Systemic School Reform :: South Dakota



You may still find the occasional barn raising and one-room schoolhouse, but a plan for technologicallyadvanced schools that first took root more than a decade ago has ushered the state into the digital age.

IF YOU WERE to picture South Dakota in 1910, you mightimagine things like barn raisings, farmhouses, horses, and perhapssmall, one-room country schoolhouses. Even though someof those one-room schoolhouses remain, much has changed inthe last 100 years, thanks to some future-oriented governors andstate leaders willing to support, fund, and implement systemicchange in this Midwestern plains state.This is a story of vision, cooperation,planning, and teamwork that is translatinginto bright futures for everySouth Dakota student.

This is also a story of Faith. In 2004, the small community of Faith, SD, received word that its school building had been condemned. This very rural yet technologically progressive district in the northwest corner of the state, population 521, was faced with the challenge of few capital outlay dollars, the need for a new building, and the desire to provide the best resources for its students, including a plan to go wireless at the high school and implement a 1-to-1 laptop program. What was it to do?


A One-Year Timeline

The launch of South Dakota’s laptop program required a lot of advance planning, coordination, and teamwork.

  • Fall 2005 The state creates a leadership team of partners that includes members from government, business, and education.
  • February 2006 Districts learn about the state plan at an introductory meeting.
  • Spring 2006 Dakota State University offers a requestfor- proposal course to prospective school districts. Districts apply for technology grants; grants are awarded in May.
  • Summer 2006 Training is held for the pilot schools, including assemblies and symposiums for students, parents, teachers, and staff.
  • 2006-2007 Program is implemented. Evaluation is ongoing during the project year.

Mel Dutton, Faith School District’s CEO, says the choice was not an easy one. The district decided to maximize the few dollars it had for the best interests of its 80 students and purchased seven modular building units housing 14 classrooms. It then put the rest of its minimal capital into wireless laptops for all of its high school students.

“It would be nice to have a permanent structure,” Dutton says, “but we may be in these units for a while yet, so we can’t have a gap in these kids’ education. Students will need this [technology] for the future.” The district’s boldness has paid off. The staff is receptive to the laptops and is redesigning the methods used to deliver content in the classroom. Students can be seen in off hours, dotting the campus grounds, working via wireless access on their laptops.

One might ask how a small, sparsely populated district going through such a crisis, one that is not uncommon in many small districts across South Dakota, found the courage to take on a gamble such as wireless laptops. The answer lies in the formation of a strong partnership between the state of South Dakota and its school districts—a partnership focused on ensuring that no child’s future is left to chance.

The partnership began in 1996, when former Gov. William Janklow initiated the first steps of a vision for the future that included wiring and connecting the state’s schools. The effort to wire the schools, aptly called Connecting the Schools (CTS), initially installed three computer drops for every four students per classroom, pulled Cat-5 and fiberoptic wiring throughout the schools, and upgraded the electronic wiring to manage the greater electrical demands of numerous computers. The project began with one school on the east end of the state and one on the west end, and grew to include all the campuses in the state. To do the labor-intensive wiring, the state employed low-cost minimum-security inmates without violent or sex-related crimes on their records, guided by trained electricians.

The entire effort was completed for $15 million. By 1999, the next phase was under way: building a statewide intranet among all of South Dakota’s 176 school districts, bringing T-1 access into every public school building. The project covered three stages: the distribution of hardware and software, the building of the network infrastructure, and distance learning.

South Dakota 2.0

Key to South Dakota’s professional
development efforts is using teachers
to instruct their colleagues on integrating
laptops into the classroom.

Once the state was wired and connected, the next task was training. This was accomplished through total-immersion, intensive 20-day summer technology academies. Teachers were paid stipends and offered graduate credit, and received equipment allocation dollars for their classrooms as incentives to attend the academies. The first two weeks of the sessions were designed to enhance participants’ technology skills and to provide a strong foundation in best practices for meaningful integration. The last two weeks were focused on collaboratively designing learning experiences while advancing technology skills and expertise as necessary to accomplish the unit design.

A Roadmap to the 21st Century

These important first steps laid the groundwork for technology to become a daily part of every South Dakota child’s education. And now, through the 2010 Education initiative, the state’s current governor, Mike Rounds, has developed a roadmap to guide the state’s public education system into the next decade. The initiative identifies where the state is, where it aims to go, and how it plans to get there by laying out goals, objectives, and action steps. The initiative is divided into three sections: Starting Strong, Finishing Strong, and Staying Strong. Each section is designed to focus on a specific phase of the education process. Starting Strong intends to ensure that all third-grade students are proficient in reading and math. Staying Strong focuses on educator recruitment, the education of special populations, and the financial resources needed to improve classroom instruction and educational opportunities.

The middle component, Finishing Strong, targets high schools and post-secondary education. “By 2010,” the initiative promises, “South Dakota will be first in the nation in the percentage of students going on to college, technical school, or advanced training.” From this declaration was born Classroom Connections, an effort to develop essential 21st-century workplace skills by putting a laptop in the hands of every high schooler across the state. Devised in 2005, the 1-to-1 program was expected to help level the playing field for students so that those who don’t have access to computers at home would have the same opportunity as their peers to compete and succeed.



"A great benefit of the 1-to-1 pilot project is that it has leveled the playing field. By this I mean every high school student has access to a computer 24/7. Giving all students the same chance to work on tablets or laptops, with the same software, is really exciting. The pride students have taken with this project is unbelievable. It is true that some might not have internet at home, but they can come back to school and sit in the parking lot and get connected there."—Rodney Dally, technology director for Wagner Community School District 11-4

"I cannot imagine going back to not having 1-to-1. Our teachers have embraced the project 100 percent. It is amazing how they have changed their teaching in just one semester. Going 1-to-1 is effective because students are more productive—they have dependable access to search tools, online databases, etc. Students gather info, synthesize, draft, and revise assignments and hand in a professionallooking document."—Aileen Brunner, technology director for Newell School District and president of the South Dakota Society for Technology in Education

The program was piloted during 2006-2007 and will enter its second year of implementation in the fall. Schools chosen for the pilot ranged in enrollment size from 21 students to 1,275, and all told have included 9,600 students in 41 districts across the state, both sparsely rural and densely urban. The state provides matching incentive funds for one-third of the cost of the laptops, while local districts pick up the other two-thirds.

A systemic, second-order change of this nature requires stakeholders to make dramatic shifts in their current practices, so it should not be implemented apart from good professional development. Accordingly, the state implementation plan for Classroom Connection supplied the monies and resources necessary to train local leaders, provide staff professional development, and assist with local network support. The state was able to negotiate optimal pricing for computers, warranties, software, and training, thus saving districts time and money. Professional development was designed to meet the unique needs of each school district while also providing a general format for site leaders to follow. Two team leaders from each district were selected to be trained in a “train-the-trainer” model and to build a cadre of supporters among sites.

The logistics of a project of this scope required a lot of upfront planning, coordination, and teamwork, and included a one-year timeline. In the fall of 2005, the state developed a team of partners that included the state Department of Education, the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, Dakota State University (DSU), education consultancy Technology & Innovation in Education, SDN Communications, Mitchell Technical Institute, Gateway, and Citibank.

The following February, districts attended a meeting that introduced them to the state plan. Then a request-for-proposals course was offered in the spring of 2006 by DSU to prospective school districts. Districts applied for grants that provided for the initial investment of laptops, warranties, software, and training. They needed to demonstrate that they could meet certain criteria, including: financial means to participate in the program; the ability to implement ongoing training of staff and students beyond the initial training; and commitment from the school board and community.

Grant applications were received in March and awarded by May. Training was held during the summer and included a District Leadership Team Symposium in June; school-based three-day assemblies in July and August for staff, parents, and other stakeholders; and a two-day Content Symposium held in August for staff. The evaluation of the project was conducted by an external evaluator throughout the project year. Analysis of the evaluation data is just starting and, given the positive anecdotal information from educators (see “What They’re Saying”), is expected to bear good news. Now update that picture of South Dakota to the year 2010. You might still see things like barn raisings, only they might be video-streamed through the internet for the whole world to view. You might find farmhouses, but they’ll be equipped with wireless internet access. And perhaps in that same one-room country schoolhouse, every student is carrying a wireless laptop able to search the World Wide Web for endless opportunities and resources. But expect to also see a whole new student, one who is capable of actively gathering information on a global level, synthesizing it, and then constructing that knowledge into a new vision of South Dakota for the next 100 years.

-Peg Henson is a curriculumtechnology specialist for the SouthDakota Department of Education.

-Gloria Steele is an education technology specialist for Technology & Innovation in Education.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.