Alabama Gets on Board
Dedication to tech-based learning at the state level is credited with turning around student performance at two school districts.
As the 20th century drew to a close, Roanoke City Schools ranked last in Alabama in per-pupil expenditures and its high school dropouts were increasing. The small, rural school system knew a change of course was in order.
“The world around us was changing and we could not wait to make a difference for our students,” explains David Crouse, director of federal programs for the district. “The train had left the station and would not be returning.”
To get on board required a total commitment to transforming the district’s educational practice through a technology-infused 21st century learning program, moving away from simply having, in Crouse’s words, “computers down the hall and in the back of the room.”
After much planning and changes in leadership positions, the upshot of that commitment was the Tools for Life initiative. The introduction, support, and expansion of the program were funded by multiple sources. The district used its own money along with funding from Title I and No Child Left Behind’s Title II-D (Enhancing Education Through Technology) to buy wireless networks, laptops, and projectors. Title II-D money also combined with funds from NCLB’s Title II-A (Teacher and Principal Training and Recruiting Fund) to support professional development, and district funds provided other equipment and additional teacher support.
“We looked at each funding stream to identify how it could support the program,” says Crouse. “Once the basic technology tools and wireless networks were in place, the schools were able to maximize access to a variety of other resources to help increase student achievement and graduation rates.”
One of those resources that Roanoke schools put to use was Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide (ACCESS), a distance learning initiative that provides credit recovery courses. The courses are made available over the summer to students at the district’s lone high school, Handley High. (During the school year, Roanoke uses Plato Learning’s credit recovery solution.)
Last September, the National Association for State Title I Directors (NASTID) and the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released two coordinated reports, “Leveraging Title I & Title II-D: Maximizing the Impact of Technology in Education” and “A Resource Guide Identifying Technology Tools for Schools” (setda.org/web/guest/titleI). The documents provide examples of successful technology integration tools and programs.
“The credit recovery programs have been critical to reducing the dropout rate,” Crouse says. “Our data indicated that students who failed only one course during high school had a significantly higher potential to drop out. All seniors who began the 2009-2010 school year will graduate together. This wouldn’t have been possible without the initial technology infrastructure and access to online courses.”
Other key resources include a state-funded teacher portal, the Alabama Learning Exchange (ALEX), to increase student engagement and individualize instruction through digital content and materials. ALEX offers lesson plans, web links, podcasts, professional development tools, and listservs.
The changes seen in the district in the four years since Tools for Life was launched are remarkable. Roanoke’s three schools all made adequate yearly progress (AYP) each of the last three years. Knight Enloe Elementary School received a $15,000 cash award from the state for closing the achievement gap between black and white students in math and reading in the 2008-2009 school year. Meanwhile, Handley High School eliminated that same gap in math, which had been 15 points in 2006-2007. In 2008-2009 the two subgroups were dead even. The school also upped its graduation rate from 78 percent in 2006-2007 to 90 percent in 2008-2009.
How did Roanoke make all of this happen in four short years? “Persistence!” says Crouse. “From our board of education and administrators, to the technologists, to the Title I coordinator, to the teachers, parents, and students—[we] are all committed to providing 21st century learning environments and increasing graduation rates.”
Roanoke is not alone among Alabama districts in its mission. Another example is the Pell City School District, which resolved to integrate technology in 2007.
“We knew we had to make changes in our schools’ structure,” says Stacey Weaver, Pell City’s technology director. “Because the world around us was changing so fast, our leadership made a commitment to providing a new model of education for our students.”
Just as Roanoke did, Pell City dipped into multiple funding sources to drive its approach. “Once our district leadership committed to engaging students and increasing student achievement,” Weaver says, “they focused all resources to support the system.” Title I funds bought laptop carts, document cameras, and interactive writing tablets. E-Rate money supported the wireless network. Funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) targeted for special education went toward iPod Touches and software that helps track student behaviors. And the district combined Title II-A and Title II-D funds to provide professional development opportunities for staff members.
Now the district’s teachers say they can’t imagine teaching without wireless internet access, laptop carts, interactive whiteboards, and student response systems. “They understand that daily technology integration is expected,” says Helene Bettinger, principal at Pell City High School.
Bettinger says that the district superintendent asked the state for special permission to allow one of Pell City’s two library media specialists to work specifically as a technology specialist, “since the state began to encourage the use of a variety of resources to best meet the needs of students.” Permission was granted, and the job responsibilities of one of the media specialist positions. The newly created tech specialist job now provides coaching for teachers as they plan lessons and use technology in the classroom.
When Alabama became one of the first states to relax its “specified seat time” mandates—state laws outlining how much time students must spend attending class in order to receive credits—Pell City High School jumped at the opportunity to tailor instructional delivery models to meet students’ needs. The school began offering credit and grade recovery courses through the ACCESS initiative both during and outside regular school hours.
The school’s dropout rate fell from 27 percent in 2004 to 4 percent in 2009, and its college-going rate rose to 75 percent. “Our students are blossoming,” Bettinger says. “District coupled with state resources are allowing them to spread and grow in their educational and career experiences. None of this would have been possible without the support of the entire district for implementing technology in the classroom.”
Those involved say the credit for the transformations of both the Roanoke City and Pell City school districts goes to the strong dedication to education technology at the state level. From Gov. Bob Riley to State Superintendent Joseph Morton and Director of Technology Initiatives Melinda Maddox, Alabama has worked to provide each district with the resources necessary to build technology-rich learning environments.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the state’s leadership,” Weaver says. “The state pushes school systems to think beyond the traditional school setting to find solutions for improving student achievement.” As an example of that, all of the state and federally funded grant programs are now planned and evaluated by a state leadership team, which includes the state technology director.
“The state has seen a significant increase in districts elevating the technology director to the district leadership team since the state modeled this practice,” Maddox says. “The districts find it in their financial interest to include the technology directors as part of their grant planning and implementation.”
In addition, technology is now a key component in all state-coordinated grant programs, including the recent ARRA School Improvement Grants.
Alabama’s use of multiple funding sources to support tech-rich learning is being used as a model by other state policymakers and education leaders as they work together to reform schools. “[Our] statewide technology initiative,” Morton says, “opens the door to a world of learning that was once unreachable by some students in Alabama.”
This article originally appeared in the June / July 2010 issue of THE Journal.