Accomplishing Mastery in a Digital Age

Innovation Chief of Shelby County Schools shares their personalized learning strategy and how the system is being transformed
Cebron Walker, Editor-in-Chief

Working to meet the needs of all their students, Shelby County Schools is finding their path to accomplish a personalized education for every one of their students. So no matter whether a child is significantly advanced or they are struggling, they accomplish mastery at their own pace. Brad Leon, the Chief of Strategy and Innovation for Shelby County Schools, serves 110,000 students and 9,000 teachers in approximately 200 schools in and around Memphis, TN.

Learning Counsel: Can you give us an understanding of when your 1-to-1 strategy started and how far you’ve come?

Mr. Brad Leon: Well I arrived in 2013 and one of the very first things that we wanted to do was pilot whether our district was really ready to make a transformation to digital. We were following a model from Huntsville Alabama where the entire District has scaled-up a blended learning approach. It was in the Fall of 2013 that we did site visits to Huntsville. At the same time we really focused on gathering a team to make sure that, from our infrastructure to professional development to procuring devices to road-mapping and project planning we had a core group. The old way with tech and academics in their individual silos was never going to work.

LC:  How far along would you say you are as far as networks and infrastructure?

BL: The 18 schools that we have in the Blended-Learning Pilot in have been completely upgraded to have more than the network capacity they need in order to run the pilot, which is significantly more than the bandwidth in some of our other schools throughout the district, so the challenges that we’re facing right now have less to do with the network and the bandwidth and more to do with other issues.

LC: How are you handling connectivity and ensuring that all students can fully utilize their devices and digital curriculum?

BL: We haven’t yet figured out how to wire-up our entire community so that our kids in our pilot schools are taking their devices and are able to work seamlessly from school to home. That’s the next generation for us, although it’s not OUR network infrastructure, it’s the larger communities. 

We don’t have a BYOD in our district and we have lots and lots of devices at the school level for kids to use.  We have a new Chief of Information Technology, John Michael Williams and I don’t want to speak for him but, I think, over time he’s looking or really push the envelope in what we’re doing with both devices and network.  In terms of the overarching plan and design, we really did want to learn a lot of lessons and not make long-term commitments until we saw what was actually going to work. 

But now that we’ve started having more and more data coming in, our Chief of Academics, Chief of Information Technology and myself are going to be sitting down over the course of the next three months to really map out where we want to take this.

LC: That review step you’re going to do is regarding the 18 pilot schools?

BL: We’re going to look at those 18 pilot schools and I think our decision point is going to be; “To what degree do we want to scale this to additional schools?”  The question we need to answer is, “What’s going to be our overarching set of goals for digital education throughout the District?”

Our hope initially was that we would scale this up to our whole district like they are doing in Huntsville but we couldn’t make that commitment on behalf of our entire District without seeing whether it worked or not in our setting.  So I think that’s where we’re at now -- wrestling with “is this something we can go full scale in this context?”

LC: You refer to Huntsville as the model, why is that?

BL: I wouldn’t say we’re fully emulating Huntsville but they were definitely a model that we looked at.  There are a lot of examples of great blended-learning schools.  Huntsville was one of the examples that I knew about where they had done this at a scale that was – they’re still a much smaller District than Shelby County Schools but it was close enough to our scale that it was an organization that we could learn a lot from.  And I had an opportunity to hear from their Superintendent the summer before and was really impressed with what he was thinking about and his approach so I thought; “I’ve got some personal familiarity, they’re doing it at a District-wide scale and if we can learn from anyone that’s definitely going to be who I’ll learn from.” 

LC: How have you involved the instructors in all this planning and development?

BL: Within the design, we wanted to make sure that this was driven as much as possible by teachers and principals.  We knew that there were some best practices that we were going to bring to the table but we wanted the folks who were going to be in the pilots all-in and with a say it how it rolled out.

Rather than saying “Here’s what we’re doing” and pressing it down, we wanted to have them embrace it as much as possible – have them be partners with us as we move things forward.

LC: Are you doing a lot of OER in a mix or are you going to try to work with a major publisher to bring-in digital curriculum to deliver over those devices in the pilot schools?

BL: Our software provider is McGraw-Hill.  They’ve been a wonderful partner and we’re going to be working with them next year as well as we think about scaling up.  We have to approach that conversation and get with them but they’ve been a wonderful partner with us so far.

LC: How are you providing PD in your implementation?

BL: McGraw Hill are providing a lot of the PD and working with the District. I felt, and I think our entire team felt, that we really needed to have someone who had a comprehensive curriculum that could ensure that teachers and administrators were getting real time data and information on whether kids were mastering the material because, again, the way that I see our blended-learning pilot is that it’s a step for us towards a more mastery-based educational model.  Which is, I think, a pretty revolutionary kind of change in the United States and the only way to actually take steps towards that is to work with a provider who can immediately support the teachers and administrators.

LC: Do you have a sense of what your decision was based-on to go with McGraw Hill, did you look at a lot of publishers? To help our readers, please share a sense of how this decision was made.

BL: What was surprising to me was that they were, at the time, very few companies that actually provided resources for the entire gamut of schools we were going to work with.  Some companies only worked with Elementary schools or only worked at the Middle school level or only worked in certain subjects. McGraw Hill was definitely a provider who gave us comprehensive access, K-12, on the areas where we really needed support. 

LC: What conversations have you had to solve the community WiFi – to resolve equity issue?

BL: Unfortunately we did have a series of very serious conversations with the Mayoral administration and then there was an election and that was lost and we re-started those conversations. Most recently, though, hopefully, some promising efforts are in the works to help wire-up neighborhoods. 

What we know we must do is focus on the neighborhoods where our kids are in a blended-learning school to try and accelerate what we are doing - at home.  But that’s been a place where we haven’t been quite as successful as I would want us to be. We are in the middle of solving this equity/connectivity issue.

LC: Anything else you would like to share with our audience members who are headed down this road?

BL: If you are just getting started in a one-to-one program or an initiative that you want to get to one-to-one, my advice to you would be; build a strong team, a strong cross-functional team and have a shared desire and interest to make this happen. The biggest learning curve in this transformational continuum for me, in addition to a better technical understanding and some of the PD needs of our teachers, has been the teams that need to be at the table from the beginning: You’ve got IT, you’ve got Innovation, you’ve got Student Information, you’ve got Professional Development for the District, you’ve got Curriculum Instruction (this isn’t really a department per-se but we have the person who is responsible for managing our Principals.)

LC: What are you excited about?

BL: I personally believe that our current education system works for some, but nowhere near all of our kids.  And I think that if we can continue to make progress and inroads on personalized learning for children, it’s going to get closer and closer to a system that works for every single child which is why I’ve been so consistently talking about a mastery-based educational model. If you can imagine, out of your own experience with people you know, there’s no reason why you need to sit in an Algebra class for the entire year if you can master that curriculum in two months.  But there are some kids who need a year.  So I think that you are much more likely to serve every single child who comes in, if you can really master digital education and all the different facets involved with that.

So that’s what inspires me, because I have a lot of different responsibilities but something I see again and again is that, we do our best, but we’re not always meeting the needs of every single one of our students and this transformation to digital curriculum, equity and connectivity on devices we are working towards addresses that.

Twenty-five years in the trenches of news media and marketing. As Editor at the Learning Counsel, Cebron lives in the “eye of the storm” in this rapidly transforming space, reporting on leading schools, innovative administrators and industry which are shaping the future of teaching and learning.