The School District of Clay County (Clay), located in Northeast Florida, is undergoing a significant transformation to provide its students with enhanced learning opportunities. The district’s Information and Technology Division is leading the charge to integrate a unified vision focused on student-centered learning. The team is re-engineering Clay’s entire learning landscape and aligning the district’s schools to use one cohesive instructional pedagogy.
Building a Robust Infrastructure
One of the substantial challenges Clay previously faced was an infrastructure that could not support or sustain the district’s growing digital demands. Over the course of three years, the district’s technology team made the following significant improvements to its network and communication platforms to support and enable 21st century personalized learning opportunities:
- Replaced the district’s failing phone system with ENA SmartVoice, a cloud-based VoIP solution
- Replaced the district’s network switches
- Upgraded Clay’s internal bandwidth from 250 Mbps (high schools), 150 Mbps (middle schools), and 100 Mbps (elementary schools) to 1 Gbps of internal bandwidth across the district
- Upgraded the district’s internal infrastructure to be 10 Gbps-ready
- Installed 1,719 access points over the last three years
- Replaced its firewall with ENA NetShield, a hosted firewall solution from ENA
- Upgraded the district’s server infrastructure
- Upgraded to a new data backup system
- Virtualized the district’s entire server environment
- Deployed a top-of-the-line anti-viral security solution
- Currently deploying a new teacher-led filtering control system, which allows teachers to view their students’ screens as well as to grant or deny student access to websites within their classrooms
Enabling Transformative Learning Opportunities
Clay’s robust infrastructure has played an instrumental role in supporting the district’s instructional vision and has enabled Clay’s instructional and technology leaders to successfully introduce devices and deploy a new districtwide learning management platform. “Our district used to buy a ton of devices, but we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to support them, so our teachers would get frustrated because they wouldn’t work,” says Duane Weeks, one of Clay’s information and technology supervisors. “In the past, if you were a teacher and received a laptop cart, it felt like a curse because you felt obligated to do something with the devices, but you knew they probably wouldn’t work. As a result, teachers felt an intense amount of pressure because they knew administrators wanted to see how they were using technology to create dynamic lessons. Often, they felt like they were wasting valuable instruction time because it would take five minutes for documents to load. Understandably, they began pushing the technology away.”
Because of the vast improvements that have been made to the district’s infrastructure, teachers no longer fear technology — they clamor for it. Fifteen months ago, the district selected the Chromebook as its official student device for its one-to-one (1:1) initiative. It initially introduced these devices at three digital discovery schools. The principal at one of the digital discovery schools conducted a walk through two weeks after the Chromebooks had been distributed. She was amazed to see that 19 out of 20 classroom teachers were already actively using the Chromebooks in their instruction.
Clay’s Information and Technology Division initially created a four-year plan for its 1:1 initiative but instructional demand is already accelerating at a much faster pace than expected. Over the course of 15 months, the number of Chromebooks the district has deployed has jumped from 513 to 13,807.
Student Learning Management Platform
Another successful component of Clay’s overall digital strategy has been the integration of its student learning management platform. After the infrastructure upgrades were made, the district’s technology leaders still faced some instructional challenges because of the myriad of devices present in Clay’s classroom. Teaching on an iPad or Mac is very different than teaching on a PC or Chromebook, so the instruction was becoming siloed and creating discrepancies in instruction and learning.
To remedy this, the team shifted its focus away from devices and built a cohesive, districtwide student learning management platform that empowered students with the ability to access, organize, and manage their lessons and resources from any computer, laptop, or tablet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The team created an online student portal and deployed Google Apps for Education within it. Teachers and students were initially assigned training accounts within Google Apps to familiarize themselves with the technology, but they now have live active accounts that they use daily. The team also made textbook resources and other online instructional tools accessible in the student portal. The portal has been very popular among Clay’s students, garnering approximately 17,000 to 18,000 logins a day.
Integrating Google Apps into the curriculum has enabled Clay to streamline instruction and provide its students access to the same tools and resources outside of the classroom. Software programs like Microsoft Office can be expensive and many of Clay’s students don’t have access to those types of resources at their homes. Google Apps gives the district’s students access to valuable word processing, collaboration, and presentation tools from any device with an Internet connection at any location.
Creating a Symbiotic Technology Ecosystem
“If we didn’t have a reliable infrastructure in place, we’d have a great platform floating out there that nobody could access and frustrations would be high,” says Weeks. “Because our infrastructure has made our platform so accessible and easy-to-use, it’s causing a drive for more devices. Because the devices are so prevalent now in our district, it’s increasing the number students and teachers using the platform. It is funny how these technologies are so symbiotic and feed off each other. In a way, we’ve built this perpetual progress machine that is constantly pushing us forward. It’s remarkable.”
Sabrina Thomas, Clay’s information and technology coordinator and a former classroom teacher, sees the impact the technology’s accessibility and reliability is having on the district’s teachers. “In the past, when our network was slow and you had to wait for a video to load, teachers and students would get frustrated because it delayed the learning process,” says Thomas. “That isn’t happening now. Our teachers were initially a little hesitant about the changes we were making and the devices and applications, but now they trust us to make it work—and they are all in.”
United by a Shared Vision
Through it all, Clay’s Information and Technology Division has remained united by its shared vision and pursuit of excellence. Jeremy Bunkley, one of the district’s information and technology supervisors and a principal driver behind the infrastructure upgrades, has helped forge this team-centric culture at Clay. “What’s unique about this team is that every member brings something different to the table, and we are all respectful of each other’s talents and knowledge,” says Bunkley. “We are also incredibly kinetic, meaning we are always on the move and pushing projects forward. We all have offices, but we live out of our backpacks because we are always on the go.”
Missing a deadline is also never an option for this determined group of technology leaders. “No one ever doubts a deadline because we all know we can count on every single team member to do what it takes to hit it, and that confidence extends to our teachers as well,” says Weeks. “They know they can trust us when we give them a date or timeline for a particular project. That reassurance is so important and critical because it enables us to formulate long-term strategies and plans.”
Seeing the Results
The speed at which Clay’s teachers are integrating new technologies into their instruction is indicative that the district’s approach is working. When the team decided to make the Chromebook the district’s official 1:1 device, the decision was initially met with some reluctance by teachers who were already familiar with other devices. After working with the district’s teachers and providing them with proper training, the teachers quickly realized that the Chromebooks align well with assessments and can be a strong instructional tool. Although the district has a four-year rollout plan in place for the Chromebooks, the IT team is already deploying devices faster than they originally intended to meet teacher demand.
Student engagement is skyrocketing in Clay’s classrooms because of all the new and positive changes. Clay’s students are collaborating on projects and engaging in hands-on, problem-solving activities. Teachers are no longer confined to the front of their classrooms but instead are walking around and working with their students.
When Duane Weeks was younger, he attended the middle school that is now one of the district’s digital discovery schools. At that time, the classrooms were very traditional—the desks were all in rows and the teachers taught in a lecture format at the front of the classroom. When he visited the school two years ago, he was stunned to discover that the classrooms still looked nearly identical. After the Chromebooks were deployed at the school this year, he conducted a site visit and was pleased to see that the learning environments already looked drastically different after only a few weeks. The desks were pushed together in pods and students were gathered in groups collaborating on tasks with their devices. The teachers were walking around the classrooms and prompting the students with questions and engaging them in conversations.
The team is also receiving positive feedback from the district’s teachers, who are reporting that their students are much more engaged in their school work and that there is an overwhelming positive aura in their classrooms. Many of the district’s teachers are relaying that this is the best thing that has happened in their classrooms.
From a student’s perspective, Clay’s students are beyond pleased that they get to ditch their heavy school backpacks. They love being able to access their textbooks and classroom resources via the online student portal. They also love using their calendars and other applications to manage their time and track their assignments. Clay’s parents are also thrilled about the changes, especially the creation of Clay’s Digital Classroom Initiative for Parents. As part of this initiative, Clay’s Information and Technology Division built an online parent portal that helps parents engage in their child’s education by providing a place to access their child’s grades, assignments, and digital resources.
Clay is rapidly transforming its learning environments to meet the needs of both its students and teachers. ENA is looking forward to seeing what else this driven and forward-thinking school district has planned for its students and teachers.