of the year."
Jones said staff told those students that they looked forward to seeing them at school. They took photos together. They danced to a pop song by Justin Timberlake. Jones later stitched together the collection of videos and images from the day and set the montage to music. Students watched it on the first day of school, he said.
"Our students' perception of caring adults increased," he said. "We met our goal. That was a really amazing experience."
Like many of the initiatives that Jones spearheaded during his three years at Kodiak Middle School, the home visits were rooted in technology and in building connections. Jones said the idea stemmed from an interview on a personal weekly podcast he produces, "Transformative Principal." The school worked with the Kodiak Island Borough School District to export the students' addresses to a digital map so they could conduct the home visits in the most efficient way. Staff announced the visits in live videos on Facebook.
"The technology empowers us," Jones said.
For his technology-infused work, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named Jones one of its six 2017 digital principals of the year. Jones is the first Alaska principal to receive the title since the award program started in 2012, according to Bob Farrace, director of public affairs for the national principals organization. Jones said he just found out he won the award on Friday.
"I was kind of surprised," Jones said.
His boss wasn't.
"What I enjoyed about Jethro's leadership is he's always looking toward the kids' future and what world they'll be entering," said Stewart McDonald, the outgoing superintendent of the school district. "Every time I turned around he was doing something new."
In an interview Tuesday, McDonald praised Jones' innovative overhaul of the school scheduling system and commended his use of social media, including YouTube and Twitter, to communicate with students, parents and the community.
Jones said he was most proud of the middle school's new scheduling system that supports its "tutorial" classes. Students switch between the 30-minute classes every two weeks and the subjects range from Alutiiq beadwork to a remedial math class on the Pythagorean theorem to outdoor survival to coin collecting.
Students help determine what subjects are offered and teachers or members of the community step in to teach the classes. Jones said he has held a class on podcasts, and the students created "Being You: A Middle School Quote Podcast," which now has 100 episodes available on iTunes. The custodian worked with students to paint a school office. Members of the U.S. Navy SEALs came into the middle school, Jones said, "to teach our kids how to do physical fitness the Navy SEAL way."
The middle school needed a more nimble scheduling system to support its constant churn of elective-style classes and it eventually partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create one, Jones said.
"The challenge is always scheduling and it's a huge nightmare in education," he said. "No one understands how awful it is."
Jones also used technology to connect out-of-state students moving to Kodiak. The island is also home to a Coast Guard base, which contributes about a third of Kodiak Middle School's 450 students, Jones said.
When families are planning to move to the community, the school tries to connect with them and offers to do a video call so they can see the school, Jones said.
"I myself went to five elementary schools and three different high schools," he said. "So I know it can be scary moving a lot."
Jones, his wife and their four children moved to Kodiak from Utah. He will leave the community this month for Interior Alaska, where he has accepted a job as principal of Tanana Middle School in Fairbanks. He said he plans to continue to infuse technology into daily activities there.
"To me, technology isn't an add-on. It's just what we do every day," Jones said. "If we don't have an app that works to schedule kids' classes, then we'll just build one. If we need to visit every kid at their home, then we'll just use technology so we can make it as efficient as possible."