In his recent speech in Mooresville, North Carolina, President Obama focused on the growing skills gap in America. Students are not graduating high school and college ready for the jobs available, especially in the STEM field. One path to closing that gap, Obama cited, is through digital learning, creating a modern classroom environment that matches the workplace that awaits students when they graduate.
“That step will better prepare our children for the jobs and challenges of the future, and it will provide them a surer path into the middle class,” Obama said. “And, as a consequence, it will mean a stronger, more secure economy for all of us.”
On a recent visit to Vancouver Public Schools, as part of a tour hosted by the National School Boards Association, we saw how the district, led by the dynamic Superintendent Steve Webb, is heeding that message and using technology to prepare its students for postsecondary education and the jobs of the future.
Vancouver is a district of 22,700 students, with 54 percent receiving subsidized lunches, an increase of 15 percentage points in the past seven years. One in five students lives in a home where English is not a primary language. At the same time, Vancouver is located just north of the Washington-Oregon border, in a hub of technology, manufacturing and importing/exporting businesses. Last year, as voters considered a major technology levy pegged for education—which included $24 million for technology, including laptops, tablets, other devices and professional development—12,000 STEM jobs remained open statewide, despite a 10 percent unemployment rate, according to The Columbian.
Confident that the investment in education would be an investment in the local economy, voters eventually passed that levy, allowing Vancouver to continue weLearn 1:1, a technology initiative that, like Mooresville’s “Every Child, Every Day” digital learning initiative, will provide mobile devices to every student in grades 3 through 12 over the next six years. Those devices will complement the prevalent technology already in schools through one-to-one environments, Bring Your Own Device programs and specialized hardware and software for career and technical education.
“The weLearn 1:1 initiative is not about the gadgets. It’s about equipping our students with the knowledge, skills and habits to ensure that they are future-ready,” said Steve Webb, superintendent of Vancouver schools. Vancouver knows weLearn will only succeed if the proper support is built around it, and on our recent visit, we saw how its curriculum, performance management and community outreach are evolving.
Teaching and learning
In developing weLearn, Vancouver acknowledges that changing demographics and a changing economy must be accompanied by a changing approach to teaching and learning, which we saw firsthand in the district’s secondary magnet programs.
The newest is Vancouver iTech Preparatory, a first-year magnet school for 6th- through 12th-graders that is co-located with Washington State University’s Vancouver campus and Clark College. Students are admitted via lottery and take a full slate of STEM courses. Each student (and they are predominantly male, a factor the district is working to remedy as the school moves forward) receives his or her own laptop. All courses take a project-based approach, with those projects spanning multiple subjects. When we visited, all lessons revolved around the question, how can we make Vancouver a greener city?
In a biology class, students used video scopes and software to analyze plants. In “global forums,” students studied DNA molecules as part of a water filtration project that will be presented at a local competition. In a geometry/algebra class, students measured local precipitation rates and examined runoff processes. And in a visual design class, students create a poster advertising sustainability for the city.
A similar approach is taken at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, a magnet where the arts are used across disciplines. Again, technology is central to a project-based approach; students are not just learning to be artists, musicians and performers, they are learning modern techniques for stage producing, audio mastering and film production. Funded in part by private donations, grants and career and technical education sources, the school is equipped with a bay of professional-level video production stations, a fully operational recording studio and modern stage production equipment.
We saw a third variation of this model at Skyview High School, a STEM magnet within a comprehensive high school. At Skyview, STEM isn’t as pervasive across all subjects as at iTech Prep, but specialized classes—video game design, robotics, design engineering—are offered within the magnet where students can pursue career and educational interests while engaging in a comprehensive high school experience. Skyview also boasts a renowned robotics team.
Vancouver developed its own data dashboard and reporting system to help aid decision-making. At the district level, detailed scorecards track metrics such as student performance, faculty satisfaction and organizational effectiveness vs. local and national benchmarks. At the school level, principals get daily performance reports on achievement and discipline and a profile of each student. Families are given access to their students’ data and principals work with teachers to intervene with students who may be struggling or acting out, based on the data.
“At first it can be intimidating to be that transparent with the data, but when you realize we don’t have anything to hide and the data is to support our building and our students, it’s not hard to get past that concern,” said the principal of a high school that uses the dashboards.
An in-house team built most of the dashboard and is working to add student-to-student comparisons; integration with teacher software and LMS software; and more predictive modeling for students entering new schools or grade levels, a research-supported approach to performance management.
With all of the changes occurring in the district, especially around the technology levy, Vancouver must be proactive about keeping the community informed and engaged with its vision. The district developed its strategic plan with the direct participation of more than 400 stakeholders and input from nearly 2,000 people through focus groups, online surveys and public events.
Vancouver holds an annual technology and innovation showcase to highlight student projects and teacher curriculum developed with technology. Administrators believe the showcase, the district’s communications media and other community outreach activities aided in 62.5 percent of voters approving the levy measure.
Many changes have yet to take place, but Vancouver is confident in the direction it is headed. On-time four-year graduation rates increased nearly 10 points in the past two years, to 73 percent. Students meeting requirements to earn college credit in high school increased from 15 percent in 2005 to 46 percent in 2012. State test scores have shown small but steady increases in recent years. Though wide gaps exist in proficiency between minority and white students, there is a smaller gap among those demographics in meeting growth targets. (Check out the district’s performance scorecard.)
Vancouver is an enthusiastic member of the League of Innovative Schools and the lead applicant among a consortium of members that applied for a federal Race to the Top grant. The application narrowly missed a spot among the finalists, but we hope that as positive results continue, Vancouver will continue to be a model in its own right for a comprehensive approach to digital learning.