How Baltimore CPS Used Communications Strategies to Create Personalized...

column | Personalized Learning

How Baltimore CPS Used Communications Strategies to Create Personalized Learning Buy-In

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Mar 2, 2017

How Baltimore CPS Used Communications Strategies to Create Personalized Learning Buy-In

This article is part of the collection: The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

This isn’t your alma mater’s old note home.

One of the trickiest challenges when redesigning a school or district may be one that many leaders all too often put on the back burner—namely, creating buy-in, both from teachers and from families. In the case of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), when the district began a huge leap to personalized learning, its leaders consciously began designing a communications strategy to bring together students, teachers and families.

But that communications strategy went beyond just sharing stories with families and teachers. It became the way by which BCPS told stories about what had and hadn’t worked, so that other educators, schools and districts could potentially garner tips and insights. And what BCPS itself learned along the way was that to be truly helpful to other educators, sharing out that both the triumphs and the failures must be continual, authentic and transparent.

Let’s take a look at what and how BCPS shared those stories.

Creating (and Communicating About) the Lighthouse Schools Program

In 2013, BCPS launched a multi-year initiative called Student and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.) that focuses on redesigning the learning environment with 21st century technology to meet the needs of modern learners. To make this shift, the district started by creating a pilot network of a few schools, dubbed “Lighthouse Schools,” that would experiment with transforming learning environments and essentially lead the way for the district.

Three years ago, the pilot launched with ten elementary schools, and as of fall 2016, it has grown to include 20 schools (out of a total of 173 BCPS schools), specifically ten elementary schools, seven middle schools and three high schools. According to the S.T.A.T. rollout plan, all schools would following in the footsteps of Lighthouse Schools after the first pilot year, but Lighthouse would be the first to receive devices and new curriculum. Additionally, a major focus of the pilot was to create various types of learner-centered environments, where students have choices around what and how they learn.

Baltimore County district and school leaders were acutely sensitive to how the community’s reaction mattered, which is why the district made communications a priority. As Supervisor of the Office of Innovative Learning Projects at BCPS, David Robb, says, the goal was to build relationships, especially with families to provide a consistent message. He explains:

“Parents, who were used to coming to Back-To-School night and sitting at their child’s assigned desk, would need to be educated on why the classroom looks different. There were misperceptions of the transformations that were occurring like the idea that one-to-one devices meant taking away opportunities for children to interact with their peers and teachers. It was important that we communicate these changes to parents and educators at other schools who will be following the Lighthouse Schools in the coming years.”

But here was the twist: Robb and his team leaned on everyone involved in the school transformation—including students, teachers, administrators, families and coaches—to share the story. And that courage to let different parties share their accounts, both the struggles and successes, has been key to BCPS’s sharing culture.

How The Sharing Happened—And Grew Beyond the District

The foundation of the communications strategy was laid back in 2013, when the original ten Lighthouse Schools began implementing their new designs. The district created two roles, “Good News Ambassadors” and “Journey Representatives,” to support the effort to share stories from these pilot schools. The district also created a website devoted to BCPS Lighthouse Schools to centralize some of the storytelling, making it easy for teachers, administrators and families from other schools to get a glimpse inside the pilot schools. The website has four pages that tackle sharing in a variety of ways: reflections, journeys, learning and #BCPSLH.

At every Lighthouse School, the principal designates one “Good News Ambassador” to share the school’s story. These ambassadors recruit staff members to share their ideas using a bevy of communications tools including social media outlets, school websites and and the Lighthouse School’s reflections page. Pictures, videos, reflections—everything becomes an artifact to document the school journey.

Ambassadors post ideas and pictures of what is happening in their classrooms on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest using the #BCPSLH and #BCPSSTAT hashtags. For instance, Jessica Wharton, an ambassador and instructional coach at Church Lane Elementary, celebrated teachers via the Twitter handle, @CLETS_STAT. As she weaves her way through classrooms supporting teachers with coaching and modeling instruction, Wharton tweets nuggets that spotlight teachers and students throughout the school--along with the tools they are using.

2nd uses Wixie to create their own math story problems. #bcpslh @Tech4Learning @BCPSMsFrank @BCPSMATH
— Jessica W (@CLETS_STAT) February 27, 2017

During the first phase of device roll out for each Lighthouse School, a “Journey Representative” is selected to share monthly reflections about their triumphs and challenges on the journey page of the lighthouse website. This rep can be a student, teacher, administrator or family member. Sydney Paules, for example, a 6th grade student at Pikesville Middle shares her frustrations about files disappearing, but then describes how saving files to BCPSOne Drive (the district’s LMS) helped her solve the issue.

Twitter has become the most widely used medium for sharing stories about BCPS. Sharing stories from the class could seem like another burden on teachers, concedes Cox. Tweeting, by contrast, is easier.

“My teachers have always been dedicated to what they are doing in the classroom. It is very difficult for them to write about it on top of all they are doing to plan and prepare for their students,” Cox notes. “Instead, they tend to gravitate towards Twitter to share brief snippets. Tweets can be just as powerful as they are a direct line to the community and beyond.”

Impact and Lessons Learned

From the beginning, the S.T.A.T. initiative was laid out to expand into all BCPS schools over the course of five years. The communications efforts have supported this growth by giving schools that are new to the initiative a glimpse into the transformation before it starts at their school, increasing buy-in and setting them up for success.

“It is logistically impossible in a district our size to get over 8,000 teachers to physically visit a Lighthouse School,” says Robb. The Lighthouse website and stories enable the district to share visuals of what these new learning models look like in action. “[The] honest reflections can help ease the anxiety for the schools that are next in line. We get past the challenges, learn from them and become better teachers and students as a result,” says Robb.

But while Twitter has all played an integral in the transformation, connecting students, teachers, administrators and families, it’s also given districts and educators across the country an intimate view into the ups and downs of launching the Lighthouse Schools pilot.

In fact, since 2012, the (now) 20 Lighthouse Schools have produced almost 17,000 tweets and gained close to 8,000 Twitter followers, collectively. Church Lane Elementary alone has produced more than 2,500 Tweets, despite being one of the later Lighthouse Schools to join Twitter.

Stats aside, when Cox reflects on the impact of this sharing culture, she notes that it isn’t just about praising effort. Instead, what makes sharing important is “the understanding that we are not in it alone.” In fact, education is a collective effort amongst a variety of stakeholders across district borders and state lines—and it’s an effort that should be discussed and shared.

“We are all in this together,” she says. “We are all working to transform teaching and learning in order to do what we feel is best for our students.”

This case study was featured in Chapter 4 of EdSurge's "State of Edtech" report. To read the other 13 school/district case studies, click here.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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