The Smart Way to Roll Out 1-to-1 in a Big District

Ryan Imbriale, the executive director of innovative learning for Baltimore County Public Schools, shares the secrets of his district's gradual and well-supported implementation of mobile devices.

Ryan ImbrialeIn a K-12 district with 173 schools and 110,000 students, former high school principal Ryan Imbriale is leading Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT), a multiyear transformation into what the district calls a “21st century technology learning environment to prepare globally competitive graduates.” The cornerstone of the conversion is a 1-to-1 program that, within five years, will put an HP Revolve notebook/tablet in every student’s hand.

THE Journal: What’s the key to rolling out a 1-to-1 program in a large district such as yours?

Ryan Imbriale: When we were going through the planning around this, there were lots of conversations about how we take on an initiative like STAT in a way that’s scalable, and in a way that helps us learn from our own stumbles so that we can make sure that we do things better with each iteration. So we did this through a “Lighthouse Schools” program. You can think of the Lighthouse Schools as pilots. We see them as opportunities for reflection, opportunities to document the journeys that are happening in these schools and to really understand what kind of learning environments need to be in place to be successful.

This year we’re in 10 elementary schools. Next year, in addition to rolling out the rest of our elementary schools, we’ll be selecting five middle-school Lighthouse Schools. The following year, as we expand to the rest of the middle schools, we will have high schools as Lighthouse Schools. The concept is that we have this lighthouse the year prior to the rest of the district rolling out, so that we can ensure that those that come after them can benefit from all of the lessons learned, whether it’s infrastructure or instructional practice.

My Top 3 Strategies for Implementing a Digital Conversion

1) It’s about teaching and learning.  Districts must put curriculum first and have the foundational structures including pedagogy in place to support learning.

2) Professional learning is key.  Professional learning must be job-embedded, ongoing and driven by student evidence that considers both system needs and individual needs.
3) It’s not about the device.  
However, when you are selecting a device, involve students through a thoughtful process of field-testing and feedback.

THE Journal: Why did you choose to start at the elementary school level?

Imbriale: A few reasons. If we’re starting in first, second and third grade, these students will be with us for multiple years as they progress through elementary school, into middle school and into high school. And so they are going to be the drivers of the changes we’re going to see in our upper elementary grades, in our middle school grades and finally in high school. Also, as we looked at revising curriculum, we wanted to start that work at the elementary level, with our English Language Arts, and we felt that if we were going to be doing this conversion of our curriculum, it also made sense that students at that level would go through the conversion as well. We’re converting all of our curricula to a digital platform called BCPS One, which is an integration of two commercial products (Engrade and Infinite Campus), and so the curriculum rollout is in alignment with the rollout of the devices.
THE Journal: How did you select the Lighthouse Schools?

Imbriale: It wasn’t enough for just the principal to express an interest. In the end, we chose only schools that had at least 80 percent faculty buy-in, because we believed the demands on being a Lighthouse School were high enough that we wanted to make sure we had both an administration and a faculty who were willing to go down this path together.

THE Journal: What has pleased you about the way it’s gone in this first year?

Imbriale: These schools have given us an opportunity to really perfect our craft and ensure that when we scale up we have stories to tell — people who have lived through the experience and can share that experience. And what that creates for us are professional learning communities. This spring we’re aligning each of the 10 Lighthouse elementary schools with another subset of elementary schools that haven’t gone down this road yet. That Lighthouse elementary school can help walk those elementary schools through what this process looks like. It’s a place for them to visit, it’s a place for them to dialogue, it’s a safe space to have conversations about what this looks like.

The other thing we’ve done that’s been very helpful is to ask a subset of constituents in each of the schools to blog about their stories and about the journeys that they’re having. It gives us an opportunity to share those stories, to hear about success and failure, and to learn from all those processes.

THE Journal: What evidence do you have that the 1-to-1 initiative is making a difference in these schools?

Imbriale: I’m amazed every time I walk into any of our 10 Lighthouse Schools. What you find in these classrooms is that students aren’t on computers all the time. You may see a small group of students working on their devices, another group working with the teacher, another group doing some type of reading activity or small-group instruction. It’s this beautiful blend of small-group instruction and students utilizing that classroom space to be their own. And when they’re using the technology, students are really able to chart their own path. The other thing that you find in these classrooms is that students are helping students. It’s a collaborative learning space where students are taking control of their own learning. All of our 10 Lighthouse Schools have experienced a drop in discipline, and we believe that’s directly connected to the engagement level of the students in the classrooms.

About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.