Alabama technology administrator describes school district’s journey into the world of personalized, technology-supplemented education.
An evolving educational landscape is driving change for both the way students learn and how instructors teach. It’s a bit of a truism that integrating educational technology (EdTech) into the classroom is essential. That’s because it’s so true. Districts and schools that ignore the phenomenon are risking students being left behind
One district that recognized that need, and spent a year implementing a district-wide technology implementation for every student, is Florence City Schools, Florence, AL. The initiative started in 2011 and by 2012 the program was in place and has continued to improve and grow for nearly a decade. It involved close coordination between educators and the community to integrate personal learning devices into every student’s daily curriculum.
Florence City Schools is a small district, but one that has been widely recognized for educational excellence. Among its achievements, the district was rated in the top six percent of school districts in the U.S. by the Niche 2019 School Rankings.
It’s no surprise that Florence City Schools emerged as a technological leader for building a collaborative educational environment founded on delivering equitable access to technology for all students.
A driving force behind the district’s move to provide students with personal learning devices was Dr. Christopher Westbrook, Director of Instruction, Innovation and Technology at Florence City Schools. His responsibilities include oversight of all technology planning and acquisition, including the district’s “1:1 iPad and Chromebook initiative,” digital curriculum implementation, and technology-based professional development. He’s been in that role since 2012. Before that, Westbrook was a principal, assistant principal and teacher for many years.
The Florence City Schools experience is, in many respects, a model example of how you can effectively infuse technology into the classroom, but it was not without its challenges. Westbrook’s perspective into the planning and deployment process provides insights into learnings and best practices.
At the heart of the 1:1 initiative was an overriding “students-first” focus. Although there were differing opinions in the district’s leadership team, one thing remained clear throughout according to Westbrook. While working with district and school leadership, he found that everyone “felt it was all about students.”
With this student focus, two key goals emerged as being primary to the initiative: equitable technology access and preparing students for the real world.
“We provide devices throughout the year, including the summer,” Westbrook said. “When you enroll in Florence City Schools, PreK through 12, each student has their own device. In 7th grade through 12th grade, students take the device home. It’s your device 24/7/365. These devices have opened doors of opportunity for students who don’t have the resources themselves.”
Westbrook cited many examples, one of which is decreasing what educators call the summer-slide.
“Students and parents have the opportunity to stay connected to instructional resources and content that allow students to maintain or even increase standards mastery during the summer. Through a collaboration with the local public library, Florence City Schools students have access to a very large collection of digital library books. Encouraging students to read, providing access to educational games, and rewarding time spent in instructional programs helps to reduce or eliminate summer regression.
As far as real-world relevance, personal devices are implemented in such a way that seamlessly integrates their application use with the way students can use them in everyday life. By leveraging the way that these devices can be woven into the classroom experience, students see first-hand how they can be used in a highly collaborative way—bridging instructor-led class time and in-depth study using access to learning resources. For example, the district’s teachers can foster student collaboration through shared documents. At the same time, teachers have the ability to focus Chromebooks on a specific URL during a specific lesson to help the students to explore topics more deeply and reduce distractions.
“These devices allow for instructional progress, digital programs, and student growth that would otherwise be impossible,” Westbrook said. “We provide an adaptive diagnostic for students which provides insights for teachers to see students level of standards understanding and mastery. Teachers then utilize the individual student data to build lessons that meet the specific needs of each student. We can also customize every small group station in the classroom with the technology taking time in centers from busy work to instructional growth.
With any new initiative, early adopters face challenges. Westbrook pointed to several considerations that shaped the Florence City Schools program. These included differing administrative leadership styles, program sustainability and instructional soundness
- Conflicting admin styles—Individual district leaders emphasized different administrative practices and policy preferences. With those differences came a need to find common ground. But Westbrook found these variations in leadership styles to be “a blessing” because he was exposed to competing perspectives. He found that these differences provided useful insights. He found that, despite differences, one thing was consistent: the goal of benefiting students. That focus was critically important to the success of the program.
“It was all about students,” Westbrook said. “Whatever decision was made; it was made in the best interest of students.”
- Sustainability—One of the principle challenges in rolling out the 1:1 initiative was sustainability, according to Westbrook. The funding needed to deliver iPads and Chromebooks to every student was significant. This was a large investment by the district and community. A key question at the outset was how the district could financially sustain the program.
“We looked carefully at funding resources,” Westbrook said. “Not only did we consider the initial device costs, but infrastructure costs, ongoing device maintenance, increased personnel, etc. We also looked at the increase in WAN capacity and internet bandwidth. How much Internet bandwidth would we need? We originally had a 50 Mbit connection in June 2012. Within three years we were at 1 Gbit. Now we have a 2.15 Gbit connection.”
- Instructional soundness—After sustainability, the district instructional team considered whether the program plan was instructionally sound. If it did not help the students, it was not really going to be worth it. Would it be a hinderance in the classroom? If they could not determine a real benefit, what was the point?
“We looked at content carefully as it was one of the areas that was expanding rapidly,” Westbrook said. “We had to consider the breadth and scope of content availability for our teachers including district-provided programs in the core areas or school-provided content specific to a single site. We considered the availability of interactive instructional content, the benefits of long-term partnerships, and the level of professional development required to ensure successful implementation. All considerations were then weighed against our primary concern of how it would benefit students.”
While the benefits in core classes are abundant, Westbrook gave several specific examples that illustrate the instructional success of the Florence City Schools initiative. In one case, a welding instructor uses digital interactive instruction for his welding classroom to augment his in-class curriculum. Westbrook also pointed to music and fine arts programs that benefit from personalized 1:1 support. Digital arts, orchestra, choir, and recording studio all leverage easy access to technological tools which directly enhance the educational experience. All these enrichments have contributed to creating a sustainable, educationally strong learning environment.
Keys to Success
The successful deployment of the 1:1 Florence City Schools initiative hinges on several essential program elements, Westbrook said. He cited personnel, technology partnerships, district-provisioned devices and community involvement as all contributing to the success of the EdTech rollout to his district.
- Personnel—Programs aren’t the keys to success…people are.
“Having employees that are dedicated to student success, committed to personal and collective efficacy, and insistent that student growth and achievement is a non-negotiable. Florence City Schools is blessed with employees that demonstrate these characteristics and attributes on a daily basis. The success of the 1:1 Initiative in Florence has been due to the willingness of teachers to embrace new technologies, the vision of district leadership to stay on the cutting edge for students, the community support to provide the best for youth, and the expertise of the technology team to support such a large scale deployment.
- Tech partnerships—Partnerships that included content providers such as IXL, Edgenuity, Discovery Education, Instructure Canvas, providers of standards-based digital curriculum resources for K–12 classrooms as well as content delivery. In these partnerships, the district provided the devices, connectivity, instruction and exemplary teachers while content providers provided rich interactive content.
“The idea is to engage students with more than a pencil,” Westbrook said. “Each teacher was provided initial device training and worked to provide instructional opportunities that integrated technology daily.”
Another partnership involved Gumdrop Cases. Westbrook said that the district “spent a little extra money” to have the Florence City Schools Falcon logo included on the cover of all Chromebooks. The payoff of this branding elevated community awareness of both the district and the program.
“We have thousands of students and when they go places, they don’t take a textbook,” Westbrook said. “They just grab their Chromebooks. The Florence Falcon is visible all over the community. People recognize the Falcon—it helps bring the community together.”
- District-provisioned devices—Early on there was debate as to whether the district would provide common devices to all students or permit BYOD (bring your own device) student participation.
“This was one of the biggest instructional technology debates in the state of Alabama,” Westbrook said. “One of the primary reasons we didn’t select BYOD was because of equity. Florence City students come from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. We have about 4,700 students, and of those, more than 200 are homeless. As a district, nearly 60 percent of students qualify for free-or-reduced meals. The device provides equitable access for students and levels the playing field. It’s best for all kids, not just the students on the higher-end of the socio-economic scale.”
- Community Involvement—The district partners with all segments of the community to make the program fully inclusive and optimally effective. Parents, businesses and even students influence the shape of the 1:1 program.
Parents are involved extensively with the initiative and have access to the devices of their children, as well as the ability to look at student curriculum. Instead of checking physical file folders at teacher parent meetings, parents are checking digital files in real time. They can access student grades online instead of getting a report card in the mail. They have full-time access to all relevant records which also helps create accountability for the district. With full-time access, parents can see when a child receives an assignment and the status of any assignment. Parents are also able to ask for status updates.
“The technology provides greater insight into how students are performing, but it’s completely up to the parents. The level of involvement can vary from daily grade checking to never. Parents can be as involved as they want to be,” Westbrook said. “Technology provides mutual accountability.”
The program started in 2011. At the beginning, administrator and teacher iPads were delivered in the summer with plans for device deployment to begin in January 2012. Tenth and 11th grade students were the first to receive devices—only iPads in 2012. Florence City Schools pushed hard for involvement by local businesses. One benefit of that community push was getting local businesses to offer free Wi-Fi access to students without home access.
Students were involved with the device-selection decision process. Initially, the program weighed laptop versus tablet options. Based partially on student input, the program started out with an iPad-based implementation. Chromebooks were added later.
“Chromebooks, at the time, were not an option,” Westbrook said. “The option was a laptop or an iPad. Since then, we’ve continued to have periodic community meetings. We didn’t have a formal campaign; we’ve always just called it our ‘1:1 initiative.’ We didn’t see a need to create an identity for the initiative because it was never about the device…it was about how we impact students!”
One of the most critical steps of any initiative is capturing what you learn during program execution. Westbrook cited several lesson learned from the 1:1 initiative. These include the need for upfront agreement on objectives, the importance of emphasizing the backend infrastructure and the need for professional development/training.
- Upfront agreement on kids-first emphasis—Westbrook said that the primary thing he learned was the importance of establishing an agreement at the beginning of the process with the shared understanding that—whatever is done—the best-interests of the students must be first and foremost.
“You have to be committed to this belief and have agreement that what is done is instructionally best for the kids,” Westbrook said. “It requires significant work to get this kind of thing done. To stay true to this goal, you need to know why you’re spending the money, making the extra efforts, spending the extra time, etc.”
- Infrastructure—The need for a sound backend infrastructure supporting the user devices cannot be overstated, according to Westbrook.
“As a former teacher, assistant principal and principal, I had no idea how much work, energy, effort, and resources were on the backside of technology to ensure a positive end-user experience,” Westbrook said. “People in general do not understand all the cogs that must align to make the wheels turn correctly.”
“You want to make sure you have the infrastructure, both hardware and personnel, to support the devices. You can provide brand new devices, provide professional development for all, purchase instructional programs galore, but if you don’t have connectivity or access that’s consistent, people are going to set the technology aside and stop using it. You need to have the infrastructure to use it.” The allocation of additional personnel to ensure success was a crucial component to success.
“The technology team members in our school system are second to none. They are dedicated to ensuring students have the devices they need to learn, that teachers have the tools they need to teach, and that administrators have the resources they need to operate schools and ensure student learning is at the pinnacle. Most important is their understanding that we are here to serve our clients, students, teachers, administrators, and staff, to the best of our ability.”
- Professional development and ongoing training—Florence City Schools made a commitment on top of all the technology investments to hire and house instructional technology coaches in each school building. Their focus was to provide support for teachers, Westbrook said, not for the students. As the district became more familiar with the technology, these coaches became Instructional Partners, who provide best practices professional development in technology and pedagogy.
“The Instructional Partners created best practices on how to optimally use all the technology,” Westbrook said. “As an example, they created an ‘Appy Hour’ to promote technology learning. Instructional Partners from each of the schools would set up a station in the media center during common planning time and would help teachers learn about digital learning strategies. They provided these opportunities in all schools multiple times per year.”
Final Words of Advice
In closing our conversation with Westbrook, he provided two bits of advice to anyone contemplating a district-wide implementation of this kind: be prepared to provide substantial backend support and make sure everyone is onboard—from school administrators to parents to students to teachers.
“I originally thought we would need personnel to help support the kids and devices,” Westbrook said. “But these devices aren’t just devices, these devices now hold all of the content the child needs. It’s no longer just ‘give the kid a textbook.’ The textbook is on the device. If that device is broken, you need to be able to immediately provide another one to the student.
“I didn’t realize how critically important this is. It’s important to have an understanding that you will need a large set of extra devices that students and teachers can exchange. This needs to be part of the planning because all of the content and curriculum is on that device for that student.”
Lastly, Westbrook emphasized that “you need everyone on board. You need a shared belief, a common goal, and an agreement on a vision that you will do what is best for students. I’m proud to say that the leadership team, school administrator, teachers, and staff shared the desire to always make decision in the best interest of students.”