IT Infrastructure & Management

Freedom to Experiment Presents Challenges for School Innovation Networks

By Benjamin Herold — July 29, 2015 9 min read
Fourth graders used new low-cost laptop computers in 2012 at Ashley Park Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., as part of a public-private partnership to encourage educational technology innovation. But the computing initiative ran into challenges because of a lack of technological support and it is no longer using those laptops.
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Frustrated by the lack of innovation in K-12 education, a growing number of district leaders are giving small networks of schools the freedom and resources to try new approaches with classroom technology.

But the approach can be rife with technical and logistical challenges, as can be seen in the experience of North Carolina’s 145,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

There, after two years and nearly $3 million, a network of nine semi-autonomous schools known as Project LIFT has mostly ditched its own student-laptop initiative. Ironically, Project LIFT is now embracing closer coordination with the system-wide strategy of the very district to which it was supposed to be an alternative.

“There have been lessons learned,” said Denise Watts, the learning communities superintendent who oversees the network. “We do not function on an island.”

Even autonomous schools must often still rely on their host district’s central office for broadband and wireless infrastructure, technical assistance, and administrative support. Just introducing devices and software into classrooms in no way guarantees that instruction will change—or that schools’ manifold reporting and compliance obligations will be done more efficiently. And while big private donations may generate headlines, they don’t always result in what schools actually need.

Despite those common challenges, experts in the field say it would be wrong to view such experiments as failures.

“There’s a downside in thwarting people’s initiative, regardless of how things turn out,” said Steven Hodas, a practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy-advocacy center at the University of Washington. “When a district makes a [system-wide] mistake, it impinges on a lot more people than when nine schools try something that doesn’t work,” he said.

Weighing Risks and Rewards

Project LIFT began in 2012 when a group of Charlotte-area business leaders and philanthropies ponied up $55 million to support a public-private partnership. The goal was to transform troubled West Charlotte High and its feeder system of eight middle and elementary schools, serving a total of 7,400 students.

The donors, whose representatives sit on a private board to which Project LIFT schools must report (in addition to reporting to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district leadership), were eager to see the schools take risks.

To support the initiative’s focus on technology (one of four “pillars” in Project LIFT), the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave the network $2.9 million over five years to pay for student laptops and associated supports.

Along with the money came a suggestion.

Testing Innovation

In addition to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, other districts and at least one state are putting in place networks of autonomous schools that are given extra freedom and resources to experiment with classroom technologies. They include:


Five new “Innovation Network Schools” will open here this fall, operating under contracts with the 30,000-student Indianapolis public schools. The group includes a school coming out of state takeover, a school that will replace a troubled Indianapolis public school, and three schools run by charter operators. Over the next few years, at least another nine such “innovation schools,” created with the assistance of the Mind Trust, a nonprofit in the city, are expected to open.


The state department of education has selected seven Kentucky school districts to receive innovation status during the past two school years. Most chose to focus on competency-based learning, expanded learning time, and new uses of classroom technology. The department is just preparing to release its first round of evaluation reports on the initial cohort of innovation districts.

New York City

The most prominent of the country’s dozen or so “innovation zones,” the New York City iZone at its peak included 300 schools and won national praise for its use of crowdsourcing and open-data strategies to address issues ranging from school choice to middle-school math instruction. Started in 2010 under the administration of former Chancellor Joel Klein, the iZone has been de-emphasized under new leadership in recent years.


As part of a larger reorganization of the cash-strapped 128,000-student district, Superintendent William Hite is creating an “innovative schools network,” which will consist of seven schools, including a district-run cyber school. Heading the network will be Christopher Lehmann, a nationally acclaimed principal whose efforts to scale up the project-based, technology driven model of a school he founded was featured recently in a year-long Education Week series.

Based largely on a pilot project Knight had supported at a single elementary school in Miami, foundation officials strongly encouraged Project LIFT staff to consider adopting the little-known XO laptop for their schools. That device, made by Miami-based nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, was designed to be rugged and low-cost and to be used primarily in developing countries.

Neither Ms. Watts, who helmed Project LIFT, nor Richard “Stick” Williams, the co-chair of Project LIFT’s board, were previously familiar with the device.

“It was not the kind of laptop that most of us would have considered purchasing for our [own] kids,” said Mr. Williams, also the president of the Duke Energy Foundation, in an interview with Education Week. “But we came to learn that they had been used in low-income countries, and we could trust that they were almost indestructible.”

Almost immediately, Project LIFT dove right in, purchasing and deploying 2,437 XO laptops to students in grades 1-4 in seven schools during the 2012-13 school year. Nine hundred additional machines were added the following year.

That full-speed-ahead approach was embraced even though neither the district nor Project LIFT had tested the West Charlotte schools’ broadband and wireless infrastructure to see if there was enough Internet connectivity to support 1-to-1 student computing. Planning for how the devices would be used to support instruction was also scattered.

“I don’t think we were waiting for much of anything when we launched,” said Susan Patterson, the Charlotte-based program director for Knight, who oversaw the foundation’s involvement in Project LIFT. “My personal preference was to get in there and get going as quickly as possible.”

Evaluation Outlines Problems

Speaking at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, held in Philadelphia in July, Torie Leslie, a technology facilitator at one of the Project LIFT elementary schools, discussed some of the initiative’s strengths and weaknesses.

Younger students embraced the devices, Ms. Leslie said, and her school was one of the few that managed to send the laptops home with students successfully. But reluctant principals, wide variations in teachers’ attitudes and approaches, and inconsistent support were among the many challenges.

“It’s one thing to say” you’re going to go 1-to-1, Ms. Leslie said at ISTE. “It’s another thing to do it.”

Some of the negative outcomes that resulted from all those challenges were highlighted in an evaluation report released in January of this year by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based research nonprofit serving as the independent evaluator of Project LIFT. Among the group’s findings, also presented at ISTE:

• Hardware problems and poor and inconsistent Internet connectivity were major sources of frustration for both students and teachers.

• On average, students and teachers used the laptops for one lesson per day, often for “superficial” academic purposes, with Internet browsing the primary form of use.

• Overall, students rarely used the XO devices at home, despite expanded out-of-school computer access being a major focus of the initiative.

In interviews, those directly involved with Project LIFT repeatedly cited the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s weak broadband and WiFi infrastructure in 2012-13 as a particularly significant barrier. The network’s extensive use of portable trailers to house classrooms for overcrowded schools proved an especially vexing problem—the structures almost uniformly lacked reliable Internet connectivity.

“You can’t stand up a 1-to-1 initiative if the infrastructure is not in place,” said Ms. Watts, the head of Project LIFT. “That was not an issue I was willing to take on. To me, that’s a district-level problem.”

Other challenges experienced by Project LIFT pointed to disconnects between the autonomous network and the district and state bureaucracies in which it was situated.

Not long after the XO laptops were deployed, for example, it became clear the devices would not support the online assessments and digital student information system that North Carolina was to begin requiring. The independent evaluators from Research for Action also noted that the XO Champions initiative suffered from not having “a clear set of expectations around the way the laptops should be used in the classroom.”

Switching to Chromebooks

The independent evaluators did find some successes. Some evidence suggested student engagement and behavior improved when the devices were used frequently. Teachers reported growing more confident with technology, and their most extensive classroom use came during English/language arts lessons, an area of academic focus in Project LIFT schools.

And some of the lessons learned from Project LIFT—for example, the schools’ use of digital formative assessments—have proven to be a model for other Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

But still, the Research for Action report noted, “beginning in the 2014-15 school year, Project LIFT began to move away from XO Champions as its primary technology solution.” Ms. Leslie’s school, for example, is now giving away the XO devices to students.

Her school and others in the network are instead joining the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s larger push for Chromebooks.

This past school year, after a two-year effort to upgrade the broadband and wireless infrastructure connecting its 168 schools, the district distributed 32,500 Chromebooks to middle schools and to students in grades 6-8. Another 20,000 of the low-cost devices will be distributed to grades 5 and 9 next month.

Ms. Watts and other officials in Charlotte rejected the notion that such an evolution represented a “failure” of Project LIFT’s experiment with autonomy around classroom technology use.

“Some areas [of the initiative] we’re stepping back on, and some areas we’re expanding,” said Mr. Williams. “It’s important to be willing to jettison those things that are not working so well and put more money into things that are.”

Mr. Hodas, of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, who formerly headed the 300-school iZone network of semi-autonomous schools in New York City, agreed.

The important lesson, he said, is that autonomous networks such as Project LIFT be given enough freedom to make mistakes, but enough accountability to ensure they don’t make mistakes that are irrevocable.

In Charlotte, “they ran into roadblocks, and that’s too bad,” Mr. Hodas said. “But the upshot is that the district has come up with a better solution, and now [Project LIFT] schools can opt into that.”

Building Personalized Supports

Ultimately, it might be the new collaborative relationship between Project LIFT and its parent district that offers the most reason for hope in Charlotte, and the most valuable lesson for district leaders in other cities pursuing a similar path.

For example, West Charlotte High, the anchor institution of the Project LIFT network, was the first high school in the city to get new Chromebooks for its 9th graders, so educators had extra time to learn how to use the devices for lessons.

Special accommodations are also now given to Project LIFT schools during professional development, and the district’s IT department has made sure staff members are available to support Project LIFT schools, which have adopted a longer school year, during the summer.

“We try to get to the ‘hard yes’ and not settle for the ‘easy no,’” said Valerie P. Truesdale, who became the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s chief of technology, personalization, and engagement in 2012. “Tech departments struggle with how to support all schools when they’re so different, but we want schools to perceive us as serving their needs.”

That’s exactly the kind of approach that is ultimately needed to help autonomous school networks function at a high level, said Arielle Rittvo Kinder, a partner on the innovative schools team at the NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that raises capital to invest in education entrepreneurs.

Every department within a district, including technology, needs to have staff members who are dedicated to understanding and addressing the unique needs and wants that autonomous schools may have, while also filling in gaps in expertise and knowledge, Ms. Kinder said.

“When schools are given the freedom to innovate, they get really excited,” she said. “But understanding the possible unintended consequences is really important.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Innovation Networks Need Both Autonomy, Support


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