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Meet America's Most Cutting-Edge School Districts for 2015

The 30 most innovative school districts in America are giving American students a chance to thrive.

2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the Digital School Districts Survey, an annual inventory of the nation’s learning institutions conducted by the Center for Digital Education with the help of the National School Boards Association. This year’s results yielded data that indicates new trends in education, while showcasing the most innovative school districts the country has to offer its young, growing minds.

Hundreds of school districts participated in the survey, but only 30 were recognized as being the best – 10 in each of three student population categories. Roanoke County Public Schools in Virginia took first place in the student population of 12,000 or more category; Decatur City Schools in Alabama took first place in the 3,000 to 12,000 student population category; and Regional School Unit 21 in Maine took first place in the under 3,000 student population category.
The innovation and forward-thinking showcased by this year’s survey winners was reflected in broader trends uncovered by the survey.
Among survey participants, 57 percent reported using a dashboard to track school happenings, with an additional 17 percent reporting that a dashboard was in development. Forty-nine percent of respondents reported the use of a digital curriculum, with an additional 42 percent reporting having one under development.
Almost all schools (94 percent) reported that they provide their students with training to prevent and handle cyberbullying. And 82 percent of responding schools offer their students classes that teach advanced technology skills like computer programming, media production and video game development, or courses leading to some technology certification. And 72 percent of districts reported they have a strategy in place for using mobile devices.
Placing first on the survey for student populations of 12,000 students or more, Roanoke County Public Schools in Virginia impressed judges through the use of a dashboard that assisted the district in achieving an on-time graduation rate for 2014 exceeding 95 percent. The district also makes more than 90 percent of its textbooks available in digital formats, while coursework is geared toward furthering students’ technological educations. Students can use drones in a geospatial technology course, schools are equipped with 3-D printers, and students can also work in robotics and 3-D modeling.
Roanoke also offers virtual summer school, and more than 600 students are enrolled in an online course for this year. Teachers likewise have access to training in the use of online education platform ActivBoard.
Within Roanoke, Masons Cove Elementary School was the first school in the region to receive LEED gold certification for the adoption of sustainable architecture and design.
A 1:1 laptop initiative further impressed judges by demonstrating a dedication to technology infrequently seen in education.
To explore more ways that technology could be used in the district, Roanoke also led a series of Social Think Tank discussions, in which students, educators and community members gathered to discuss challenges and opportunities at the intersection of technology and education.
The integration of technology into the classroom like that seen in Roanoke was a common theme among all winners in this year’s survey and an indication of an industry trend. 
Kathy Rains, supervisor of technology at Decatur City Schools in Alabama – a first place winner in its population category – noted that in the past five years during her time with the district, she’s seen substantial changes in how education is delivered.
“The main thing for us is there’s a much greater awareness in everything being available digitally,” Rains said. “That was not the case when I first came here. I see that more and more.”
Decatur City Schools received several grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission to provide students with laptops, and a recent initiative provides students an opportunity to borrow a wide assortment of devices from schools to use at home. A bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy at the district’s high schools further enables the utilization of technology at school.
“We’re very aware of technology, that we need to put that in the hands of our students,” Rains said. “I think everyone sees that that’s just the way that they learn best, and they also need to be learning about the technology itself.”
The district also has an agreement with Calhoun Community College, in which students from the district are allowed to attend college courses, participate virtually through the state’s ACCESS learning program, or receive instruction from university instructors who travel to the district’s schools.
“I think we all have a great sense of urgency about preparing them for their future,” Rains said. “A big part of that is just dealing with change. That’s hard for all of us, but can you imagine being a student now and it’s just constant change for them as well. We’re very aware that things will be different for them. We’re preparing them for a future that we know nothing about, and I just think that technology is one more way that we’re bridging into the future.”
Additional technologies used by the district include a growing library of digital content, including video that is used in-classroom to augment learning. The district also employs a robust technology disaster plan that includes off-site data storage, and capabilities for face-to-face meetings with first responders.
Jamie Jensen, IT director at Regional School Unit (RSU) 21 in Maine, which took first place in its under 3,000 population category, said that new forms of classroom engagement are creating a more authentic learning experience for their students. He recognized that in the past decade and within the past three years especially, technology is really taking off in their classrooms.
“You have an authentic learning environment, where you can actually access the real world through the Internet, through a device, and to bring that right into the classroom and to give students an opportunity to do authentic work, where they’re not just limited to what’s presented to them in a textbook,” Jensen said. “Instead of reading about an event that happened 30 years ago, for instance, … they’re able to go online and see the photos and read the reactions and see how social media transforms around a particular event. They can actually experience the whole event as opposed to internalizing it and making their own assumptions. They get to see firsthand what that particular event does and means.”
All students in RSU 21 in grades 4 through 12 have access to a digital device of some kind in the classroom. Classrooms teaching grades 3 through 12 employ Google Apps for Education, and more than 1,200 Google Accounts have been created and used in the district since September.
The district teaches robotics as a part of its regular course work from kindergarten through grade 12. Science, technology, engineering and math is an available diploma option, and all students participate each year in the annual Hour of Code event.
RSU 12 students collaborate with local businesses to provide design and advertising, and students also have an opportunity to work in broadcasting through an FM radio program soon launching. Many school events are also streamed live online and on local cable.
Jensen noted how much the world has changed in the last few decades. “The real world wanted reading, writing and arithmetic, and now they want people who can communicate, people who can problem solve, and people who can work together,” he explained. “I think the technology takes each of those elements and wraps it into one and allows the students to experience it and practice it. So when they go onto higher education, they have the ability to work together, to research better, and when they go into the real world, a job, they’ll have a better ability to manage whatever technology that they have to work with.”
For a complete list of winners, visit the official Digital School District's award page.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.