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After the incident rocked the Texas city's schools, a new superintendent empowered his tech director to make big changes.
Corinne Lestch is a staff reporter covering education for EdScoop and its affiliate public sector technology news websites, FedScoop and StateScoop...
El Paso Independent School District is moving forward from a sweeping cheating scandal thanks to leaders who believe in the power of technology.
Tim Holt, director of innovative pilots and technology, said the district has come a long way since five EPISD educators were arrested on federal charges in April 2016 under then-Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who pleaded guilty in June 2012 to inflating student scores in order to rig the federal accountability system.
Holt, who has been at the district for 32 years, was jolted by a question from Superintendent Juan Cabrera, who took over in September 2013: "Why do we buy textbooks?"
"My answer was, 'because we've always bought textbooks,'" Holt said, recalling the 2014 meeting. "He said, 'Why don't we make our own textbooks and take the money we would have spent to buy technology for the students?' I said, that's a cool idea."
Now, the Texas district – with 90 campuses, about 60,000 students and roughly 4,000 teachers – is in the midst of a one-to-one device rollout after trying out different laptops and tablets, and also developing a new professional development strategy for teachers.
"What we’re really looking at is the return on investment," Holt said. "Now, instead of just looking at buying a new, expensive device to get them out into students' hands, one of the things we’re looking at is maybe purchasing a more expensive device that has a longer shelf life."
District leaders started out by purchasing HP Stream laptops, but found that they broke easily when used by students and had to be repaired frequently.
Now they are eyeing Macs and Chromebooks for students to use in school and at home, Holt said. The district uses Office 365, and created digital textbooks with the software.
But making that transition after several tumultuous years was not easy, especially for teachers, Holt said.
"Textbooks were no longer in the curriculum, it was just a resource for teachers, and that's a hard push," he said. "We didn't have any problems with students, they figured out what to do with [the devices]. Our issue was teachers asking students to do very low level things with the devices."
In response to that, Holt is working to revamp teacher training so that educators are not just asking students to use the technology to type up papers, but actually creating and encouraging project-based learning. "Not everyone knows how to make videos or audio recordings, so those are the kinds of things we want our students to start shifting towards," he said.
"The professional development needs to be robust," he continued. "We're redoubling our efforts, and i think we have to be able to provide professional development in multiple formats."
Holt said training teachers face-to-face is not enough – the 12 instructional technology trainers who float around the district are also thinking about how to move the training online.
Professional development will remain key, especially since the district has purchased about 40,000 iPads for the elementary schools and will be rolling out laptops to middle and high school students – and is about to launch Schoology as its learning management system.
Holt said Schoology stood out from the 35 other companies that bid for the contract because "their interface was pretty easy to understand, and we already had a base of teachers who were using the free version."
That built-in cadre of trainers swayed Holt and his team. "We thought we could use those teachers as a kind of resource on campus for the rollout when it happens in August."
Administrators including principals and assistant principals will also be trained on the new LMS so that they can instruct teachers and answer any questions.
"We decided that a principal can't have a decent conversation with a teacher about a tool unless they know how the tool works," Holt said. "It's not that we're trying to make life more difficult for administrators, but they are the education leaders on campus so they should know the tools the teachers are using. They're on board with that."
The changes are welcome after such a turbulent period in the district, when "we were a rudderless ship," Holt said. He attributed the positive moves to Cabrera, who has steered the district in a new direction.
"We went all the way from a crazy cheating scandal to transforming how we teach and learn," Holt said. "It’s a complete turnaround."