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Baltimore County schools' digital leader tabbed 'visionary' educator

Baltimore County schools' digital leader Ryan Imbriale visits a classroom at Warren Elementary School on Oct. 30. New HP Revolves were being delivered to the school that day. At left is Imbriale's daughter, Hayden Imbriale and right, Macy Erdman.
Baltimore County schools' digital leader Ryan Imbriale visits a classroom at Warren Elementary School on Oct. 30. New HP Revolves were being delivered to the school that day. At left is Imbriale's daughter, Hayden Imbriale and right, Macy Erdman. (Photo by Charlotte Nelson)

Ryan Imbriale has been a middle school classroom teacher. He has been the principal of a high school. Now, he is head of the digital learning department that is bringing Baltimore County Public Schools students into the future.

"It is not a fad. It is not a trend," Imbriale said of digital learning. In 2013, he was named executive director of BCPS's then-newly formed Department of Innovative Learning.

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"It's a real transformation in education that has already happened in the adult world," he said.

Last month, Imbriale attended an event that highlighted the technology-rich future of education. The first-ever Intel Education Visionaries get-together was held at Intel Corporation's headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

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For four days, Imbriale, who was among 40 chosen for the inaugural group of "visionary" educators, met with his peers to discuss how that future would play out.

That he was chosen came as a surprise. "I didn't apply. I got a phone call," said Imbriale, who viewed the invitation as recognition of the work being done in BCPS.

"They said they believe in what we are doing. They called it progressive, innovative and forward-thinking," Imbriale said of Intel Education, founder of the Visionaries program, a division of the corporation that helps educators and supports schools.

Imbriale was the only educator invited from Maryland. Teachers and administrators came from public, parochial and private school systems in states such as South Carolina and Tennessee and countries such as Australia, China, France and the Union of South Africa.

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"We shared our stories. I told them about S.T.A.T.," he said of Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, BCPS' digital conversion initiative for which he is responsible.

The educators also got a glimpse into the future. One day of the event was spent listening to pitches from seven educational start-up companies in the Bay area. Imbriale cited a company called Vidcode, whose goal is to involve girls in software programming.

"They use videos to get girls interested in technology and teach coding," said Imbriale, the father of four daughters, ages 4 to 15, all BCPS students.

Imbriale has an office in a county building in Towson but spends much time cycling among the county's public schools. He is married, to Jeanne Imbriale, an IT specialist in BCPS, and the family lives in Cockeysville.

"Ryan knows the schools in the district. He knows what needs to be done for students to make sure they are competitive in the modern world," said Deborah Phelps, executive director of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, a nonprofit that mobilizes community support for the public school system.

"It's about how our children learn," said Phelps. "In a high-poverty, high-mobility school, you can watch the students take ownership of their tablets. Ryan is in the forefront of meeting this initiative."

With 110,000 students, BCPS is one of the largest public systems in the country. Its pluses, according to Imbriale, include a diverse student population; multiple magnet, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] and after-school programs; active parental support; and higher educational and business community partnerships.

To Imbriale, the intent of digital learning is that "all students should graduate being globally competitive." Put another way, he said, "every student needs to understand the world they live in," and that means being "digitally literate."

To do so, S.T.A.T. provides opportunity and access to resources, material and experts.

Learning devices such as tablets are probably the most visible element in that effort.

But "there's a misconception about tablets," said Imbriale, which are only a tool in what he calls "a suite of programs" that includes content for students and professional development for teachers.

Paige Johnson, education strategist at Intel, said that Imbriale was selected for Intel Education Visionaries because of his strategic approach. "He puts teaching at the center of his work and how this helps children, which is exactly the right perspective," she said.

According to Johnson, Intel works with school systems all over the world, some of which are spending large amounts of money on devices for students. "But it's not just about devices," she said, echoing Imbriale. "It's about curriculum and school leadership."

Imbriale and BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance, said Johnson, "have done the research on digital learning and how to implement it for the most impact in the classroom."

Phelps, of Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, agreed. "It's heart-warming to see the students engaged in the classroom," she said.

But it is also important that companies such as Intel recognize the leaders in the field, "people who are out there and taking risks," she said.

"It's an honor for Ryan. He's a leader," said Phelps.

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