Community Support and Personalized Learning in Clear Creek ISD

Ellen Ullman

Clear Creek Independent School District (CCISD) in Texas began its 1:1 initiative in a thoughtful and careful manner, by involving community members in the planning process, investing heavily in professional learning, and gradually phasing in devices across the district.

In the initial phase of the program CCISD handed out about 1,000 Windows tablets with the goal of targeting all types and ages of learners. “One elementary school got tablets for its fourth and fifth grades, a middle school had them for its eighth graders, and our alternative high school had them too,” says Kevin Schwartz, the district’ chief technology officer.

By December 2013, more than 4,000 devices had been deployed, with another 6,000 to be handed out in the first months of 2014 to ninth- and tenth-graders at five high schools. The end goal: By the fall of 2015, every student in grades 4-12, or a total of 28,000 children will have a Dell Latitude 10 tablet. Children in grades six and higher will be able to take their tablets home.

More than a Device: The Dell Latitude 10 Tablet

According to Schwartz, the process used to choose the device was extremely valuable. “We talked about why, how, and what,” he says. “Why are we doing this? How are we doing it? The what – or the device – came at the end. We spent the bulk of our effort on the why.”

The district decided that its 1:1 program should be entirely about student learning, which for CCISD starts with access to Internet tools and personalized learning opportunities. They defined what personalized learning would mean for each campus and figured out, pretty quickly, that personalized learning would work best if students had tablet devices.

“A lot of people believed that we’d be doing an iPad initiative,” says Schwartz. “I helped lead one at my previous district and it could’ve been successful, but given that we were going into a bond package and the high price of a 1:1, we did an RFP process and brought in every vendor we could think of to come in and demo their products. We tried to be unbiased and neutral, as we checked out iPads, Dells, Chromebooks—everything we could find.”

A large group of stakeholders gave criteria to the selection committee of teachers and administrators, and the committee chose Dell and Apple as its two finalists. Schwartz says they were so close that the committee decided to test them more by looking at every service they had to offer. “We said, ‘Give us your best price, including all the accessories, your professional learning plans, and what you can do with learning management systems,’ and that was the differentiator. Apple’s pricing didn’t change, but Dell took a deeper look at what we needed and brought in Intel, Microsoft, and other partners as well as a deep professional learning plan. They committed to a partnership and gave us educational learning partners who helped us with professional learning.”

Involving the Community

It was very important to district leaders to involve parents and other community members in the planning process, from the start. Here are some key tips Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s director of communications, shared about the process:

  • Involve the Community Long Before the Initiative Begins: “Our 1:1 initiative is the culmination of years of conversations with parents, teachers, and area businesses about where we need to be as a district,” says Polsen. “Our district improvement committee and various focus groups were involved in strategic planning from the very start. It wasn’t about us telling the community what they needed. Giving your community a voice in what they want for their children is key.”
  • You Can Never Give Out Too Much Information:Once the initiative launched, CCISD hosted 10 orientations over the course of three weeks, including one on a Saturday morning, to explain about the 1:1 initiative and answer questions. Parents could attend whichever session they wanted, even if it wasn’t at their child’s school. “Our goal,” explains Polsen, “was for every parent to make it to one meeting, and we stayed long after the meeting was supposed to end to answer questions. Overall, we had great turnouts.”
  • Offer Information in Different Formats: In addition to orientation meetings, the district posted information about the 1:1 program online in order to reach even the busiest families. They live-streamed the orientation and posted a packet of information online about it for those who couldn’t attend in person. An orientation guide – with a copy of the district’s acceptable use policy, Internet safety rules, and directions on how to store files, charge their device, and more – is made available to all parents, along with a form for them to sign.
  • Don’t Let Funding Fears Stop You From Going For It: “We went for an enormous bond to get the money for our 1:1,” says Polsen. She believes that the district’s commitment to community involvement – giving families and other community members what they wanted, not what the district told them they needed – was key to getting the bond approved.
  • Have Answers Ready: “Be prepared for more questions from parents than you could ever imagine,” Polsen says. Questions like: What’s my responsibility? How can I monitor Internet use? All my kid does is play games; how will this be different?  “We collected their questions and concerns and brought together a parent advisory council that met during the summer and worked through some of their issues.”
  • Always Be Mindful of Family Finances: “One of their biggest concerns was about financial responsibility. Families helped fund our 1:1 through increased property taxes, so we didn’t want to heap additional fees on them. But the parents felt they needed a cushion in case a device was broken at home. We started an optional insurance program that costs $25 per year.”
  • Keep the Communication Going After the 1:1 Starts: It’s important to keep talking and listening, long after the initial rollout. As Polsen put it, “We continue to hold orientations as we deploy more devices. We collect comment cards after each orientation to see if we met our families’ needs and answered everything. In the first round of orientations, we received about 1,000 cards back and responded to every question that was asked. We continue to collect and respond to questions. We’ve also handed out training and marketing materials to campus staff and front office staff. If a school employee can’t answer a question, they know they can come to me.”
  • Be Open to New Directions: The communication needs to flow in both directions, with community members having the ability to offer feedback and help make decisions about things that need changing. For example, explains Polsen, “Our parent advisory council helped us to see that we needed our Internet filtering to remain active when students brought their tablets home.”

Personalizing Makes Students Eager to Learn

For this already high-performing district, going one-to-one was a way to up the ante even more. “For us, 1:1 was about giving our students more opportunities to increase their learning,” says Schwartz. “We wanted the technology to empower them to take different paths to get to the same outcomes. For instance, one child might draw; another might write. It’s also about timing. One student may be fast at math but need more time in English.”

When each student has a tablet, teachers can make one lesson work for everyone. They can assign challenging projects that encourage students to be creative and – when appropriate – collaborative. A biology teacher at Clear Brook High School, for instance, gave students three choices to show that they understood the cell cycle. They could create a cell cycle comic book, make a protein-synthesis Claymation video, or research a genetic disorder and interview an individual with that disease or a medical expert experienced with the disorder. “The students went deeper than required and produced incredible stuff,” says Schwartz. “It’s a hard concept to teach but the students’ projects showed they really learned it.”

Steven Ebell, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, agrees. “When you move away from the model of memorizing facts, reproducing them for a test, and forgetting them later, to demonstrating a depth of knowledge and recreating it in a different factor, that’s what personalized learning is all about,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for a year and a half but we feel that technology could be the tool by which we can give students some autonomy in their learning.”

With personalized learning, the curriculum doesn’t change. There are still the state curriculum standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), that students have to learn, but the tablets allow teachers to give students options that are both engaging and meaningful. “I think students will remember the projects they are doing,” says Ebell. “But more than that, they are learning how to learn, how to work together, and how to develop useful products. Today’s students need to be able to take a vast amount of content, boil it down, and create something useful.”

By using technology as a tool to inspire learning, Ebell believes CCISD can be sure that every student is successful in every class. “I don’t want to hear that students ‘power down’ when they come to school; we want them to be engaged and excited to learn. Our 1:1 has great promise for reinvigorating learning, and it’s true for teachers as well.”

An Innovative Approach to Professional Learning

In the past, CCISD approached professional learning much like many districts do, with large-group sessions that covered a topic or two and required teachers to go back to class and figure out how to put into place what they just learned. With the 1:1 program, CCISD is moving away from that. “We’re asking teachers: ‘How do you learn best?’ ‘Where are you now?’ ‘Do you have your own network; if so, where is it?’” explains Ebell. “We asked teachers for feedback about their learning and, based on what we heard, we are giving them options to come together and focus on an area of practice to develop their skills.”

Today, teachers have multiple models and options for professional learning, including:

  • Attending a conference or planning session offered by the district.
  • Receiving coaching from a teacher who was part of the 1:1 pilot program who can help with lesson planning and finding resources and/or co-teach and reflect.
  • Reflective friends, a team of teachers/administrators that conducts a one-day site visit of a campus and observes teaching and provides confidential written feedback. The feedback is non-evaluative and is used to plan future professional learning sessions.
  • Establishing or joining a professional learning network (PLN) to collaborate with teachers throughout the district and around the U.S.
  • Taking face-to-face or online classes, or both.

In addition to these opportunities,& CCISD also purchased the Technology Integration Matrix from the University of South Florida. “The matrix lists characteristics of learning environment with levels of technology integration and provides video segments in each content area so teachers can get a sense of what technology integration looks like,” says Ebell. “We are populating the Matrix with videos of our own teachers teaching with technology.”

According to Ebell, “All of these options let our teachers choose the methods that are right for them. Our goal is to have no more unanswered questions. We may not know the answer, but we can help you find a source on your device. It’s a game changer.”

At A Glance: 
  • There are more than 56 languages spoken throughout the 44 campuses across the district.
  • CCISD’s completion rate is 98.5% and more than 96% of all high school graduates attend college, enroll in the military, or enter the workforce.
  • CCISD is home to 39 National Merit Semifinalists.
  • In 2012, Greg Smith was named the Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Boards.
  • CCISD is a Project Lead the Way-endorsed school district for STEM and one of only 23 school districts selected to participate in the High Performance Schools Consortium.
Infrastructure: 
  • In May 2013, the community approved the CCISD bond referendum, with 68% percent voting for the $367 million bond. The funding will be used to: rebuild or improve 40-year-old schools; address student safety, security systems, repairs and enrollment growth; construct or expand co-curricular and extracurricular facilities for growth in programs; and improve technology for 21st-century learning.
  • For CCISD’s 1:1 initiative, known as Latitude to Learn, all students and staff in grades 4-12 will receive a Dell Latitude 10 tablet computer by the fall of 2015. The district will also equip all classrooms with a projector, interactive whiteboard, and document camera; improve the network infrastructure; and upgrade servers, wireless and hardwired systems. Students at the elementary level do not bring their devices home, but intermediate and high school students can do so.
  • Dell Latitude 10 tablets and iPads are used as classroom sets in pre-K through third grade to introduce students to technology. A typical classroom in these grades will have six tablets.
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