Mar 29 2021

DCPS Blended Learning Builds Community & Innovation

Long before the pandemic forced them to, the public-school district of the nation’s capital planned and prepared for a bold technology vision for its students.

Five years ago, many students in the District of Columbia Public Schools had to share computers with one another. Most of the district’s schools had one laptop for every three students, but the devices had to stay in school; no one could take them home.

It wasn’t ideal for modern-day learning, acknowledged Karen Cole, deputy chief of academic and creative empowerment for DCPS. And most people in the community, from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to a group of concerned parents, agreed.

This shared concern led Cole’s team and the DCPS IT team to embark on a plan to improve that device-to-student ratio, which became known as the Empowered Learners initiative, or ELi, resulting in a three-year plan to deliver the latest personal computing technology to all 50,000 students in the district.

“It was born of the recognition that technology is how people do their jobs in almost every field,” says Cole. “We recognize that in the modern world we are not preparing our students for success in college, career and life if we are not helping them see technology as an everyday tool.”

Introduced in 2018, ELi outlined a strategy to reach a one-to-one device-to-student ratio across the district’s 118 schools. At that time, purchasing for technology was decentralized, with some schools better equipped than others. A few schools couldn’t cover even one-third of students with their computer supply. Others had equipment so outdated that it did more harm than good as a learning tool, says Cyrus Verrani, deputy chief of IT for DCPS.

“Schools that had their powerful parent communities and affluent neighborhoods were able to provide much better access to technology” compared with schools in lower-income neighborhoods, he says.

Community Backing Adds Needed Support

DCPS isn’t the only U.S. school district that put a multiyear plan in place to connect students with top-notch personal technology well before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them into virtual learning. But the robust structure of ELi — and the ­comprehensive sweep of DCPS’ strategic plan — provides a roadmap that other school districts could follow.

It was a costly proposition and the ­backing of the community made all the ­difference, says Cole.

Cherokee County School District in Georgia enjoyed similar community support when it shifted several years ago from a federally funded, state-approved technology plan to a modernized, ongoing version. The plan gets an annual update, with community input, to keep up with technological innovation, says Bobby Blount, the district’s CIO.

“Our community embraces the idea of students being exposed to technology and attaining skills that will prepare them for future opportunities,” says Blount. His district is close to the booming tech industry of Atlanta, with myriad career options for students.

“Ensuring our students can compete for those opportunities, as well as those within our own community, is paramount to their success and to the community as well,” he says. “When you have a community that understands this and a school board and superintendent who embrace and promote this, documenting the vision becomes an easy task.”

DISCOVER: How did these school districts successfully navigate hybrid learning?

Put the Program to the Test

DCPS took the ELi concept on a couple of trial runs: first in three middle schools, then with a full-fledged pilot at five middle schools in the 2017-2018 school year. Every student in those pilot schools received a laptop, though they couldn’t take the devices home.

The pilot program proved crucial to the success of the initiative, Cole and Verrani say. During the pilot, they received feedback from school leaders and teachers, conducted focus groups and let principals set their schools’ goals. Substantial increases in test scores at those schools signaled that they were on the right track, Cole says.

“If you have the luxury of doing it, you will learn so much from these smaller pilots at a handful of schools,” says Verrani.

The Build Out Begins with Restructured Internet

Before the laptops landed in students’ hands, the DCPS IT team had to make sure the schools’ networks could handle the influx of devices. They built new infrastructure with Wi-Fi access points and high-speed internet.

Verrani and Cole knew they needed to beef up tech support and professional development for teachers so they could make the best use of the technology. They helped each school create a site plan, addressing everything from charging the devices overnight to moving them from classroom to classroom.

DCPS worked with CDW to find the best deal for the devices and to determine how to apply them to meet the district’s needs. “They helped us design this logistical model that really worked for the district, from how to get the devices, to imaging them, to quality control, to distribution to the schools,” says Verrani. “They were there with us along the way.”

KEEP READING: Computer science education at Aberdeen High propels growth and equity.

The Pandemic Pushes Plans into Motion

Last year, DCPS officially launched ELi, with the first wave of students receiving their Microsoft Surface Go devices in February. The next month, the district shuttered every school in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The devices had reached just the third, sixth and ninth grades in about half of the district’s schools at that point. Suddenly, every DCPS student needed a way to access their classrooms from home.

Chancellor Lewis Ferebee

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee marked the launch of Mayor Bowser’s Empowered Learners initiative with students at a kickoff event in March last year. Credit: Courtesy of D.C. Public Schools

DCPS also launched a districtwide call center to provide tech support for parents and students as they attend school from home. The call center gives families a direct line for help, rather than requiring them to contact their school to ultimately reach a technician. The IT team hopes to continue that model going forward, says Verrani.

The coronavirus sped up the ELi rollout — devices are now available to nearly every K–12 student — but the program will never reach a true finish line, according to Verrani and Cole. They are developing a lifecycle management plan to update and replace equipment every three or four years. They are planning future funding requests and developing a long-term strategy to maintain availability of one device for every student.

“We wanted to make sure that when we implemented something, it was going to be sustainable throughout the years,” says Verrani. “This was presented as an ongoing model for educational success.”

Interested in seeing how other schools planned and funded proactive tech refreshes? Read more at

Photo by Chris Ambridge; Architects: LBA/CGS. J.V.

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