1:1 Laptops Set the Stage for District-Wide Innovation

Ellen Ullman

Twelve years ago, Roanoke County Public Schools (RCPS) in Virginia handed out Dell laptops to the ninth-grade students at its new high school and students attending the Engineering Academy. Today, all 5,000 high school students and 1,400 teachers in the district are part of the Dell Latitude 1:1 program.

Located in the mountains and valleys of western Virginia, RCPS had a school board with an interest in and willingness to explore technology. At the same time, the district expanded its use of technology by starting an engineering center, launching a virtual high school, and converting much of its print textbook use to digital content.

“We tried using digital content in 2002 but our teachers weren’t ready for it,” says superintendent Lorraine Lange. “Today it’s a different story. Some of our younger teachers have been using computers and digital resources for many years. Technology is part of the culture.”

Online Learning

With the laptop initiative, as well as the virtual high school, the district uses Blackboard, which allows students to participate in online discussions and review sessions. When RCPS first offered virtual summer school courses, administrators were shocked to see how it dramatically reduced the amount of face-to-face summer school students. The success led them to offer virtual classes during the year, and the number of students participating increased.

“Some at-risk students aren’t a good fit for a typical classroom,” says Ken Nicely, director of secondary instruction/technology. “Virtual classes open up more opportunities and meet the students where they are.”

Distance-learning classrooms are another of this district’s innovations. “We’ve had distance-learning classrooms in each high school for more than 10 years. This year we’ve added a video component within Blackboard that allows smaller groups of students to take a course that isn’t offered in their school,” Lange explains. Thanks to Blackboard Collaborate, students take upper levels of foreign language or other courses that don’t fit into their schedules. “It’s another option for learning.”

Digital Content as an Alternative to Textbooks

High school students at RCPS access more than 90 percent of their textbooks on their laptops. Each laptop gets issued with applications like Blackboard Learn, which allows students to collaborate and do group work.

“Everything new we adopt from the state includes digital components and we have embraced them all,” says Janet Slaughter, instructional resource manager. The newest science textbooks come in both digital and traditional versions, and teachers use whichever works best for each unit. Most of the basal textbooks have a companion website with study notes, tutorials, quizzes, and tests that students can use, and the district has created different Blackboard modules for teachers.

According to Slaughter, “We encourage creativity and open-source materials. One teacher did an inquiry-based project in which students formed their own questions, conducted research, and applied methodology.”

In addition to using their Promethean ActivBoards for lessons (every classroom has one), some teachers are flipping their classroom. They create videos or assign ones on YouTube for students to watch at home.

An Innovative Curriculum

RCPS is one of a handful of districts in the U.S. that offers a gaming class. A teacher expressed interest, and now her students are developing apps. “Gaming is going to be a huge career field,” says Lange. “We are helping bring out creativity in our students.”

Next year, every high school will offer a class in entrepreneurship. Part of the focus will be on working in groups, which local businesses continue to tell RCPS administrators is a skill recent graduates lack. The elementary schools are developing a five-year plan to implement all 16 engineering strategies to teach problem solving and creativity, and teachers all over the district are trying to do more project-based learning. Pockets of incredible things that happen in one or two classes become the norm and spread down the hallways.

“One of the secrets to our innovation has been an investment in all the different pieces to make it happen—whether it’s funding, planning, or professional development,” says Nicely. “We put a lot in place to make sure we are able to continually refresh the laptops, keep up with infrastructure, and ensure that people are feeling empowered to implement strategies.”

Why Laptops? Why Dell?

Jeff Terry, manager of information systems, describes the district’s instructional program as “exemplary, thanks in part to the technology available for our students and staff. The high school 1:1 laptop program is one of our cornerstones, and the laptops are seamlessly integrated within our instructional program. With laptops, our teachers have the tools to use industry-standard software such as Microsoft Office, while also providing the opportunities to implement assignments on websites that require plug-ins, Java, and Flash. A tablet or Chromebook could work instructionally, but laptops give us the most flexibility and do everything that we need them to do.”

In 2001, RCPS chose Dell Latitudes because they felt that Dell had the most comprehensive plan. According to Terry, Dell’s warranty program is exceptional and allows the district to get replacement parts for the Latitudes for five years – something that isn’t offered by every vendor. “Over the last decade we’ve seen typical breakages that can get expensive, but with our accidental coverage warranty, we replace parts at no additional cost.”

Terry also appreciates Dell’s program for RCPS technicians. “We have a Dell-certified technician at each of our five high schools. Many of the repairs, including screens, motherboards, and hard drives, are applicable for a warranty-reimbursement program. This program creates a revenue stream for technology budgets and we use the money for student printing, battery replacement, and small parts. It’s part of the ROI.”

Dell’s Summer Clinic, in which the company pre-ships cartons of parts for the summer refresh cycle, is yet another benefit. “This is another value-added service that has become part of our 1:1 laptop program. Dell has provided our technicians with another way to streamline the repair process and save valuable time during summer,” says Terry.

Embedded Professional Development Is the Status Quo

“We look at professional development as most effective when it’s job-embedded and grounded in the daily work our teachers are doing,” says Nicely. The district takes a multi-prong approach to PD that starts with supporting the instructional coaches and instructional resource teachers who support teachers at every school in using technology effectively. “We meet with them regularly to talk through their issues and empower them with additional skills in areas like conflict resolution and emotional intelligence. We send them to instructional-coaching conferences and do book studies. They are a powerful piece of the PD puzzle.”

With representatives from each elementary school, the district has developed a five-year plan to understand what it means to develop children’s creative-thinking and problem-solving skills by applying engineering concepts. This year, the concept spread to the middle and high schools, and Nicely asked principals to form professional learning communities (PLCs) made up of teaching champions who exemplify top-notch planning and teaching. “We don’t want pockets of excellence; we want excellence to be the norm,” he says. The PLCs support each other, do peer observations, and collaborate to make learning more engaging and purposeful in every classroom.

At A Glance: 

Roanoke County Public Schools (RCPS), in Roanoke, VA, has 27 schools that serve 14,000 students in grades K-12. There are 2,033 full-time staff members.

RCPS pupil-teacher ratio is 22:1, and the number of minority students is 15%.

RCPS graduated 93.8% of high school students on time in 2013. More than 87.3% of graduates pursued some form of post-secondary education.

RCPS has won many awards, accolades, and honors, including: Blue Ribbon School winner, multiple winner of Governor’s Award for Educational Excellent, and the Virginia Department of Education VIP and Competence to Excellence Awards.

RCPS was named a first-place winner (for districts with 12,000 students or more) in the ninth annual Digital School Districts Survey by the Center for Digital Education and the National School Boards Association. The survey showcased exemplary school boards’ and districts’ use of technology to govern the district; communicate with students, parents, and the community; and to improve district operations.

RCPS is one of three Virginia schools to be included in the League of Innovative Schools-Digital Promise.

Infrastructure: 

5,000 Dell Latitude laptops for students in grades 9-12.

1,400 Dell Latitude laptops for K-12 teachers.

1,000 iPads for preschool and elementary students.

Dell PowerEdge servers and Equalogic SAN technology

Cisco ASA firewall, routers and switches, Nexus switches and Ironport web and SPAM filtering.

Microsoft Exchange and Active Directory.

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