How a Large District Scales up to One-to-One

Ellen Ullman


Three years ago, when Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida—the third-largest district in the state and the eighth-largest district in the country, with 210,000 students—began discussing the possibility of a 1:1 initiative, the administration knew it would be a challenge. “There’s an expectation that children will have digital resources when they come to school, but for us the biggest challenge was cost,” says Sharon Zulli, manager of IT instructional technology. “We could send someone to the moon three or four times for the cost of providing devices to all of our students. But we knew we had to do something.”

Project Innovate Is Born

In the spring of 2015, the district invited schools that wanted to go one-to-one to apply to become Project Innovate schools. Principals and teachers had to commit to changing how teachers teach and students learn. “They needed to be comfortable taking chances and making mistakes,” says Zulli.

To choose a device and ecosystem, the committee met with stakeholders from all over the district. After trying a variety of devices and exploring the various ecosystems (Apple, Windows, and Google), the team settled on the Lenovo Yoga tablet. “We wanted students to have a keyboard and be able to use their device in whatever form factor suited them to meet their individual learning style.”

In April, eight schools were selected to be in Project Innovate Cohort One. Five to ten teachers from each school received Surface tablets in May and participated in training over the summer. In September, the Project Innovate elementary schools received 100 Lenovo Yoga devices and the middle and high schools received 200 of the same devices for the students.

Maria Turner, IT architecture integration coordinator, says that the most successful schools were the ones with principals who gave teachers the autonomy to have a messy learning environment. “At Lithia Springs Elementary, the principal covered his teacher’s classes so they had planning time to find digital materials and discuss what was working. They formed professional learning communities (PLCs) and were all in it together.”

Scaling Up the Program

That first year, the eight schools received continual support, including school visits, Skype calls, and check-in meetings. “If we saw that their devices weren’t online, we’d send a staff member out to help them get started,” says Zulli. Teachers shared their ideas and skills with each other and the initiative spread.

During year one, 16 more schools were brought on to start in Cohort Two. “We got the second cohort started in October of 2015 with monthly calls and all-day boot camps to really ramp up the teachers for the next year,” says Zulli. Cohort Two schools visited the Cohort One schools so they could experience what was happening in person. This relieved a great deal of their anxiety and provided some much-needed inspiration.

“One of our middle schools told us that their students who had been in a 1:1 elementary program pushed them into going 1:1,” says Turner. “The children expected it and showed their teachers how to use the devices. It’s very empowering for children to see that their teachers continue to learn.”

Using Tools to Make Learning Relevant

Through all of this, the goal was to help students learn in a way that is meaningful and relevant. One of the tools that helps teachers do this is Microsoft Office 365. “All of our students and teachers have Office 365. Students collaborate, teachers see their students’ work and provide feedback in real time, and everyone can upload and access assignments at home.” Teachers at the secondary level are thrilled that Office 365 means no more missing assignments due to lost flash drives.

Classes are also getting used to using Microsoft OneNote, a digital note-taking app. One classroom of fifth-grade students made videos about using OneNote and shared them both with the district and on a YouTube channel for schools/students in other districts.

Hillsborough teachers are fans of using Skype to talk with authors, experts, and other classrooms. One elementary school did a Mystery Skype with the creator of Born to Explore, the ABC show that explores culture and geography. “These kinds of activities help our students unlock higher-order thinking skills,” says Turner.

Many elementary schools have begun doing project-based learning. One school redesigned its schedule so that the first half hour of every day is PBL. “The children get to create a project of their choice. They work from a place of strength and attendance has improved,” says Zulli. For another elementary school, PBL resulted in community service. The children did online research, had bake sales, advertised on social media, and raised $2,000 for a homeless shelter.

Hillsborough administrators have learned that it’s not their job to tell teachers what to do with the devices; rather, the key is to guide teachers and give them the opportunity to learn from each other. As the second year winds down, the goal is to get additional devices into more schools. “We are encouraging schools to do fundraising and to start BYOD programs. Even though we are a low-income county, as device prices continue to decrease, I think we’ll start to see parents buy laptops instead of school supplies, especially when they see the benefits of technology in the classroom,” says Zulli.

At A Glance

Number of students: 212,000

Number of schools: 270 (141 elementary, 43 middle schools, 27 high schools, 5 K-8 schools, and 47 charter schools)

Demographics: White: 36%; Hispanic: 33%; Black: 21%; Multi-racial: 6%; Asian: 4%

62% Economically disadvantaged and 16% English language learners

More than 90 schools in HCPS were recently recognized as Five Star Schools by the Florida Department of Education.

During the training for the 1:1 classrooms, over 100 teachers took and passed the test to become Certified Microsoft Educators. There are also 7 Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts and 2 Skype Master Trainers in the district.

Sharon Zulli is an Intel Visonary,  Mitchell and Lithia Springs Elementary are Associate Showcase Schools, and Turner Bartels K8 is  a Microsoft Showcase School.


HCPS has several 1:1 initiatives throughout the district. Currently, there are 4,500 Lenovo Yoga and Surface devices for students and teachers in the Project Innovate 1:1 Initiative at 26 schools.

Using Digital Classroom Plan funds from the Florida Department of Education, 8,000 additional laptops/tablets have been added to the high schools this year to help with online assessments and also provide 1:1 classroom opportunities.

Learn More

HCPS Instructional Technology web page

HCPS Information Technology web page

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