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Every Obstacle Is an Opportunity

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How a 1:1 implementation helped create a culture of success in a distrct faced with financial adversity.

By Dr. Michael Kuzniewski

Located in the Chicago suburbs, J. Sterling Morton High School District 201 is a diverse district where failure simply is not an option, and every student knows it. We believe success isn't measured by a standardized test, but by demonstrating mastery through application of knowledge.

In a traditional school setting, students are often segregated by student achievement--but not at Morton. We recognize that poverty and diversity play a huge role in overall student achievement. With the help of my assistant superintendent Tim Truesdale, our extremely supportive school board, and a forward-thinking staff, J.S. Morton beat the odds by implementing a 1:1 program while changing the mindset about grading and student segregation. In other words, we are turning obstacles like equity and budget constraints into opportunities.

ETA 2014: The Countdown to 1:1

Having a tablet or computer for each student is something every administrator dreams of but often does not have the support or funding to pursue. After years of talking about the initiative, our 1:1 dreams became a reality thanks to the driving force of our school board and its president, Jeffry Pesek. We called our 1:1 rollout ETA 2014, for Expanding Technology Access. Giving the initiative a name created comradery within our district. Instead of a looming deadline, the initiative was viewed as a countdown to the exciting day when J.S. Morton would take a giant leap into the future of education.

Instead of doing one big implementation that would cost millions initially, we planned to provide devices to every freshman class starting in the 2014-2015 school year. Currently, we're in the second year of implementation, and by 2018, J.S. Morton will be completely 1:1. With a plan to use Title 1 funding toward devices, our school used the 2013-2014 school year to prepare and address questions such as: What devices should we get? What is the best professional development for blended learning? How will we cover expensive device maintenance? 

Administrators, teachers, students, and even parents were all part of the planning process.  We assembled a committee to decide how to effectively provide professional development for everyone involved. Before receiving their devices, parents and students took an online digital citizenship course.

Our teachers were in a low- or no-tech teaching environment, so we aimed to show them how their lives could be made easier with technology, and how technology could be blended into lessons they already had. We wanted to offer teachers flexible tools to keep their lessons on track and students engaged. Once they discovered tools like Microsoft Office 365 and OneDrive and our online curriculum provider Odysseyware, they were excited to test them out in their classrooms.

Santa Hands Out Laptops

We gave ourselves a year to plan, but trust me, time flew by. As part of the rollout, we decided it would be best for teachers to gain experience with individual devices before the student implementation. We could have just handed out teacher laptops, but that's not our style. Mr. Truesdale dressed up like Santa Claus and handed each computer to the teachers as gifts. By the end of the day, enthusiasm for ETA 2014 was bursting at the seams, and the next couple months of planning would involve a very happy group of people excited for the future.

Throughout the process, we thought, "What happens when a device breaks? Where will we find the people, time, and funding to fix it?" Our answer? A new course. We implemented a Tech Service Internship (TSI) course where students would learn to repair and troubleshoot the school's technology. It's a win for everyone. The district isn't paying to send out devices, downtime is effectively eliminated, and TSI students gain hands-on experience repairing hardware and customer service skills. Students are even able to become Microsoft certified, and many of them work for a "Geek Squad"-type program while in high school. The TSI course aligns perfectly with our district's mission to provide hands-on experience and application of learning.

Leveling the Playing Field

We're now in our second year of implementation, and we can see how technology has leveled the playing field for our students. Once segregated by their differences, students are now united and learning from each other, connecting face-to-face and through technology. Instead of being test-focused, our teachers aim to help students master concepts and show mastery through application. We believe success often follows learning from mistakes, so under teacher supervision, we allow students to discover the answers themselves and apply what they've learned to real life.

Creating a culture of success while implementing a 1:1 initiative isn't easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Through our experience, we've learned to do a lot with a little bit of funding, take baby steps on the way, and refocus on what really matters: the students.

Dr. Michael Kuzniewski is the Superintendent of J. Sterling Morton High School District 201.

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