Urban Schools

Big City Rules

When large urban school districts undertake technology implementation, things can get… well… a little bit complicated. But that doesn't mean that big-city schools can't find success. Certain common themes--like buy-in, flexibility, professional development--emerge as essential elements to achieving success on the larger playing fields of big-city schools

In 2007, Boston Public Schools did not have a sustainable model for providing its nearly 5,000 teachers and 56,000 students with access to technology. "Curricular materials were coming out with online components or electronic digital resources and yet, if you surveyed a room of teachers, they didn't all have access to the same tools," recalls Melissa Dodd, chief information officer for the district. What's more, the district's Technology Self-Assessment Tool found that 69 percent of the teachers didn't consider themselves to be technology-proficient, and only 54 percent said they were using technology as much as they would have liked to in instruction.

Those statistics come as little surprise to Ann Flynn, education technology director for the National School Boards Association. "An urban district, by the sheer number of students it serves, has concerns about scale that are typically not as much of an issue for smaller districts," she says.

When it comes to implementing innovative classroom technology programs, urban school districts such as Boston's face significant challenges stemming from their big-city status. These range from reduced budgets and large bureaucracies to concerns about scalability and how to meet the needs of a more diverse group of students than would be found in non-urban districts.

Because of their size, Flynn notes, urban districts tend to have greater distance between the chief technology officer and those who actually use instructional technology, with separate reporting hierarchies often leading to "silos" and insufficient communication--a problem that can be exacerbated because employees' offices are geographically dispersed rather than centrally located.

Despite these challenges, there are urban districts that have managed to implement bold technology initiatives. In looking at their stories, certain common themes--like buy-in, flexibility, professional development--emerge as essential elements to achieving success on the larger playing fields of big-city schools.

Everyone Gets Buy-in
The year after Boston Public Schools learned more than two-thirds of its teachers did not consider themselves tech-savvy enough, the district launched Laptops for Learning (L4L), a four-year strategic initiative that would provide every full-time classroom teacher with a state-of-the-art, dual-platform MacBook and a suite of educational software. District officials, however, laid some important groundwork before that.

In developing the plan, Dodd and her colleagues collaborated with key stakeholders, including the powerful Boston Teachers Union. "When we ask teachers to sign a laptop use agreement that outlines the terms and conditions of their participation, the support of the union is huge," Dodd says. Also, the teachers had to complete a baseline survey on their technology practices so that the impact of L4L could be measured over time.

As chief e-learning officer for Chicago Public Schools, Sharnell Jackson also became a strong believer in the importance of making sure everyone was operating from the same playbook in implementing the technology plan. "There has to be a vision and strategies for implementing technology in the district, and then you have to align budgets to those core strategies so that everyone is supporting them," says Jackson, who retired from the district in 2008 and is now president and CEO of Data-Driven Innovations Consulting, which works with school systems and business partners to promote 21st century teaching and learning.

In her position at Chicago Public Schools, Jackson says, her role was to find ways to bring staff from disparate district departments together in a way that supported the broader technology vision. She used the development of a district technology plan as an opportunity to promote such cross-departmental teamwork.

Jackson believes Chicago was also ahead of many districts in using data to inform technology implementation. "Previously, teachers were just given laptops with minimal training and no evidence to show what difference it made," she says.

Just as was the case in Boston, Jackson had the Chicago teachers complete an online assessment survey, which found that in 2004 only about one in seven were proficient in the use of the technology. That result made it easy for her to sell the district on investing in training, which ultimately brought proficiency up to nearly 100 percent.

Today, 24,000 Chicago Public Schools employees have undergone basic technology skills training, 10,000 administrators and teachers use an online registration and interaction tracking system, and 3,000 teachers use personal digital assistants to monitor student progress.

As in Chicago, ensuring that everyone operates from the same playbook was a primary concern in the large San Diego Unified School District as it launched its ambitious i21 Interactive Classroom initiative in 2009. The initiative, which is being rolled out over five years, provides 1-to-1 computing access in grades 3 to 12 for every school in a district that has approximately 130,000 students and 7,500 teachers. The program also provides interactive whiteboards, document cameras, laptops, audiovisual systems, student response systems, and other tools for teachers, all as part of an effort to transform the learning environment.

"The focus has to be there. You can't just go out and do this at schools in isolation," says Darryl LaGace, chief information and technology officer for the district. "It's important to work very closely with your curriculum and other support offices, such as special education and language acquisition, so that they know about the program and can begin to rethink how they tap into this immense resource that's going into the schools." More than is the case in smaller, more homogeneous districts, urban districts tend to serve a wide range of communities and must take into account the diverse learning styles and needs of their students, LaGace notes.

In San Diego, a decision was made to roll out i21 throughout the district, but by grade level rather than all at once. In the first year, the program touched grades 3 and 5, along with high school math; last year, i21 went into grades 4 and 7, along with high school language arts. By the end of the fifth year, every grade will be included.

But that's not the only way to do it.

One Size Doesn't Fit All
Jefferson County Public Schools, which covers Louisville, KY, took a different course. "Trying to stay systemic as we're integrating technology is challenging when you have nearly 6,000 teachers," says Sharon Shrout, the district's director of computer education support. "If we create a project around technology integration, there's always the question of how we can replicate it in all of our schools."

One way Shrout's district has dealt with that concern is to adopt pilot projects to explore emerging technologies in a small number of classrooms as a way of learning about best practices before expanding them across the district. "We have worked recently with iPads in a math classroom, we have worked with 1-to-1 in writing classrooms," she says, "and we've created an elementary technology magnet program that has given us an opportunity to help a struggling school have a focus."

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which serves approximately 345,000 students in nearly 400 schools, has followed an "internal competition innovation" strategy, creating incentives for principals to innovate, for example, by rewarding schools that save on utility bills with dollars that they can use for technology investments. "When I was appointed three years ago, we were in a precarious financial position," says Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. "We leveraged the chaotic condition into an opportunity for innovation--not through a decision that every school needed to do something at the same time, but by fostering innovation based on autonomous control of programs and decisions at the schools."

The result, Carvalho notes, has been a variety of new technology-centered approaches popping up throughout the district. Carvalho himself helped to spearhead one such model, iPrep Academy. Based in the district's administration building--where space became available after a 52-percent reduction in administrative costs--the magnet high school features a technology-rich WiFi environment in which each student has a laptop for use at school and at home, and a curriculum that is a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes.

In another effort to save money, Carvalho appointed himself principal. Because of the enhanced reliance on technology, the teacher-to-student ratio was higher than usual, with those teachers who are on site serving more as knowledge facilitators than traditional instructors. The environment screams modern right down to the décor--comfortable and edgy furniture, bright colors--and the all-digital content allows students to choose from a wide range of subjects. Because of the success of the flagship, Miami-Dade is launching two more iPrep Academy schools this year.

At the same time it has been promoting pockets of innovation, Miami-Dade has leveraged its clout as a large district to bring together major content providers--including McGraw-Hill, Voyager, and Discovery--to build a seamless platform of software programs, called Links to Learning. The program provides supplemental online curriculum content to support individualized student learning beyond the end of the school day. Tools in reading, mathematics, and science are targeted to students based on needs.

Size Isn't Everything
Scalability is not the only issue when a big district attempts to implement a technology program. Access and equity are equally important, particularly in districts where there is great socio-economic diversity.

"Many districts worry, as they should, about issues of equity and access," says NSBA's Flynn. "You want to make sure that what you're offering can be fairly distributed to students across the district."

That concern, in part, drove Boston's L4L business model. The Laptops for Learning project's implementation began with a phase called Project Refresh. Through donations from seven Boston-area businesses, the district was able to provide barely used hardware to schools that had the oldest equipment as a way of leveling the playing field.

 "That's how we approached it," Dodd says, "not only from a programmatic rationale, but also to address the economic impact on the district and make sure it was sustainable."

The concern is particularly acute in districts with large numbers of students from low-income families. In San Diego, LaGace says, as many as 38 percent of students are from homes with either no broadband access or no computer at all.

LaGace says he wanted to address the "digital divide" by ensuring that every students has equal access to digital learning resources, regardless of where they live or their economic status. "If students and teachers begin to rely more on these technologies and there are subgroups that don't have access, we're inserting another divide in the achievement gap," he says. "That's my biggest fear."

With that in mind, plans are currently underway to take i21 to the next level in its third year through Learning on the Go, which will provide students with 3G broadband connections for their mobile devices, ensuring that they have 24/7 high-speed access. The program is being made possible by a $1 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission--the largest such award in the nation.

Teach the Teacher First
Teacher training is critical to the success of any district's efforts to integrate new technology tools into classroom education, but finding the right professional development formula can be particularly challenging in a large urban environment. The 69 percent of Boston teachers who did not consider themselves technology-proficient is not an anomalous statistic among urban districts.

Feeling a sense of urgency, the district sought to reach all of its teachers within a two-month time frame so they could take the laptops home over the summer and use them in professional development and to plan the upcoming school year. To do so, the district established teams of trainers who went to the schools to work with the teachers. "We leveraged everyone we had on staff in order to make it happen," Dodd says. "It was an all-hands-on-deck approach."

Teachers were required to attend a two-hour orientation on the educational software that was installed on their laptops and ways it could be employed in the classroom. The district then provides ongoing professional development on the use of the technology in the classroom, and works with curriculum departments to include use of the technology in their own professional development efforts. After the first year, teachers reported a significantly increased frequency in the use of technology to deliver instruction, Dodd says.

In Jefferson County Public Schools, teacher training is at the core of the Technology Integration Project, in which all 6,000 teachers receive Tablet PCs, digital projectors, content-specific professional development, and ongoing support from education technology teachers. The district follows a "lesson-study" approach: Before teachers even learn how to employ the tools, they observe a colleague putting them to use in the same content area and are able to discuss with the teacher, both before and after, how the technology supports curricular goals. "It allows them to understand why you would want to use it," says Shrout, "and it has led to cadres of teachers continuing to have conversations about what's working and how to overcome challenges as they're bringing these tools into the classroom."

Footing the Bill
It would be difficult to find an urban district where cost isn't at the forefront of any discussion of technology integration. In San Diego, the five-year, $385 million i21 initiative is funded by Proposition S, a $2.1 billion capital improvements bond measure passed by San Diego voters in 2008. "This was the first bond in our district where the focus wasn't just on new buildings or air conditioning, but on creating a 21st century learning environment," LaGace says.

Faced with a high up-front price tag for its Laptops for Learning initiative, Boston Public Schools pursued a lease model, in which it would pay a smaller amount each year for the technology. More important, notes Dodd, rather than having to come up with a lump sum once every few years and being at the whim of budgetary ups and downs, the leasing model ensured that a fixed amount was set aside each year for equipment.

Winning community support helps too. The Northwest Independent School District, located north of Fort Worth, TX, and west of Dallas, covers 234 square miles and serves 14 communities in parts of three counties. It is one of the fastest-growing districts in the state, with its 15,000-student population expected to nearly double over the next five years.

To solidify support for its technology initiatives--including a program in which all secondary students are given laptops for use at home and school--the district last spring held a Techno Expo. "We invited parents, school board members, and others in the community to come see what our kids are doing with the technology that they have invested so heavily in," says Karla Burkholder, director of instructional technology for the district. "It was very successful, helping us to gain support for what we're doing."

In many urban districts, Miami-Dade's Carvalho says, "we know exactly the course we need to take to provide a schooling model to students that's more reflective of the way they live and access information--departing from a one-size-fits-all approach and utilizing technology to provide opportunity for acceleration, remediation, and empowerment--but it's costly, and the economic constraints are a big impediment."

So beyond lobbying for community support, districts such as Miami-Dade have pursued creative budgetary strategies to ensure technology funding. Among other things, Carvalho notes, Miami-Dade has restructured its capital debt, back-loading some of its liabilities. "Get your technology today, maximize interest-free bond opportunities to the federal government, and maximize E-Rate reimbursements to accomplish that," he explains.

Leadership such as Carvalho's is one of the common threads the NSBA's Flynn sees in urban districts that have overcome the obstacles to institute successful technology programs. "You need to have a strong, visionary leader who recognizes changing student needs and instructional styles, is able to convey these changes in a way that inspires staff to follow, has aligned resources to deliver professional development, and has gotten buy-in and support from parents, voters, and business partners," she says.

"Those are some of the same elements you need to nurture success in any district, but they're incredibly important in urban environments, because moving a large district in a certain direction is not easy."