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Transforming a Texas school district with technology

Irving Independent School District is the first in the nation to feature Verizon Innovative Learning in all its schools.

Author: Marcia R. Pledger

Stephen Austin Middle School student Cecelia Leal fixes a broken tablet. (Photos: Roadell Hickman)

Nothing feels ordinary in Anna Trevino’s eighth grade afternoon math class at Stephen Austin Middle School. There are no rows of seats filled with quiet students, no teacher standing at the front of the classroom lecturing. There is, however, a photo of the assistant principal doing the dab projected on a big screen. It turns out, the dance move—which involves pointing one arm toward the sky and bowing into the opposite elbow—is the perfect kid-friendly opportunity to illustrate the process of calculating angles.

Students chatter constantly as they work on real world math. Some sit alone. Some sit in huddles of two and three, claiming spots all around the classroom. Some hold yardsticks.

And all of them work on tablets. And so does Trevino, who uses the Classroom app to see her students’ work in real time and offer immediate feedback and assistance.

“Teaching used to be about mostly sitting still and listening to the teacher. This might look like chaos, but silence no longer equals learning,” says James Tiggeman, digital learning coordinator for Irving Independent School District—home to Austin Middle School—during a surprise visit to the class. “Sometimes noise means students are learning. I wish my math teacher taught like this.”

James Tiggeman, digital learning coordinator for Irving Independent School District, talks about the improvements he’s seen in the Texas district since 2017.

A new reality

That’s the current situation for 8,000+ students in the Texas district. In 2017, five middle schools in the district joined Verizon Innovative Learning, which provides much needed technology and internet access paired with STEM-focused programs. Two years later, the district’s remaining three middle schools joined, uniquely positioning it to show just how transformative this program is for students and the adults who support them. It’s the only district in the nation with 100 percent of its middle schools participating in Verizon Innovative Learning. 

Since 2017, students at Irving’s middle schools have seen an overall increase in their Texas state exam scores in science, math, reading, writing and social studies across the board. And a student poll shows that the majority of middle school students in the district feel comfortable with using the tablets provided by Verizon Innovative Learning and find them beneficial to their education. 

Meanwhile, enrollment is up by approximately 10 percent at each of the middle schools.

Superintendent Magda Hernandez says the wraparound support provided by Verizon Innovative Learning is key to academic progress in her districts. “It is an honor to have all of our middle schools participating, and it is extremely important because it provides equal access and full student digital inclusion across all middle schools. Modeling and promoting a learning environment where innovative ideas thrive and risks are taken is critical for success,” says Hernandez. “Verizon Innovative Learning has allowed our teachers and students to take full advantage of the ubiquitous, ‘always on’ nature of the internet and played a vital role in the district’s strategy to transform the teaching and learning process. We have a vision of becoming the best school district in the nation, and promoting innovation through this partnership brings us one step closer to realizing that vision.”

Stephen Austin Middle School.

Support matters

Angela Smyers, district digital learning coach at Lorenzo de Zavala and Austin middle schools, taught elementary school for 31 years before she applied to coach via Verizon Innovative Learning. She loves that the students all have internet access and a device they can use at home. But what impresses her most is that Verizon offers extensive professional development for its 12 coaches and the teachers they train.

“They’re not just saying here’s 1,000 iPads, see you later,” she said. “Twenty-two years ago, our district went one-to-one with laptops at all of our high schools—we’re talking about 10,000 laptops. But there was no professional development on how to use them instructionally, and it failed,” Smyers explains. “I knew this program would be successful because there was a two-year plan before we even started. And it had multiple layers involved with coaches, principals and all of the schools working together. I applied for this position because I wanted to be part of something great.”

Verizon Innovative Learning coach Apryl White and district digital learning coach Angela Smyers.

Apryl White, the Verizon Innovative Learning coach at de Zavala Middle School, says Smyers played a key role in bringing her school into the program in 2019. Now, not only does White feel empowered by the mentoring, but she says students are mirroring that behavior and helping each other more. She calls the programming “a game-changer.”

“Our students are in relatively low-income households, so when they go home, a lot of them don’t have access to the internet. So Verizon partnered with Digital Promise to give students data,” White says. “Before they got the devices, their learning was cut off at 3:45 p.m.

 Now they have access to one teacher’s web page, another teacher’s YouTube videos with tutorials and another teacher’s Google Classroom."

But make no mistake, the goal has nothing to do with simply being paperless. Smyers adds: “It’s never been about the technology. Everything is about changing our teaching and improving student learning.”

Carlos Turcios updates a series of laptops.

Future dreaming

With students aged 11 to 14, accidents are bound to happen. So while tablets have eliminated the excuse of a student’s dog eating their homework packet, a chewed-up tablet is a brutal reminder that some excuses are real. Jeremy Green, Austin’s campus technician, fixes many of the devices himself, but he’s also trained a dozen students to help.

In the small, crowded tech room, 12-year-old Cecilia Leal bows her head over a tablet with a shattered screen. Within seconds, she’s used a magnetic screwdriver to detach tiny screws, and a flat metal tool to lift the screen. She smiles when asked how she managed to join the tech team a month after other students were already in place.

Jeremy Green, Austin Middle School’s campus technician, helps Cecelia Leal with a device repair.

Her teammate Selena Morales plans to be a surgeon and says Verizon Innovative Learning has helped her get better grades, because she has more resources. “I also realize now that technology can help me with my future because technology is used in surgeries with surgical robots,” she says.

“This program is a huge confidence booster. Yes, they’re learning tech skills, but they’re learning so much more,” Smyers says as she beams at two 13-year-old boys repairing a cord. “Any company can teach skills, but they want to know if people can work on teams together. Can you get along and co-exist with others? Confidence built here transfers to real life.”