Discovery Education Leadership Symposium

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Recently, Discovery Education had the honor of hosting a group of innovative leaders, including state commissioners, school superintendents, national experts, and policy makers, at our 8th Annual Leadership Symposium on September 28 and 29 in Denver, CO.

Speakers like Cody Keenan and Dr. Robert Marzano, engaging sessions on topics like equity, federal funding, and competency-bases systems, and a tour of the St. Vrain Valley Schools Innovation Center were all inspired by this year’s theme: The Great Emergence: Innovations Supporting the New Era of Education.

Keep reading for highlights of our key sessions, which led to open, honest conversations among those that came. As education thought leader Dr. Christina Kishimoto said in her opening remarks, “You’re in a space where we’re not asking you to have solutions. . . . we are asking you to pose the questions, leave questions unanswered if necessary, explore ideas, and push one another to think deeper in a way that we can’t do in the day-to-day of the job.”

Meet the Symposium Moderators

Dr. Luvelle Brown, Superintendent

Dr. Luvelle Brown
Superintendent, Ithaca City Schools, NY

Dr. Brown (@LuvelleB) is an award-winning, nationally recognized education leader who has served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal school CIO, and superintendent, and is the 2022 recipient of the prestigious AASA Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award. During his current tenure as Superintendent of Ithaca City Schools, the district has experienced unprecedented levels of success. He is a highlyregarded speaker and workshop facilitator addressing a range of topics for local, regional, and national audiences. Dr. Brown is also a regular session leader and moderator in Discovery Education’s Equity Talks Series.

Dr. Christina Kishimoto, Voice4EquityDr. Christina Kishimoto
CEO & Founder, Voice4Equity 

Dr. Kishimoto (@Voice4Equity) is a national leader on educational policy and an advocate for equity and inclusion. From the Bronx, NY, she attended Barnard College and earned her PhD from Columbia University Teachers College. She served as superintendent in districts in Arizona and Connecticut, as well as superintendent of the Hawai’i Department of Education. In 2021 she founded Voice4Equity with a mission to increase the number of women and leaders of color at the policy table. Dr. Kishimoto is also a regular session leader and moderator in Discovery Education’s Equity Talks Series

The Great Emergence: Innovations Supporting the New Era of Education

This session highlighted the voices and work of school district leaders who have successfully navigated the complexities and challenges of the past two years. Additionally, the panelists shared recent innovations that have emerged in their school district communities.

Verletta White, Superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools in Virginia, gave a clear, meaningful, and at times personal, presentation about innovation and how it can make educators and our educational systems more effective and efficient. Today’s innovation is rooted in technology, but she recognized that there can be a disconnect between the innovative solutions that leaders choose and teachers’ perception of those solutions. 

How can leaders make innovative change sound exciting to their faculty? How can they make the perception positive? Verletta believes that “fixing that gap, that barrier, can help lead innovative ideas forward, get teachers on board, and help us solve real problems.”  She points out it’s imperative that teachers feel supported and heard, first and foremost. We can close that gap by having the courage to listen to teachers and give them a voice, find common pain points, and invite them to be an integral part of the innovative solution from Day 1 so they can fully understand their role and have the right perception.”

Verletta White, Superintendent

Verletta White
Superintendent, Roanoke City Public Schools, VA 

@VerlettaWhite is a results-driven, student-centered visionary leader with over 25 years of educational experience, including as a teacher, principal, chief academic officer, area assistant superintendent, and the interim superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. Born and raised in Baltimore, Mrs. White attended Townson University and earned her masters from Notre Dame of Maryland University. 

A Conversation with Dr. Robert Marzano: Leading a Competency-Based System So All Students Thrive

Dr. Marzano’s vision for K–12 education focuses on one simple truth: most schools can be highly effective in promoting student learning. To show how, he created the Marzano High Reliability Schools framework. This framework, based on 40 years of educational research, defines five progressive levels of performance that a school must master to become a high reliability school—where all students learn the content and skills they need for success in college, careers, and beyond.

As Dr. Marzano noted, competency-based learning systems can be quite the paradigm shift, but “we’re standing at the cusp of real change.” To implement a competency-based learning system, Dr. Marzano suggests the first step should be to “get your best thinkers together and ask ‘Do you believe that students should work at their own pace?’ If so, is your current structure designed for that?” The end goal of a competency-based approach is having the structure to deliver high-quality teachers who in turn give students the ability to progress at their own pace.

Dr. Marzano also delved into the origins of the competency-based learning system, crediting John B. Carroll, a well-known psychologist, for asking the question “Why is time a constant but learning is not?” By making learning constant and time a variable in education, students can learn, and excel, at their own pace.

The partnership between Marzano Academies and Discovery Education delivers microlearnings—available in the Professional Learning NOW Channel—that help teachers understand and implement competency-based learning in their own classroom, on their own time.

Dr. Robert Marzano

Dr. Robert Marzano
Chief Academic Officer Marzano Academies

Dr. Robert Marzano is a renowned speaker, teacher trainer, author of more than 50 books, and researcher in competency-based education systems. He began teaching in 1968 and has served in many different areas in education since then, including curriculum, leadership, and assessment. He is the founder of multiple initiatives including Marzano Research, Marzano Evaluation Center, and Marzano Academies. Dr. Marzano earned his bachelor’s degree from Iona College, a master’s degree from Seattle University, and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Washington.

Progress Amidst Resistance: Effective Local, State, and National Level Communications Strategy in Times of Crisis

Handling a crisis is something that most, if not all, leaders will face at least once in their lifetime. And the communications surrounding that crises can have a significant impact on the perception of the effects of the crisis and the effectiveness of the leadership. Cody Keenan provided keen insight into what a strong communications strategy looks like in times of crisis.

The three key takeaways Keenan discusses can help in any type of crisis, starting with ensuring those who are affected by the event that “life will keep going” and the “world will keep turning.” This gives the perception that the crisis is temporary, and the familiar will return.

The second takeaway is showing empathy because it allows leaders to connect with those who are affected by the crisis on a personal level. To demonstrate this, Keenan shared his experience in working with former President Obama during the various crises his presidency dealt with. It was imperative to Obama, Keenan shared, that he spoke personally with the victims to let them know that they are heard and seen.

The last takeaway is having a policy or a plan to address the crisis—and communicate consistently and honestly about each step. Keenan emphasized that “people want to know that something is happening. Give an honest assessment and identify specific gains, no matter how incremental.”

Participants in this discussion also walked away with concrete ideas on how to form a “pre-crisis” communications plan. “Complete a vulnerability audit of your district,” Keenan advised. “What are your knowns and unknowns? What are you ready for?” Once these are identified, it’s critical to have a team that knows the crisis communication plan and is ready to implement it. The plan should at the very basic level identify the team, a “situation room,” and a spokesperson, and ensure that multiple people have direct access to all the communication platforms like social media. Last, but not least, meticulously fact check every step of the way.

“At the end of the day,” stated Keenan, “if you manage a crisis well, not only is it good for your reputation, but you build trust with the community.”

Cody Keenan headshot

Cody Keenan
Former White House Chief Speechwriter for President Barack Obama

Cody Keenan began his career working for Senator Ted Kennedy, for whom he wrote his first speech. He then began interning for Obama’s 2008 campaign, then quickly moved up the ranks to chief speechwriter. Today he teaches speechwriting at Northwestern and is a published author. Keenan holds a master’s degree from Harvard University and a bachelors from Northwestern University. He is the author of Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America.

Statewide Partnerships: Driving Equity and Unlocking Access to High-Quality Content for Students, Educators, and Families

This session explored how education and corporate leaders can collaborate to make their states a better place to learn, work, and live. These innovative, unique partnerships support teachers and provide students of all ages with the academic and technical skills, knowledge, and training necessary to succeed in future careers and to become lifelong learners. Statewide partnerships create not only more equitable learning environments in which all students have access to the resources and experiences they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond, but also a deeper, more diverse pool of talent that will drive economic prosperity across the state.

“We need to have continuity of learning,” emphasized Jhone Ebert, Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Nevada Department of Education. “At the state level in Nevada, we looked at three main buckets to ensure this continuity of learning.” The first bucket was equipment in the classroom. The state created a dashboard to track where tools and resources were lacking and then issued a 1:1 device and wifi hotspot program for all students. The second bucket was about people. Ebert led the effort to start the NV digital learning collaborative that empowered teachers to help each other with educational technology. And lastly, the third bucket was all about content. “I needed to make sure everyone, including teachers and families, had access to high-quality content.” Ebert state. “We also had to ensure that content served timely needs, like social justice and multiple language supports.”

Then through Discovery Education’s strategic Social Impact Partnerships, Nevada connected with Nevada Gold Mines to help underwrite the funding of providing DE access to all students statewide.  And this partnership with the Nevada Department of Education proved to help establish long-term, positive change for Nevada students.

Jhone Ebert, Superintendent of Nevada Department of Education

Jhone Ebert
Superintendent of Public Instruction Nevada Department of Education

As the state leader behind the Nevada Ready! initiative for equitable, quality instruction, Jhone Ebert makes it her mission to ensure every student has a clear pathway to success in school and life. Prior to leading Nevada’s education system, Ms. Ebert worked for the Clark County School District for 25 years, where she served in various roles from math teacher to Chief Technology Officer. She was also the Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-20 Education Policy for New York State. Ms. Ebert received her Master of Education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and her bachelor’s from California State University Fresno.

A Playful Approach to Scaling Whole-Child Education for Early Learners

As a result of the pandemic, young learners are entering our schools having had fewer opportunities to socialize with peers, develop agency, and grow fundamental numeracy, early language, and literacy skills. To ensure these students are ready to actively engage in learning, education leaders must think beyond helping kids prepare for school, by helping schools prepare for kids. In this session, Akimi Gibson from Sesame Workshop explored the research behind playful learning experiences used to scale equitable access to whole-child growth and ensure all kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder.


All children “can” and we have to create those conditions that allow them to. How can media be a mediator for that. Initial research done revealed that there is a hidden curriculum behind the usual ABCs and 123s. Children merely seeing themselves represented made a difference. Positive images are critical for Sesame, and nothing is from a deficient model. We always build off the strength of children.

Guided by the content and curriculum group. Steadying force of educators connecting everything. Group of advisors.

“We are entering our 53rd year of this vast experiment. Every year we learn something new. The ABCs and 123s don’t change, but how children engage around them and understand these concepts does.” It’s important to connect with schools and districts to inform how we continue this experiment and know what’s going on from the child development point of view so we can continue our legacy of research-based, science-based.

Long-term formative assessments for everything we create. Everything is research-based. Then we go into the distribution phase, where we decide when and where the media is released. Summative evaluation, needs assessment . . . continue to the cycle.

Sesame believes in a whole-child approach but a dual-generational effect as well. We are working with children b/c of their grownups. We facilitate the connection between teachers and families. Meet the children where they are, at home in communities in schools, and we are also meeting teachers where they are.

We are in the middle of an identity study and we are now researching a multi-year mental wellness for children to facilitate the “just right fit” between the educator and the family for the benefit of the child. Because both the educator and the family are critical to the success of the child, and therefore should be working together on behalf of the child.

How do we embed PL/teacher knowledge and growth into the curriculum itself. We are the most heavily researched children property in the industry. There are over 1000 independent studies completed on Sesame and its effect on student success.

Akimi Gibson
Vice President & Educational Publisher Sesame Workshop

As a dedicated advocate for early learning with expertise in child development and early childhood education, Akimi Gibson leads the Formal Learning Initiatives, partnerships, and business for Sesame Workshop. She has published several children’s books, including There’s a Hole in My Pocket and In the Woods, and has extensive experience in product development and editorial management.


A Visit to The Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools

On day two of the symposium, leaders had the opportunity to tour The Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools and see firsthand how innovative solutions can be implemented to create transformative learning opportunities for today’s students.

Students learning at the Innovation Center transcends the traditional classroom and provides experiential opportunities that are developing today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders, innovators, and changemakers. In addition to rigorous extended learning and mentorship opportunities, students gain valuable experience through employment that focuses on designing and engineering technology solutions for industry and community partners. Learn more at or follow @CSVVSD on Twitter.

Dr. Don Haddad

Dr. Don Haddad
Superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools, CO

Dr. Haddad has been an educational advocate and leader for nearly 40 years with a focus on whole school improvement, innovation, and system reform. Before serving as Superintendent, Dr. Haddad held the positions of principal, executive director of secondary instruction, and deputy superintendent. During his current tenure as Superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools, the district has been awarded numerous national grants and awards and continues to have several top-ranked high schools in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

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