Empowering and Untethering Teachers in Tolleson, Arizona

Ellen Ullman

Lenovo laptops and wireless display (WiDi) for their teachers – as well as testing out a variety of technology options with their students – have been keys to moving forward in the Tolleson Union High School District.

When the leadership at Tolleson Union High School District #214 began looking into refreshing teacher and administrator desktop computers in 2013, they came up with a smart long-term plan: Don’t just replace computers; instead, let’s build an instructional-technology foundation. The main concern was finding the right technology to allow teachers to enhance the educational experience for students. They talked with vendors, looked at road maps, and prioritized teacher mobility.

“We wanted our teachers to be untethered. Laptops allow them to move around the classroom and interact better with students; plus, they can take them home and to meetings,” says Bianca Lochner, PhD, PMP, director of technology and information systems.

The committee selected the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix because it is a detachable laptop/tablet combo, has an Intel Core i5 chip, and was more advanced than other options. With full support from the district’s superintendent, Dr. Lexi Cunningham, the team started by rolling out laptops in June 2013 to the administrators, knowing that if they modeled the new devices then teachers would feel supported and be more inclined to use them. But it wasn’t a top-down process. “We had a few phases of implementation, and teachers within the technology committee were involved in helping choose the device,” says Lochner. After the leadership team began using their devices at meetings and presentations, teachers received theirs. Professional development was taking place, too, which the district views as an ongoing, long-term commitment.

Next, it was time to update student computers. Students tested four different models. Based on feedback, the district refreshed all the labs with Dell OptiPlex 3030 all-in-one desktops and also bought 1,500 Intel-powered Lenovo laptops to update their mobile carts. Teachers can go to their school library to check out one of the 14 or 15 carts available on every campus. “We are tracking the data to make sure they are being used for instructional purposes as well as for testing, and at the end of year we’ll decide if there’s a need for additional carts or a whole-scale 1:1,” says Lochner.

Tolleson also allows BYOD, and there is with wireless capability on every campus and outside. The district has around 11,000 students, and 10,000 personal devices are logged in each day. However, Lochner knows that teachers will need more support before BYOD is incorporated into teaching on a regular basis. “It’s an ongoing process,” she says.

The Wonderful World of WiDi

What makes Tolleson’s story even more interesting is that, in the midst of defining its long-term strategy, the district underwent a 500-piece WiDi deployment. WiDi, or wireless display (described in more detail in a recent K-12 Blueprint blog) offers the ability to display in high resolution, with surround sound, wirelessly from a device at a relatively low cost. 

The WiDi capabilities of the ThinkPad Helixes were one of several reasons they were the right fit for Tolleson. With the WiDi device connected to a projector, the teachers are truly mobile, able to move freely in the classroom and use their ThinkPads much as they would use an interactive whiteboard.

“The mobility gives them a lot of opportunities to interact with their students and increases student engagement,” says Lochner. Now, when a teacher is in the back of the room while presenting content, she has the ability to annotate directly on the projected screen to emphasize key elements of the lesson.

WiDi also lets the district save money, as it has replaced the need for interactive whiteboards. “Every classroom, conference room, lecture hall, and cafeteria is equipped with a WiDi device,” says Lochner. “There is no need for expensive AV connections from the projectors to a wall plate. Our administrators are using the WiDi with their laptops for staff meetings. There is no need for a technical staff member to set up the AV equipment every time before a meeting. They simply turn the projector on and click ‘project’ on their laptop.”

Train-the-trainer PD

As with any type of technology endeavor, getting teacher buy in was crucial for Tolleson’s success. “We recognize that getting teachers to integrate technology is not just a matter of training but also a matter of having people with the knowledge to train each other,” says Vickie Landis, curriculum and instruction director. “We’re building that capacity right now. Next year we’ll be more intentional and it will be part of our PD plan.”

This year, teachers are working at their own pace. One teacher has gone totally paperless; others are flipping their classes. A photography teacher did a scavenger hunt using QR codes. Technology instructional specialist Tara Suggs runs a cohort of teacher leaders who are integrating technology and is helping them learn how to support their colleagues. “Unfortunately we have only one Tara supporting 500 teachers, so we feel the train-the-trainer model is the best way,” says Landis. “We’ve been looking for non-monetary ways to reward teachers for this; one option is to get them extra technology.”

Before they received their ThinkPads, teachers completed training videos and followed prompts that led to additional differentiated instruction. Solidifying the partnership between the IT and curriculum and instruction departments, the district’s network and project manager went site-to-site with Landis and Suggs to hand out the laptops, show how to turn them on, and review Windows 8 basics. Next, Suggs started sharing technology tools to be embedded and implemented during regular PD, which happens every-other Wednesday afternoon. “Not even four years ago everyone brought pen and paper to meetings but today teachers are working on their devices and being productive. It’s amazing to see that shift,” says Suggs.

Next year, PD will include the administration. It will start off with technology standards and focus on digital citizenship, social media, copyright issues, and responsibility.

Lessons Learned

Throughout the process, the district learned some valuable lessons, says Lochner.

#1. Identify the need first and then align the technology to the need.

#2. Don’t just do what others have done. Look at your goals: Do you want students to have more enhanced experiences? Do you want to resolve attendance issues? There are many needs that technology can support, but you have to identify the district and individual site needs, since every school may have a different personality or serve diverse populations.

#3. Avoid the low-hanging fruit. We always think we need to be ahead of the curve, so be careful to not choose something that is a fad. The WiDi has such potential for enhancing the student experience and untethering the teacher.

#4. Do continual assessment. Keep asking: Is this working? Do we want to continue rolling this out or do we need to go with something else or in addition? As long as we support our teachers, the technology investment will pay off. Show them the benefits of the tool and they’ll be more willing to invest their efforts to making it be successful.

At A Glance

Tolleson Union High School District (http://www.tuhsd.org) covers four cities in Arizona.

It is a high-poverty, Title 1 district of 11,000 students and 900 staff members. It includes 6 high schools and 2 alternative schools.

The district’s website received a Pure Gold award by the Real Estate Library, based on its excellent design and usability.


Earlier this year, the district installed a 500-piece WiDi deployment.

Each teacher has a Lenovo ThinkPad Helix that is integrated with the WiDi.

Students have access to Dell OptiPlex 3030 all-in-one desktops and Lenovo laptops on mobile carts.

BYOD is also permitted.

Learn More

District Web pages:

Marianthe Williams' Blog on Untethering Teachers in New Jersey


Related toolkits

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