Superintendent: ‘It’s a big deal nationally’
Oak Ridge Schools is attempting to become the premier district in the nation for science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, education. Superintendent Bruce Borchers has a $3.4 million plan to make that happen using Microsoft Surface tablets and Discovery Education. The money will be spent over a five-year period.
Borchers calls the needed changes a “digital transformation” that will, he hopes, bring a tablet to every student in the school system. This is especially important in Oak Ridge, a district with a free and reduced lunch rate of more than 50 percent. The digital transformation would allow every student in the district to have the same educational opportunities, regardless of income.
The first of three steps toward transformation is to create a technological infrastructure capable of handling all the tablets. Those improvements have a $1 million price tag that the Oak Ridge Board of Education and the city have already approved. Borchers hopes for the upgrades to be completed before students return to school in the fall. The upgrades are projected to last until at least 2022.
Steve Reddick, who teaches eighth-grade history at Jefferson Middle School, worries about whether the infrastructure will be ready on time.
“We’re approaching mid-April, and we’re talking about a school year that’s starting in four months,” he said. “So I think time is a concern and whether it’ll really be ready to be up and running by the fall.”
Although Reddick seems skeptical that the improvements will be ready for the 2014-15 school year, he does believe the initiative has potential. In fact, he’s already using Discovery Education’s Streaming resources to bring engaging videos to his classes.
Teachers and administration are now training to use other Discovery Education packages and services. These trainings, or professional development courses, are another step toward digital transformation. Discovery’s program couples the current Streaming program with what they call digital “techbooks” as well as evaluation, curriculum, and content management services. The company provides support from its professional development experts, a group of educators hired to prepare members of the school system to use the programs offered. Educators are scheduled for up to four different professional development tracks where they learn about the social studies and science techbooks to be used in the school district and other necessary adjustments in educating. All of this is expected to cost the school system nearly $1.3 million over a five-year span, with some of that money being reallocated from current textbook costs.
Reddick called his own training “valuable” and, according to Borchers, 95 percent of the professional development evaluations come back positive.
“That’s a pretty good number because teachers this time of year aren’t real excited about being pulled out of the classroom,” he said.
Not only is it hard to make teachers happy about spending time away from classes, but it’s been difficult to find substitutes for so many educators at one time. Up to 50 substitutes could be needed for just one day of professional development training.
All of this, in Reddick’s mind, is simply the beginning of a paradigm shift.
“I see this as the next and probably final frontier of my career,” he said. “I’m just hoping I’m trained enough in a way that’s good for the kids.”
ORS parent Sindhu Jaggadamma worries that her eighth-grader could get distracted by a device, but she still believes the technology will enrich his learning experience.
“I think it is a wonderful initiative, and it helps students to get exposed to all the available learning resources and opportunities,” she said. “However, I would like to see more discussions and pilot projects before implementing it in full swing.”
Borchers plans to give parents more information about the program in the near future, but first he wants to be sure his teachers are ready to answer any questions parents might have.
The last, and most difficult, piece of the three-part transformation plan is achieving 1:1 device integration. This means providing Microsoft Surface tablets to all staff and students, keyboards and ORS logo backpacks for students. Borchers is still trying to find a way to come up with the $1.1 million per year required to make this happen. After 2017, however, that price is expected to shrink to $674,000 per year. He hopes the foundation will be able to help cover some of those up-front costs.
Borchers is passionate that 1:1 integration is a necessary step toward becoming a leader in STEM-based education, but ORS parent Jenna Whitney doesn’t think the number of tablets is so important.
“I think it’s less about the device and more about the approach to professional development,” Whitney said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 students to one device or five students to one device…If (ORS) can’t get a device for every student in the system, it’s still going to be great.”
Whitney has a sixth-grader at Jefferson and a third-grader at Woodland Elementary School, where she is PTO president. She’s also part of the superintendent’s PTA council and serves as executive director at Oak Ridge Public Schools Education Foundation.
It’s not yet clear whether the foundation will help fund Borchers initiative, but he said a subcommittee has been formed to consider the proposal that he hopes to bring to their board within a month. When finished, Borchers said that document will also be used to apply for grants.
“They’ve been supportive,” he said of the foundation. “So we’re in the planning phases with them. Discussions have been great.”
All of this will guide ORS to become the “premier school district in the country,” according to Borchers, although there’s no actual title, tangible award, or trophy to be gained.
“There’s no STEM society that gives you a certificate… What makes us and why Discovery has said premier could be our title is that we would do it Pre-K all the way to grade 12,” Borchers said. “We’re saying that, if you’re a student in Oak Ridge, regardless of what school you go to, we’re going to have STEM threads throughout every school for every kid. So it’s a big deal, nationally.”
In his mind, the digitization of education is the way to get there. He believes that we are inching toward the complete elimination of paper textbooks. Students are already coming into school digitally ready, he said.
“So we’re trying to meet the needs of our kids as we go forward the best we can.”
Oak Ridge Schools is partnering with Oak Ridge Associated Universities on April 21 to introduce parents to STEM standards. The event will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge.
Sara Wise is a freelance contributor to Oak Ridge Today.