2017 Digital School District Winners Highlight the Importance of Integrating Technology in the Classroom

Cutting-edge technology combined with savvy educational leadership are the hallmarks of the school district winners that range from a small, rural district in Texas with 800 students to one in Georgia with more than 28,000.

The Center for Digital Education honored three school districts with top honors in its 13th Annual Digital School Districts Survey.

The survey generates top-10 rankings for districts that excel in the use of technology to govern the district; communicate with students, parents and the community; or improve district operations. The rankings are based on information gathered from hundreds of participating districts about digital and emerging technologies; data management and safety; and learning and delivery methods.

For the second consecutive year, the top three priorities for the districts surveyed are personalized learning; digital content and curriculum; and professional development/skills training for integrating technology in the classroom. 

Texas’ Arp Independent School District came out on top in the small student population district category. Less than a decade ago, the rural east Texas district started with 10 Apple 2E computers and was unable to get a contractor to install infrastructure. To move forward, the district joined a consortium of 27 other rural districts, and now Arp has more than 1,500 devices and high bandwidth for a population of just more than 800 students.  

“I was appalled by the old technology, things they would never see once they left school,” said Joy Rousseau, IT director at Arp. “I wanted them to be able to see devices they would experience in the real world. We challenged the district and didn’t accept the fact that we were small, poor and insignificant.”
The district incorporates blended learning extensively through multi-device viewing with interactive projectors that can connect classrooms throughout the district. The district’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and career and technical education (CTE) courses include a plasma cutter torch, drones, robots with a camera to check for cracks in a drain pipe, and a solar panel matrix to supply power back to the regional power grid.  
Many of these changes were hard to come by in a district with 60 percent of its students economically disadvantaged. It was difficult for some veteran teachers to see technology as nothing more than a clunky thing they had to learn to use. To change that attitude, Rousseau and her team offered professional development any time it was convenient for the teacher, whether that was face to face, after school or even during holidays. The district also held surveys and workshops for community members, parents and students. 
“There is no comfort zone in technology. It is truly lifelong learning. Rural schools have an awful time getting outside their norm,” said Rousseau. “But if you have a team to help you negotiate change, you’re not standing at the bottom of the mountain all by yourself.”
Pennsylvania’s Mt. Lebanon School District topped the mid-sized district category. Christopher Stengel, the director of technology, understands the importance of bringing along the community in the decision-making process and helped usher in a future-proof high school. 
A $109.4 million renovation and new construction project includes zone boxes made with blown-in fiber as a bandwidth-rich network design solution, a move to flatscreen TVs paired with Apple TVs, and the introduction of multifunctional student-centered spaces that promote the 21st-century skills of collaboration, creativity and flexibility. 
The renovation has led to the creation of a new STEM academy, and teachers across the school report more collaboration opportunities and the use of a variety of devices throughout the school. 
“We’re not interested in creating a fake learning bubble that only exists while you’re at school,” says Stengel. “We are BYOT [bring your own technology] and employ many different types of devices. Our technology is authentic. We don’t need 30 Macbooks in order for learning to happen. Nope, who has an iPhone?” 
The digital natives in Georgia’s Houston County School District, winners in the large-size school district category, are so comfortable with technology that Houston became one of the very first districts in the state to administer state online assessments in grades 3 through 8. 
Houston invested more than $25 million in network infrastructure and classroom technology tools and devices over the last five years. The investment in end-of-grade standardized exams was paid for by a voter-approved one-cent local sales tax.
“Our kids were excited to take the test online. It actually helped alleviate some of the test stress,” said Rose Powell, Houston’s director of technology services. “Also, the community really appreciates the fact that we’re preparing our students for the future.”
Houston uses a Microsoft 365 office system, which allows students access to their school work at any time, enabling collaboration to happen more easily. 
The district also has enhanced audio/visual streaming that allows teachers to collaborate professionally or to stream live events, including graduation ceremonies. As home to an Air Force base, many of Houston’s parents are deployed and unable to attend graduation. 
“Technology not only provides more opportunities for engaging activities and supports teaching and learning,” said Powell, “but it also bridges gap between school and community.”