One Tennessee School District’s Roadmap to Revolutionizing Instruction
Located approximately 45 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, Maury County Public Schools (Maury) is unique in that it serves three very demographically diverse student populations—urban, suburban, and rural. In the past, this segmentation caused an instructional division among Maury’s 21 schools and alternative learning center as each school developed its own unique goals and objectives to meet the needs of the students it served.
Two years ago, Maury’s newly hired superintendent, Dr. Chris Marczak, drastically shifted away from this siloed approach and implemented a districtwide instructional vision and strategic plan. “When I first arrived in August 2015, I quickly realized that we had no systematic focus,” says Dr. Marczak. “Every school had their own approach and resources, and they were doing the best they could.”
Keys to Success
That fall, Dr. Marczak and his team met with over 46 constituent groups in the community, including but not limited to students, teachers, parents, community members, the local Kiwanis group, the rotary club, and the local NAACP chapter. Dr. Marczak distributed Post-it notes to the group members and asked everyone to answer the same question: “What do students need to know and what do they need to be able to do by the time they leave elementary, middle, and high school, respectively?”
At the end of ten weeks, Dr. Marczak’s team collected 9,327 Post-it notes. They analyzed, disaggregated, and compiled the data into seven key objectives known as “MCPS’ 7 Keys to College and Career Readiness:”
- Key 1: All students’ reading proficiency at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade.
- Key 2: All students’ math proficiency at or above grade level by the end of 4th grade.
- Key 3: All students’ math and English proficiency at or above grade level by the end of 6th grade.
- Key 4: All students proficient in Algebra I by the end of 8th grade.
- Key 5: All students scoring at or above ACT college readiness benchmarks by graduation.
- Key 6: All students financially literate by graduation.
- Key 7: All students participating in AP, dual enrollment, industry certification, work-based learning, or military preparation by graduation.
Once the 7 Keys were identified, Dr. Marczak encouraged Maury’s principals to host collaborative planning meetings with their teachers to strategize how they could accomplish the key objectives. The district’s teachers quickly identified the need to infuse project-based learning and technology into their instruction. “We can’t continue to teach kids in the same manner we’ve always taught them, which is a teacher-directed classroom,” says Dr. Marczak. “We have shifted to a student-centered, projected-based learning pedagogy that is driven by addressing and answering the ‘why?’ behind the topic or subject.”
Maury’s school board and county commission agreed and invested nearly five million dollars in new initiatives wrapped around the 7 Keys, enabling the district to immediately make the following enhancements to support its technology and learning strategies:
- Place 18 response-to-intervention coaches at its elementary, middle, and high schools
- Introduce a mechatronics program that enables students to graduate with an associate degree from Columbia Community College
- Implement Project Lead the Way STEM curriculum in each of the district’s middle and high schools
- Purchase over 900 Chromebooks to increase student access to the district’s digital literacy and math programs
- Launch its one-to-one (1:1) initiative
Leveraging the Cloud
As evidenced by the 7 Keys listed above, technology is a critical component of the district’s new instructional strategy. To help support and securely store all the new resources and applications being introduced, Maury recently purchased and deployed ENA TrustCompute, ENA’s virtual data center service.
“We are using the ENA TrustCompute cloud computing platform in a variety of ways,” says Tommy Schuyler, Maury’s director of technology. “Disaster recovery was a principal driver for deploying the solution. We needed a secure location to store our data in addition to our on-premises servers. It’s a relief knowing we have everything backed up in ENA’s cloud environment.”
Dr. Marczak agrees and is supportive of the district’s migration to the cloud. “I know some superintendents and school leaders are a little fearful of cloud computing, but it is a very secure technology,” says Dr. Marczak. “I’m more concerned about maintaining paper files because of the potential for fires or theft. If a school district is nervous about transitioning to the cloud, I’d recommend talking to cloud providers about the level of encryption services that can be deployed.”
Disaster recovery is just one important component of Maury’s overall cloud computing strategy. “Because this is so new, we are just beginning to explore all the solution’s capabilities and features,” adds Schuyler. “We are currently using ENA TrustCompute to conduct necessary server tests where we run scripts in a controlled test environment. The GUI [graphical user interface] is so user-friendly that training people to run these tests within the ENA TrustCompute environment is easy. We are also using the solution to map out our drives as if they are local content.”
In the very near future, the district plans to use ENA TrustCompute as an online storage hub for its students and teachers. “Not only will they be able to store their files locally, but they will also have access to their files in the cloud, providing them with an accessible back-up and storage tool,” says Schuyler.
Choosing a Trusted Cloud Solution
The district reviewed several cloud options before piloting and purchasing ENA TrustCompute. Schuyler and his team selected the solution because of its intuitive design, flexibility, substantial usage options, and flat-rate pricing. “The GUI makes it easy for anybody to select and fire up a server within the solution’s virtual environment,” says Schuyler. “You can customize components like processor size or disk storage space to fit your specific needs. We also looked at the overall cost and time savings associated with transitioning to the cloud. Installing, repairing, and updating servers is expensive and time-consuming. With ENA TrustCompute, you select the package that you want; ENA takes care of the management, security, and updates; and it’s all wrapped up in one static cost that you can plan and budget for every year.”
As Maury prepares to introduce more technologies into its classrooms and launch its 1:1 initiative, cloud computing will assume a more integral role in the district’s overall digital strategy. “I think we initially underestimated the amount of storage we’d need,” says Schuyler. “You shouldn’t necessarily select a package based on the size of your school district. You need to consider how you are going to use the cloud and what resources will be involved. We are getting creative with how we are using ENA TrustCompute and see a lot of potential for the solution.”
Creating the Perfect Blend
As technology’s role becomes more prevalent in the district’s learning environments, Maury’s leaders are leveraging professional development resources like the TIM Rubric to enhance instruction. According to the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, “The Technology Integration Matrix (TIM) provides a framework for describing and targeting the use of technology to enhance learning. The TIM incorporates five interdependent characteristics of meaningful learning environments: active, collaborative, constructive, authentic, and goal-directed.”
“Greater emphasis is being placed on technology within our classrooms,” says Beverly Miller, Maury’s director of instruction. Our teachers must meet the criteria set forth under the TIM for changing the pedagogy around their instruction to ensure students are taking ownership of their learning. We also have several teachers and faculty members participating in a four-year training program centered around implementing technology strategies in the classroom. In addition to sharing the information they acquire with their colleagues, those classrooms will also serve as project-based learning exemplars.”
The impact of these changes is not lost on Maury’s students. “Our students love using technology and can’t wait to receive their devices,” says Miller. “However, we want to make sure they are as prepared as our teachers for the change. We want to lead with instruction and ensure we see a change in pedagogy first. To help us assess their readiness, the students have their own TIM they must meet before we distribute devices.”
Changing the Learning Environments
As part of its holistic digital transformation strategy, Maury is addressing nearly every aspect of the district’s instructional ecosystem, including its physical learning environments. Stan Breeden, Maury’s assistant superintendent of operations, is currently overseeing several projects, including the construction of a new elementary school. “We want to make sure our facilities are designed and equipped to meet the instructional and technology needs of our students and teachers,” says Breeden. “We are very much veering away from the traditional school building/classroom design and creating elements that support and encourage collaborative, project-based learning. Most of the furniture in our buildings will be on casters so that students can configure their desks and chairs to create different types of learning environments. We’ll have tables set up with large monitor displays that students can plug their devices into and share their screens. We also intend to install large, interactive touchscreen whiteboards on our classroom walls.”
To encourage more cross-collaboration among grade levels, Maury intends to place removable walls in some of its classrooms, enabling teachers to create large gathering spaces for their students. Natural lighting, standing desks, and exercise balls are other features that will be included in these flexible learning spaces.
New construction is also a big focus for Breeden and his team as Maury County is experiencing a tremendous amount of growth. “We are in the process of designing and building a new elementary school,” says Breeden. “We are working with an architectural firm to come up with a totally new open-classroom concept that supports our project-based learning focus. We don’t want students sitting and listening to lectures. We want them to be active participants in their own education. These flexible communal learning spaces will enable our students to communicate and collaborate more effectively.”
The energy and excitement sparked by all the new changes is palpable among Maury’s teachers, students, parents, and stakeholders. “It’s really affirming to see students happy and laughing when I’m out in the schools,” says Dr. Marczak. “They come up to me in the hallways and ask to show me the projects they are working on in their classrooms. We are a completely different district than we were nineteen months ago.”
Dr. Marczak is happy with the progress his district has made so far, and he is excited about the opportunities the future holds in store for his students. “When our kids walk across the stage at graduation, I want them to know exactly what their next move in life is going to be,” says Dr. Marczak. “To me, that’s the epitome of college and career readiness. When they graduate, they will be equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to be successful in college or in their careers.”