“Polk County is one of the counties you don’t think about very much,” said Nakia, a student at Chilhowee Middle School in Benton, Tennessee, a small rural town of fewer than 2,000 people. “We’d look at another school that has technology, and we’re like, ‘Wow … I wish we had those possibilities.’”
Those possibilities became reality for Nakia and her Chilhowee classmates, along with students at nearby Copper Basin High School, in 2017, when both Polk County schools joined Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS). The initiative—made possible by a partnership between Digital Promise and Verizon—works to bridge the Digital Learning Gap by equipping every student and teacher at select middle schools across the country with devices and up to a four-year data plan. In addition to technology and access, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools receive extensive teacher training, support, and the opportunity to engage in a unique, immersive curriculum to leverage technology in their classrooms.
In just two years since joining VILS, the schools are among the most improved in the state. Based on results from state testing during the 2018-19 school year, Chilhowee and Copper Basin achieved the highest possible growth score, Level 5. Moreover, Chilhowee was named a Tennessee Reward School for being among the top five percent of growth in the state.
“Our teachers work hard every year for our students, and we are excited that this hard work is reflected in our growth scores,” said Dr. Jason Bell, secondary supervisor and VILS district co-lead for Polk County Schools. “The main theme associated with this growth centers around a mindset to improve each year while also using strong pedagogy as a foundational piece of instruction.”
The Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program was one of the sparks for the change, says Dr. Ryan Goodman, Polk County Schools’ career and technical education (CTE) supervisor and VILS district co-lead: “VILS was the catalyst that set it all in motion for our schools. The opportunities VILS provided greatly helped foster this success while creating a newfound emphasis on project-based learning. It was definitely one piece of the puzzle to our success because it helped foster a growth mindset among our teachers and students.”
“Becoming a Verizon Innovative Learning School opened up a whole new world of teaching and learning for our schools,” added Danielle McClary, the VILS coach for both schools. “It sparked innovation in our teachers and students that was missing previously, put our students on equal footing with many of our surrounding districts, and made them feel like they, too, deserve success in life.”
McClary points to the students’ ability to take their devices home as an important factor in the schools’ growth. With test prep programs like iReady and Study Island available on the iPads, students are able to practice outside of school—a luxury not previously possible before joining VILS.
“No matter what apps the teachers are using, the iPads allow our kids to have access 24/7, whereas before they would only have had access within the walls of the school building,” she said. “Students are able to connect to a world that they were previously left out of due to lack of internet at home.”
Joining Verizon Innovative Learning Schools has also changed the way teachers teach at both Chilhowee and Copper Basin. Collaboration among the staff has become commonplace, with practices like model classrooms, where teachers can learn from each other by observing and discussing tools being used.
“The VILS program sparked a whole new culture of collaboration and innovation among our teachers,” McClary said. “Being a part of VILS has allowed our teachers to think outside the box in ways we were never able to before.”
This year, Chilhowee has begun focusing on personalized learning and differentiation, letting students learn at their own pace by utilizing a “playlist” that lays out all of the activities for the week and allows students to decide which to complete and in what order. Teachers also use apps like Screencastify to provide instruction which the students can access at different times.
In addition, the VILS initiative’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) prompted the school to offer STEM electives, which have proven popular among students. These new classes allow for hands-on learning that utilizes technology when applicable. For example, students created mazes out of cardboard, then coded their Sphero robots to travel through the mazes without mistakes.
“VILS was a catalyst for a lot of changes that are now happening in our schools,” McClary said. “I don’t think we ever would have had those conversations around personalized learning or been this far along in our STEM journey if VILS hadn’t opened those doors for us.”
With technology complementing the school’s new points of emphasis, students are more engaged as they utilize the same tools in the classroom that they use in their personal lives.
“Students are taking more ownership and responsibility in their learning, which in turn leads to higher expectations and standards,” Dr. Goodman said.
While technology can accelerate learning when used appropriately, teachers must be open to leveraging it in their classrooms, which can be a big change for veteran teachers accustomed to using traditional worksheets. However, McClary notes that Chilhowee and Copper Basin teachers bought in from the start.
“Our teachers deserve all the credit, because they’re the ones that take these tools and create lessons that are engaging for our students,” she said. “Our teachers are really the unsung heroes.”
Dr. Bell agrees: “The teachers have become more comfortable being a facilitator in a classroom that stimulates student learning, and this wouldn’t have been possible without the resources and support from VILS.”
Learn more about how the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative has impacted its member schools at verizon.digitalpromise.org.