Why a High-Achieving District Keeps Tinkering With a School Model That...

Personalized Learning

Why a High-Achieving District Keeps Tinkering With a School Model That Already Works

By Dr. Kathy Curran     Oct 12, 2017

Why a High-Achieving District Keeps Tinkering With a School Model That Already Works

We’ve all heard the old cliche, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” It’s a well-worn idiom, which shapes the belief systems of too many schools and districts across the country. But as a guiding philosophy it can be paralyzing, particularly for a school district that’s doing well.

By many traditional measures, such as rankings, lists and awards, North Allegheny School District, is extremely high performing. Serving 8,360 students, we’re located about 12 miles north of Pittsburgh, nestled in the suburbs. During the last few years, we’ve been recognized for outstanding performance in everything from academics to the arts to our athletics program.

The 2018 Niche.com rankings listed our district as one of the top 15 “Best School Districts in America” for the fourth year in a row. Four of our seven elementary schools are ranked in the top 20 schools in Pennsylvania, and our high school forensics team is recognized as one of the best teams in the nation. Several of our students were named U.S. Presidential Scholars.

So in spring of 2014, when the district proposed implementing a 1:1 technology initiative that would help teachers and students transition to a personalized learning model, there was some resistance from families and the board rejected the proposal. If the district’s goal was to be high achieving, then what was the point of tinkering with a formula that was working?

North Allegheny’s mission has always been to prepare students for success in an ever-changing world. That mantra remains. But we started to recognize that do this, we couldn't keep our practices stagnant—we needed to change with the times.

Our mission was clear but one question continued to plague us: How could we help our stakeholders—parents, teachers, students and the community at large—understand why we wanted to change a model that already appeared to be working well. Without their support, the initiative would fail—we needed buy-in.

That summer, our district leadership team regrouped and crafted a plan to do some homework and develop a stronger proposal. We engaged in a six-month research project to figure out what specific practices we could change to help us better prepare students for the modern world. Our research involved traditional reviews of literature, attending conferences and vendor seminars, interviewing faculty from higher education institutions and surveying other districts.

As part of our research, we created a community-based Technology Advisory Committee (TAC), which was charged with making a recommendation to the Board of School Directors about how the district could use technology to enhance, support and transform the teaching and learning environment.

This strategy was successful, but the road was bumpy and we learned a lot throughout the process. Here are three decisions we made along the that were instrumental in gaining buy-in from our stakeholders.

1. Build a Diverse Committee

By all practical measures our committee was too large with 28 members including: a teacher or building administrator from each school, district administrators, technology coaches, parents and community members. But we felt it was important to make sure that every stakeholder had representation.

The committee members had a broad array of backgrounds with varying degrees of passion and commitment to technology and education. It was critical that the committee included members who were concerned that increased technology use in classroom would do more harm than good—especially given the board’s reaction to the initial proposal. Excluding that perspective would make it very challenging for the school board directors to support recommendations from the committee.

The TAC established four sub-committees tasked with examining the following: hardware and infrastructure, curriculum and instruction, professional development and policies. These sub-committees were structured to maintain the diversity of voices across the entire TAC.

2. Make Time for Field Trips

The committee determined that it was vitally important to visit other schools that were successfully implementing personalized learning with their 1:1 programs. Each sub-committee scheduled visits with several neighboring districts—and some of them had demographics that were wildly different than ours.

Not only did these site visits provide examples of what personalized learning environments could look like at our schools with a 1:1 initiative, but they also gave us tremendous insight into practical implementation of the degree of change we were investigating. We were able to ask questions about change management and get a sense of the challenges that we would likely encounter.

In the winter of 2015, the TAC visited our own schools. It was key that the committee saw what was happening—and not happening—in our own buildings. Members of the committee discovered pockets of excellence where technology was used creatively to engage students. However, they also saw limitations such as inconsistent wi-fi and minimal access to devices. There were buildings with 60 computers in a lab servicing 600 elementary students, and teachers were going to extraordinary measures to give their students access to technology—maybe once a month.

In the elementary and middle schools, the TAC discovered that over 50% of the students were using computers once a month or less. It was eye-opening to see our classrooms in comparison to the schools we visited outside of our district.

3. Be Thoughtful About Who Delivers the Final Recommendations

After months of research, the sub-committees collaborated to settle on three recommendations for the board: create equitable technology environments in each building, adopt a 1:1 program, and expand professional development and IT support.

The TAC wanted to be very thoughtful about how to deliver the recommendations. The committee decided that the recommendations would be most compelling if they were shared by a parent member of the committee in response to the concerns raised by families a year earlier.

In March of 2015, the board was presented with a written report that was accompanied by a presentation led by an elementary school parent outlining the three recommendations. Every committee member attended the board meeting and most played some role in the presentation.

A middle school student led the school board through an activity designed to simulate the process he had to follow when preparing a school project with limited access to technology. An elementary school teacher showcased an assignment where students made green-screened movies about a biodome as opposed to creating pop-up storybooks which they had been doing for years. The committee’s passion and commitment to its recommendations was unmistakable.

Collectively, these three decisions were key in helping our school board vote in June of 2015 to move forward with a 1:1 program. The board knew that due diligence had been done, and the technology-hesitant members of the committee reported understanding the benefits of transforming our learning environment.

In the fall of 2015 our initiative, branded as FOCUS 2020, kicked off the roll-out by distributing about 2,100 devices to sixth, ninth and tenth graders. The district expanded a team of technology coaches and increased staffing in the technology department to support FOCUS 2020. In 2016, an additional 2,000 devices were distributed as the program expanded to reach three more grades, and in 2017, we deployed 2,000 devices to three more grades. By fall of 2018, all students in grades 1-12 will have a device.

We’ve hit some road bumps on our journey to personalized learning over the past four years, but overall our community has embraced the transition, and we’re excited to see how our students and teachers continue to use technology to push the boundaries of what was once possible.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that we’ve learned is that it is just as important for high-achieving districts to continue to improve, but sometimes it’s up to us to set the bar higher for ourselves. There is value in tinkering with a school model that works—in our case it allowed us to go beyond high achievement as defined by traditional measures.

Dr. Kathy Curran is the coordinator of academic technology and instructional services at North Allegheny School District in Pennsylvania.

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