Edtech 'Buddy Systems': When the Little District Helps the Big District

Edtech 'Buddy Systems': When the Little District Helps the Big District

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Here’s the golden rule of entrepreneurship: start with a small example of success and then replicate, replicate, replicate.

Turns out, the same approach can work when districts roll out 1:1 (device: student) programs. In fact, it’s the foundation for a partnership between the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the seventh-largest district in the U.S., and a district of barely 5,900 students—the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, to be exact.

Small but mighty

Talk to HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, and you’ll hear the benefits of buddying up with a smaller district that’s got a solid blended-learning program. When Grier started designing HISD’s “PowerUp” 1:1 rollout timeline last year, he knew that researching other district rollouts was a key to success. He started by looking at big districts comparable to Houston--and quickly realized that size wasn’t the determining factor in successful blended learning.

“We went to Chicago, we went to Miami, we went to Huntsville, Alabama,” Grier says. “But at the end of the day, Mooresville was the place that got it right.”

Mooresville GSD is a district of eight schools located north of Charlotte, NC. Despite its small size, the district packs a big punch when it comes to edtech--so much, in fact, that the New York Times referred to Mooresville as “a shining example” of “laptop success” in 2012.

Mooresville GSD has championed its 1:1 rollout since the central office first started planning laptop distribution in 2008. By year three, every student and teacher in the district had a laptop--and was truly using it for instructional purposes. The numbers underscored that success: the district’s graduation rate rose to 91% in 2011 (up from 80% in 2008), and an average of 88% of students met 2011 state test proficiency standards in ELA, math, and science (up from 73% in 2008).

What Mooresville does differently

Mooresville Graded School District Logo (MGSD Website)

While Grier first learned of Mooresville’s plans for rollout back in 2009, he was doubtful it would live up to the promise. “Mooresville Supt. Mark Edwards and I had been friends for 25 years, but when they just launched this thing, I thought ‘This is a crock,’” Grier admits.

But throughout his visits following Mooresville’s initial launch, Grier reports, “I didn’t see one disengaged student the whole time I was there. Lecturing was very minimal compared to what we see day in and day out in Houston. We went back to Mooresville every 2 to 3 years, and [the 1:1 program] got stronger and stronger.”

Grier noticed a couple of key elements to that success--namely, the selection of Apple Macbook Airs over tablets (“Keyboards give kids easier access to data. It's more functional… and more durable,” Grier says) and the choice to spread the rollout over a few years. Mooresville first started

But beyond hardware and timing, what stood out to Grier the most was Mooresville’s support for teachers and students throughout the conversion process, and subsequent teacher-leadership development.

“We saw that Mooresville had a very direct type of support at the school level that digital change needed,” Grier explains. Specifically, Grier says that each school has its own “go-to” tech integrationist, who provides both in-house technological training and instructional professional development for teachers. Mooresville staff listened to what their teachers wanted, and helped them learn new ways to teach with both existing materials (i.e. physical textbooks) and digital technology--helping them transition to what Mooresville IT Officer Scott Smith refers to as “facilitators of instruction.”

And at its PD core, Mooresville’s superintendent Dr. Mark Edwards reports that the district emphases teacher leadership and engaging educator stakeholders in support of the 1:1 rollout. Every year, 40 to 50 Mooresville teachers participate in teacher-leader training sessions related to edtech topics like digital resources and data. The following year, they serve as a coach and mentor to their own colleagues and other districts, like HISD. “It creates professional responsbility, but also a sense of additive capacity,” Edwards explains.

Students were brought into this leadership process, too. Mooresville’s high school students don’t just use the laptops--they support 1:1 training and implementation. For example, Mooresville high school students can earn course credit for running their school’s “Help Desk” laptop repair shop.

The beginnings of a beautiful partnership

Grier realized that he wanted to bring Mooresville’s influence to HISD. But to do that he would have to show HISD teachers the success of Moorseville’s 1:1 in person. So began an edtech “teacher swap”: Grier flew approximately 20 teachers to Mooresville during the summer of 2013 for “Summer Connection,” Mooresville’s Digital Conversion training. (HISD principals and administrators would later visit in November.) Meanwhile, a dozen Mooresville teachers came out to Houston in July to share best practices--a point of pride for those Mooresville educators.

“They were honored and in awe, thinking, ‘This is one of the biggest systems in the country, and we're working with them,’" Edwards reports.

What did HISD teachers witness while in NC and talking to teachers? The impact of tech professional development at work, specifically teamwork and project-based learning--two factors that likely contributed to Mooresville’s successful 1:1 rollout.

“We started last summer (2013) with training by sending HISD teachers to Mooresville,” Grier says. “We showed the teachers, ‘You're not going to stand up and lecture to these kids--this is more about project-based learning.’” He continues: “But the other big piece was that you could see that those [Mooresville] teachers meet together and plan together.”

As it turns out, both of those pieces made their way back to Texas--along with excitement from HISD educators.

“It’s very exciting to have people who have traveled the road before you so they can share advice and strategies,” reported Houston high school principal Lori Lambropoulos on HISD’s official blog, following a visit to NC. “Mooresville has been great to work with. We couldn’t do what we’re doing without them.”

Edwards reports that by November of 2013, what originally started as “preliminary work was related to our training and working with HISD on both their planning process and implementation” quickly merged into a full-fledged partnership--”a connection between HISD leaders and our leaders,” he says.

Step by step

Teachers attend HISD tech training sessions (HISD Website)

Grier announced his vision for HISD’s PowerUp 1:1 program approximately one year ago. Since then, Houston has recycled many of Mooresville’s design elements for its own rollout.

Noticeably, HISD has made a point of rolling out its program step-by-step over several years. Right now, only Phase 1 of the rollout--releasing laptops to 11 of HISD’s 39 high schools for the 2013-2014 school year--is underway. “We didn’t want to do the start-stop crash that Los Angeles and Miami went through,” Grier explains. “They wanted to do A and B and C and D. We want to get A right, then B. Get B right, then C. We believe that you ought to get something right, and then something else.”

A la Mooresville’s inspiration, HISD emphasizes stakeholder leadership (“We’re developing teacher leaders, principal leaders, and student leaders,” Grier says). The district has also placed importance on collaboration and professional development for teachers both before and during the rollout process. In a large district like HISD, turnover can make this a difficult process. But Grier and his team kept that in mind: “Not only are you going to train current teachers over the summer, you're going to have parallel training that's new for teachers coming into our current 11 pilots schools.”

As with all great partnerships, HISD also chose to deviate from from Mooresville’s design in a several ways. Case in point: choice of hardware vendor. Mooresville provided evidence that laptops worked well for 1:1. But when it comes to larger student populations, districts often want to save money--and find vendors who understand that.

“We have really looked hard at how we can create savings that would allow us to give a laptop to each kid in our high schools. And Apple was just arrogant,” Grier admits. “They said, ‘If you want to lease an Apple Air, here's what we charge. We're not negotiating with you.’ But we got a better price with [Hewlett Packard Folio] laptops.” (At this time, about 19,000 Folio laptops have been purchased and distributed to Phase 1 students.)

The results

HISD has received recognition for its thus-far pilot of laptops in the districts--most importantly, from Mooresville’s own teaching staff. In December of 2013, a group of Mooresville teachers, principals, and technology specialists visited HISD to observe and gauge the rollout process. Mooresville High School Instructional Technology Facilitator Tracey Waid spoke positively of HISD’s progress:

“When we were here this summer, we had a chance to share strategies and plans with a lot of your teachers, and today we’re seeing that many of those strategies have been put into place. We’ve seen a lot of student-centered classrooms, a lot of real world skills, student collaboration, and communication. It’s impressive.”

Only the future will tell if the triumph will continue throughout the next few years. But in the meantime, Grier is insistent on the benefits of a large district-small district partnership.

“Mooresville was very transparent about what they did,” Grier says, adding a piece of advice for other districts: “Be purposeful. Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

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