Professional Development Wins the Day in Baldwin County, AL

Ellen Ullman

The Baldwin County Public Schools have been blazing new trails ever since they launched Alabama’s first public school in 1799.  Today the district’s five-year-old one-to-one initiative serves as an example to others interested in transforming instruction with help from technology. 

In 2006, Baldwin County was 2:1 in a few classrooms, but most schools had one or two labs and one student computer per classroom. “Then a new superintendent came who wanted to model our district after Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina,” says CTO Homer Coffman.  The district’s 1:1 program launched in 2011 with MacBook Airs, but at the direction of the new superintendent, Eddie Tyler, transitioned this year to Chromebooks for grades 3 through 12.

Coaching and Collaboration

One of the overriding themes for Baldwin County is that transformation, especially in a 1:1 initiative, is not about technology—it’s about professional development for teachers. “This is a critical aspect,” says Coffman. “If teachers are not engaged, you won’t be successful.”

Ten years ago the district became involved in the eMINTS program, which provides professional development for teachers to help students become collaborators, innovators, and problem-solvers. Through grants, 12 new teachers each year were able to sign up for two years of eMINTS training. Once the district went one-to-one, classes expanded to 25- 35 a year.

Although Baldwin County couldn’t afford to expand the eMints program to all the teachers in the district, Coffman says that administrators and principals liked what came of it—collaborative teachers and happy students—and were determined to apply the principles of the program as they scaled up. Coaching and mentoring are key components of eMints, and that’s something the district has embraced.  Jeremy King, educational technology support services coordinator, explains: “Today, we have a coach for each feeder pattern who is already eMints-trained or currently going through the program. We’re expanding the coaching and mentoring effort across the entire district through our instructional transformation specialists (ITSs), who help teachers learn about instructional strategy and how to build lessons.”

Tiffany Goldschmidt, technology facilitator and consulting teacher, helps King manage the seven teachers who make up the ITS staff. They serve all 45 campuses, so each ITS works with five to nine schools. To help make it manageable, the team has an instructional and a technology focus each month. In September, the focus was on assessments. The ITS staff discussed summative and formative assessments and how Google Apps fit in. “For instance, we helped teachers learn how to use a Google Form to get a quick synopsis of where students are,” says Goldschmidt. “Since we just switched to Chromebooks, teachers are requesting Google-centered training, modeling, and coaching.” The assessment discussions went a lot further than talking about tests; teachers also learned how to assess projects such as slide shows or movies. “Ultimately, we want them to understand how to use assessments to create authentic learning experiences for students.”

Hosting an Annual Conference

Every summer, the Baldwin County Education Coalition hosts the annual Gulf Regional Innovative Teaching Conference (GRITC), which provides more than 6,000 hours of professional development for teachers for free. It’s a four-day conference, and this year, 550 teachers and 100 administrators attended. Everyone earned Professional Learning Units.

The district started the conference nine years ago as a way for its teachers to share what they knew about digital learning; today, there are nationally-known keynoters, food trucks, and music. Eighty percent of the sessions are taught by Baldwin County teachers, which builds up teachers and helps develop leaders.

“I’ll see teachers at Christmas time who tell me they can’t wait for GRITC this year,” says Goldschmidt. “Since our district spreads across several towns and it can take one-and-a-half hours to go from one school to another, it’s often the only time they get to see their friends across the district. It’s a great networking opportunity.”

This summer, they added the New Teacher Academy, in which 100 new teachers learned about everything from using the grading system to accessing digital resources. According to Goldschmidt, “It allowed us to automatically build in community among new teachers.”

From MacBooks to Chromebooks

What drove the decision to switch to Chromebooks after four years of 1:1?  “Chromebooks are more educationally friendly since they are simpler to use and can lead to more productivity in class,” says Coffman.  “Teachers are happy there aren’t as many ways to get around stuff and that there is a lot less down time.”

Coffman also points out that Chromebooks cost much less than MacBooks to repair. The district has accidental damage protection with the Chromebooks and, since they were able to afford a few extras, teachers no longer have to deal with a student not having a device since they can swap one that needs to be repaired for a spare.

Although the Chromebooks don’t do everything, Coffman is pleased. “Do you need a Ferrari to drive to town?” he asks. “We don’t have as many options for moviemaking software, but only 150 to 200 of our 2,500 teachers use movie-making software. Our funding has declined and it’s a huge detriment. We can’t just buy the most expensive machines any longer.”

An Instructional Shift for Teachers

“We don’t do traditional IT; we don’t repair the Chromebooks,” says Coffman. “That’s why we changed from ‘information tech’ to ‘education tech.’ We focus on end-user support and pedagogy, and how to enhance the student experience.”

Baldwin County has had online learning and a learning management system in place since 2005, when teachers started using Moodle. “They used it so much we had to put it on a server farm,” says King. “We’re also working in Google Classroom now, taking that and integrating it back into Moodle.”

The Educational Technology Division hosts up to seven for-credit, online PD classes per semester and will do two sets of each class starting next semester. The goal is to offer a variety of ways for teachers to get PD, including classes on community building, becoming a Google-certified educator, how to use Promethean software, or building a student-centered classroom. 

At A Glance: 

Baldwin County Public Schools is in Bay Minette, Alabama. It has:

  • 31,000+ students
  • 45 campuses
  • 1.900 teachers
  • 47% free/reduced lunch
  • 3% English language learners
  • 43 languages spoken

According to AdvanceED, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools, “Baldwin County Public Schools teachers regularly win national teaching honors for their progressive, 21st-century classroom instruction that puts the student in the center of the learning experience.”

Infrastructure: 

Student devices:

  • 25,000 Lenovo Chromebooks for grades 3 through 12.
  • 7,000 iPads for grades K through 2.

Teacher devices: 2,100 MacBook Airs.

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