Education Opinion

Paradise Valley Schools Use Fiber and Video to Boost Teacher Collaboration

By Tom Vander Ark — March 14, 2016 4 min read
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Despite really low funding, there are a handful of innovative school districts in Tucson and Phoenix (three of our 30 favorites). Another innovator is Paradise Valley Unified School District covering 100 square miles of Northeast Phoenix.

A third of the 32,000 students choose a school other than their neighborhood school or come from out of district attracted by 45 interesting blended and online schools. More than a third of the students live in or near poverty.

Not relying on state funding, the Paradise Valley community has supported a series of four year technology bonds. With about 30,000 Chromebooks, 10,000 Macs and lots of student devices, there is an average of 2.4 devices per user in PV Schools according to tech director Jeff Billings; closer to three per user in secondary schools. Over 40% of 4th graders have a smartphone.

Like most tech directors, Jeff used to make device decisions. About five years ago, Jeff proposed a site based approach to district leadership. Why? “Richer conversations and powerful collaboration.”

Paradise Valley was the first district to use Google apps for education way back in April 2007. Today, incoming kindergarteners get a gmail address. The district is a big user of Google Docs.

All of this connectivity takes a lot of bandwidth. PV Schools and other connected districts are seeing a “nonlinear growth in consumption,” according to Billings, while he draws a steep exponential curve in the air.

After seven years on a microwave network, PV Schools decided to purchase and install its own fiber network (about 60% was dark fiber). Like microwave, Billings expects a relatively quick return on investment. (Fiber will enable conversion to IPv6.)

“Our sense is that ninety percent of schools will need a fiber connection and about nine thousand don’t have one that need it,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway. Marwell added, “Owned or dark fiber networks are a growing trend and a very good option for many districts as it allows them to grow capacity of their WAN extremely cheaply. Low cost capital upgrades vs. high monthly recurring cost increases. We expect to see hundreds of districts going down this path this year now that the e-rate rules allow for it.” Marwell’s nonprofit is working with policymakers across the country now to help make this happen.

Billings priorities are “bandwidth, digital citizenship and pedagogy.” PV schools use digital citizenship resources from Common Sense Media. On improving pedagogy, next generation video communication has proven useful.

Moving to modular professional learning

Dr. R. Michael Lee, an eight year principal in the district, is the recently appointed Director of Professional Development. He’s back in the district (and talking on the video phone above) after a year with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“We want to move away from solely menu-based offerings to personalized professional learning across a variety of platforms and delivery methods,” said Dr. Lee. He started over by identifying learning objectives and identifying associated content. He shared this framework in Google Docs with a toolkit for principals.

“Driven by data, we want to support just in time PD,” said Dr. Lee. That just in time support includes a live YouTube broadcast and channel.

Given the low level of state funding in Arizona there are only three instructional coaches in the district. To stretch resources, leverage the fiber network and engage teachers, the district created a Center for Teacher Development that provides live classroom observations, one-to-one coaching, video broadcasting and teacher discussion. The center seeks to build collaboration between teachers, coaches and administrators to share knowledge and best practices.

Dr. Lee said, “Professional learning networks have been an important development.” He anticipates that teacher growth will be signaled through micro-credentials.

Superintendent James P. Lee is leading an Equity and Access initiative that includes computational thinking, computer science and coding. Billings noted, “It’s a great equalizer for English language learners.” (Listen to PV teacher voices here).

Video communication

From a Cisco equipped video conference room at the district headquarters, Billings visited three classrooms (see picture below). He could pan around the room and zoom in for a closer look.

Master teachers in these demonstration classrooms know they are being viewed by other Paradise Valley teachers (and parents of students in the demo classrooms all signed a release). Dr. Lee has found that teachers are more likely to watch video feed than to visit another classroom even if the teachers are in the same school. Video avoids disruption and make the observations more authentic.

The district is replacing aging and inexpensive phones with Cisco video phones that run on district fiber. The new phones support multiple video calls simultaneously and encourages cross school/district/world collaboration experiences. They support language translation services on demand and will prove valuable in emergency response.

Cisco manager Jerod Adkins noted that it’s obvious that Billings is “genuinely interested in improving student outcomes and preparing their kids to compete in this new digital, global world.” Adkins said it’s not just passion and collaboration. “One thing that separates Paradise Valley from other districts is that IT Director Jeff Billings reports to Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Support.”

“The other difference,” added Cisco’s Greg Mathison, “is that superintendent Lee gets that technology can make huge differences as an enabler and not the focus of attention. He has been a champion of professional development for educators and continues to invest in PD.”

For more, see:

  • Powerful, Personalized Professional Development
  • Getting Smart Podcast | Rethinking Educator Professional Development with Micro-credentials
  • The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.