When Dr. Adams joined the Coachella Valley School District 6 years ago, he discovered only 16 percent of his district's high school graduates who attended college actually graduated from college. This realization prompted the district to focus on college, career and citizenship. Dr. Adams knew he had to prepare students for a 21st-century competitive environment and workforce, so he worked with his board of trustees and launched a series of initiatives to move the district forward.
“We wanted to galvanize the community around these initiatives, mainly our Mobile Learning Initiative, so we began to look at what we would need to do to provide mobile learning devices, a robust broadband infrastructure and the proper teacher training to transform how we taught and learned in our district,” says Dr. Adams. “We began a pilot with about 5,000 tablets. We wanted students to go home and tell their parents and we wanted our teachers to share their experiences so we could rally the community around the idea that this is what is needed to make a transformation.” Dr. Adams then went to the public with this concept and asked for a general obligation technology bond through a tax increase, which would ensure every student from preschool to high school had a Web-enabled device and access to the Internet. Sixty-seven percent of the community voted in favor of the bond. “Keep in mind this is a very financially challenged community that covers 1,220 square miles, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Everyone in our district gets free or reduced-price lunch because the socioeconomics are that low,” says Dr. Adams. “But our parents and our school community were willing to tax themselves to ensure we could transform our education system so our students are prepared for college, career and citizenship, and competitive in the profession they choose. It was truly a community effort.”
Even with the passing of the bond, the district had to overcome obstacles. Coachella Valley’s unique location made Internet connectivity a challenge. Dr. Adams and his team initiated the Wi-Fi on Wheels program, which puts routers on school buses and encourages students to work on homework while traveling to and from school. The district also parks router-equipped buses with solar panels in neighborhoods and trailer home parks where there is no Internet connectivity. According to Michelle Murphy, the district’s executive director of technology services and chief technology officer, the administration is also working with local restaurants to provide students with free Internet access. “They will display a green and yellow sign that says, ‘Free student Wi-Fi zone in partnership with Coachella Valley Unified School District,’ and in turn we are going to advertise their business on our website as a partner. We want kids to have a safe place to do homework,” she says. The district also partnered with a cellular/ cable service provider to offer low-cost Internet access to students at home. “We’ve completely eliminated the digital divide,” says Dr. Adams. “We have everything from A to Z when it comes to digital conversion. We continue to perfect what we do — for us it’s a labor of love.” He even went as far as to ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if the district could become its own Internet provider — not as a commercial venture, but to ensure students were connected. The answer was yes. “If you’re not connected, you’re not going to be successful,” says Dr. Adams. “Instead of leave no child behind, it’s leave no child offline. We continue to look for ways to connect our kids and remove the connectivity excuse.”
With the increase in devices and connectivity, Dr. Adams and Murphy have also seen an increase in student-teacher engagement. Few devices have been lost or broken, and Dr. Adams attributes this to the fact that the community paid for the devices and technology, so the students and their families have a stake in the game. “We surveyed all of our secondary students this past spring, and we had 1,500 students answer that survey,” says Murphy. “We’re still looking at the data, but we’re getting positive feedback from the kids. Their only request is they want to make sure all of their teachers are as techsavvy as their most tech-savvy teacher.”
To support the use of technology in the classroom, Dr. Adams went to local universities to develop a technology certification program but found no takers. Dr. Adams then gave the task to Murphy and her team. Murphy recognized there was a greater need for professional development. She modified the SAMR professional development model, originally created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, and developed the SAMR-AI (SAMR Advanced Instructor) model. District teachers attend after-school professional development classes for one hour per week for five weeks to learn about new devices, pedagogies and technical changes. “Our teachers really want it — we don’t have to make it mandatory,” says Dr. Adams. “They really want to step up to the kids. The kids are challenging all of us to stay current and to be able to move forward.”
Coachella Valley Unified School District has been a leading proponent for President Obama’s ConnectED initiative and was one of the first to take the Future Ready Pledge. The Future Ready Pledge encourages superintendents to commit to ensuring their students are connected and part of the digital conversion process. “I was invited to the White House with 100 other top innovative superintendents and was quite surprised when the president gave us a shout out,” says
Dr. Adams. “The president recognized our district for our commitment to digital transformation, our Wi-Fi on Wheels program and the fact we are addressing connectivity for the entire community. It was a great moment for our community to be recognized by the president of the United States.” Dr. Adams and Murphy are both personally committed to bettering their district — Murphy went back to school to earn her CTO certificate and Adams is pursuing a SAMR-AI certification. They have no doubt their community will continue to rally around their efforts. “We are thinking outside the box — and really there is no box,” says Dr. Adams. “We will continue to make sure our students are connected. We have the training; we have the budget; we have the resources; and we have the curriculum to move forward in the 21st century and give our students the opportunity to be competitive on a global basis.”