The biggest asset in a rural Tennessee school district’s innovative technology project may be the school system’s rural setting and eagerness to perform at the highest level.
Polk County Schools, a small district in southeast Tennessee, is using its “rural pride” and “just rolling up our sleeves and getting it done,” said Jason Bell, the district’s supervisor of secondary curriculum and assessment. “We want to represent our district and many other rural districts in the best way possible.”
The ambitious project is putting computer tablets into the hands of each of its 500 middle school students and their teachers. It also provides educators with training to use the technology for instruction, homework, student motivation, and other educational purposes.
Polk County Schools is one of the few rural systems in the U.S. to be named a Verizon Innovative Learning school. The designation comes with 500 iPads, 5 gigabytes of data per month for each student and teacher in the sixth through eighth grades, and professional development support for teachers.
Polk County (with 17,000 residents) serves approximately 2,800 students in grades K-12. The county lies southwest of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between North Carolina and Georgia. Two- thirds of the county is in the Cherokee National Forest, a fact that has a big impact on development patterns and school revenue.
“We don’t get opportunities like this often, so we’re trying to get the most from it,” said Ryan Goodman, the system’s director of innovation. “It’s really re-energizing our district.”
Both men are part of state and national groups that work on rural education issues. Goodman is executive director of the Tennessee Rural Education Association (TNREA). Bell is also involved with TNREA and is the current president of the National Rural Education Association
Bell said small districts can have a hard time getting funding for special initiatives like the technology project.
“Rural districts are behind the eight ball in some ways because they don’t have a professional grant writer,” Bell said. “We all have a lot of other jobs beyond just writing and managing grant projects like these.”
The program is focused on academic achievement, technology proficiency for both students and teachers, student engagement, and exposure of students to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.
It’s not just the students who are getting an educational boost from the technology. Verizon is sending educational technology experts from Digital Promise to Polk County three times a year for teachers’ professional development. Teachers complete 12 technology-integration modules throughout the year. The school district also has model teachers who help lead at the middle school. In addition, Polk has established student tech teams to provide technology assistance, a strategy that not only provides support but also deepens student leadership skills.
Teachers in the district had not worked in an environment where every student had a computing device. They have welcomed the project with open arms. Where there was hesitation, support from the district has helped overcome it.
“Through this project, we’re really changing the culture of the classroom, not just handing out devices,” Goodman said.
The program has included use of tools such as Google Classroom, which integrates Google Docs with classroom management tools; FlipGrid, a web-based tool that has been used for student reflection; and Socrative, an assessment tool. The school has also established daily “STEMrichment” sessions in which students progress through six-week rotations of STEM activities such as coding, environmental science, Sphero robotics, and career studies.
Student Devin Spurling reports that he and others have used the iPads to do research, view videos that help with math, and use online textbooks at home. Spurling also said that he likes to use the tablet to listen to music while he studies because it helps him concentrate. The iPads also help make writing easier and eliminate paper, he said.
The project is not without its challenges. Like many rural districts, Polk has issues with connectivity. Only the perimeter of the county lies outside the National Forest. Some areas have no cell service. Students are learning to adapt to this by downloading content before they get home or accessing the Internet at a friend’s home or via other connections. The district has also explored other ways to expand connectivity or to make use of applications that don’t require a constant connection.
“Rural connectivity is a big issue,” Bell said. “And economic development is tied to this.”
As a result of this program, some students who previously had no Internet connectivity at home now have access.
Overall, the project has been a big success, benefitting not only students but their whole families, Goodman said.
“Our ultimate goal is for our kids to be successful after high school,” he said. “And this project has been a wonderful step toward that.”