Chester County School District Sees Limitless Value in 21st Century Technology

Q&A with Margo Day, vice president of U.S. education, Microsoft and Dr. Agnes Slayman, Superintendent of Chester County School District, South Carolina

Our partnership with the White House’s ConnectED initiative is based on our interest in bringing lower cost technology into the classroom, empowering students and teachers with the best learning environment, and providing schools with the tools being used by businesses around the world to prepare students for success in the future.

ConnectED, which aims to connect 99 percent of U.S. students over the next five years to the digital age through next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries reached its one-year anniversary on June 6th. I’m passionate about the program, because it can be used by K-12 public schools of all sizes across the nation, including schools in rural communities. South Carolina’s Chester County School District, which is comprised of more than 5,526 students, is one rural school district that is using technology to ensure all of its students have access to the devices and tools they need to be successful in both the classroom and the community.

After learning about Chester County School District Superintendent Dr. Agnes Slayman’s unique approach to using technology to help connect students and prepare them for the future, I was inspired and wanted to share her story so that other school districts might see a way forward when presented with the obstacles Chester County had to overcome. Below are some highlights from a conversation where Dr. Slayman shared how her school district has implemented technology to help teachers and students transition to a 21st Century classroom.

Margo Day: Why is it especially important in a rural area like yours for students to have access?

Dr. Agnes Slayman: For students growing up in beautiful Chester County, South Carolina, there are special opportunities that come from living in a tight-knit community – strong and lasting relationships develop outside the school day on ball fields, playgrounds and parks. Although we appreciate our county’s small towns and rural setting, we do want our young people to have a global perspective so they can understand and identify with others beyond our daily boundaries. This exposure to world history, culture, views, and ideas is dependent on the use of technology to broaden our students’ educational experiences. It guarantees that our graduates-whether they choose to be life-long residents of our county or not-are ready to compete in a 21st century global economy.

MD: What were your reasons and how were you able to create a partnership with the local broadband supplier?

AS: Our district school buses traverse more than 826,000 miles each school year-proof that many of our students do not live near our schools. With a district as large as ours, taking the Internet to our students was necessary to ensure they are able to use their tablets to complete assignments and research projects after school hours. Although our local telecommunication providers do offer home internet services county-wide, many families simply cannot afford the service. Realizing personal finances were creating an educational gap, I called on Truvista Communications (serves most of Chester County) and Comporium (serves one Chester County community) to create a first-of-its kind private business/public education partnership in South Carolina. These companies placed Wi-Fi hotspots in strategically-placed locations, such as parks, libraries, a private business, fire stations, etc., throughout the entire county. Now students, can visit these close-to-home hotspots and use their district-issued devices to safely connect to the Internet free of charge.

MD: How did you engage your students in the decision making process?

AS: As part of our district’s communication plan, I created five Superintendent’s Cabinets (Teacher, Support Staff, Administrator, Parent, and Student), which meet throughout the school year. Cabinet members are always briefed on important district news, such as our hiTEC 1:1 initiative, and then encouraged to ask questions and offer suggestions to strengthen ideas and programs. The Cabinets have been an excellent way to both disseminate information to our stakeholders and guide me and my senior staff in our daily decision making process. Student Cabinet members were given their tablets weeks before their peers so as to become familiar with the devices. These student leaders were instrumental in helping their classmates-from offering tips on operating the tablets to advocating the coolest apps to download-during the initial rollout of tablets. Since we rolled out the devices, we have continued to meet with all Cabinets to get feedback on hiTEC. Suggestions received during these round table discussions have strengthened our program and alerted us to issues that needed our immediate attention.

MD: What devices are you using and what’s your rollout plan?

AS: Windows-based devices were selected based on our priorities of Microsoft Windows 8, a long battery life, and durability. Although the device was a key part of our 1:1 initiative, we understood that the device was merely an educational tool. What we had to rollout was a whole new approach to teaching; we needed our teachers, students, parents, and community members to embrace the use of technology in learning and applying vast amounts of instant information. We first entitled our initiative hiTEC, which means “Helping Integrate Technology, Education and Careers.” After creating a fun and catchy logo, district leaders began to showcase and explain hiTEC advantages during the various Superintendent Cabinet meetings, at teacher faculty meetings, and during community meetings (such as Lion’s Club, Rotary, church gatherings, etc.).

In September 2013, the district hosted a hiTEC celebration to launch the technology initiative and update county and state leaders, as well as local business owners, on the economic advantages of our innovative program. Three teachers and their students completed several lesson demonstrations on the devices using Windows 8. These demonstrations were excellent examples of just how hiTEC will prepare our graduates to be capable and productive employees in the new workforce. Through the media and district-distributed letters, parents and guardians of high school students were urged to attend a free hiTEC orientation sessions. These orientations gave parents/guardians and their students detailed information regarding the hiTEC program. This same information is now available on the district’s website and is still promoted through district and school Facebook pages.

As we continue to move forward with hiTEC, our district will begin training high school students to be part of our district’s Information Technology Department’s school repair teams. These students, under the supervision of our own technicians, will learn to repair malfunctioning tablets and printers for their teachers and classmates, all while gaining valuable work experience that directly links their education with future employment.

MD: Do you believe that leadership plays an important role in a 1:1 rollout?

AS: As technology quickly changes today’s classroom, we still have technology immigrants teaching technology natives. It is for this very reason that our district leaders are so important�they are needed to reassure teachers that technology changes are positive and that technology rich lesson plans lend students to critical thinking and mastery of content. Our leaders double as trainers who build teachers’ tech skills and confidence. District leaders are also the face of the project for parents and community members, who may have questions about technology-integrated teaching and learning.

MD: What suggestions do you have for other school leaders working toward 1:1?

AS: A 1:1 initiative is much more than handing tablets to students. Creating a specific and concise vision and technology goals for the district is a great starting point. Talking with districts who have sustainable, successful programs can help in developing your own goals. Once these goals are set, it is important to complete a self-evaluation of the district’s current technology situation. Questions include: what type of infrastructure do we have to support a 1:1, how will we finance the project, how tech-savvy are our teachers and students, etc. Combining the self-evaluation results with the district technology goals will give leaders a clearer road map to success.

MD: We know you value professional development for your teachers. Why do you think it’s important to have all teachers engaged early on in the shift?

AS: We already have excellent teachers who are well-trained and caring professionals. They understand the need and importance of reaching all students and motiving them to succeed. However, in a 21st century classroom, the teacher is no longer the only access point to information. Rather, the teacher is a facilitator whose lesson plans direct students down individual learning paths. Technology professional development for our teachers is therefore designed to boost instructor confidence in using the latest technology to convey content, reinforce new skills, and engage students in learning. No matter how technologically advanced our society becomes, we believe that it is always the interpersonal relationships between a teacher and his/her students that ultimately lead students to academic success. Often times we see this interpersonal relationship and connecting between teachers and students amplified because students are more engaged.

MD : Have you provided training for your teachers?

AS: The transition from a traditional classroom to one that incorporates cutting-edge technology on a daily basis cannot happen in a single school year. Our district leaders understand that this switch will be at least a 3-5 year process. Our district has committed to continued training for teachers and administrators, including approximately 15 different training opportunities for teachers and weekly learning during “Tech Tuesdays” for all high school teachers.

MD: How are you using technology to engage students in learning?

AS: Thanks to the financial support of another community partnership, Springs Creative, this fall, students in Chester County will virtually meet weekly with classes in foreign countries, such as China, Malta, and Greece. The idea is for students and teachers on both sides of the camera to share curriculum and begin building real relationships, grooming our students to function in a workspace without walls. Imagine completing a 5th grade research paper on Chinese culture with first person references and resources – this includes face-to-face conversations between Chester County students and their Chinese counterparts without anyone stepping foot on an airplane.

Whether students work together in a classroom using OneNote or Office 365, or collaborate digitally with friends in other countries, they will be developing the exact skills companies will soon demand of their most valued employees. Our district is committed to excellence for all students, and we see technology use and training as an integral part of education.