At the recent SchoolCIO Leadership Summit in Chicago, Managing Editor Christine Weiser sat down with Sean Casey, Lake Travis ISD’s Assistant Superintendent of Technology & Information Systems Services, to learn more about how his district is creating innovative course and transitioning to digital content.
CW: Can you tell us a little about your district?
SC: Lake Travis ISD is in Austin, Texas, and we have just under 8,000 students, about 1,000 staff members, and close to 500 teachers. We’re a high-performing school district in a very supportive, involved community.
We have an interesting demographic. There is some incredible affluence in our district, but we also have some extremely low-income areas where kids don’t just worry about digital divide, but they may not have power or running water. So we’ve got these extremes in our demographics, but academically we perform very well, and we really try to provide a lot of innovative courses, particularly as students get into secondary school.
CW: Can you provide an example of these innovative courses?
SC: Project Lead the Way is an engineering curriculum that we’ve had in place for a several years; we’re one of 10 model districts in the county for the Project Lead the Way program. The program gives our kids a lot of experience with pre-engineering and pre-architect-type careers. We’ve divided our secondary school offerings into Institutes. We have institutes for math/engineering & architecture, advanced science & medicine, humanities/technology & communications, veterinary & agricultural science, fine arts, and business/finance & marketing careers. Our schools are getting bigger, and these programs help kids self-identify with the areas that they are most interested in, potentially for their career or for what they might pursue in college.
CW: At what grade level do you start these institutes?
SC: Now it’s middle school and high school. This is the first year that we’ve expanded that engineering curriculum down to middle school for kids to really get exposure to that program earlier. This helps them with a lot of their choices they are going to make for their academic career through high school and then into college.
CW: Do the kids generally stay with the track or do they experiment a little bit?
SC: We won’t know yet with middle school—we’ll have to see how that goes over the next few years. In high school, we find that the kids are not locked into tracks—you don’t lose credit or anything like that if you change tracks—so they are encouraged to really try different things. We want them to get exposed to a variety of courses so they can dive deep into the things that they’ve got an aptitude for or interest in.
CW: How might another school implement this kind of program?
SC: An important component of the program is partnership with the business community. Our local business community has advisory boards that meet throughout the year. We also go talk to them when we are doing community presentations for future bond programs and that sort of thing because it’s a group that we articulate with really closely. They typically come from the Chamber and from companies that are either based in our district or parents in our district who work for those companies. They can give us the pulse of what kinds of jobs are needed and what sort of skills they’re looking for. We use those boards to serve that advisory function for our courses, to make sure that they are aligned with what the industry is doing.
CW: How are you transitioning into Texas’s new Instructional Materials Allotment (IMA) funding that merged two funds into one?
SC: It’s a significant reduction in funding. That one IMA fund really was a replacement of what had been two funding sources prior to that. So the flexibility to buy digital content and other technology with the funds is great, but the lack of funding is another financial challenge to overcome. Before we really even knew what the guidance was from TEA on how it could be used, we pulled together a community that had curriculum staff, administrators, and technology staff to sit down and identify and prioritize all of the things that either could be impacted by the IMA or that could be enabled by IMA. We had our priorities of materials that we wanted to adopt. We wanted to have digital as well as print materials because the way the offerings are now, you can either buy print alone, print and digital materials, or digital-only resources. So we have been adopting digital-only resources or a combination of print and digital materials to make the transition from hardbound textbooks to software/online/digital resources. Then we had to make decisions about what wouldn’t be funded because our requests and our growth projections exceeded our allotment.
CW: What are some things that you had to shelve?
SC: We used to pay for salaries of campus-based technology people from the allotment that IMA took the place of. We had to cover that cost out of our maintenance and operations budget instead of the allotment dollars. We also cut a textbook adoption that we had for technology skills because we felt like we could accomplish the same thing with open source materials.
CW: Do you see a push more towards an open source to fill the budget gaps?
SC: Definitely. We also have to make sure that we accounted for our growth. We’ve got to make sure that when we enroll new kids that we’ve got adequate materials for them and for the new teachers that will have to be hired for those new 7% or 8% of students that we typically add each year.
CW: Are you using cloud-based curriculum?
SC: It’s increasing. I wouldn’t say it’s a lot at this point; we still have a combination of things that we provide in district. But more and more we’re utilizing these tools, whether it’s Youtube.edu or My Big Campus or Ted Ed and those sorts of things—trying to make sure that those collections of quality content are not just available but that they are actually mapped to the curriculum. We do what is called resource mapping, where units, standards, lessons, and activities also have media, or learning objects, connected to them.
CW: Who does the mapping to the standards?
SC: That’s the curriculum team, and that work never ends, as content, apps, etc., are constantly being updated.
CW: What are you are excited about?
SC: It’s been kind of mind-bending for people in our technology department especially because our standards are changing so rapidly that we’ve gone back and surveyed teachers. We’ve pulled together educational technology design groups to do more planning. What does great teaching and learning look like in 2012 and beyond has been a question that we’ve used to focus those groups’ discussions
This has led us to doing a tablet initiative for all of our teachers as another extension of providing interactive technologies and engaging content in the classroom. BYOD is something that we did last year that we thought was a good move for several reasons. One is, it’s the way of the world. People have their personal devices, they are becoming more common, more affordable, and more powerful. So why not allow kids and other visitors to our system to use those productively? We wrote our policies to accommodate for teachers to be able to use those things at their discretion, however they saw fit in the classroom, so the teachers are really in the driver’s seat for that and how to use it well with their kids.
We’ve tried to pull all of our online textbook and electronic textbook resources together into a learning portal, so you’ve got a good resource to go to from your personal device. Whether in class, before school, after school, or during breaks, those resources are available to them whenever they need them, from personal or district-provided devices, and from home, school, or mobile. That’s for all grade levels—not just high school—all the way down through elementary.