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What's the Big Idea?

Innovation is everywhere.
Innovation is everywhere.

From automating state testing to using free online tools to teach ELL, these districts have turned bright ideas into real, workable solutions. Read on to find out how to leverage their innovations for your own benefit.

1. Triple instruction time.
At John Spry Community School in Chicago, 920 students attend school together every day—just not at the same time. Principal Carlos M. Azcoitia staggers arrival times for upper- and lower-grade students. Pre-K–8 students begin their day at the ‘usual’ time. Once the students hit 9th grade, though, things change radically: Core classes run from 3 pm to 7 pm every day. During freshman year, students arrive in late morning to tutor younger kids. Sophomores spend the ‘early’ hours doing internships, and juniors take college courses. High school students take an accelerated course that meets all year round and leads to graduation in just three years—but still includes college credits. “We can’t do the traditional model here, it doesn’t work,” Azcoitia says. But the time shift seems to work. Out of this year’s 32 June 2007 graduates, 26 have already been accepted at college and from a community where many of these students are the first in their families to graduate from high school.

2. Build tech literacy.
Meeting new state technology standards without a staff dedicated to that specific purpose is a daunting task. Debbie Core, chief technology officer for Gaston County Schools (NC) found a way to integrate the curricula and throw in a dash of professional development at the same time. Her solution was EasyTech, a web-delivered K–8 technology curriculum that integrates technology skills into math, science, language arts, and social studies. The program applies important tech skills, such as the use of spreadsheets, in ways that fit with core subjects. And it’s designed to help teachers get up to speed. “They can do the lessons themselves and learn how to use the technology before using it in the curriculum,” says Roxie Miller, assistant chief technology officer.

3. Create classroom efficiency.
C. Michael Lay, technology coordinator at Scott County Schools (TN) secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund a video conferencing system that enables the district to offer virtual algebra classes for students in all six of his schools. He installed Tandberg equipment in the central office, the high school, and in his five lower schools, and he uses a Linux-based server with MOODLE, a free Open Source software package designed to help educators create effective online courses. The system includes dual video, which means the kids see both the teacher and the display, giving them direct instruction from a highly qualified teacher. “It’s not a talking head or a guy narrating a slide show,” Lay explains, adding that many local districts are replicating his system to address the math-teacher shortage.

4. Cut technology costs.
Simple salesmanship is what inspired Jeff McCoy to offer a two-for-one ‘sale’ to get interactive whiteboards into more of his classrooms. McCoy is the district technology facilitator for Greenville County Schools (NC), a large district serving roughly 68,000 students in approximately 5,000 classrooms. Through E-rate funding, McCoy was able to purchase 1,000 Promethean Whiteboards. Hoping to up the number even more, he offered the schools a buy-one-get-one-free deal. “A lot of PTAs came on board,” McCoy notes, “because they liked the deal and that they knew what they were purchasing.” He also added a condiiton for getting the free board: The classroom teacher would have to commit to ten hours of training.

5. Ease tech adoption.
When Steve Lewey, project manager for the Lake Washington (WA) School District, designed their new multimedia system for 1,500 classrooms, he went with the philosophy of low and slow—low impact, slow integration. First, his group installed projectors so that teachers could get used to using digital media in the classroom. Now, the district is working on adding sound. Lewey has just finished the installation of speakers in every classroom. Next project? Evaluating a districtwide wireless microphone. “We can only throw so much at teachers at a time—they’re already overwhelmed. We want them to get comfortable with the technology in stages, and then keep adding along the way.”

6. Make tests better.
The Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) is one of the most aggressive tests in the country, leaving administrators in the Lone Star State in what can feel like an almost constant testing cycle. Dr. Laurie K. Bauer, principal of Channelview High School, copes through automation. Channelview uses Scantron's Achievement Series, which enables educators to pull from reams of test questions correlated to state standards. “I just write in the standard, and up comes a bank of questions,” Bauer explains. For example, if the fourth graders are having a hard time with fraction conversion, a TAKS standard, the system will draw relevant test questions from state tests, as well as from tests written by her own district and other districts in Texas. Bauer says, “It makes us test smarter, not harder.”

7. Streamline recruitment.
Kim A. Kirsch, director of human resources at Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES in New York, works with twenty other districts to handle online job applications. Applicants can look for a job, put information on the site, or apply—and they can indicate which districts can see their applications, keeping their job search confidential if they wish. Kirsch says they’ve gone to local education colleges and shown students how to enter their information on the site, which is a win-win situation for
new teachers and schools looking for fresh talent. Best of all are the savings. “In the first year of service,” Kirsch notes, “we saved $30,000 in our advertising budget, and I didn’t have to employ someone during the summer to roll over our paperwork.”

8. Find free online tools.
When Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher at the Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, got a ‘personal’ phone call from Samuel L. Jackson urging him to see his new flick, Ferlazzo was inspired to bring virtual marketing to his English-language learners. He also realized that there are dozens of free interactive ad campaigns online that enable users to play around with language. Ferlazzo says the kids get a real kick out of using them, and many applications let students record their voices and listen to playback. “It has really enhanced their self-confidence,” Ferlazzo says, “I’m not a geek—anybody can do this with little training.”

9. Revamp special ed.
Want to free up a member of your support staff for a full day, each and every week? That’s what Andi Asel of Tolleson High School (AZ) District did. Asel is the district’s program coordinator for special education for the district, overseeing four comprehensive and one alternative school with about 850 special ed students—more than double the number of kids she handled four years ago when she started at Union. In the beginning of her tenure, each school site would e-mail a spreadsheet ‘census’ to the district office regarding IEP compliance. Then, one of Asel’s staff would spend one entire day collating information and inputting everything into a single document for reporting. So when the state of Arizona offered a paper-reduction grant to schools, Asel jumped at the opportunity. She found the ideal solution in Special Education Automation Software, or SEAS. Asel says the software interfaces seamlessly with the district’s SASI student information system, which means she can instantly access a student’s IEP, contact logs, or disciplinary and attendance records. “It has reaped enormous benefits,” she notes, from districtwide demographics to individual compliance.

10. Improve parent involvement.
R U NUTZ? What kind of school administrator would send text messages to parents? One who knows the value not only of communication, but of not overusing it. Dr. Richard Maurer, superintendent of schools in Ardsley, New York, offers parents in his district a number of options for communicating with schools through K–12 Alerts, and for the past two years, those options have included text messaging. Maurer says he has designed the information flow so that parents only get what they want. He says parents know that the information is important—he doesn’t send the newsy, chatty stuff that many school leaders give out. The change-over to text and e-mail has been a big cost-saver: Maurer estimates that he’s saved tens of thousands of dollars a year because the district no longer sends out multi-page, multi-colored monthly newsletters. And, there’s been huge savings in the hidden costs that go along with that, such as using staff to fold and staple and address labels. Texting is quick, efficient, and saves money, but there’s a third reason that text messaging gets a big thumbs up in Ardsley. “It’s a great way to stem rumors,” Maurer notes.

11. Make professional development painless.
It’s not easy working in one of the fastest growing school districts in the nation. “We’re opening 10 to 12 schools per year. We’ve had to come to grips with the Highly Qualified Teacher status of NCLB,” explains Dr. Essington Wade, principal of Clark County (NV) School District’s Virtual High School. So Wade was understandably thrilled when the Nevada Commission on Educational Technology chose PBS TeacherLine to help educators in both Clark County and Washoe County school districts meet state and federal highly qualified teacher requirements. Wade explains that PBS TeacherLine courses are rigorous and offer teachers a structured, synchronized way to communicate that includes embedded videos. “The only thing they don’t get is face-to-face time.”

Nevada teachers can count PBS TeacherLine courses toward the 150 professional development hours required to meet the highly qualified teacher mandates. Since the program began in fall 2006, nearly 900 teachers have completed TeacherLine courses. “Our teachers need the training, but we can’t afford to have them out of the classroom. Now they can take a class without having to leave school or their home,” Wade says. “They tell me ‘I didn’t have to miss the baseball game!’”

12. Use video games in gym.
Dr. Linda Carson, founder of the Motor Development Center and a professor in the West Virginia University School of Physical Education, has convinced the West Virginia Department of Education to install Dance Dance Revolution games (DDR) in all of its 765 public schools by next year. At a cost of less than $1,500 for a basic DDR system and some heavy duty mats for dancing, dance fever is just one indication that gym class is changing. Programs are increasingly shifting their focus from traditional, competitive sports in favor of activities that are more inclusive of students at all skill levels.

13. Tighten online security.
For thirty years, Ford Greene worked at IBM, followed by another 12 years heading up his own computer company. So the man who is now chief of information management and technology at the Rochester City (NY) School District is pretty adept at thinking about computer solutions. The challenge was doing it for an urban school system. “We wanted to provide e-mail and the Internet for the kids because many have no access outside of school,” Greene notes. “But we also wanted to protect them.”

His bright idea was to create an intranet framework where every person has a school e-mail address—but only e-mail from the Rochester domain gets passed along. Greene got help with implementation of the system from CDW-G. The district now uses Microsoft Sharepoint to allow students, teachers, and administrators to collaborate with one another. One of Rochester’s other great ideas has been the creation of a committee that meets biweekly to review blocked web sites, observe kids’ surfing habits, and talk about security issues.

14. Hire your own hacker.
Jim White, director of technology at Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation in Whiteland, Indiana, is a real Do-It-Yourselfer. Besides tweaking low-cost alternatives to the big brand software names—White says he saved 30% on the cost of anti-virus by purchasing from Grisoft—he also cobbles his own tech systems. For instance, teachers are able to retrieve video-on-demand through their web browsers, which means individual classrooms don’t need to be wired for TV and cable. “I was a classroom teacher and have a Masters in education. I’m really grounded in the education field, and I know what teachers are looking for in the classroom,” he explains. What’s more, all that tinkering leads to a great deal of job satisfaction. “Being able to build systems keeps this job fresh.”

15. Befriend your school board.
For most school administrators, one school board is more than enough. Dr. Laura R. Royster at the Golightly Career and Technical Center in Detroit deals with three. She heads a unique program that houses three National Academy Schools in one: the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, the Academy of Finance, and the Academy of Information Technology. The programs, which emphasize internships and job-shadowing opportunities, work with more than 200 business partners. That’s where school board members are a godsend to Royster. “Our board members make such a commitment to us. They help bring in mentors and business partnerships for our kids,” she says. They work well with each other, too, adds Royster, encouraging a competitive spirit towards fundraising. No matter how good her relationship is with the boards, she says she is most happy that the students also have a relationship with the board members. “They know them,” she says proudly. “They relate to them.”

16. Do more than just chat.
Janine Lim, instructional technology consultant at Berrien County (MI) Intermediate School District, has her students multitask before a videoconference. For instance, before a recent remote meeting with Ben Carson, an African-American author and neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, kids read chapters from his best-selling book and posted their thoughts on a blog. Students at other schools then added their feedback, literally extending the conversation across the country. During the live event, Lim’s students were well prepared to pepper the author with questions. “Some of the kids focused on science, and some focused on language arts,” Lim says. She also noted that Carson served as an impressive role model to the district’s small population of African-American students. “We’re bringing the world to [rural students] in a way that they couldn’t experience otherwise.”

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