It's All About Collaboration at Springfield Public Schools

Ellen Ullman

Springfield Public Schools (SPS) in Western MA kicked off its WeLearnSPS Initiative this August as part its overall strategic plan to prepare students for success in college or career. “We are 90 percent low income and are confronting a significant achievement gap between our district and the state, so we needed to dramatically enhance core instruction,” says Paul Foster, chief information officer. “For us, that means using technology appropriately and helping students become more productive, creative, and innovative.”

Rather than just adding interventions to instruction, SPS decided to improve core instruction across the board. “We feel technology is the way to do that,” says Foster. “We’re working with teachers to help them learn how to use technology to transform the student task with greater levels of engagement and rigor.”

A True Partnership of Technology + Instruction  

SPS describes WeLearnSPS as a collaborative effort in which the technology and curriculum departments work together to prepare and support teaching and learning.  That’s why there is rigorous professional development for both teachers and principals.

“We know leaders need to model this and we want them to feel supported,” says Denise Matuszczak, senior administrator of digital learning and assessment. “We help principals see that they are the leaders and follow up with continuous PD for teachers on integrating technology and how to be an effective digital leader.”

In August, the districtwide PD focused on WeLearnSPS. Teachers were exposed to specific tools they could use and how they could use them. Each teacher in the district left August PD with at least two lessons prepared to teach that integrate technology to further engage students.

“We make sure teachers understand that they don’t have to know it all when it comes to technology and we encourage them to ask their colleagues for ideas and help,” says Foster.

He’s excited about some of the creativity that’s already been demonstrated. At one elementary school, the principal reworked the schedule so that the on-staff IT teacher is freed up to join PLC meetings. The IT teacher also has a half-day each week to co-teach within other content areas. As Foster says, “We didn’t tell the school to do any of this. We just provided the tools and a little PD.”

Matuszczak has also seen changes. Some schools have started robotics clubs; others are using students to run help desks and help teachers solve tech issues. “We are becoming a more collaborative community. I see a lot of people working with peers and absorbing what the front runners are doing. Peer-to-peer discourse has gone a long way.”

The Self-Service Model

Before launching 1:1, SPS installed access points in every classroom and invested in the infrastructure so that all 35,000 devices can be on the network simultaneously. “We know that with multimedia content the bandwidth demands will keep climbing,” Foster says.

Because there are only eight field technicians serving 58 schools and a four-person digital learning team providing instructional support, schools are beginning to manage their own devices. “Our goal is to empower the end user and minimize when our techs have to fix something,” says Ben Wilson, senior manager of technology operations. All laptops are configured so that the user types in his or her name and it brings up the apps and tools that he or she needs—within and outside of the network

“We’ve started to deploy a student image that’s done by the tech coordinator in the school or someone else who’s been trained. If there’s a problem, the tech coordinator knows how to change the configuration, do a quick refresh, or completely reimage to fix the device without waiting for tech support.” In January, teachers will begin to learn how to do these things too, in an effort to continue empowering the end user.

Sharing Successes

“One of our elementary schools that has been integrating technology more quickly than some of the others had significant increases in test scores over the past two years, so when we presented their progress to the district leadership team, we started with that data,” says Matuszczak. “We feel that technology will help move the needle, and now that our teachers are planning and working together, it’s nice for them to know that what they are doing can help test scores.”

Teachers are also sharing how technology is helping them improve their practice. Foster says that one teacher showed her colleagues how she uses technology for guided reading groups. She works with a small group of students while other small groups respond to prompts, answering questions about texts using Padlet. Later on, she can look at Padlet and see what every group did. When she’s out of the classroom and leaves an assignment for a substitute, she can still see what’s happening and engage with her students.

Matuszczak and Foster acknowledge that many teachers were terrified of using technology at first, so they’ve stressed again and again that it’s OK to make mistakes and try things that may not work. The point is to try. “Teens, especially, are figuring out how to be adults and need to exercise control. When we give them an assignment and let them choose how they show their work—making a poster, a movie, or something else—that’s incredibly powerful.”

So far, the district has gotten no pushback from teachers or principals about using technology. Parents are on board as well. “At a parent meeting we talked about what we were doing. Their only question: ‘When do K-2 students get their own laptops?’ Parents want their children to be ready for a tech-rich world,” says Foster.

Devices and Logistics

When SPS began buying devices, Foster says everyone asked for iPads. However, he points out that no one outside of K-12 uses an iPad as their only device and that there are things you can’t do on a standalone tablet. He felt the same way about Chromebooks. “Because our goal is college- and career-readiness, they need a device they’ll encounter in the workforce.”

Student devices are a mixture of 11-inch touchscreen convertible Lenovo Yoga laptops and HP convertible tablets, which the district purchased this year. Staff members have 13-inch Lenovo and HP laptops.

For now, the devices remain at school, though plans are already in place to pilot a take-home policy with a handful of schools starting in January 2017. The district has some strategies in mind but a committee is fine-tuning details such as charging to cover the cost of insurance. There’s also the issue of at-home Internet access, which a large percentage of SPS families lack. SPS is studying what other districts do and weighing the options.

More than anything, SPS wants to provide its students with the best possible learning experience. “Around 1,000 of our students are homeless at any time—they’re in group homes, in custody of the Department of Children & Families because of abuse, and in other difficult situations. That’s what makes WeLearnSPS so incredibly important,” says Foster. “Our superintendent, Daniel J. Warwick, calls this an equity and social justice issue. This is part of our effort to do right by our students so they don’t have a deficit when they leave us.”

At A Glance: 

Springfield (MA) Public Schools has 58 schools, 25,600 students in pre-K through grade 12, and 2,600 teachers.

Demographics: 65% Hispanic, 19% African American, 12% White, 3% Asian, 2% Multi-Race, Non-Hispanic.

87% free/reduced-price lunch

67% economically disadvantaged

16% English language learners

Infrastructure: 

The district’s WeLearnSPS digital learning initiative is focused on leveraging technology to boost the level of student engagement and rigor.

Students in grades 3-12 have Lenovo or HP laptops with a 1:1 ratio.

Students in grades K-2 have Lenovo or HP laptops with a 1:2 ratio.

SPS has had fiber to every building for more than 5 years and dense wireless in every school since 2015.

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