Metro Nashville Public Schools undergoes STEAM transformation


Officials at Metro Nashville Public Schools are betting that their STEAM Transformation Plan, a sweeping overhaul of technology practices and purchases, to equip students with the skills they need for the future.

The district, which serves just under 90,000 students in grades pre-K through 12, is currently working toward a three-year technology plan that will officially launch during the 2018-19 school year.

Doug Renfro, executive director of library services and learning technology, said he and his team — under the direction of Superintendent Shawn Joseph — are trying to figure out the best products for a district where 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, 35 percent are English language learners, and more than 140 languages are spoken.

“The dynamics of when you talk about school need, it varies
heavily from school to school,” Renfro said in an interview. “We were going down a pathway of principals choosing what they wanted to go with regarding hardware and software, but rather than it being the Wild, Wild West, we put some processes in place to vet software.”

Renfro said they started giving school leaders guidance by approving certain software, and then they would have the subject matter expert for different subjects make sure that the tech worked with their curriculum.

That provides an easier transition as the district moves towards its new goals.

Renfro said the district is changing learning management systems, switching from Blackboard to Schoology for students in grades 5-12 to support a blended learning environment.

“That will be a key piece to support the STEAM initiative,” he said. “To have that ready-made collaborative space that students and teachers can use for assignments and lessons.”

Discovery Education also announced it will be a digital content provider for the district’s 33 middle schools to drive the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math) Transformation Plan. Middle school teachers and students will have access to the company’s Science Techbook and Discovery Education Streaming Plus, which has lesson plans, instructional strategies and themed content collections, beginning in the fall.

As part of the partnership, middle school teachers will participate in a three-year STEAM professional development initiative created by Discovery Education staff.

“Building a culture of STEAM teaching and learning within a school district can serve as a catalyst for deeper student engagement and ultimately improved academic achievement,” said Rob Warren, Discovery Education’s vice president of educational partnerships. “We are proud to collaborate with the fantastic Metro Nashville Public Schools’ team on their mission to become the top STEAM school district in the country, and look forward to rolling up our sleeves and beginning this initiative.”

Renfro added that he looked to other districts in Tennessee and Georgia for comparable technology moves, but for a district as large as MNPS, going one-to-one is not a financially viable option. So they went from a three-to-one, with three students sharing one device, to a two-to-one district, where two students are sharing one device.

“The reason we really like two-to-one is it allows for a high level of access for students,” Renfro said. “We’re going to have online testing, so when that comes down the pike, we’ll be able to handle it. Devices don’t go home right now, but we’ll look at that down the road.”

Renfro will also dispatch several learning technology specialists to implement the new changes. The five new hires will co-teach and help incorporate tools like Sway, a digital storytelling app from Microsoft.

Finally, the district has partnered with a charter school network called RePublic Schools to share its computer science curriculum, which will take students in grades 5-8 through programming basics like Scratch, HTML and CSS training. The program will be optional starting this school year, Renfro said.

“From a tech standpoint, what we’re hoping is they realize tech is just another tool,” he said. “So collaboration can be face-to-face sitting at a table, but it could also be one school working with another school across town using technology.”

Renfro said he’s confident the STEAM Transformation Plan will change how students learn.

“We want them to see that tech is not the end of the conversation, it’s the beginning,” he said.

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