Innovative Online Success at Putnam County Schools

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innovative leader award

(Image credit: Sam Brooks)

As a receiver with Tennessee Tech’s Division I football team, Sam Brooks blew past so many defenders that he remains the fourth all-time leading receiver in yards. 

Over the years, he’s brought a similar passion and excellence to the classroom. First as a biology teacher and, for the last decade, as Supervisor of Personalized Learning in the Putnam County School System in Tennessee. 

He leads Future Ready VITAL, the district’s virtual learning program, and has led the expansion of online and dual enrollment offerings, developing an online personal finance class in partnership with the Lampo Group and Florida Virtual School. He has also created more personalized learning opportunities and helped his fellow educators become more tech-savvy – his team hosts the largest Google conference in Tennessee each year, which is free to the nearly 800 educators who attend.

For these efforts, he recently was recognized for Best Implementation of Digital Curriculum at Tech & Learning’s Innovative Leader Awards in Atlanta.

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Personalized Learning and Personal Finance  

In the Putnam County School System, every student has to take a personal finance class to graduate, and it has to be taken online. A number of years ago, Brooks was tasked with improving the quality of this offering, and decided to work with the best collaborators he knew. 

Brooks was impressed with an online college course developed by personal finance expert Dave Ramsey, and also had worked closely with the Florida Virtual School, so he pursued a three-way partnership with both to pilot a new high school personal finance class. The combination of Ramsey’s financial advice videos, the Florida Virtual School’s online course management, and the individualized touches Putnam County School System educators provide, have made the course a winning one. 

“I feel like it is the best financial education online class in the world,” Brooks says. “That class has been sold to districts around the world to use.” 

However, Putnam County School System is not involved in the sale of the course, says Brooks. They just helped pilot it and are licensed to use it. 

Sustainable Online Learning 

Curriculum values

(Image credit: Sam Brooks)

Putnam County has long taken a holistic approach to online education. 

“In 2014 our district went forward with the requirement that our graduates would have to complete at least one online class,” Brooks says. “We felt like going into the college world, with as much as online class use had grown, that it was beneficial for our students to understand and be equipped with those skills before they left high school.” 

In addition to offering students online classes to supplement their in-person learning, the school system district has a fully virtual option for students grades 3-12 who find that option convenient for reasons as wide-ranging as health issues to acting opportunities that require frequent travel. Most online classes are synchronous for grades 3-8, but for high school students, many classes are asynchronous. However, even in the asynchronous classes, student and teacher interaction is built-in and personalized learning is prioritized. “The teachers get to know their students very well,” Brooks says. 

Putnam County’s approach has become a model for others. “We've had about 75 districts come here and visit over the last five years,” says Brooks. 

Advice for Educators 

When educators ask for advice on building their own online programs, Brooks tells them the most important thing is to scaffold gradually. “Start with a small group, learn how to do it, learn how to do it the right way, and then step back and let it grow,” he says. “You don't have to worry about it growing when you show that success and meet that student need.” 

Equally as important is to always keep focus on the students. “It's kind of our motto, and I'm not ashamed to say I stole it from Florida Virtual, is that the student is at the center of every decision we make,” he says. “We talk about that every meeting we have. And so that makes us become student-centric, in every decision and every thought process that we go through.” 

Having educators, such as Brooks, who are passionate about their jobs also helps. “I get out of bed and love to come to work every day,” he says. “How blessed am I to be able to do that?” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.