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In an Arizona District, Standards, Teachers and Students Drive Instruction

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Technology can be a powerful tool for change, but in the excitement of doing something new, important planning aspects may fall by the wayside. In order to support long-term success and systemic change, technological integration benefits from piloting, community buy-in, visionary and consistent leadership, and a diligence to build on successes over time.  Vail School District in Vail, Arizona exemplifies these attributes, and the district staff is proud of the collaborative culture they’ve created. As they put it, they do the hard work of getting along, and they’ve established a strong foundation for their relentless pursuit of innovative practices that support student achievement and learning in the 21st century. 

At the end of February, I was fortunate to participate in the National School Board Association (NSBA)’s Technology Leadership Network (TLN) site visit to Vail, a district with a long and intentional history of innovation supported with technology. The district installed wireless internet at all its schools in 2003, and in 2005 it opened Empire High School, which is widely recognized as the nation’s first 1-to-1 and textbook free public school. In 2008, Vail established Beyond Textbooks as the hub for their growing digital content, which replaced textbooks as a curriculum foundation. In 2009, Vail became Arizona’s first BYOD district, adding additional 1-to-1 schools in 2010 and 2012. Now, in 2013, they are going 1-to-1 in all the district’s high schools. During the past decade, Vail’s consistent forward-looking mindset has created a robust system that produced significant gains in achievement while allowing students to personalize learning and develop the skills needed for success in the global community.

Bring Your Own Device

While technology is integral to the district’s work and success in raising student achievement, it is also treated as a tool to facilitate student ownership in learning and teacher empowerment in the classroom. And the student learning experience is at the heart of Vail’s work. As an early adopter of one-to-one, Vail created a BYOD hybrid model that supports students who have their own devices, as well as those who need to use one through the school. The model has evolved over the years, and devices have changed; today the school district offers Google Chromebooks for students who do not bring their own devices.

Because each student has a device, schools are able to use technology in a variety of ways and transition away from textbooks serving as the primary drivers of instruction. Course websites enable teachers to post all assignments and resources, while the Google platform allows students to collaborate on projects and turn in assignments electronically. The district installed wireless internet on many of their school buses in 2010, enabling students with longer rides home the ability to do work on the go. Vail also keeps the broadband network on after hours, and they’ve noticed high usage in the evenings, indicating that students are actually extending their own learning day.

Customized Learning Culture

Technology has also allowed for innovation in school design, particularly at the high-school level – each of the district’s five high schools offers a distinct learning environment through its extensive offerings of online learning, blended learning and teacher driven curriculum based on Arizona State Standards. After all, one size doesn’t fit all, and Vail recognizes that students have different interests and passions. In the preparation for college and career, the district offers students the opportunity to build on these preferences in high school.

In 2012, Vail, a district of choice, designed their newest high school – Andrada Polytechnic High School - based on the culture of freedom with responsibility. Students who want to take advantage of this environment choose to enroll in the school, where they are given leeway to drive their own learning and manage additional free time. There is also an intensive career pathways program that supplements the core curriculum, offering students experience in the automotive, sports therapy and veterinary fields. However, the school does not offer robust sports teams or opportunities to play competitively. Students who are passionate about sports may choose to attend a different high school. In this way, Vail has customized the student experience while still serving the entire community.

Beyond Textbooks

Beyond Textbooks was created to help Vail move away from a textbook based curriculum; 86 partners across the state now use the organization’s method as the foundation for academic programming. This approach started with the idea of letting the state standards drive teaching and learning, as opposed to teaching materials serving as the main driver. Under this model, the instructional process is viewed as a four sided pyramid: curriculum, instruction, assessment and intervention, all resting on a foundation of culture. Beyond Textbooks starts with the essential standards, what students must learn. Next, they “unwrap” documents to define what “good enough” looks like when students need to demonstrate an understanding of any particular state standard. From there, they develop curriculum calendars for when the different standards will be taught and for how long before figuring out what specific materials and resources are needed to teach. Finally, there is a wiki that serves as a digital version of the curriculum as it is developed by instructors and content specialists.  Other key elements from Beyond Textbooks include common formative assessments to check students’ mastery of the essential standards and an opportunity to reteach or enrich as part of daily interventions based on data collected on student understanding.

Flexibility and Adaptability

At a time when many districts are grappling with implementation of new state standards, the Vail model is of even greater strategic importance. The district has built infrastructure around a model where core standards already drive the development and delivery of content. Common Core doesn’t faze Vail; they’re prepared to substitute the new standards in and redesign curriculum through the already well-established channels of collaboration. Vail's success is remarkable in many respects, but their model provides districts an opportunity to simultaneously embrace freedom in curriculum and instruction, empower teachers, and engage students, all against the backdrop of new and ambitious standards for all.

The Vail mindset rests in their clear and common vision of culture, with guiding principles and mission statement  defining how individuals treat one another – in the Vail Schools “We: Are respectful and trustworthy, Care about each other and Take responsibility.”  Culture forms the foundation of Vail’s success and their ability to meet new challenges and embrace change and innovation.

While Vail staff and leaders acknowledge their successes, they are never satisfied with the status quo. Their technology plan is straightforward: ever greater capability, ever greater reliability and ever greater performance. True technology integration of this nature doesn't just happen overnight, and it cannot be conceptualized by just a few at the top. Every person on staff, every educator and all administrators, must invest in and own the work. Vail’s motto is that education is a community effort, and they exhibit this belief in their practice and dedication to the children they educate, care for and inspire.