During 2009, then-Superintendent Darwin Stiffler and Associate Superintendent Duane Sheppard of Yuma Elementary School District One in Arizona had just taken their positions and were trying to figure out how to meet students’ needs. Like many districts, they serve a lot of low-income students, many of whom struggle in reading in math and reading, and a number who moved to Arizona from another country.
To start somewhere, they decided to search for digital content to help with improving student learning. But figuring out how to educate all types of students with online content is challenging when working within a district budget. “In Arizona, we have such limited resources,” Sheppard says, noting that in 2014, Arizona ranked 48th out of 50 for state education spending per student.
Luckily, during their first year at the district, the two realized that Yuma had $850,000 in unused Title I funding. Now, the question was how to experiment with it—and what to do when that money ran out.
Deciding What to Buy
When it came to digital tools, Sheppard and Stiffler wanted to first fund one subject, in particular. “We decided that math would begin our focus. Let’s try meeting all of the needs of our students in math,” Sheppard says.
The two decided to pool the Title 1 money and buy five laptop computers for every classroom teaching math across the district (approximately 450 laptops) in the spring of 2009. With these laptops, many teachers rose to the challenge of using digital materials—a new concept back in 2009. Additionally, when they saw how the devices helped students learn, principals of individual schools began to use their budgets to buy more laptops and create computer labs, reports Stiffler.
The enthusiasm led Sheppard to begin building the infrastructure to support more devices over the next six years. He invested $500,000—90% from eRate dollars, 10% from the district—into increasing access points in the hallways of the 17 schools, and increasing bandwidth for the approximately 8600 students and 450 certified staff that needed online access.
While these were stepping stones, it had become clear to Sheppard by 2012 that the district needed to take a bigger step and convert to a one-to-one model. “We started to look at state summative results,” he says, “and when we began to see a little bit of growth, principals got excited.” In Sheppard’s eyes, every student should be equipped with a piece of technology so they can access their digital content whenever they need it.
But more plans demanded more money—and those Title 1 funds weren’t around anymore, as the initial purchase of devices in 2009 had soaked it all up. Principals had started to adjust their school site budgets to purchase, but Sheppard knew that wasn’t enough. The district would have to be more aggressive with finding the money.
Finding the Money for the Job
The district’s chief financial officer advised administrators they would need to raise a bond to fund the one-to-one initiative. The Lindsay community would vote on the $22 million bond (as part of general elections), which would be designated to pay for school technology, safety and general maintenance of buildings (including one that was more than 100 years old).
According to Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Alka, to raise support for the bond, the district sent flyers out to community members and worked to spread the word in every way they could think of. Sheppard and his team held four informational meetings to give constituents the facts about the bond proposal. The team also went door-to-door to speak with retired voters. “They don’t have kids in the district, so we really had to talk directly with them about the bond,” Sheppard says.
The efforts paid off. The community understood the need and the district’s limited resources from the state, Alka says, and the bond was approved in November of 2014.
Out of the portion of the bond ($4.5 million) the district received for technology, $4.1 million went to iPads, teacher iPad-minis, and 300 Apple TVs, while $400,000 went to more infrastructure improvements. The district was able to purchase an iPad for every one of the 8600 students, set up access to internet in every classroom and major school area, and increase bandwidth by 20GB of internet—across all schools in the district. The district now “had more bandwidth than the military [and hospitals] here.” Sheppard adds, “We’re [now] the largest users of bandwidth in our city.”
Invest Time in People, Instead of Spending Money on New Hires
In the move to using education technology, Sheppard says the district did a lot of restructuring in order to get everyone up to speed on new tools. Bond money cannot be spent on human capital, so Sheppard had to get creative.
One of the biggest challenges to the nine-year march toward one-to-one came in the form of teacher knowledge (or the lack thereof), Sheppard says. Not all teachers were proficient or comfortable with using technology. “I didn’t realize how many ‘deer in the headlights’ we had,” he says.
In order to help, the district dedicated the summer of 2015 to transition everyone with several training sessions. Digital content providers were brought in three times to run workshops (the cost of which was often bundled with the software the district had already purchased), and teachers were paid to attend, getting to choose which workshops to participate in. Another several days were set aside over the summer to work with teachers more closely on how to use the devices with students.
“We planned to spend about $300 per teacher, so we allocated about $100,000 of our budget to go towards summertime pay while teachers were in PD,” Sheppard says. “We also gave professional growth units to any teacher who we felt went above and beyond that summer.”
To save additional money, the district refrained from finding new hires, so it looked within for technology champions—and found them in the form of para-librarians. These employees became the leaders on campuses to assist with distributing and troubleshooting technologies, which included iPads and some other devices.
And the PD didn’t stop over the summer. With the purchase of so many iPads, Apple also included four days of training each month during 2015-2016. As a result, teachers could ask questions or clarify iPad practices throughout that first year of districtwide iPads.
Keeping the Money Flowing
Since incorporating these initiatives, Sheppard says the academic results have been promising. English Language Arts scores have gone up significantly; math scores are on their way up as well.
Over the long-term, Sheppard says that the district is planning on maintaining and refreshing the iPads, which are expected to have three-year life cycles. The “plan is not completely solidified” on how to acquire and distribute more funds for this, but Sheppard says that it will come in the mix of district money and supplemental funds from Title 1.
As far as advice to other districts, Sheppard says to focus spending on devices, infrastructure, and strong digital content. But when it comes to human capital, districts already have what they need. “We chose to go big. We already had the right people in place, and with some training, they were ready,” Sheppard says.