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Full STEAM Ahead: How Fort Mill Schools Instills Engagement and Passion

Sometimes being on top isn’t enough.

In 2017, Fort Mill School District in South Carolina became the top-rated district in the state, garnering national acclaim for its students’ academic achievements, and being named to The College Board’s AP District Honor Roll. But the district’s leaders knew they could reach even greater heights. The challenge was – how can they get there?

When it underwent its AdvancED accreditation in 2017, the district had every right to expect great results. So when officials got the accreditation report back, they were surprised to find one small note of discord: Student engagement, while satisfactory, was lower than administrators wanted.

“It was not where we wanted to be as compared to our normally high achievement results,” says Marty McGinn, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and human resources.

At the time, district officials were in the process of reexamining their curriculum, mostly to make sure students were college and career ready according to the state’s Profile of the Graduate.

When officials considered the engagement of their students, as well as the recognition that various schools were offering different STEM activities, only one choice addressed all these issues. The choice—to increase offerings in STEAM topics—was quickly agreed upon. STEAM refers to the basic STEM topics, science, technology, engineering, and math, with the arts included.

But even administrators couldn’t have guessed how well the changes would be accepted both inside and outside their classrooms. In just the first year of the district’s shift in focus, the effort has been well received by students, the school board, and especially teachers.

“We had a lot of STEAM activities going on here and there,” says McGinn of the district’s 16 schools. “But we’re a growing district, and we needed something that could bring everyone to the table.”

BUILDING STEAM

After mapping where district leaders knew they needed to be, they had to decide how to get there, which meant weighing the options for programs to implement and who could help them through this transition. In April 2017, the leaders hosted a strategic planning session.

To provide some guidance, Fort Mill’s leaders invited Cindy Moss, vice president of global STEM initiatives at Discovery Education, to speak with school and district leaders, along with students. Moss envisioned a classroom ecosystem where all teachers and students were immersed in STEM.

“Schools need to provide experiences that allow students to become ‘glocal,’” said Moss. “They should walk outside their school to find local problems and be able to see how their local problems fit into the global scheme of things. Adults should stop just dispensing knowledge and allow students to solve real-world problems.”

Chad Allen, the district’s STEM coordinator, said Moss’ passion filled the room with energy. It became the ignition for their STEAM engine.

“After she spoke, our students said, ‘We need our teachers to teach like that,’” said Allen. “We did not expect that strong of a reaction from our students, but they were immediately engaged.”

MANAGING RAPID GROWTH

Fort Mill’s move to emphasize STEAM topics districtwide was initially complicated by the district’s tremendous growth. In just 15 years, the district, located in a town of 50 square miles, has grown from fewer than 6,000 students to more than 15,000. In that time, two new high schools were opened, and the district hired new teachers to compensate for the growth in student population.

Despite this growth spurt, these sudden changes haven’t had a negative impact on student achievement. Fort Mill remains the top-performing district in South Carolina, with a graduation rate of 94 percent—12 percentage points higher than the state average. Also, 85 percent of its graduates went on to a two- or four-year college, well above the state’s average rate of 71 percent.

But these changes did emphasize for district leaders the need for a unified curriculum, said McGinn. Redistricting has shuffled both students and teachers to different schools, so streamlining the curriculum made it easier for both groups to change addresses without losing ground.

“Our superintendent continues to say, ‘It doesn’t matter which school you go to in Fort Mill—they are all equally excellent,’” said McGinn.

SEEING STEAM IN ACTION

In order to better formulate their goals, Fort Mill officials visited Santa Rosa County District Schools in Florida to see how it integrates STEAM activities into its everyday education.

In recent years, Santa Rosa has emerged as an international leader in STEAM education. Its students have continued to show promise after embarking in 2015 on a five-year strategic partnership with Discovery Education called STEAM Innovate!, where educators receive intensive professional learning and job-embedded coaching. Santa Rosa’s classrooms have become STEAM-infused learning environments, with lessons that nurture student achievement and critical 21st-century learning skills.

“We were struck by the common language and the common vision,” McGinn says. “Everybody moves in the same direction, from the district office to the classroom. It inspired us.”

Now, Fort Mill was moving with purpose toward a STEAM model, but still had some hills to climb. Leaders knew that they would need a strong professional development basis from which to launch into STEAM, but the district’s central office is slim.

“We believe in funding our schools, but we simply don’t have the capacity to do something like districtwide PD all by ourselves. So we had to find a great solution,” said Allen.

BUILDING A CORPS OF TEACHER LEADERS

Fort Mill partnered with Discovery Education’s STEAM Leader Corps, a comprehensive program that helps scale digital and instructional leadership in school districts. Schools in Fort Mill were already using the company’s Science Techbook digital textbook, and it plans to expand into Discovery Education STEM Connect in the future.

The district’s partnership with Discovery Education has been powerful and unique, said Allen, adding that it was unlike any of his previous experiences with education service providers.

“Discovery Education’s people have been right alongside us every step of the way.

“They’ve invested themselves in the community, they talk to parents at PTO meetings, and they’re involved in planning and designing posters—it’s almost like they work for the district,” said Allen.

Through the Leader Corps, Fort Mill’s educators are being prepared for effective STEAM instruction and establishing a team of teacher leaders that will help drive systemwide change.

“Having a clear professional development structure for implementing STEAM is important to focus our efforts to achieve our goals,” said McGinn. “It also fosters communication and collaboration within and between our schools.”

Initially, the district sought volunteers to start, asking for eight teachers at its high schools and four at each middle and elementary school. McGinn wasn’t sure that many teachers would be interested, But the opposite proved true. More teachers applied than they could immediately use. While those not chosen were disappointed, the district has included them on trips to conferences and other schools to see STEAM activities in person to prime them for the future.

The training took a strategic approach, beginning with principals, says McGinn.

“Principal leadership is so vital. If the administration doesn’t understand what teachers need, such as time for planning and collaborating, it’s hard to support them,” she said.

Now, one year into the four-year STEAM Leader Corps program, teachers are beginning to showcase the effects of their training, said Allen.

He can tell teachers are embracing the new methods when he hears them discussing STEAM concepts in side conversations in the hallways. They’re also active on their own Twitter hashtag, #FM21STEAM where they regularly share their accomplishments.

“Some of those who came out of this process surprised us, and they’re surprising themselves,” he said. “These teachers are starting to demonstrate their skills as leaders. They’re stepping up and responding to the extra autonomy they’re being given.”

These teachers will lead model classrooms for others, organically growing the STEAM initiative internally throughout the district. And more leaders are being added each year.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s exciting work,” McGinn said.

WHAT STEAM LOOKS LIKE IN FORT MILL SCHOOLS

Teachers are learning how to create project-based learning lessons that meet the district’s standards, she says. Once teachers immerse themselves in using units from STEM Connect, they will better understand how to create their own interactive units.

In classrooms throughout the district, a combination of project-based learning and student-centered teaching can be seen in full practice. In place of stand-and-deliver instruction, students are empowered to be at the core of their classrooms, leading their own explorations in learning.

“We’ve seen the level of student engagement increase in our schools. They’re doing more rigorous work, and there is more creativity on display,” said Allen. “We had 400 people show up for one of our student-led district art shows recently. That was huge for them.”

Also emerging are STEAM-based lessons grounded in real-world issues. Springfield Middle School students embarked on a service-based learning exercise recently while studying what life is like for those living in refugee camps. To provide context for the lesson, they left the classroom behind and went outdoors.

They crossed a river, and using the limited materials they’d carried with them, built their own tents and spent some time in the wilderness.

They experienced a small taste of the life of those without homes of their own. Beyond the hands-on learning experience, it’s an exercise in communicating the power of compassion, said Allen.

“The definition of caring comes from understanding someone else’s perspective. When you design solutions, you’re trying to think of how people will experience that,” said Allen.

“I think giving kids a firsthand account of life experiences really helps them understand what it is they’re learning.”

Another major shift is on the teacher’s side of things. They’re encouraged to experiment with new ideas in the classroom and not be afraid of failure.

“If something goes bad, or fails, it’s okay. We’re giving them the freedom to explore. It’s allowed us to open our minds and be more intuitive about how we teach our kids,” said Allen.

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How St. Vrain Valley Schools Started a STEM Revolution

Eight years ago, St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado started a STEM revolution. Today, its students, with projects that stretch from building robots to helping save an endangered species of frog, are reaping the benefits. We are proud to showcase this district’s transformation with an in-depth report that covers each major milestone on a decade-long journey to empower students.

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Introduction

St. Vrain Valley Schools in Colorado is on a roll. In just under a decade, the district of 32,000 students has transformed itself through a variety of initiatives to provide students with a hands-on education that sets them up for success well beyond the halls of their schools.

During this time, the district launched an Innovation Center, where students use their STEM knowledge in real-world projects; it opened a P-TECH school that allows students to earn an associate’s degree and high school diploma in six years; it has pulled in more than $20 million in national and state grants for a variety of programs; and its list of public–private partnerships have expanded to encompass national companies such as Lockheed Martin, Apple, and IBM. If that’s not enough, the district, located about 35 miles north of Denver, has netted nearly 90 awards for its academic programs in the past five years, and it regularly hosts visitors from other school districts and corporations.

While outside recognition is great, St. Vrain has also garnered the approval of the 13 communities that comprise the district. Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved the district’s financial plan, agreeing to a $260 million bond that will allow the district to build four new schools while expanding the footprint of another 29 schools—no small feat for a school district in Colorado, where the purse strings are tightly controlled by the state. Parents effectively bought into the process of transforming the district to help raise their children to new heights.

All of these investments are coming online just in time, as the district is adding 800 new students each year, making it one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state.

The road to the district’s success began about a decade ago. Examining the steps district leaders took reveals how administrators made deep cuts in legacy resources to invest in new avenues, and launched new innovations, ensuring improvements were instituted district-wide instead of just school by school, while always continuing to push for improvements.

Superintendent Dr. Don Haddad with St. Vrain elementary students.

“Our systematic approach is very unique,” says Superintendent Dr. Don Haddad. “What we’ve done is establish a pre-K–12 system where every one of our schools is focused on the things that we know work.”

Haddad highlights the core components of St. Vrain—a district-wide 1:1 program, STEM studies that start at pre-K and run into higher education, curricula that push students to problem solve and employ critical thinking skills, a “design thinking” mindset from administrators, public–private partnerships, and effective professional learning that reinforces all these ideas.

“That’s what makes the system work. What you see as a result is systematic gain. It’s not limited to one school—it’s districtwide,” he adds.

When former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the district’s Skyline High School in 2014, he agreed:

“This is a remarkable success story. This is how students should be learning around the country.”

Envisioning a Transformation

The district’s first move in reinventing itself was building a comprehensive plan to support a variety of programs related to 21st-century careers. The programs focused on STEM, medical and bio-sciences, international baccalaureate, aerospace, and energy, among others. The idea was to create schools of choice for students, allowing them to pursue pathways they were passionate about, which could lead to interests in college and eventually a career.

These initiatives, in concert with a plethora of programs such as music, art, and athletics, made for a strong, comprehensive direction for the district, said Haddad.

Officials created a STEM Academy at Skyline High School, one of its 10 high schools, using STEM to both engage learners and interest them in pursuing post-secondary education. The academy quickly outpaced those modest goals and set into motion a series of domino-like changes that have transformed the district into a national leader.

Eerie High School students work on assembling a drone in class.

The short timeline to prominence at St. Vrain began when the district reeled in a $3.6 million Investing in Innovation federal grant in 2010, just one year after Haddad was named superintendent. That grant helped establish the STEM center, but also led to a longer school day for at-risk students in four elementary schools and an intervention program designed to help middle school students in danger of failing math.

The improvements from those funds led to an even bigger prize when St. Vrain was one of 16 Race to the Top winners. The federal $16.6 million award allowed the district to expand its STEM studies to all the schools that feed Skyline High School and to pursue creating Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) with IBM.

Starting in 2016, St. Vrain was one of the first districts to partner with IBM on P-TECH outside of the original Brooklyn school in New York. This program offers students a chance to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in a six-year block. The college courses are free for students, and partner IBM offers graduates interviews for jobs that pay $50,000 a year.

This work culminated in St. Vrain being named one of the 100 Future Ready school districts in the country and Haddad being named superintendent of the year in 2013 by the National Association of School Superintendents.

All this positive momentum in St. Vrain came after the district’s darkest days in 2002. That’s when a perfect storm of accounting errors, lower-than-expected revenues, and higher-than-expected expenses resulted in the district facing a $13.8 million shortfall on what was then a budget of $130 million.

With the state’s help, the district began a wide-ranging plan that included a 15 percent cut of its non-salary budget, a 45 percent slash to administrative costs, and a rollback of promised teacher and district employee raises. Teachers were supportive of the effort in order to help the district through this difficult time. The state also loaned the district $28 million and agreed to buy and lease back to the district a building for $4.8 million.

Making the Community a Partner

By 2005, things were looking better. The district was still recovering from the financial crisis, but it had implemented sound financial processes and procedures. In addition, the district received an excellence in financial reporting award from the Government Finance Officers Association.

However, the district was in need of additional local funding through a process called a mill levy override, which could only come after approval from local voters. And though the district had made strides in securing state funding, it still needed to win over locals with its vision for St. Vrain’s future.

In 2004, the district had lost a mill levy override by just 159 votes. The next year’s effort was rejected by 54 percent of voters. So when another mill levy override was suggested in 2008, the school board knew that gaining the trust of the community would require the involvement of the community. The board would not attempt another mill levy override unless they had the support of the community.

The board told parents: “If this is important, then do something about it,” recalls Laura McDonald, the parent of two St. Vrain students.

McDonald and a small group of parents accepted the challenge from the school board and launched what eventually became Grassroots St. Vrain, the leading community arm of the 2008 campaign for a $16.5 million mill levy override, which would later pass with 57 percent of the vote.

McDonald admits the group’s leaders had a “tip of the iceberg” level of knowledge about school funding when they started. But the leadership was strong, and the school district did not want to lose the community momentum. In 2009, the school district partnered with community leaders to create Leadership St. Vrain with the goal of helping community members deepen their understanding of the business of education.

Students from Indian Peaks Elementary start STEM projects at an early age.

These community members agreed to meet for three hours each month for nine months to learn about the inner workings of the school district, including who the state-level decision makers were, down to what curricula were used in classrooms. Only one of these sessions was focused on school funding, but McDonald says a subgroup of the initial Leadership St. Vrain group decided to formalize Grassroots St. Vrain into a nonprofit organization focused on school funding issues.

Just as St. Vrain was coming out its financial difficulties, the state found itself in a deficit. In 2010, Colorado ultimately decided to reduce per-pupil spending back to 2006–07 levels, cutting about $14 million from St. Vrain. The district absorbed the cut by slashing budgets 25 percent, freezing textbook adoptions, and pushing the adult basic education program outside the district’s purview.

Thanks to its community challenge during the 2008 mill levy override, and the continued community education through Leadership St. Vrain, the district had established a new partner as it tried to stabilize its funding—Grassroots St. Vrain. This nonprofit group, created by parents, is committed to advocating for school district improvements by both explaining and supporting mill levy overrides that allow the district to add funding to what the state provides.

Grassroots has become a reliable resource of facts about various school funding topics, McDonald says, giving the group lasting power in the community. Grassroots has made videos to help explain the state funding formula, local initiatives, and yes, even where marijuana tax money goes in Colorado (mostly to cover an increase in state services, with some going to school districts).

The financial uncertainty over the years actually led the district to build a more stable system. In 2012, hard work by the district and Grassroots paid off again. St. Vrain passed a $14.8 million mill levy override that gave teachers raises, maintained class sizes, and helped fund preschool for low-income students. In 2016, voters in the district easily passed a $260 million bond issue, with 59 percent of voters approving.

As of the 2015-2016 school year, St. Vrain’s general fund per-pupil expenditures were $8,584. The district’s $252 million in general fund expenditures were funded almost equally from state and local sources. Those two groups account for the majority of the district’s general fund revenues, with federal grants accounting for just one percent.

Still, McDonald says, “Relying on local mill levy overrides is not a good solution.” While St. Vrain is fortunate to have passed its last two overrides and bond issues, this isn’t possible for many other districts, because they may not have the needed political support or property tax value, she adds. That’s a big reason Grassroots St. Vrain focuses much of its work on looking at state-level solutions.

“The fact that we stabilized our funding helped us move forward with the transition,” says Greg Fieth, the district’s chief financial officer.

“We always have funding challenges, so that’s why it’s important to engage the community so that you not only limit the problem, but step over them,” says Haddad.

Targeting ‘Total Equity’

In 2009 Haddad was promoted to superintendent, and he and his team quickly realized that they were leading “a district of schools versus a school district.” Within a district that covers 411 square miles, there was a lot of inequity between the 55 schools, he remembers.

“You could go to any of our schools and you would find huge variances in programming, wide swings in technology, and disparities in the quality of the facilities,” he said.

Remedying that imbalance became a top priority for his administration. Plans were already under way to use the funds from a $189 million bond to renovate and make over the district. The superintendent insisted on achieving “total equity” in schools across the district.

The district went a step further under the leadership of Tori Teague, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Teague led an effort to reorganize curricula, eliminating the typical gaps between elementary, middle, and high school. Once this was completed, the district was ready to tackle the needed infrastructure improvements that could pave the way for the later digital transformation.

Joe McBreen became the district’s chief technology officer the same year Haddad became superintendent. He recalls that even during the district’s lean years, it invested in fiber optic networks because officials knew technology would be important to the future of the district.

But in St. Vrain, “it’s not as simple as putting in a fiber line and having it hit every school,” says Fieth. Comprising 13 communities and 411 square miles of territory means it’s necessary to work with each of the municipalities to ensure every building has access to a fiber-optic network and wireless network capability in each classroom.

Students at Falcon Tech work with industry mentors.

Going 1:1 With Technology

With finances stabilized and an infrastructure in place, the district was ready to make changes that would intensify the impact on students in its classrooms. Over four years, the district provided all students in middle school and high school with iPad minis. Elementary classrooms received five to seven tablets each.

“When it came time to look at the technology piece, it was easy to decide this was the next layer of that, and we implemented it across the board. We looked at digital curriculum because that is an easy way to implement the technology.  We really see these devices as extensions of collaboration,” said Teague.

Right from the beginning, the district made sure professional learning was a key part of any technology upgrades. “Even in the leanest budget years, we made it a priority that 20 percent of any tech investment would go toward professional development,” says Fieth.

“We were intentionally aware of avoiding the ‘bright shiny object’ syndrome,” says McBreen. “Teachers can become enthralled by the latest, greatest technology, but it’s about purpose.”

Adam Wellington, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Coal Ridge Middle School, details how the support helped teachers during those early days of integrating technology en masse. Getting the iPads three to four months before students afforded staff extra time to work with instructional tech coordinators, helping them pivot from delivering information to guiding students to finding information themselves.

Wellington’s school also holds “tech slams,” where teachers take a minute or two to share a new tool they are using in the classroom.

“It’s a very open environment, and it’s helped our staff see the benefits of what technology can do,” he adds.

Fifth-grade students program Dash and Dot robots at Longmont Estates Elementary School.

Presenting the material in a new way can boost student understanding, too. Wellington says the district’s move to use Discovery Education’s Techbook “has really changed how our students can understand our curriculum.”

As soon as the district got teachers familiar with tablets, they quickly realized that parents needed a crash course, too. “We found that parents didn’t know exactly how to get students to turn off the devices and disengage,” said Teague.

Eventually St. Vrain started a Camp iPad for parents, where students would show what they were doing with the devices. A tech newsletter was also distributed, and the district hosted technology nights at schools to orient parents to the new devices.

“I think that first year we had a lot of questions continually come up. [Now] it’s almost gotten down to zero,” Teague says.

“I think it’s critical that you’re very proactive with parents in any technology implementation. If a school district doesn’t do that, it will fail.”

Investing that time with parents made a huge difference for St. Vrain, garnering goodwill that spread beyond the scope of technology instruction, says Teague.

“What’s really cool about it is that it creates equity across the system,” she said. “For some families, they have not had any technology at home, and now all their kids have iPads. Kids can share it with parents, and families cherish it.”

Learning in the Great Outdoors

While expanding their learning horizons through a district-wide 1:1 transition, students at St. Vrain schools have also been engaged in ambitious activities outside the classroom. Through a series of community outreach efforts, St. Vrain’s high school students are working with scientists, park rangers, city officials — even shark researchers. They’re receiving a science education with a career context and learning how science can be applied in real life, filling them with newfound focus and experiences they can apply back to their classroom studies.

Read our previous feature article for more about St. Vrain’s environmental literacy programs.

Michael O’Toole, the K–12 science coordinator at St. Vrain Valley schools, has a vision for how STEM studies like these can be applied across all subjects to build a stronger foundation for future learners.

“We’re fortunate to have a 1:1 environment, in which our secondary students each have an iPad, but we are still committed to a hands-on science experience,” said O’Toole.

O’Toole has taken his environmental learning to vistas like Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro, sharing excursions with other learners online. On one particular trip in 2015, students from Nigeria, Oman, South Africa, Tanzania, and the United States explored the unique biomes and the summit of Kilimanjaro. As students planted their feet atop the 19,341-foot summit, other students from all over the world watched online, expanding the scope of environmental learning.

“In science, we have an opportunity to become citizen scientists, where students not only learn but help contribute to something bigger than themselves,” he said.

“All of this contributes to the overall knowledge of our community and planet as well as giving students real-world experiences.”

St. Vrain’s educators are finding new ways to use Discovery Education Science Techbook as a platform to enhance the hands-on experience of students, he said.

“We are always looking for ways to incorporate 21st-century skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. This mindset allows our teachers to push past previous limits of traditional educational practices, unleashing the learning and contribution potential of our future scientists,” said O’Toole.

Securing National Grants

A key piece of St. Vrain’s transformation clicked into place as the district started to gain national recognition, and funding, to help propel its improvements. The first instance of national acclaim occurred in 2010 when the district earned an Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. These coveted awards, known as i3 grants, were created in response to the recession of 2009 in an effort to help supplement school spending and to fund experiments that aimed to improve the achievements of disadvantaged students.

In the first year, awards were open to individual districts instead of states. St. Vrain’s application was one of 1,700 to vie for a portion of the $650 million fund. More than 300 judges pored over the applications, rating them on a 105-point scale. St. Vrain got the top score of all the applicants, garnering a $3.6 million grant over five years.

One little-known part of the i3 grants was that grantees needed to match at least 20 percent of the award with funds from the private sector. For St. Vrain, that meant getting $721,000. Ridgeview Communications, a telecommunications company, agreed to provide $734,000 of in-kind donations over five years. This included internet access, consultation with district officials, and technical support. IBM also stepped up, contributing $215,000 worth of software to the seven schools named in the grant. IBM went a step further, donating software to 14 other St. Vrain schools, although that total of $436,000 couldn’t be counted to match the i3 grant.

After launching the STEM Academy within Skyline High School, which focused specifically on engineering and computer science, Haddad recalls that their district was becoming more visible.

“People were paying attention to what we were doing, and different companies were wanting to provide support,” Haddad says.

Teaming up with the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Engineering to create the academy, St. Vrain administrators started by identifying the skills needed to be successful in college.

Patty Quinones, who was then the school’s principal and is now the district’s assistant superintendent of innovation, worked backward to translate the end goals into curricula that met the state’s academic standards. Program graduates with good grades were guaranteed entry to CU’s College of Applied Sciences.

About 240 students have graduated from the STEM Academy in its eight years, and nearly 40 percent of them have gone on to STEM-related postsecondary programs. The graduation rate for the academy has jumped four percentage points, to 81 percent.

As impressive as St. Vrain’s i3 win was, it was only a warm-up for what was to come. While 49 organizations and districts won i3 grants, St. Vrain was about to join even more exclusive company two years later. With an application based on the same STEM program that netted the i3 award, St. Vrain won a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant in 2012, grabbing $16.6 million. This time the district was one of 16 winners out of more than 350 applications.

The RTTT grant focused on programs related to technology, professional development, extending the school year, and Skyline High School’s STEM program. It also helped bring that program to the high school’s seven feeder schools, which served many of the district’s minority students and English-language learners.

As good as this progress was, district leadership recognized that something was missing. The district put together a robust STEM curriculum, which included project-based learning and working with engineering students and faculty from the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.

Launching the Innovation Center

The goal for the district’s newly created Innovation Center was simple but challenging. The district wanted students to use the center to stretch themselves by mixing their creativity with top-notch tools to work for clients outside the school district.

St. Vrain’s Innovation Center began three years ago. The 6,000-square-foot center is located at the district’s career development center. It’s stocked with a bevy of tools students can use for their various projects, including a technology lab, an electronics lab, and fabrication and wood tools. The center also includes high-end industry equipment, such as a laser cutter, five 3D printers, and a scanner. Perhaps the most eye-popping tools in the center are the Nao programmable humanoid robots. These 23-inch-high robots have been used everywhere, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, where they were used to train International Space Station crews and assist elderly patients.

Not only do students take high-end courses and gain industry certifications through their work at the center, those working on projects for clients earn $10 an hour.

“It expands their opportunities and skill sets,” Quinones adds.

For example, the center is the only school of its kind in the country where students can earn Apple certification for technicians. Successful students can walk out of high school and earn $45,000 working for Apple or third-party companies, but St. Vrain encourages the students to attend college and work at fixing Apple products while there. In this way, students also leave college with a solid work history.

Students at the Innovation Center in St. Vrain Valley Schools interact with virtual reality headsets.

This year, 24 students gained the certification, and the group worked not only for the district but also for the city of Longmont. Students help the district roll out technology, and they conducted workshops to train Longmont firefighters and policemen how to use new iPhones.

Perhaps the best manifestation of the type of work that students complete at the center is the project that has students working to save an endangered frog in Bolivia and Peru. The students built an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that they named Thelma. This device can go twice as deep as a scuba diver, and it is equipped with sensors that can record the water’s properties.

“Our students not only built the underwater ROV, but they also communicate with the marine biologists [using the device]. Because some students are bilingual, they communicate with the scientists directly,” Quinones says.

While district staff oversee student work and keep projects on track, the more important oversight comes from outside experts. The project lead initiates the logistics and sets timelines, and students fill out time cards. Because they get paid, all students are run through the district’s human resources department.

Students have built robots, done computer programming, designed apps and websites, and even served as beta testers for companies.

As good as the center’s results have been in the first three years, the district is excited about the future. Thanks to $20 million from the $260 million bond initiative that passed last year, the center will be getting its own stand-alone building for the 2016-2017 school year. The 50,000-square-foot center will be able to serve all of St. Vrain’s schools.

In addition to the high-tech tools the district already deploys, the center will have four new components. An entrepreneurial zone will allow students to hone small-business skills, while a “pitch room” aims to replicate the SXSW Accelerator product demonstration spaces, and a biomedical engineering lab will allow students to work with various higher education partners. In the center’s new aeronautics division, students will be able to create ROV projects, conduct flight testing, and build drones.

“Our team visited Stanford Design School, and many of the things that we saw served to inform us as we built this program,” said Haddad.

“I feel like St. Vrain and the Innovation Center have definitely changed students’ pathways for higher-paying jobs and better opportunities to look at their choices of careers,” Quinones says.

“We’ve made huge differences for students who didn’t see themselves going to college or becoming engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.”

Fostering Public-Private Partnerships

The crown jewel for St. Vrain is the creation of over 60 partnerships with large companies such as IBM, Apple, and Toyota.

Other prominent partners include:

  • OtterBox, which makes durable cases for mobile phones
  • Aldebaran Robotics, which makes the humanoid Nao robot
  • Esri, a GIS mapping software company
  • Sphero, a Boulder-based company that makes app-connected toys
  • SparkFun Electronics, a Colorado-based maker of microcontroller development boards
  • Red Idea Partners, a consulting and venture capital company in the food, technology, and consumer markets

The evolution of St. Vrain’s partnership with IBM helps illuminate how the best collaborations not only serve the company and the district, but also can deepen over time. IBM is a neighbor of St. Vrain, with a massive facility in nearby Boulder. IBM created its 500-acre Boulder facility in 1965; it includes 2.5 million square feet of space and 26 buildings.

The district expanded its partnership with IBM in 2009 when the company recognized the excellence and potential at St. Vrain.  IBM agreed to in-kind donations to the district for the i3 grant in 2010. When St. Vrain went after its Race to the Top (RTTT) grant in 2012, IBM upped its involvement with the district. District officials asked the company how they could help interest their youngest learners—kindergarten to second grade—with STEM and science programs.

P-Tech students meet with industry mentors from IBM.

“We looked at each other and thought ‘Whoa,’” says Ray Johnson, IBM’s corporate citizenship and corporate affairs manager. “It was a great idea.”

IBM and St. Vrain agreed to create a two-week Innovation Academy for a Smarter Planet. The program, run with the University of Colorado, targets elementary school students and runs during the summer months. One project, designed by fourth graders, is a “nonbullying social media app” that can tag objectionable language.

The program marks its seventh year in 2017. This year 240 students attended what one teacher calls “engineering summer camp.” Students spend one week at an IBM training center and the second week refining their prototypes at St. Vrain’s Innovation Center. From this work, district officials, with help from three IBM representatives, have now created a STEM preschool.

“I always say we don’t give kids, especially young kids, enough credit for what their minds are capable of absorbing at such a young age,” Johnson says. “They are like sponges. At the end of two weeks, second-graders are using terms like prototype.”

Talking about the deep partnership between the district and the company, Johnson says St. Vrain has been an aggressively innovative district.

“That made it easy for us to see what they wanted to accomplish and let them know what we wanted to be part of,” said Johnson, adding that like most companies, IBM is happy to offer intellectual expertise more than just a check, because that is where true value lies.

IBM’s involvement with St. Vrain went up another notch when the two, along with Front Range Community College, opened the first of three P-TECH 9-14 schools in Colorado last year. That school, Falcon Tech, has a six-year program that allows students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four to six years, at no charge to the student. The school features integrated high school and college coursework, along with rich workplace experiences, including mentoring, site visits, paid internships, and “first-in-line” job interview opportunities from IBM.

“It’s a real boost for the economy, because you’re creating a talent pipeline for a number of industries, and it’s a boost for the school districts. Graduation rates go up, and kids get the attention and support to earn a college degree and be ready with the skills required for 21st-Century careers,” Johnson said.

Student Achievements

So with all this progress, how are St. Vrain’s students doing? By a variety of measures, the needle is pointing up. In 2017, students achieved the highest average ACT scores in the district’s history, and they took 3,500 AP tests, an increase of 1,000 tests just from last year. The district’s graduation rate jumped 3 percentage points in the last year alone.

The district’s English language learners and special education students do still face a significant achievement gap. Given that ELL students are 15 percent of St. Vrain’s student population and special education students 10 percent, this is a significant number of students. In the district’s accreditation rating, the district met the performance indicators in both academic achievement and academic growth at its elementary and middle schools. In its high schools, the district’s results are labeled “approaching” in achievement and growth.

Haddad prefers to look beyond just state test scores to get a full picture of the district’s health and its trajectory. The news there is also good.

“Discipline rates have plummeted and enrollment, a true test of what you’re offering, is skyrocketing. Kids are coming to St. Vrain in droves,” he says.

The district leader goes outside the numbers to highlight the top reason for the district’s growth.

“Our district’s overall success is a result of all stakeholders, including the students, the teachers, the classified staff, the parents, the business community, and the elected officials, coming together to make a strong statement that educating our children is our top priority. And we in the St. Vrain Valley Schools could not be more grateful to the community for their support.

“That’s at the heart of why we’re so successful,” said Haddad.

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Case Study: Behind the Scenes of Virginia Beach Schools’ 5-Year Tech Plan

In 2014, Virginia Beach City Public Schools embarked on a radical digital transformation of its schools. This journey was timed to the arrival of its new superintendent, Dr. Aaron Spence, a native of the area who graduated from a Virginia Beach high school, returned to Virginia to help improve the lives of its students.

The diverse district is part of a community with strong military ties, and it has become known for being at the leading edge of sustainable education practices, entrepreneurship education, and career and workforce development. Despite these successes, Spence saw something holding the district back.

Spence is no stranger to digital transformation. He worked under former superintendent Mark Edwards as a principal during Henrico County Schools’ own digital transition, and in Moore County Public Schools, North Carolina, Spence launched a districtwide digital learning initiative. As a result, many of the first conversations Spence had with faculty members about their aspirations kept coming back to technology. Their desires for a technology plan that could provide more opportunities to students had been implanted before his arrival.

“We’re a forward-thinking organization in a forward-thinking community that really wants the best for its kids,” said Spence.

Dr. Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

At the time, the district’s technology plan focused on network infrastructure and supporting existing goals, instead of what Spence was hearing from his faculty — using technology to transform the learning environment for students.

Another impetus for the district’s digital transformation came in 2014, around the same time Spence was getting his bearings as its new superintendent. A new strategic plan for the district set a high bar for academic expectations. Built into that goal was a mandate to create more personalized learning experiences.

Through Spence’s conversations with other educators, it quickly became apparent that a new vision for integrating technology in the classroom was starting to take root, aided by the aspirations of faculty across the district, and led by Spence and his administration.

“It all pointed to a very clear direction of what we needed to do,” said Spence. “We wanted more engaging learning environments for our kids.”

Spence said one area the district had not shined was in offering equitable education opportunities.

“Virginia Beach is considered to be a great district, but when you started to turn over stones, it seems it was excellent for some, and historically hasn’t always served others well, particularly as the demographic divisions have shifted,” said Spence.

“So we identified the need to focus intensely on the need of every student having rigorous learning experiences daily — not just some, or most of our students.”

Lessons like these proved to Amy Cashwell, the district’s Chief Academic Officer, that the timing for Spence’s arrival was serendipitous. Virginia Beach City Public Schools seemed primed for change. In scrutinizing their vision, they recognized that with their current infrastructure, they had unintentionally built roadblocks for themselves without realizing it.

“We knew we weren’t seeing transformation in the classroom,” she said. “It was really a great time to have a fresh set of eyes and reexamine how we were operationalizing our instructional technology plan.”

LAYING OUT A 5-YEAR TECHNOLOGY PLAN

In 2014, Spence and his team introduced a five-year strategic plan for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which included a call to transform it from a primarily BYOD district to a true digital learning environment capable of empowering students to become 21st-century learners.

Reinforcing solid instruction has been the engine that drives the transformation at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, said Spence. The devices and technology are the medium through which the transformation happens, but it begins with sound pedagogy.

“I think technology has the potential to be a game-changer with what happens in the classroom,” he said. “But you’ve got to have great Tier 1 instruction that’s thoughtfully planned out by teachers and aligned with a rigorous curriculum.”

To create the foundation for future schools, Spence tasked Cashwell with phasing technology in more significant ways, so they could understand what digital learning could become in the district. This coalesced into what Spence calls anchor schools, effectively the field sites for testing digital learning initiatives. The district currently has 13 of these anchor schools, now in their second year of operation, all in 1:1 learning environments, armed with technical support, professional learning and a cadre of Instructional Technology Specialists (ITS). These specialists work alongside educators to help model the appropriate use of technology in a classroom setting.

Throughout this process, the district has been deliberate about selecting teaching resources for their curriculum that can be taught in a non-1:1 or a 1:1 environment. This safeguard is due to the current imbalance of technology throughout the district.

Science-fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is here already, it’s just not equally distributed.” And while Gibson was speaking about the evolution of technology in general, the message rings true for the district’s non-anchor schools, where devices are used inconsistently, even with an abundance of them in a classroom.

Cashwell said the overall district ratio of devices to students is about 1.3:1. However, they aren’t equally distributed.

The modeling happening at the anchor schools is meant to ultimately help course correct the non-anchor schools, she said. They have encouraged the exploration of personalized learning and the integration of technology in more meaningful ways in non-anchor classrooms, but they have not pushed the agenda of 1:1 as a classroom environment like they have in the anchor schools.

“The idea has been that through an intense focus in our anchor schools, we can shape some of those lessons about technology usage. We can empower the non-anchor schools to move forward in the right direction alongside them, and not wait around,” said Cashwell.

CHANGES BEGIN TO PERCOLATE

Now two years into the new strategic plan, district leaders have seen some substantive changes in their anchor schools.

“I think we’re seeing a rich integration of digital tools into a daily practice of engaging students,” said Cashwell.

Discovery Education’s Techbook, a series of digital textbooks, was among the new tools brought in to help educators reshape their approach to digital curriculum. The district launched Techbook in the spring for select schools and is currently in its first full year of implementation.

Cashwell said Techbook has helped reinforce solid Tier 1 instruction, which was at the heart of the districtwide pivot being made with its strategic plan.

“You need to have the right resources in play — resources that allow teachers to put into action what we’re asking of them with personalized learning, that allow there to be choice for students, that employ different learning styles. Tools like Science Techbook do all of that and help educators operationalize that kind of teaching and learning,” she said.

To support the Techbook launch and generate a public forum for teacher usage of the new tool, district leaders took to Twitter, creating the hashtag #VBDigitext. Educators who had great experiences with Techbook would share a picture and a story of their journey with others using the hashtag. It resulted in hundreds of posts, dozens of conversations, scheduled Twitter chats among educators, and in general, created the enthusiasm district leaders were seeking.

“By the time we formally launched training over the summer, many educators already had some excitement about Techbook,” said Cashwell.

REACHING OUT TO PEERS FOR HELP

When embarking on a digital transition of the scope of Virginia Beach City Public Schools’, it’s important to realize that district leaders can learn a lot not only from each other’s successes but also their failures. Superintendents across the country have been creating professional learning communities to guide them through their own transitions. Some of these networks are developed through organizations like AASA, The School Superintendents Association, which offers leadership development courses, a national certification program, and meetings with some of the nation’s most influential superintendents.

Spence is a member of the leadership team for the Consortium of Large Countywide and Suburban School Districts, which works in partnership with AASA to provide a forum for member school divisions to collaborate on issues of practice, benchmark key data points against other districts, and collectively focus on federal advocacy.

Participation in groups like these has broadened Spence and his colleagues’ vision for their district.

“Not only do these opportunities expand my professional learning and challenge me to share my own expertise with others, but I also really appreciate the opportunity to expand my network of colleagues across the country and develop thought partners who understand the difficult nature of the work and the challenges we face in the superintendency,” said Spence. “I’ve found the networking and collaborative practice model of this consortium to be invaluable.”

AASA’s Digital Consortium, hosted this year by Discovery Education and the Horace Mann Educators Corporation, provided select superintendents with a series of informative conferences and district visits across the country.

The consortium provides district leaders with the opportunity to work together and gain insights into emerging, successful models for using digital materials to support engaged, effective learning experiences.

No educator — regardless of their role in the hierarchy of a district — needs to operate in isolation, said Lance Rougeux, Vice President of Discovery Education’s Learning Communities Innovation. To succeed in today’s high-stakes climates, educators need a place where they can explore new ideas for their schools in a safe atmosphere with their peers, free from judgment or consequence.

“By participating in professional learning communities, district leaders are making new connections with each other, whether it’s in person or virtually,” said Rougeux. “They’re creating valuable, new relationships that can help them overcome any number of challenges they may face.”

Rougeux helps lead The Discovery Education Community, a professional learning network that helps connect school leaders with their peers around the world to share their wealth of knowledge. Since it launched in 2005, thousands of educators have joined the Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a passionate group of leaders who share their stories of teaching with digital media, share resources, and network at nationwide conferences.

“What I love about these experiences, including membership in the AASA Digital Consortium, is the exposure not just to what has worked but the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned from those who have been in the vanguard of this work. I also appreciate that the learning doesn’t stop with what has worked, but that these conversations also focus on emerging theory and practice,” said Spence.


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Case Study: DC Everest’s Lessons from a Districtwide 1:1 Conversion

Many districts face the same challenges after choosing to embark on a 1:1 digital transition. They need to choose the right devices, the right curriculum supports, and they need to ensure their school board, every school employee, and parents, are on board with the leap. All parties involved must understand why digital is necessary to prepare students for the world they’ll face after they graduate.

D.C. Everest has lifted itself to sit alongside some of the best school districts in Wisconsin, thanks in part to its ambitious technology plan and implementation of quality professional development. But the road wasn’t easy. District leaders had to navigate their unique set of challenges in order to make their digital transition a success.

The common thread for the D.C. Everest region is the school district, which serves 11 municipalities, none with historic downtown areas. Established in 1953, D.C.Everest is one of Wisconsin’s newest school districts. That youth carries with it a scrappy demeanor that leans toward new methods of teaching and doing whatever it takes to provide the best opportunities for students. Its district leaders and teachers have proven to be innovative, taking risks to ensure students have what they needed to be successful.

Superintendent Kristine Gilmore, Ed.D., who has served as D.C. Everest’s superintendent for 14 years, helped guide the district through its digital transition over the past two years. And who better to lead the district into the future than a local girl with a long history in the region? Gilmore happens to be a graduate of D.C. Everest schools.

“It’s the ‘local girl comes home’ story,” she said. “Growing up, I had never dreamed of it, but it’s been a great place to give back to the community and raise my three kids with my husband.”

Another facet of the district that sets it apart from others in the region — the district has a large number of English Language Learners, comprising 12 percent of the school district. This is due in part to the region being home to a growing Hmong American population, who located there over the last three decades.

“We’ve become a much more diverse school district over the years, which I really think has made this community richer,” said Gilmore.

WHY GO DIGITAL?

Devices have been a part of D.C. Everest classrooms for years, but in 2014, they went 1:1 with iPads and Discovery Education Techbook, a digital textbook series. Of course, devices and powerful curriculum supports weren’t enough to transform the district. They needed a plan that would allow every student to succeed.

But before making its digital leap, D.C. Everest had to ensure that every level of the district’s faculty understood why they were making such a fundamental change. A key component of that change was keeping the promise of equal access to success for their students, said Gilmore.

“Technology for us was about providing every kid with the best opportunity to be successful,” she said. “The 1:1 initiative has provided both teachers and students with more choice and voice. Students now have 24/7/365 access to educational tools and resources that allow them to explore their individual interests, learn in a manner best-suited to them, and share what they’ve learned in a format they’re most comfortable with.”

D.C. Everest is not alone. Educators across the country are using Techbook to transform their classrooms into interactive learning environments, where lessons aren’t always one-sided lectures. Students can explore concepts with hands-on labs, getting a better understanding of real-world problems. Teachers can customize their lessons to meet the needs of their students by altering the Lexile levels, or language options.

District leaders also selected iPads paired with Techbook because that combination enabled students to learn offline. If Wi-Fi access wasn’t available at a student’s home, they could download chapters of material at school and take that back home to study videos and instruction. The solution helped ensure that technology barriers wouldn’t leave students without Internet access at home behind.

“For kids, learning in digital environments isn’t a new, exciting, scary thing — this is just their life,” she said. “We need to be sure that education is where our kids’ lives are at, not where our lives as educators were at.”

In a departure from many school districts across the country, D.C. Everest students are allowed to bring their iPads home over the summer. Gilmore said it’s a way of combating the so-called “summer slide,” effect in which knowledge melts from students’ minds over the summer months. To help retain some of their learned skills, the summer brought students educational programs such as STEM camps, summer school, and current resources on their iPads.

GOING 1:1

For Gilmore, there was a spark that marked the beginning of her digital journey. She had attended a Suburban School Superintendents Conference in San Francisco, where former Mooresville superintendent Mark Edwards had spoken. His message about digital transition, helping students learn to be great learners, was influential for Gilmore.

“As he told the story of his district, I thought, ‘Why not D.C. Everest?’” said Gilmore. “Our kids deserved these resources, and it was time to roll up our sleeves and make it happen.”
The district had been discussing going 1:1 for a few years. It previously had around 5,000 devices unequally distributed across its approximately 6,000 students. But Gilmore’s experience at the conference resulted in a decisive push for D.C. Everest’s transition to 1:1.

“You don’t have full access to the benefits of a digital curriculum until you go 1:1. That really allowed us to push content to all of our kids. We don’t have to guess at what our kids have. This initiative was about providing equity for our children and countless opportunities for the future.”

Initially, her team was concerned about budgetary constraints, but Gilmore assured them that they could overcome those challenges. No one has an unlimited budget, she said, but we can prioritize. By 2014, the district had rolled out 6,000 iPads to all of its students in under two weeks.

Through its 1:1 plan, school board officials wanted to provide students with rich, innovative classroom experiences. But funding new devices alone would not pave the way to the board’s goals for innovation. To support its technology plan, the district invested $4 million in infrastructure improvements, such as routers, bandwidth, mobile device management solutions, and Wi-Fi, and began investing in solid professional development (PD) to help educators adapt to the new shift in teaching.

“More than anything you need for teachers to shift their pedagogy around the higher levels of thinking for kids, creativity, innovation, personalization,” she said.

“All of this comes down to how we can change the classroom pedagogy to meet the needs of our students. The device is a resource — never a substitute for a great teacher.”

To leverage this new priority, D.C. Everest restructured its teacher compensation around quality PD. Teachers are compensated for pursuing individually-chosen opportunities that improve their teaching and learning strategies and are empowered to use those strategies within their classrooms in creative, new ways.

The incentive strategy paid off. By the end of the 2015-2016 school year, the district’s just over 400 teachers accrued more than 25,000 hours of PD outside of the school day.
The PD consisted of teachers teaching teachers best practices in the classroom, mini-courses on specific subjects, and three-day institutes focused on teaching and learning. During these sessions, Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps played a crucial role, said Gilmore, bringing speakers such as Toni Robinson to guide educators through their transition.

“Our professional development was not just two hours of training, or reading a book. It’s about changing the way that we teach every day. And even with newer teachers, that’s often not something they’re taught in school. Doing this well requires time and hands-on training, and an environment where risk-taking with support is safe,” said Gilmore.

BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF 1:1

Technology being placed in the hands of every student has helped to open the door for them to express and share their learning in creative ways. One way this was exemplified was how a fourth-grade class at Riverside Elementary School chose to take their study of the Iditarod Race and run with it.

The students’ enthusiasm for the race evolved into a podcast series where they recorded their thoughts on the progress of the race. Their creativity paid off. The podcast drew the attention a few actual Iditarod mushers, who had been following the kids’ show. The mushers reached out to the class to congratulate them on their creation and encouraged them to keep at it.

The encounter was an affirmation for the students’ experimentation with what’s possible through a digital education.

“That kind of experience changes how kids perceive themselves as participants in their own education, as readers, writers, and authors, they have an authentic audience,” said Gilmore.

By the start of the 2016-2017 school year, the district had two years of experience in a 1:1 learning environment. They also had become well-versed with all three of Discovery Education’s Techbooks — Science Techbook, Math Techbook and Social Studies Techbook — which supplement their existing curriculum.

Gilmore said the district selected Techbook because it allowed students to experience their education in a multi-faceted way. Traditional textbook offer students textual ways to experience new places or concepts, and in Techbook, if they don’t quite understand, they can watch the video, it can be read aloud, they can change the Lexile level, and in math they can see a problem solved in multiple ways.

“Adopting Techbook was really about engaging students and giving them opportunities to grow in different ways than a flat textbook might do,” said
Gilmore. “It’s one thing to read about the desert if you’ve never been there, and another to watch a video and see it.”

Social Studies students immediately took to the benefits of Techbook. Being able to witness world-changing events in video form, and study history through multiple lenses has afforded students a more well-rounded education. But implementing Math Techbook has been more complicated, said Gilmore, because it has involved a mindset shift around how to teach it.

Math can be a touchy subject for districts. Unlike Social Studies, it is generally taught in a very concrete fashion, and there are very distinct milestones to hit for state standards. Since rolling out Math Techbook, Gilmore said she noticed a reticence of certain teachers to adapt to the changing learning styles around Math.

“We all want to provide kids with more meaningful experiences, but that often involves setting up the classroom differently, learning differently — and change is difficult,” she said.
This reluctance to change represents one of the challenges that have reared themselves since the district went 1:1, and D.C. Everest is not an island unto itself. Many districts nationwide experience resistance from educators fearful of altering the trajectory of teaching and learning, particularly when that change involves abandoning the traditional, stand-and-deliver method of teaching. Instead, modern teachers are often moving from the center of the classroom to the periphery as a support for student-driven learning, aided by the device.

To address teacher concerns, professional development courses and Discovery Education’s Digital Leader Corps offered educators intensive training in the new methodologies around teaching, helping them acclimate to the change in their comfort levels with technology in the classroom. Every school in the district also has learning labs, where teachers are encouraged to try new methods of teaching. Educators also bring their peers to these sessions to help solidify best practices across the district which has proven to be more effective than a supervisory model.

The same skepticism toward technology in the classroom was voiced by some parents in the community after the district announced its plans to go 1:1. To help navigate these troubled waters, D.C. Everest hosted informational panels where parents could ask questions about their children’s education. It also helped that when students brought their devices home, parents could witness what their children were learning.

“A parent told me that before, they felt clueless about what happened at school, but the devices have helped them connect with their kids’ lives in ways they just couldn’t before,” Gilmore said.

TAPPING THE POWER OF YOUR PEERS

No educator — regardless of their role in the hierarchy of a district — needs to operate in isolation, said Lance Rougeux, Vice President of Discovery Education’s Learning Communities Innovation. To succeed in today’s high-stakes climates, educators need a place where they can explore new ideas for their schools in a safe atmosphere with their peers, free from judgment or consequence.

Rougeux helps lead The Discovery Education Community, a professional learning network that helps connect school leaders with their peers around the world to share their wealth of knowledge.

“By participating in professional learning communities, district leaders are making new connections with each other, whether it’s in person or virtually,” said Rougeux. “They’re creating valuable, new relationships that can help them overcome any number of challenges they may face.”

Gilmore is one of 40 members of AASA’s Digital Consortium, which has allowed her access to a series of conferences and district visits across the country. The consortium provides district leaders with the opportunity to work together and gain insights into emerging, successful models for using digital materials to support engaged, effective learning experiences.
Among the most valuable lessons from these sessions for Gilmore was the ability to learn and share resources with her peers. Together, they supported one another through their own digital transitions, and learned from the successes and mistakes of others.

“These relationships are imperative in the work as we support each other, share resources, and learn together. While at the Digital Consortium meetings we visited schools who are living the work,” she said. Gilmore advises superintendents in need of guidance to seek help from peers and associations like AASA.

“Ask a lot of questions, take teams to visit, and learn, learn, and learn. I would also suggest finding great business partners who want to help your students succeed,” she said.

“Providing students with engaging, relevant, innovative, and personalized learning experiences is our mission — it takes some courage, but isn’t that what leadership is all about?”

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