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Home Connection


Home Connection

The contribution of Sprint to ConnectED has helped 400 students in this Illinois district bring high-speed Internet access to their homes. 
By Carol Patton

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For several years, three educators from Elk Grove High School in Illinois met regularly with families living in local mobile home parks to provide parents with progress reports on their children. The meetings were necessary because the mobile home parks lacked Internet access, a situation that presented multiple problems for Township High School District 214, where the 2,000-student school is located.

Parents couldn’t log on to school websites for progress reports or to learn about school accomplishments, initiatives, or staff and operational changes. Students couldn’t use their iPads, which were distributed by the district, to complete online homework assignments, seek online help from teachers, or engage in chat sessions with other students. And many of these families couldn’t access the local library, which offered WiFi, because the parks were in an unincorporated area and were not eligible for city services, including library privileges.

The district searched for solutions. “We were looking at shooting a wireless signal over to a couple of mobile home parks,” recalls Keith Bockwoldt, District 214’s director of technology services. “That was going to cost $2.1 million alone. That wouldn’t even cover the needs of other schools in the district.”

Establishing off-campus Internet connections is a common problem for many districts, especially those in rural areas. According to federal government statistics, fewer than 30 percent of American schools have the broadband needed to teach with technology in the classroom. The average school has the same connectivity as the average American home but serves 200 times as many users. And less than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets their needs.

In 2013, President Obama announced ConnectED, an initiative designed to enable next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless access in 99 percent of schools and libraries by 2018. But to reach this goal, help was needed from the nation’s biggest telecommunication leaders. At least 10 companies signed up, including Sprint, all committed to education and bridging the digital divide. Collectively, they pledged to connect more than 20 million students during the next five years.

District 214 superintendent David Schuler says the work Sprint is doing with ConnectED is helping his district make real progress toward transitioning to a digital curriculum and reducing student achievement gaps. With 33 percent of his district’s 12,000 students falling below the poverty line, says Schuler, the program ensures that all students have Internet access to study, communicate, and collaborate after school.

“The biggest challenge we faced was how to transition to a digital curriculum without all students being able to access those resources outside of school,” explains Schuler. “We’re very thankful and appreciative to Sprint and others in the private sector for partnering with schools. Those partnerships are absolutely critical for our students to be able to learn and be on an even playing field.”

Equal Access, Equal Opportunity

For the past two years, Sprint has been working to provide 50,000 lines of service to schools for Internet connections, along with four years of free Sprint 4G LTE service, its highest-speed and highest-capacity network. Jim Spillane, director of Sprint’s ConnectED Initiative, says the company is working with 33 school districts nationwide, each in various stages of the federal grant approval process.

"Our goal is to get everyone up and running from August until early next year," he says, adding that the company is about halfway there. “We’ll continue to work with as many schools as possible and promote this until we get the 50,000 lines. At Sprint, we do good works because good does indeed work. That’s why we support ConnectED as part of our Sprint Good Works platform.”  

Spillane says schools can apply online for grants at sprint.com/ConnectED. In the case of District 214, it bought 400 MiFi hotspots from Sprint at cost and then assigned the devices to students for home Internet access.

So far, says Spillane, the company’s biggest challenge has been generating program awareness. Many school administrators at conferences he attends are familiar with ConnectED but unclear about its direct benefits or advantages for teachers and students.

Going Digital

Starting in 2009, District 214 introduced a series of changes that would transform learning for its 800 teachers and 12,000 students. The district redesigned its classroom instructional materials and implemented a policy requiring teachers to first review digital resources before purchasing textbooks, says Bockwoldt. English and math teachers participated in professional learning communities and developed their own digital curriculums. Each year, teachers were asked to submit pilot proposals outlining how they would use technology to enhance classroom learning—the number of proposals jumped from nine in 2010 to 39 last year.

The district has also distributed iPads to 9,000 students, with plans to equip every student with a mobile device by 2017. Funding for the mobile devices involved a budget shift, explains Bockwoldt. The district is reducing the size of its computer labs, which now contain 6,300 computers; instead of spending money to replace them, it’s using those funds for mobile devices.

“As we moved ahead, we were able to grow capacity and show achievement rates,” Bockwoldt says. “In freshman math, a non-iPad class had an 88 percent [passing] rate, which means students had an A, B, or C, and 12 percent had Ds or Fs. In an iPad class, that shot up to a 93 percent success rate. It’s now 100 percent.”

Is that improvement due to the device or the teachers? Bockwoldt credits both. While technology certainly engages students, he says teaching has dramatically changed. Teachers and students can communicate off campus in real time. Students are crowdsourcing with one another as they work through homework assignments. Just as important, learning has become a continuous process, both on and off campus.

And those students in mobile home parks and elsewhere who initially couldn’t take part in the district’s digital transformation? That gap was filled last year when District 214 received a grant from Sprint, providing nearly 4 percent of its student population with Internet connectivity in their homes.

“Sprint [and the district teamed up to] provide approximately 400 MiFi hotspots for students who didn’t have Internet access at home,” Bockwoldt says, referring to routers that provide mobile Internet access. Sprint then provided the families with four years of free ultra-high-speed Sprint 4G LTE services. Without Internet connectivity, these students had to complete their homework at stores or other places that have WiFi, Bockwoldt adds. Now, all students can learn at their own pace, on their own time.

Many take advantage of that flexibility. Based on data pulled from the district’s management learning system, some students log in at two o’clock in the morning to submit assignments.

“I feel really good knowing we are closing this gap for students who can’t afford [connectivity] and giving them the same opportunity to go home, learn, do their homework, and submit it just like any other student,” says Bockwoldt.

Custom-Made Learning

Linda Ashida is an innovative technology facilitator (ITF) at Elk Grove High School. Having Internet connectivity, she says, offers choice.

Consider the English teacher who has both struggling and advanced readers in his class, or the math teacher with a small number of students who didn’t perform well on a test. With Internet resources, Ashida says, there are many ways these teachers can organize student learning and respond to each student’s unique needs. For instance, they might offer afterschool help by providing review sessions on iPads, inviting students to jump in and collaborate.

“We’re able to personalize and differentiate learning,” she says. “We also let students use social media to share their learning and gain authentic audiences. We have students who write blogs and tweet about their class work.”

For incoming freshman, the district offers a two-day orientation at the beginning of each school year. Students are divided into roughly 20 groups, each facilitated by a teacher. During the orientation, each group participates in seven or eight workshops that focus on a wide range of topics, such as learning with technology, digital citizenship, and communicating via e-mail.

Ashida, who taught AP Spanish for several years before moving into her current position, says she noticed improvement among her students the first year they started using iPads. Learning with technology enhanced student engagement and ownership, encouraged more content creation and self-direction, and increased the student pass rate by 11 percent, she says. The district requires teachers to complete a blended graduate course that consists of online instruction and classroom sessions. Offered by Quincy University, the course was designed by the district’s teachers and focuses on developing iPad lessons for the classroom.

In her current role, Ashida, along with other ITFs and four district coaches, helps teachers implement and take advantage of technology in various ways. She and her colleagues offer classroom observations, conduct drop-in workshops, coordinate teacher-led sessions, provide technology demonstrations, and share best practices on Twitter and via a district blog.

With the involvement of Sprint through ConnectED, says Ashida, students without Internet access at home no longer have to jump through hoops to get their work done. One student, she says, had to write papers on her cell phone and another could access her neighbor’s WiFi but had to sit outside his house at night in an unsafe neighborhood to complete her homework.

“Even though we gave students iPads, they weren’t able to fully use them,” she says. “Sprint is making all of this transformative learning available to each and every student in our district, which is huge and very exciting.”

The iPad’s Impact on Learning
District 214 has charted students’ progress since providing them with iPads beginning in the 2012-13 school year. Here are percentage increases for students earning at least a C in intermediate algebra.

2011-12 (non-iPad)   60%
2012-13                     93%
2013-14                     92%
2014-15                     92%

For more information about Sprint and ConnectED, and to apply online for grants, visit sprint.com/ConnectED

Seven Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaches


7 Ways Principals Can Support Instructional Coaches

School leaders need to communicate clearly and support both teachers and coaches. By Jim Knight

In the past decade, I have worked with more than 20,000 instructional coaches from six different continents. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that a principal’s support or lack of support can make or break a coaching program. Below, I identify seven ways principals can and should support coaches.

  1. Time. The most important action a principal can take to support a coach might also be the easiest—ensuring he or she has sufficient time. Consider whether you’re overloading this person with extraneous tasks: If coaches are asked to write reports, develop school improvement plans, oversee assessments, deal with student behavior, do bus and cafeteria duty, and substitute teach, they’ll have little time left to partner with teachers. 

  2. An Instructional Playbook. Instructional coaches partner with teachers to increase learning by improving teaching, so coaches need to deeply understand a set of high-impact teaching strategies that will help teachers achieve their goals. I suggest coaches adopt teaching strategies that address the “big four” areas: content planning, formative assessment, instruction, and community building. Principals can support coaches by (a) ensuring coaches have adequate opportunities to learn the playbook; (b) learn the playbook themselves so that they can guide professional learning in support of it; and (c) filter district directives to maintain focus on a small number of teaching strategies.

  3. Partnership. An idea at the heart of instructional coaching as we describe it at the Kansas Coaching Project is that teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. What this means specifically is that teachers’ opinions should be encouraged, and teachers should make many of the decisions about what happens in their classrooms. During coaching, we position teachers as decision makers who identify goals, choose teaching strategies, and monitor progress toward the goal with the coach.

    If coaches take a partnership approach, they can provide teachers with many choices, encouraging teacher voice and taking a dialogical approach. It is crucial the coach and principal agree on this approach, which is essentially learning that takes place through dialogue. Principals can demonstrate their support by allowing teachers to choose whether they will be coached. When instructional coaching is compulsory, teachers often perceive it as a punishment; when it’s presented as a choice, they can see it as a lifeline.

  4. Role Clarity. Coaches should be positioned as peers, not supervisors; when this is the case, they shouldn’t be assigned administrative tasks such as walk-throughs and teacher evaluations. If coaches are given administrative roles, they need to have the same qualifications and training as any other administrator, and everyone in the school (most especially the coach) needs to know they are in that role.

  5. Confidentiality. Instructional coaching will be most successful in schools where there is widespread trust and transparency. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In settings where teachers do not feel psychologically safe, they will not be forthcoming with their thoughts and concerns if they feel their conversations with their coach are not confidential. What is most important with regard to confidentiality is that principal and coach clarify what they will and will not talk about, and that the principal clearly communicates that agreement to everyone involved.

  6. Meetings. There are few principals who want to have more meetings. However, one of the most important ways principals can support coaches is by meeting with them frequently. Meetings don’t need to be long—a lot can be accomplished in a 20-minute conversation—but they need to be frequent so that principal and coach are on the same page.

  7. Walking the Talk. Principals who want to foster a culture of learning and growth need to do what they expect their teachers to do. If they want teachers to video-record their lessons and watch and learn from them, they should record their own meetings and presentations and watch and learn from them. Principals who proclaim that professional learning is important should attend and even lead professional learning sessions. 

Coaching is powerful because instructional coaches work shoulder to shoulder with teachers, helping them achieve their goals in the classroom. Coaching moves schools away from cultures of talking to cultures of doing. When principals support coaches using the seven factors described here, they greatly increase the impact coaches have on how teachers teach and students learn.

Jim Knight is the director of the Kansas Coaching Project at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and is president of the Impact Research Lab. He has written two books on teaching: Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction and High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching.

Image: Robert Daly/Media Bakery

Tech Update: BYOD


Tech Update: BYOD

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology. 
By Calvin Hennick

At a recent workshop on digital education, the presenter threw attendees a curveball and asked everyone to complete a brief survey using Google Docs.

“In this room of 50 tech-savvy adults, you’ve got tablets, Android devices, phones, and a handful of people with nothing,” says attendee Ann Lee Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. “A lot of people couldn’t get [the program] to open.”

The point? This is what bring-your-own-device initiatives look like in schools without adequate support systems. If implementing BYOD means stopping a lesson to make sure that students’ operating systems are up to date, that they have the correct app installed, and that they’re all able to connect to the school’s network, it’s no wonder some teachers drag their feet when it comes to BYOD.

These difficulties make Flynn skeptical about BYOD as a long-term solution. With device costs coming down, more schools will be able to afford to provide all students with district-owned devices through one-to-one initiatives—a move Flynn says is vital for ensuring ­educational equity. “The current belief is, all kids have devices,” she says. “Well, no, they don’t. And trying to type a term paper on a smartphone is very different from typing on a laptop. It’s not a level playing field.”

Even if BYOD proves to be just a step on the road to one-to-one, it’s a current reality for many districts, some of which have found ways to both narrow the digital divide and make it easier for teachers to incorporate student devices in their lessons.

In Katy, Texas, the district buys its own devices to supplement its BYOD program, so teachers don’t find themselves in a bind when students don’t own devices, leave them at home, or forget to charge the batteries. The district provides enough devices for 30 percent of its students, and also allows kids to check out tablets and use mobile Wi-Fi hot spots. The wide availability of devices has increased teachers’ willingness to implement BYOD, says Darlene Rankin, director of instructional technology for Katy Independent School District.

The district also encourages BYOD implementation through continued PD opportunities for teachers, and recently adopted a single sign-on system where kids can access learning apps through the school’s network.

Previously, students had to download apps onto their own devices, which proved problematic. Some students’ devices were running on older operating systems that didn’t support newer apps. Some parents had locked the devices, making it impossible for students to install the apps. And, Rankin says, even when kids did have the apps, they sometimes forgot their passwords and couldn’t log in.

With the new system, students don’t have to worry about installing the apps, since they can access them through the Internet. Rankin expects the single sign-on system to drive BYOD adoption among teachers. “I think it will definitely go up,” she says.

Illustration: Viktor Koen

List It for a Library Sweepstakes

TL ListIt Logo for digitorial
Help your school work smarter with TeacherLists and your school could win one of 10 Scholastic Library Reading Rooms ($499 value) featuring a 100 book collection, book bins and more.  The first 100 schools to enter will also receive a $200 school office supply pack!  To qualify schools must upload their 2015-2016 back-to-school supply lists to TeacherLists.com by June 30th, 2015.  Learn More.

Creating, collecting, and posting back-to-school supply lists is one of those tasks that seems like it should be easier than it is. The annual chore requires cooperation from several people, from teachers to office staff to the school webmaster. It’s not a first-line priority for anyone, but it has to be done in a timely manner.

Likewise, the way supply lists typically are shared doesn’t work that well for parents, either. A file posted on the school website isn’t easily viewable on a mobile phone.  And printed lists sent home to parents can get misplaced or end up crumpled or coffee-stained.

It’s not surprising, then, that the popularity of TeacherLists has exploded over the last two years. TeacherLists, a free online solution, allows schools to post lists easily and parents to view them on any device. It has quickly become the solution of choice for thousands of schools.

Once lists are posted on TeacherLists, they immediately become available online as well as at popular retail outlets. In addition, the site provides simple code that a school’s webmaster can plug in to make the lists display—in a mobile-friendly frame—on the school’s own web pages.

The biggest payoff may come with year-to-year management of the lists. The site notifies schools that it’s time to update their lists. With a few clicks, the lists can be changed as needed for the following year. Updated lists are immediately available through the website link, TeacherLists.com and at select retailers—no need to do it again each year.

TeacherLists is the smarter way to manage, share and find school supply lists. Get your school started today at www.teacherlists.com/schools


What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System


What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System

Determining your schools’ needs will help you zero in on the right choice for your district. By Maged Atiya

Being in school every day is vital for a student’s success, and with state funding associated with attendance, it is also important financially for school districts to minimize absenteeism. Improvements in ID Card System technology are helping to streamline the attendance process in timely, cost-effective ways.

Many districts have discovered that implementing such a system is well worth the commitment and investment, and others are finding that it’s time to upgrade their current systems.

There are a number of important factors to consider when you’re shopping around for an ID Card vendor/partner; here are some key elements to think about.

Dumb Cards or Smart Cards?

What do you want your card to do, how much functionality do you need, how secure must it be, and how fast does the card need to be read?

Dumb cards: These are cards with a magnetic stripe or bar code on them that usually do only simple things: they can open a door or pull up a food service or library account. Staff members typically swipe these cards to enter a building, which is easy enough to do. However, the wear and tear of swiping reduces the card’s lifespan.

Smart cards: These cards provide a host of options. They are contactless and use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology; students tap their cards onto a reader and they are logged in, quickly and easily. Readers can be installed on buses, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gym, or in the auditorium, which makes tracking students extremely efficient. In fact, some configurations can process a thousand students in just minutes.

Smart cards are coded with a unique ID number that is assigned to one individual; it’s the back-end computer that maintains all the information on that person. This means that additional functionality can be added quickly, all at once, at any time, on the base computer. School districts can start with a straightforward ID system, and add features at a later date when budgets or needs change.

Some smart card companies can interact with legacy card programs—those ID card systems that are already in a school district. So the upgrade to smart technologies doesn’t always mean the existing service cannot be used.

To Cloud or Not To Cloud?

We hear all about “the cloud”—and we know it’s important—but do you need a cloud-based ID card system?

In a non-cloud-based system, your data resides in a server somewhere in your school district. It is maintained by your IT department, and if you needed to expand your memory or upgrade your processing speed, then the district would buy a new, bigger computer/server.

If you want to upgrade functionality or software, your IT person has to go from school to school and manage each computer. And if there was a flood, fire, system crash, or security breach, all of your data could be lost and you’d have to start from scratch. Maintaining a traditional land-based system like this can be very costly—in time as well as in money spent.

Cloud computing means that your data resides virtually, in off-site servers, with backup systems in place, so if something happens, your data is safe and always available. Improvements are also simple to make: because the program resides in one place, it has to be upgraded in only one place, and added functionality can be transferred to every school instantly. This service-based process is more streamlined and cost effective.

Cloud services offer significant advantages, but make sure that your vendor/partner uses the highest level of data security available. There are international security standards (PCI, FISMA, SSAE16, to be specific), which are used by banks, credit card companies, hospitals and others, so look for them in your cloud-based ID card system.

Emergency! Emergency!

Sadly, it seems as though we hear about school lockdowns on a weekly basis. ID card systems can certainly help keep your buildings more secure, but there’s more to it than just knowing who came in the front door.

When there’s an emergency, look for an ID card system that can ensure that:

  • All doors in a building or across the district can be locked down with a single command, which can be issued from any wireless device or any computer. This immediacy improves time to action and can save lives.
  • An accurate location report is available on a tablet or computer that shows which staff members and students used their card for attendance and therefore can be identified in the building, in a specific room, which can help first responders react fast.

To automate the process even more effectively, some districts provide their local police and fire departments with precinct- or school-specific ID cards that allow them immediate access into school buildings.

Active or Passive RFID?

School districts have to strike a delicate balance between protecting students when they are on campus, and protecting a student’s right to privacy. You can defend yourself from litigation by making sure your RFID-based ID card system is passive, not active. You can also save yourself some money, too.

Usually battery-powered, active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source that is used to run the card’s microchip circuitry and to broadcast a signal to a reader (the way a cell phone transmits signals to a base station). This allows a student’s or teacher’s card to be read at any time—the card can be hanging around a person’s neck, held onto his or her belt loop, or in their backpack, and the reader can pick up its signal, as long as it is within a certain range.

Because the card transmits data, badge holders can be tracked and found anywhere, at any time. And while this may be an enticing scenario, schools have to consider student privacy rights as well. Also Active RFID cards require a battery and are heavier, more expensive, and need significantly more maintenance.

Passive tags have no battery. Instead, they draw power from the reader, and require a student to take an action, like tapping it on a screen, for the card to be read. This process makes it easy to track where students are, and you can get an accurate count of how many students (or teachers, or staff) have checked in at any particular time. However, because it is a passive process, these ID cards do not infringe on privacy. Also, passive cards are less expensive and last longer, hence they have lower overall cost.

Imagine That

Technological advances with ID card systems can make a host of administrative processes easier and more efficient. Here are just a few examples of what’s already happening in school districts across the country.

Attendance: An automated ID card system that generates a list of late/absent children; the parents of those children are then called by an automated system that reports them as absent, making the process more streamlined so office staff can focus on other tasks.

Classroom: Students tap their cards upon entering a classroom, so teachers don’t have to take attendance and substitutes always have an accurate count. Children tap out if they leave the class early and tap into the main office/nurse/guidance office, etc., which makes student movement easy to track.

Visitor Management: When a visitor arrives, there are visitor management modules that determine if he or she has been to the school before. If the person is recognized, a paper badge can be printed; if he or she isn’t in the database, the system determines if there are any district-defined exclusionary alerts regarding the person, while simultaneously checking for a match against the sexual offender database. An automatic alert is sent to the district, making the school even more secure.

Location and Time Clock Management: Staff members use their ID cards to open locked doors to enter school buildings or portable classrooms. Students with disabilities or injuries use their cards to access building elevators. Facility staff members use time clock kiosks to sign in and out of work, which keeps track of their time spent, their current location, and any overtime hours they work.

Students: ID cards are used at cafeteria registers and at libraries to check out books. The database carries personal schedule information, and cards are checked by hall monitors using mobile devices to verify that students are going to the correct class for the proper period.

Accountability and Control: ID cards are tapped for events that take place in buildings after school and/or at night. Students tap in to attend a sporting event, dance, concert, or any other school-sponsored program, which adds accountability and control to event administrators and lets them know who is in the venue for that event.


It’s important to plan ahead. With the pace of technology advances, make sure you find a partner that understands the needs you have today, what you might want in the future, and how you can plan to get there. And now that you’re armed with these important ideas, you can find an ID card system that works best for your schools.

Maged Atiya, Ph.D., is ScholarChip’s founder and principal partner, responsible for managing system and application developments with an eye towards emerging technologies. He founded the company to provide school districts with fast and powerful computing in order to centralize security and operations into a single low maintenance system.

Tech Tools for Spring 2015

Tech Tools for Spring 2015

The latest and greatest education-friendly tech tools. By Brian Nadel

Ergotron LearnFit.
Ergotron’s $475 LearnFit Adjustable Standing Desk accommodates everyone from a skinny fourth grader to a hulking high-school senior; just press the small lever under the 23-by-24-inch desktop to adjust its height from 31.8 to 51.4 inches. It has a rugged phenolic laminate surface and comes with a five-year warranty.

Lego MoreToMath.
It may look like a toy, but Lego’s $130 MoreToMath Curriculum Pack 1–2 and MathBuilder software is a first- and second-grade math curriculum that can help teach numbers and problem solving. The 521 Lego bricks and software come with a book of 48 activities and a sample Q&A section for interacting with students.

Toshiba Satellite Radius 11.
If a notebook is too much and a tablet isn’t enough, Toshiba’s Satellite Radius 11 convertible might be just right. With an 11.6-inch HD touch screen, it can be a slate, a presentation machine, or a keyboard-centric notebook. The three-pound system can be outfitted with a Pentium or Celeron processor and starts at $330, perfect for a stressed school budget.

Linksys E8350.
If your school’s wireless LAN is bogging down, the $199 Linksys E8350 can help with dual-band operations that deliver up to 2.4Gbps of bandwidth for viewing videos or distributing homework assignments. Capable of connecting over 2.4GHz and 5GHz data channels, the 802.11ac router can be used as a wireless bridge or as an access point. store.

einstein Tablet+.
Far from a cookie-cutter Android tablet, the einstein Tablet+ is chock-full of eight STEM sensors (light, temperature, humidity, etc.) and can connect with up to 65 other Fourier products. The $250 slate has a seven-inch screen and includes software to consolidate sensor readings and analyze them for classwork or lab reports.

HP Stream 200-010 Mini.
There’s a place for desktops in the classroom, and HP’s tiny Stream 200-010 Mini can be stashed under a desk, in a drawer, or on the back of a monitor. It costs less than $200, has a 1.4GHz Celeron, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of solid-state storage capacity, plus 200GB of online storage with Microsoft OneDrive for two years.

LocknCharge EVO 40.
If your tablet carts aren’t basket cases, maybe they should be. LocknCharge’s $2,000 EVO 40 can hold 40 slates in four slide-out 10-unit baskets. The cart securely stores iPads and other tablets while keeping them charged and ready for class. Comes with a lifetime warranty.

Toshiba Encore 2 Write.
Tired of big price tags for small tablets? With a touch screen, Intel Atom processor, and 64GB of storage space for $400, Toshiba’s Encore 2 Write 10.1-inch slate just might be the value choice. The Windows 8.1 system comes with a Wacom stylus that can sense 2,048 levels of pressure, along with a slew of pen apps.

NewTek TriCaster Mini.
Create a private TV network at your school with NewTek’s $6,000 TriCaster Mini. A complete AV setup, the TriCaster includes an integrated display and enough storage space for 45 hours of video. (Note: You will need to supply your own camera, like a GoPro cam.) You can do anything from recording a talking head in front of a green-screen artificial landscape to animation and complex

littleBits Premium Kit.
Retire that soldering iron—littleBits ­teaches electronics with magnetic modules. The $149 Premium Kit includes 14 electronic modules and instructions for 10 projects, but the real learning happens when you set the directions aside.


Senators for a Day

Senators for a Day

Students can craft and debate legislation at the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute. By Wayne D’Orio

When the bus finally pulled up to its field trip location, history teacher Steven Moynihan rushed off.  Heavy Massachusetts traffic had delivered his students to their destination about an hour late but that wasn’t the reason for Moynihan’s haste.

“I wanted to see my students’ reactions when they entered,” he says. He wasn’t disappointed. When his Barnstable High School students came through the doors of the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, they were wide-eyed.

That’s because the centerpiece of the 68,000-square-feet building is a nearly exact replica of the Senate Chamber. Moynihan’s students were there to play senator for a day, designing and debating an immigration reform bill that they would vote on. But their first order of business was to take in the heady feeling of being on the Senate floor. The students, some dressed in business attire, others a little more informal, including one in a fedora, couldn’t help but look up at the gallery or check out how it felt to sit at one of the 100 desks. Quickly, actors leading the day’s events swore in the students and they got to work.

The institute opened on March 31 as the realization of Edward Kennedy’s desire to make the Senate and its work meaningful to future generations of students. Being senator for a day helps students “understand the tenets of democracy,” says Nell Breyer, the center’s director of programming and education. Like a compressed version of the Model Congress program, the institute allows students to craft a bill, debate appointments, consider amendments, and ultimately vote on their work, all in a two-hour block.

The heart of the activity is a carefully created simulation that plunges students right into matters as current as immigration or as historical as the Compromise of 1850. While Kennedy was a longtime Democratic leader, the institute takes pains to remain bipartisan. The offices of senators John McCain and Harry Reid vetted the immigration Senate Immersion Module (SIM), and the institute’s content advisory committee includes both Richard Baker, the Senate historian for more than 30 years, and Alan Frumin, the Senate’s chief parliamentarian for more than 10 years. New SIMs are being readied, Breyer says, and soon students will be able to debate the Civil Rights Act and the Patriot Act. All the SIMs are created to sync with Common Core standards, she adds.

“There’s a humility in students and an earnestness to solve problems,” Breyer says. “I’m amazed at how serious they take this.”

The institute uses technology to engage and inspire students, handing each of them a tablet when they enter. The tablet is preloaded with all the specifics they’ll need to play their role for the day. The students are randomly assigned to a party and a state, are told what key points their constituents are worried about, and are given their personal strengths.

Moynihan says one of his students stated that she definitely didn’t want to be a Republican during the exercise. But when she found out she was, she gamely went along. At the end of the day, she was happy for the opportunity to see the other side of the issue.

“It’s a safe environment for talking about contentious matters,” Breyer says.

Moynihan, who sits on an advisory committee for the institute, says some of his students didn’t like the somewhat simplistic talking points presented on their tablets, saying it limited what they could consider. However, with a lot of ground to cover in a short time, he says the restraints are necessary. “It allowed them to focus on the skills of negotiation,” he says. The institute does offer both pre- and post-visit activities to help deepen the learning.

The SIMs eventually will be available to schools without having to make the visit to Boston, Breyer says. But on this day, the sense of place was a big part of the experience. “As high school students, it was cool for them to be treated like senators. That elevated their participation,” says Moynihan. He added that he will definitely bring future classes back, and said he is looking forward to hearing students debate the Patriot Act.

After being sworn in, Moynihan’s students broke into small groups to discuss appointees and various parts of the legislation, and to bargain with one another for support. The students considered using biometrics to track immigrants’ whereabouts but eventually rejected the measure as unconstitutional. Staff members fondly mentioned that a student on a previous visit staged a filibuster during his class’s SIM.

When students are ready to vote, they return to the Senate floor and one by one state their preference. Moynihan says some of his students complained that their peers didn’t stick to the role they were assigned to when it came time to cast their vote. The group’s law, to allow immigrants a path to permanent residence status, passed 26-8.

The institute, which is booked for the rest of this school year, is free to students from Massachusetts. Out-of-state students pay $8 each, although group rates are available. The institute can host up to 100 students at one time. Some eighth graders have visited, but most participants are from high schools and colleges. The institute is located on Columbia Point, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and just steps away from the University of Massachusetts.

Edward M. Kennedy spent nearly 47 years in the Senate, and one part of the institute is a reproduction of his Washington, D.C., office, right down to the tennis balls he had on hand for his Portuguese water dogs. Around the replica Senate are interactive exhibits that show the history of the legislative body.

A star-studded cast of politicians that included President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and numerous senators were there for the opening. The re-creation of the chamber is so realistic, says communications coordinator Natalie Boyle, that many senators went straight to their chairs at the beginning of the ceremony.

Image: Courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute


Everyone Graduates

Everyone Graduates

By moving to a performance-based model and giving students a choice in how they learn, this rural Kentucky district has eliminated dropouts for the last six years. By Charles Higdon

Taylor County is a rural community in central Kentucky. We have three schools serving approximately 2,900 students—60 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

We don’t fit the typical profile of a poor, rural school district, though: We haven’t had a single student drop out of school in more than six years, and in the last two years we’ve seen a 100-percent graduation rate.

We’ve achieved this success by embracing an innovative, student-centered approach to teaching and learning.

In Taylor County, we have moved to an entirely performance-based model in which students are placed in classes based not on their age, but their ability. What’s more, we no longer require seat time for students to advance.

While other schools in the state require 176 school days to get through the curriculum, we operate differently. Our students work through the curriculum at their own pace, and when they are ready to move on, they can—provided they can demonstrate proficiency on an exit exam.

To operate in this way, we have received special approval from the state. We’re one of the first five districts in Kentucky to be designated as a District of Innovation.

Three years ago, the Kentucky Department of Education invited districts to apply for this status, which gives those chosen more flexibility to be creative in their approach to educating students. There are now roughly a dozen Districts of Innovation across the state.

When we applied for this status, we had to submit a plan describing what we intended to do that would be innovative. Our performance-based model allowed us to apply, and in return, we were granted a waiver from the state’s seat-time requirements.

We also give students a choice in how they learn, because one size definitely does not fit all. We have implemented a “wagon wheel” approach, which places the students at the center, surrounded by six spokes, each of which represents a different way of learning.

Both our students and teachers choose which approach to instruction is right for them, and then we match students to the teachers and modes of instruction they desire.

Included in this model is a traditional approach, in which students come to class for 176 days and receive direct instruction from a teacher. Some students and teachers still prefer this method.

But we also offer five other, more innovative approaches, for those who want to learn in a different way.

Online learning: Students can work at their own pace using Odysseyware’s online courseware. We have created a virtual academy in which students log in to their online classes from a computer lab, and a fully certified teacher serves as an on-site guide. Since we’ve opened our virtual academy, many of our at-risk students are now actually moving through the curriculum at an accelerated pace and graduating early.

Project-based learning: Students can learn the curriculum in the context of authentic, real-world projects. For instance, a local business donated LEGO engineering kits to one of our elementary classes, and students worked together in groups to design factories.

Self-paced learning: In this “flipped” approach to instruction, teachers record their lessons and students can watch these videos as often as they need in order to learn the material. Teachers serve as facilitators during class time to help students master the content.

Peer-led instruction: In these classrooms, students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. For some students, it helps to hear an explanation of the content from one of their peers as opposed to a teacher.

Cardinal Academy: In this new high school program, students develop their own learning plan. They have an advisor, who oversees them to ensure they’re completing the objectives they need to and are pacing themselves correctly, but students can choose for themselves what subjects they will work on, and when. They can also learn off campus through internships.

Letting students learn at their own pace, and giving them a choice in how they will learn, empowers students to take control of their education—and we have seen this approach pay off.

As educators, we’re not here just to ensure that students score well on state exams; we’re here to educate students fully, and prepare them to succeed in college or a career. And we are doing that here in Taylor County.

Charles Higdon is assistant superintendent for Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools. He can be reached at charles.higdon@taylor.kyschools.us

Image: Media Bakery

Tech Update: Common Core


TECH Update: Common Core

The latest developments in hot areas of school technology. By Calvin Hennick

When Susan Gendron was commissioner of education for Maine, the state’s SAT scores dropped from within the top 10 in the country to dead last overnight. But there wasn’t any backlash. People were expecting it.

That’s because, for the first time, Maine was requiring all of its students (not just those going to college) to take the test, and Gendron had spent months telling the state’s education reporters and politicians to expect the 50th-place finish.

“It was the best thing we did,” Gendron, now president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, says of the public relations move.

Gendron recommends that school districts take a similar approach to the first round of Common Core–aligned test results. It’s widely assumed that, because of the enhanced rigor of the new standards, scores will drop dramatically in most locales. Given the antipathy with which the standards have already been greeted in some circles, plunging scores could cause an uproar in districts that lack a strong communication plan.

Gendron says administrators should talk to local press about the new tests, put sample questions in school newsletters, and enlist area employers to provide testimonials about how the skills assessed by the exams are valuable in the workplace. School leaders should also take to social media channels and board and PTA meetings to warn about the score drop, she says.

But schools shouldn’t just tell people that scores will be low. Leaders should also explain what they’re going to do about it. Results from the new tests are expected to come in much earlier than data from previous state assessments, and Gendron says schools should use the numbers to form a plan that addresses the areas of highest need.

“In the past, schools got scores so late that it was difficult to do anything with them,” Gendron says, noting that results used to come in as late as the fall. Schools are now ­expected to get them in the spring—early enough to help inform instruction for the end of the school year, or the following fall. “The intent is to give actionable data to the schools. They can reprioritize what they offer for student intervention, they can act upon the data in summer school, they can offer PD for teachers,” Gendron explains.

If parents, teachers, or community members are concerned about low scores, administrators would do well to tell the story of Kentucky. The Bluegrass State was the first to administer Common Core–aligned assessments, and schools saw the predicted drop in scores during the first year of implementation. But the numbers have risen, and state officials say that more students are graduating ready for college and careers than in previous years.

Students shouldn’t be left out of this conversation, Gendron advises. Kids can see that they’re being asked to do different things on the new assessments, and they may not be surprised that their scores take a dip.

“We have to say to kids, ‘We can’t compare to where you were before. This is a starting point,’ ” Gendron says. “We want kids to own their learning so they can start to measure their own progress.”

Illustration: Viktor Koen

Creating a Digital HR Department

Creating a Digital HR Department

Streamlining your application process with technology can save money and improve teacher hiring. By Ron Huberman

In recent years, we’ve seen a significant shift toward making classrooms digital to offer alternative learning methods and more effective instruction. Since students are the top priority, it makes sense that we invest in technology in the classroom to improve teaching and learning. But this transformation leads to the question: Where else might this trend foster improvement? Could districts save money and streamline their hiring processes by creating digital HR departments?

Using technology to hire teachers and process paperwork can decrease the time it takes to secure a new teacher in the classroom. Typical paperwork consists of W2 forms, affidavits, resumes, licensure, etc. Many schools still use paper documents and file cabinets, which increases the time it takes to collect and keep information organized. Further, whenever an HR director or principal needs information on a candidate, someone has to manually sort through a file cabinet to find that candidate’s file. These tedious, logistical tasks can be automated and streamlined through digital systems, which gives HR personnel more time to spend on important, strategic activities like attracting top talent and making careful, more informed hiring decisions.

In addition, paper documents and filing systems lead to financial and institutional costs that can result from losing the best candidates and increasing the time it takes to replace a teacher. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, “districts experience teacher turnover costs at two levels: 1) the central office expends resources when recruiting, hiring, processing, and training teachers; and 2) schools incur costs when employees interview, hire, process, orient, and develop new teachers.” The cost of losing a teacher ranges from $3,600 to $8,600, not including district-level costs and the even more important loss of student learning time. Furthermore, the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that when teachers are absent for 10 days, there is a significant decrease in student outcomes. When teachers are absent more than 10 days, the decrease in student achievement is even more significant; it may be akin to the difference between having a brand new teacher and one with two or three years more experience, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Another study, Missed Opportunities, found that when the hiring processes push districts’ timelines back, between 31 and nearly 60 percent of applicants withdraw from the process, often to accept jobs with districts that made offers earlier. The majority cited the late hiring timeline as a major reason they took other jobs. When schools efficiently move qualified candidates through the hiring process, the candidate is more likely to accept the position and the school will have a new teacher in the classroom faster. When quality candidates become disengaged due to delays, hiring managers have to consider less qualified candidates.

 These financial and institutional costs demonstrate just how crucial it is to secure quality teachers as efficiently as possible. Creating a digital HR department is one solution. So how can you digitalize teacher hiring?

1. Use a robust applicant tracking system to collect the necessary information from the start.

Applicant tracking systems streamline the hiring process by collecting and organizing candidate files from the moment they apply. These systems can also store and share digital copies of important paperwork that candidates can fill out as part of their application. 

“We’re working to build a custom functionality that will allow us to streamline the [hiring] process even further,” says Dan Pavletich, HR director at Elmbrook. “We’ll be able to digitalize all of our paperwork and keep it in the system so that when we hire a new teacher, he or she can log into the system to fill out the necessary forms and we can go in and easily see what paperwork has been completed. Then it’s on file forever; we don’t have to have hundreds of pieces of loose paper filed in a cabinet.”

2. Use a cloud service to store and send documents electronically.

Google Drive and Office 365 both let you share and download documents which makes it easy to send a document to a candidate, have him or her fill it out electronically, and send it back. You can then download the document and save it in the cloud service. Google Drive also lets you have a desktop version of the cloud so that you can access the files without using an Internet browser.

3. Create a website specifically for teacher candidates.

Clark County School District in Nevada created a website exclusively for new teacher hires. The website offers information and forms, new teacher resources, and welcome information.

It’s important to remember that student performance can be supported outside the classroom. Schools should begin to think about how to use technology to streamline processes in other departments. Changing your HR office is a small initiative you can take that has a lasting, positive impact on hiring time and cost, and will ultimately help place an effective teacher in the classroom faster to improve student learning experiences.

Ron Huberman is a former superintendent and the co-founder of TeacherMatch, an advanced K–12 talent management system that uses predictive analytics and data to help school districts identify, hire, and develop effective teachers.

Image: Chris Ryan/Media Bakery

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.