Rosalina Escandon says whiteboards helped turn around Cartwright Elementary School District in Phoenix.

Dec 15 2009

What Does It Take to Become a Turnaround Artist At Your School?

A school district in Phoenix uses classroom technology to help bring its state assessment scores up to speed.

A school district in Phoenix uses classroom technology to help bring its state assessment scores up to speed.

For school districts to make a turnaround, it typically takes a solid combination of adequate funding, strong support from the administration and a group of dedicated teachers – all contributing to a professional learning community.

Cartwright Elementary School District in Phoenix, which has a student population of 18,433, had all of those factors working for it, plus the willingness to embrace technology.

Rosalina Escandon, a teacher on special assignment for technology training, says that since spring 2008, the Cartwright district deployed roughly 300 Promethean ActivBoards in the district's 20 elementary and middle schools.

The result: By spring 2009, all 20 schools achieved a “performing” or better grade on the Arizona state assessments. In 2008, Cartwright committed to a districtwide implementation of professional learning communities, based on the research of noted author RIchard DuFour.

“The assessment piece is important because just two years earlier, the majority of the district's schools received an ‘underperforming' designation,” Escandon explains.

While the ActivBoards played a role, it's clear that it took more than technology to achieve such huge performance gains.

Deby Valadez, principal at 820-student Holiday Park Elementary School, says the teachers spent a lot of time discussing specific educational objectives. They met with grade-level groups and planned for how they would handle the students who were having trouble learning. “You have to have a clear plan and know how to support it,” says Valadez.

But nearly everyone agrees that the ActivBoards were an important catalyst. How and why did the technology make such an impact? “I think the bottom line is that if it's always the teacher talking up in front of the classroom, you won't engage the students,” explains Escandon.

The ActivBoards offer tools that help teachers engage students as active participants. For example, in a lesson about food groups for younger students, teachers can ask a student to come up to the board and select, say, an image of some eggs or a picture of a steak and drag it to its proper food category. Each time a student moves a picture successfully, an audio sample of a cheering crowd is set off; conversely, if a student chooses an incorrect category, a buzzer sounds indicating that it's the wrong answer.

The idea is to make learning fun, and more often than not, the students respond.

“During a recent lesson on proper nouns, the teacher used the visuals and audio features in the ActivBoard to add some excitement to the lesson,” says Arturo Sanchez, principal at the G. Frank Davidson Elementary School, a 950-student K–5 school in the district.

“The kids were totally engaged, and many of them wanted to be next in line,” he adds.

Sanchez says that it's important to understand that 47 percent of the students in the district are English Language Learners (ELLs), meaning that English is not their native tongue.

Schools using ActivBoards record large percentile gains in student achievement when teachers are confident using the technology, have 10 or more years of teaching experience, have used the technology for two years or more, and use the technology 75 to 80% of the time in class.

Source: Marzano Research Laboratory

“One of the main reasons we brought the technology in was because we grew to realize that, for the kids to grasp grade-level concepts, we couldn't rely on text alone,” says Sanchez. “The ActivBoards offer more visuals, and the kids can manipulate pictures and words to broaden their vocabulary.”

Funding and Training

Escandon says two main reasons for the ActivBoards' success are the district's ability to secure funding and the ongoing training offered to the teachers.

The district received Title III funding because of its high percentage of ELLs, as well as Title I funding, which is the program for low-income students who receive federally subsidized school lunches. The first set of ActivBoards was used for the ELLs; the technology was provided to other students and in other subjects, such as math, history and science, as money became available.

The boards have been deployed in about 50 percent of the district's classrooms. Escandon says the district plans to deploy ActivBoards in all of the district's classrooms over the next three to five years. “We plan to roll out about 60 more boards this year,” she says.

Although funding in itself is always important, it was the funding's ability to support 30 hours of training for each teacher that made a huge difference.

Teachers received three levels of training. Level 1 familiarized them with the basic tools on the Promethean boards, including how to access lessons and resources (such as images and links to interactive websites) from Promethean's portal.

Level 2 training taught teachers how to move objects around and use the interactive tools, while Level 3 covered how teachers can use the assessment tools to gauge how well the students are retaining what they have been taught.

“We held a kickoff where we brought in a guest speaker from Promethean who showed the teachers the brain research and how to engage the students,” says Escandon.

“I think what went a long way is the fact that we made it clear to the teachers that this was not a one-shot deal, that we were not just going to drop this technology in their laps and expect them to figure it out without providing follow-up training.”

Sanchez agrees, pointing out that it's easy to fall back and simply use the ActivBoards as an elaborate PowerPoint presentation.

“I think all the training and support created a culture where the teachers began sharing ideas with one another, even teaching each other some of the latest features,” Sanchez adds.

Javier Lucero, a seventh-grade teacher at 1,300-student Frank Borman Elementary, adds that he runs workshops that show teachers how to embed media into their flip charts. He says the other teachers at his grade level use an e-mail folder that posts resources for all the teachers to share.

“I teach all the subjects to the English Language Learners, so having a resource where teachers can share ideas for lessons back and forth is crucial,” Lucero says.

Another big help are the ActivExpression wireless learner response systems, which let students give instant feedback to Lucero's questions. He says instead of having to grade pop quizzes at night, he can know immediately if the students are learning the material and make adjustments that day.

“I've used them for teaching fractions and general math questions, and we made the second-largest gain in the seventh grade in math,” he says. “I don't know what I'd do without them.”

5 Whiteboard Deployment Tips

1. Plan properly. It makes no sense for students to have access to the boards in the first grade, but not in the second grade. Plan your deployments so the technology follows the students and they have a consistent experience.
2. Assign a dedicated trainer. The teachers need to know that proper training on the whiteboards will be available. In the case of Cartwright Elementary School District, it also helped that each school had access to a Promethean trainer.
3. Hire a dedicated technology staffer. A tech person who makes sure all the software and hardware installations are made properly and on schedule is essential. Rolling out technology that works the first time it's used instills confidence in the program.
4. Get your training materials ready early. The sooner you have your training materials selected and ready to go, the sooner your teachers will be able to use the technology productively.
5. Line up administrative support. Everyone from the superintendent on down to the rank-and-file principals throughout the district have to be on board. Such a dramatic change in teaching and learning will never happen without strong support from top management.

<p>Steve Craft</p>