October 2013 Digital Edition | Sylvia Charp Award
How Do You Launch a Tech Revolution? Start With Teachers
In just seven years, Rowan-Salisbury School System has gone from lagging behind the times to training students for the 21st century workforce.
- By Bridget McCrea
Students at the Rowan-Salisbury School System show off their iPads on one of the district's WiFi-enabled buses
It didn't take long for new Superintendent Judy Grissom to see that the Rowan-Salisbury School System (NC) was in dire need of a technology upgrade. It was 2006, and after touring the district's 31 schools (there are now 35) and speaking with students, staff, and administrators, Grissom noticed that most technology tools were missing, outdated, underutilized, or considered nonessential to teaching and learning by some staff members. The district had suffered through annual decreases in the technology budget, she notes, and the negative impact on teaching and learning was "very evident."
"There were computers in the classroom that were still in boxes and not being used," recalls Grissom. When she talked to several teachers, she found that many didn't have a clue how to integrate technology into their existing curricula. "They looked at technology as 'just one more thing to do,'" Grissom says. Using some of those early chats with teachers as a baseline, Grissom says one of her first goals was to get more technology integrated into the classroom in a way that benefited both teachers and students, rather than creating yetanother agenda item for them to grapple with.
Seven years later, Rowan-Salisbury is the winner of the 2013 Sylvia Charp Award, which is presented annually by the International Society for Technology in Education and T.H.E. Journal in recognition of innovative, districtwide use of technology.
Starting With a Plan
When Grissom took over as the district's superintendent in 2006, she brought with her a plethora of experience at infusing technology into the K-12 space. Having served as a teacher, director of Rowan-Salisbury's gifted program, and assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, she was uniquely prepared to ensure that teachers were well trained on the fine points of using technology to teach.
Driving Grissom's charge was the knowledge that, upon graduation, all of Rowan-Salisbury's students would be expected to effectively use technology when they joined the workforce. "Our students will be competing with students from all over the country who can deliver those skills to employers," she says. "We don't want our kids to be at a disadvantage."
Intent on revolutionizing the way Rowan-Salisbury acquired and used classroom technology, Grissom met with administrators, central office staff, community leaders, and other stakeholders to talk about the role that each would play in the district's transformation. From those interactions, the team put together a District Improvement Plan and Technology Plan, both of which are reviewed annually, with accomplishments reported publicly via an annual fall breakfast meeting.
Individual schools have also incorporated their own tech goals and objectives into individual School Improvement Plans. Grissom says that conveying Rowan-Salisbury's vision for using technology to change teaching and learning is a crucial part of the district's overall mission. In fact, the district's "open book" style of sharing information and keeping stakeholders in the know about its progress has been a critical point over the last six years. "Our school board and community and principals have been very supportive and interested in what we are doing," says Grissom. "We have been fortunate to have that support along the way."
Rowan-Salisbury's initial action plan included replacing aging computers and installing interactive whiteboards and video projectors in every room. In 2006, just 36 classrooms were equipped with these tools. By combining district, grant, PTA, and local school funding, Rowan-Salisbury has since installed IWBs and projectors in more than 1,000 classrooms districtwide.
In 2007, the district purchased iPod touches for all students and laptop carts for all teachers. The IT department also invested in a Casper Suite mobile device management system to inventory equipment and deploy and push out applications on its operating system.
The district's network infrastructure also came under scrutiny during Grissom's early days on the job. Initially, she says, 10/100Base-T switches were installed at all schools and the district office's internet access was increased to 100 Mbps. Previously, students and teachers relied on wired internet access, with wireless only available via mobile laptop carts. To accommodate the growing use of wireless devices on campus, Rowan-Salisbury continually monitors bandwidth and, in 2010, increased its internet access to 250 MB. More recently, a third upgrade brought 1-gigabit access to all schools along with campuswide, enterprise-level 500 MB wireless access.
Other key infrastructure changes included server upgrades and expansion of data storage space, implementation of ClassScape online assessments, and the installation of WiFi on several school buses.
Tech for Teaching's Sake
What earned Rowan-Salisbury the Sylvia Charp Award, though, was not the technology itself but the emphasis on teachers at the center of the district's transformation. Rather than dumping a slew of new equipment and applications on teachers and expecting them to embrace it, Grissom worked with the district's executive director of technology, Phil Hardin, to develop a 21st Century Model Classroom Teacher Program. "Going to a workshop to learn about a specific piece of classroom technology sounds great in theory," Grissom explains, "but figuring out how to use it in your own classroom is a completely different story."
Grissom and her team identified teachers who were early adopters of technology and who could serve as models by sharing knowledge and hands-on expertise with other instructors through on-site training. "We felt that if teachers could watch another instructor actually using technology," says Hardin, "that the energy would spread across the district." The program was launched with an application process that attracted 228 teachers from across the district. About 25 were selected to participate in interviews conducted by Hardin, Grissom, the assistant superintendent, the school directors, and the media director. During the videotaped interviews, Hardin says, "The questions that we asked them were all questions about good teaching, not technology, because we wanted individuals who were outstanding teachers."
In 2007, Rowan-Salisbury picked six teachers to serve in the model program. Each was provided with an IWB, digital camera, and projector--along with laptops and classic iPods (for creating podcasts) for every student. Teachers received professional development on all of the tech tools and converged once a month to brush up on new IT tools, share resources that could be used districtwide, and create PD that could delivered to teachers in other Rowan-Salisbury schools. "We also gave them the opportunity to go to in-state and out-of-state conferences," says Grissom, "to pick up even more ideas that could be applied in class."
Rowan-Salisbury has since rolled out its 21st Century Model Classroom Teacher Program in all 35 of its schools. Calling it one of the district's "biggest successes," Hardin says the program helps teachers stay ahead of the constantly changing technology game while concurrently stoking the desire for more classroom tech tools.
Spending Money, Saving Time
Getting teachers to buy in to the point that they clamored for more technology was an unexpected side effect, according to Hardin. He points out that Rowan-Salisbury's matching-funds program, which historically has paid for new playground equipment, is being used more and more for hardware, software, and applications. Additional sources used to finance the district's technological transformation have included the state Race to the Top Fund, a $200,000 Golden Leaf Foundation grant, and a grant from the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation.
Along the way, the district has also found ways to leverage technology in order to save both money and time. To maximize the reach of its training sessions while respecting teachers' travel time and classroom responsibilities, for example, the district turned to videoconferencing to support its PD efforts. Using the Wimba collaboration suite (since purchased by Blackboard), users can display content, present slides, communicate with attendees, and archive presentations for future use.
Hardin says the fact that the system allows all teachers to log in and participate in live presentations while text chatting really "changed what teachers could do." It didn't take long, for example, for teachers to start using the tool with their own students. "One elementary school instructor was teaching students about the climates and cultures of Iceland," says Hardin, "and brought in a live expert on the topic via our videoconferencing setup."
Connecting the Community
A district that is a leader in technology implementation knows how to communicate its successes to the public--indeed, superior public outreach is a hallmark of Sylvia Charp Award winners. In 2011, Rowan-Salisbury began hosting "What's Right With Public Education" events centered on a particular theme and hosted by students and teachers from all 35 schools. Attended by more than 1,200 parents, educators, officials, and community leaders, the three-hour-long events give students and teachers the chance to demonstrate their district's innovative uses of technology.
In 2012, for example, "STEM Matters: What's Right With Public Education," showcased the district's new STEM Mobile Exploration Lab Bus. Equipped with science and technology tools like iPads, iPod touches, handheld digital microscopes, an Apple TV, and science probeware, the bus delivers hands-on, STEM-based lessons and activities to Rowan-Salisbury's elementary students.
Hardin says the good feeling he gets from seeing the positive effect of technology on his district outweighs any challenges that his job puts in front of him. "Being able to witness all of that technology in action and serving a true, districtwide purpose is pretty amazing," he says. "Our teachers have embraced technology now and understand its power. They're transferring that knowledge to our students, who are all capable and comfortable using the technology." Hardin says Rowan-Salisbury is now the 21st century school that Grissom first envisioned, not just providing its students with cool toys, but preparing them for the 21st century workplace.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
As the head of a fairly lean IT department, Hardin says that one of his biggest challenges is balancing "need it yesterday" deployments with future needs assessments and other strategic planning. Funding also comes into play, he says, and has at times limited the amount of IT infrastructure and equipment that the district can afford. "The Race to the Top state funds allowed us to upgrade our campuswide wireless system," Hardin explains. "Without that support it would have [been] much more difficult for us to get through that project so quickly."
Looking back on the progress that Rowan-Salisbury has made since 2006, Hardin says one of his favorite stories involves North Rowan High School, an institution that was considered low-performing and that has since seen graduation rates increase from 61 percent for the 2008-09 school year to a current 83 percent. "That's real proof of what's happening with our students," he says.
Grissom says that the growth in technology usage and the related professional development have come together to produce positive results throughout the district. "We've seen student performance grow, dropout rates lower, attendance improve, and graduation rates increase," says Grissom, who now has her eye on expanding Rowan-Salisbury's 1-to-1 mobile device program across all 35 schools (today, 29 of 35 schools have "at least some" mobile devices in use). "It's not going to be easy," she confesses, "but our goal is to have some sort of 1-to-1 mobile device program in place soon."
Hardin is also excited about putting more mobile devices and tech tools into students' hands--even if it happens to tax his small department. "What's been done so far here is nothing less than phenomenal," says Hardin, "and we're not stopping now."
The Wheels on These Buses are Wired
Having to travel up to 90 minutes each way to after-school sporting events can hamper students' ability to study and do their homework. Categorized as a "low-performing school," North Rowan High School was grappling with this challenge at the same time that its enrollment numbers began to decline and its end-of-course state test scores plateau.
Already deep in the throes of the Rowan-Salisbury School System's technological transformation, Superintendent Judy Grissom decided to do something that no other North Carolina district had attempted yet: equip school buses with WiFi to enable studying while onboard. Initially, the school's four activity buses were equipped with the service, which incorporates Autonet Mobile's wireless router.
Using the service, students can access curriculum resources they need to complete assignments, study for tests, and otherwise be productive on their way to and from athletic events. Wireless access has since been added to seven more buses, according to Phil Hardin, executive director of technology, including buses that teachers use for field trips.
Hardin says that putting WiFi on wheels is easier than it sounds. "We basically just bought the wireless routers and gave them to our transportation department to install," Hardin says, noting that the district pays an annual subscription fee for the internet access and uses Autonet Mobile's native content-filtering application. "Of all of the IT initiatives we've undertaken during the last six years," says Hardin, "this was one of the simplest."