Technology is an integral part of life in Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools (VPS), located just north of Portland, Oregon—and it has been for quite some time. They are the only district to host three National School Boards Association Technology Leadership Network site visits, the first in 1993, the second in 1999 and now in 2013, which I was able to attend.
VPS serves 22,744 students K-12 and it has 21 elementary schools, six middle schools and five high schools, as well as a school of the arts and Vancouver iTech Preparatory. The district is committed to providing an innovative learning environment for all students and helping them develop knowledge and essential skills so that they will be competent, responsible and compassionate citizens. During our visit to VPS, it was immediately apparent that the teachers, administrators and leaders are determined to serve each child. And while the commitment to the effective use of technology in classrooms is a priority, the district also provides extensive support for students and families.
For example, Discovery Middle School is an official International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme school, one of only four schools statewide, with 750 students and 43 teachers. Considered high-poverty—69 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals—Discovery is a district Opportunity Zone school and benefits from the additional resources it receives to focus on closing the achievement gap. The school features strategic programs such as AVID and increased time for math and reading, as well as a Family-Community Resource Center (FCRC) that provides outreach services for students and families that are helping to increase student achievement. It also makes good use of technology in learning—for example, using iPads for collaboration and for formative assessments to help teachers guide and individualize instruction. Students use iPads in math to assist in their conceptual understanding and to increase math fluency. I watched small groups with a worksheet story assignment use an iPad application to demonstrate their understanding of linear functions in tables, graphs and equations. I watched students in a humanities and language class, who were prepping for an upcoming state exam, use iPads to access student essays from previous years, then analyze and score them individually. In the end, the teacher revealed the actual score to prompt classroom-wide discussion. And Discovery is committed to making sure that all students are prepared to use technology effectively, so the students all take an “Introduction to Technology” course.
Technology is also evident in every class and activity at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. This magnet school draws a group of self-motivated students who are passionate about every art form. Core classes are an important part of the daily schedule but are integrated throughout the day with the arts, and students are encouraged to explore, learn independently and collaborate outside the classroom. Theater productions are put together by students—lighting, special effects, sound, staging, costumes and sets—with technology as an integral aspect of all areas of production. Also, students make movies and create digital soundtracks, and the presence of technology exists in every hallway and room throughout the building. Such skill sets and hands-on experiences are critical aspects of learning for many of these talented students, who hope to pursue careers in the creative arts.
In addition to the school visits, VPS gave attendees a glimpse into the administrative focus on supporting student learning in a series of workshops. Two examples include creating extensive professional development for teachers to support their understanding and comfort with tablet technology (important given VPS is currently rolling out a one-to-one iPad initiative that intends to put a mobile device in the hand of every student in grades 3 through 12 over the next six years—the program began this spring in a sixth-grade class and will expand this fall) and an in-depth look at the district performance scorecard. Professional development includes two weekend trainings during which teachers are given time to learn about the device as well as support in how to use applications and various software programs in classrooms to engage students and customize instruction. The district librarians are also a vital resource in schools, supporting teachers when it comes to using technology in curriculum and classroom activities.
The school report card—a district-created database—tracks students with the primary objective of keeping students on track for graduation and identifying students who are at risk of dropping out or failing to graduate on time. The school scorecard has student-learning milestones such as readiness for kindergarten, grade-level reading for third-graders, middle school readiness for sixth-graders and state assessment achievement for high school students. Each milestone has accompanying indicators, and the school tracks the percentage of students who meet each milestone. Demographics, growth targets and other metrics are included to help build a more complete student profile.
The district also creates individual profiles for students at risk of failure based on certain variables and uses them to determine if an intervention is required to keep students from falling through the cracks. They also track how effective their interventions are for students identified as being at risk. The use of technology tracking is emblematic of the district’s commitment to student achievement. VPS provides an example of a system that is appropriately using data to raise student outcomes. The team-oriented mindset ensures all teachers and administrators have buy-in and shared responsibility in the outcome.
VPS has a longstanding commitment to technology expansion and integration, and they recently updated their strategic technology plan document and continue to move forward in their efforts to prepare their students for 21st-century work and life. It is always inspiring to be surrounded by professional educators, working across classrooms and schools, who are confronting the challenges of poverty and inequity with tremendous commitment and an unfailing belief that given the right support and guidance, every student can succeed.