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Forsyth County: Success! (After Two Failures)

This Georgia district has finally created what might be the most comprehensive digital learning system in the country.

The most interesting moment in Forsyth County Schools' journey to becoming one of the key progressive school districts in the country might just be its lowest point. The medium-size district outside Atlanta had grabbed one of the first federal i3 grants in 2010 with an audacious plan to build a digital system that would allow teachers to differentiate learning more easily than someone switching apps on her smartphone.

Forsyth County's first attempt to build this system never took off, due in part to a mismatch with vendors. But chief technology and information officer Bailey Mitchell got a real idea of what the district needed, and he started his second attempt with much enthusiasm and a new partner. The district worked with teachers, parents, vendors, and students throughout 2011-12 to get the system ready for the start of school in fall 2012. Then, in July, just weeks before the planned rollout, Mitchell and his team came to a sobering realization: The new model was closer to their ideal, but it didn't deliver all the benefits that had been promised. The choice was simple, if unappealing. Forsyth could roll out a pretty good learning management system (LMS) when it had promised state-of-the-art, or the district could admit defeat for the second time, face skepticism from staff and the federal Department of Education, and start over.

"Our second divorce," Mitchell says, looking back at Forsyth's problems with its vendors and his decision to pull the plug. "We felt like it wouldn't deliver what we'd promised."

At its nadir, the district's decision did send an important message to staff and community-there would be no settling for second-best.

"The high school principals saw that as a courageous move," says Jeff Cheney, principal of South Forsyth High School. "We knew how critical it was to be successful."

Now, a little more than a year later, with a new system not only up and running but one that has been widely deemed a major and immediate success, it's clear that the path Forsyth took, though bumpy, was the right one. This school district with 41,000 students in 35 schools is rolling out a unified LMS that allows teachers to access one location to upload lessons, seek out materials from a variety of vendors (starting in August), personalize the teaching of every standard for each student, and assess in fine detail how those students are doing.

The same system, designed and personalized for Forsyth by Norway-based itsLearning, also hosts students and parents, giving both groups a look at homework, grades, upcoming assignments, and the standards each lesson corresponds to.

"That's a lot of hard work," Mitchell says, with a tone that hints he still can't believe how quickly the whole system came together-the third time around, that is.

Nabbing the Grant
The process started for Forsyth when the U.S. DOE offered new funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. ARRA's Investing in Innovation (i3) program was looking for experiments-from schools, foundations, and even universities-that could turn out to be templates to improve education throughout the country.

Mitchell says one of his staffers pointed out an important distinction early on: Need was not a factor. "We're affluent," Mitchell says of the growing county. "That wasn't an eliminator for us." Still, adds Mitchell, "It's not an easy grant to apply for. We spent quite a bit of time thinking through what we wanted."

While Forsyth was already a progressive district known nationally for its Bring Your Own Tech program and how it incorporates technology into learning, Mitchell realized it had outgrown its legacy learning management system. "We were using our product to its fullest, but there were other things we wanted to do." New features were added, but he knew teachers were looking for a unified solution that would include an LMS, a system for assessments, standards, and mastery reports, and a recommendation engine for materials. If that wasn't enough to bite off, the system also had to be available on a variety of devices and optimized for a variety of systems, way beyond just iOS or Android. Forsyth typically supports 30,000 unique student-owned devices a day, Mitchell says.

The district partnered with the University of Georgia's College of Education to flesh out its evaluation component. The proposed system was called Engage Me PLEASE (Personalized Learning Experiences Accelerate Standards-based Education).

More than 1,700 groups applied to the $650 million i3 fund; 49 were chosen. Forsyth, which received $4.7 million, was one of just 12 school districts to win.

"This is truly a defining moment in the history of Forsyth County Schools," Superintendent L. C. Buster Evans told a local newspaper. "This is the single largest grant in the history of our school district. The impact of the FCS i3 project will be felt in our county, state, and nation for many generations."

Laying the Groundwork
Forsyth decided the first step toward creating a system that would allow teachers to differentiate learning was to make it digital. The district had already been trending this way, spending less on textbooks and more on digital content subscriptions. "We started to say no to high-cost traditional materials," Mitchell says. The district's digital providers now include Safari Montage, BrainPOP, ExploreLearning Gizmos, Tech4Learning, Knovation, and Follett's Destiny program. Forsyth teachers also got to work, uploading more than 12,000 digital learning objects that they had ­created.

After realizing that any system would have to work for ­nearly any device a student or teacher might have, from a smartphone to a desktop computer, Mitchell says the team made one more rule. The system had to bring together all materials into one package with a single sign-on. (Just as we went to press, Mitchell, who had been with the district for 16 years, took a job as chief academic officer at itslearning.)

Mitchell had noticed that most teachers would access only two to three different systems. He decided that for the new system to work, teachers couldn't be forced to look for standards in one place, to flip through learning objects in another, and to make assignments in yet another. Forsyth hasn't totally solved this dilemma yet, but the district is on its way. This year, Mitchell sent each of its vendors notice that within a year, they would have to find a way to move their data within the district's new, cloud-based LMS, or the district would end its affiliation with them.

Now each learning object within the system is marked with an icon, letting the teacher or other user know if the particular object is audio, video, text, or interactive, or contains images. A recommendation engine suggests an item for a particular student, but a teacher can override it. Either way, once the learning object for a particular student is chosen, the item will show up in the student's task list.

Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology, is quick to credit itslearning for being a partner in creating the system. The company has worked closely with Forsyth to quickly modify the system as needed. "Itslearning brought a team into Forsyth and has a project manager ‘on the ground' here," she says. "We meet with some members of itslearning on an almost daily basis."

Success at Last
As the start of the school year approached, Forsyth officials were hopeful but understandably apprehensive. Would this new system work? Would teachers and students use it?

Weeks before school began, and before the district even announced the model was ready, students started to log on to the system to check it out. Word spread, and before he knew it, Mitchell had 5,000 students on the system a full week before school started. They were eager to share what they liked and to help officials further refine the LMS.

Once school opened, 80 percent of teachers started using the system within three months. "It's great for differentiation, making assignments, and having students submit their work," says Brian DeRose, a marketing teacher at Lambert High School.

A student in DeRose's class says students can see how many peers are logged on, even when accessing the system from home. "At 1:30 last night, there were still over 100 people logged on with me," the student said with amazement.

Four months in, Hobson says the district is watching how the system is used. "We'll evaluate this by conducting formal ‘technology audits' of schools" to see if teaching and learning is changing, she says. "What we want is to see students as information producers instead of information consumers." University of Georgia researchers will conduct surveys and classroom observations to help quantify what changes are taking place.

Given all the work and problems Forsyth overcame to reach this stage, will this new model be easy for others to replicate? "That's one of the main reasons we like to share our story," Hobson says. "We believe it is entirely replicable, and yet each school district will tweak [it] to match the unique needs of their students and community."    


Spotlight: South Forsyth High School
It's one thing to overhaul an underperforming school, but it's another to change the model when the school is one of the most acclaimed in the state. That's the challenge Principal Jeff Cheney and instructional technology specialist Carla Youmans faced at South Forsyth High School. With some of the highest SAT scores in the state, and a top ranking from The Washington Post, even a pause in the students' progress was "not acceptable," Cheney says.

The school was tasked with rolling out the district's BYOT program and its new LMS. Next year it will go further, planning to offer a hybrid learning model that will allow some seniors to stay home Mondays and Fridays. Students will work on their own schedule Mondays, be in school Tuesdays through Thursdays, then spend Fridays at home while following a strict 50-minute class schedule of chat sessions with teachers and peers.

"It's what we think students are needing," Youmans explains.

It's the same model the 2,400-student school used while embracing the switch to BYOT, giving students freedom while creating an expectation and offering support.

The payoff for all this experimentation comes at unexpected times. In the middle of Matt Loveless's AP Human Geography class, as students were using their own devices to chart their dream vacation, a student excitedly told Loveless, "This is the first time a teacher's let me [do something like this]." That moment encapsulates as well as any standardized test what the school tries to accomplish: Set high expectations and watch engaged students go past them.

Spotlight: Kelly Mill Elementary
The first thing you notice about Kelly Mill Elementary is the proliferation of QR codes. They’re hanging in the hallways of the two-year-old school, are taped on classroom walls, and are pasted on students’ desks. The second thing you notice is how rapidly the students’ small hands center their device, snap a picture, and use the information they get from the code to proceed with their work.

While Forsyth is known as a tech-forward district, Principal Ron McAllister knew he needed to go the extra mile before he opened a school where each student, from age 5 on up, is encouraged to use technology throughout the day. His outreach started months before Kelly Mill opened in the fall of 2012, in meetings with parents and staff. While the work ranges from using simple apps in classroom stations to Skyping with other schools, McAllister recalls his straightforward instructions to staff: “The expectation is to just start.” He acknowledged that incorporating various forms of tech into lessons could lead to occasional glitches, but he rallied his staff by saying, “What we’ve seen the learner be able to do is far beyond what we could have gotten them to do if we hadn’t engaged them with technology.”

The principal knew that his message had hit home when one of his kindergarten teachers, Melissa Goldsberry, told him that after seeing how engaged her students were in learning, she had decided to change her family policy toward electronics. She eliminated the screen-time restrictions she had placed on her own children, trusting them to handle electronics and encouraging them to include the tools in their own learning.

Late Fall 2013

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