Tennessee district boosts engagement with edtech

Knox County School District

Published: October 10th, 2023

Several times a month, Promethean Education Consultant Kate Haddad posts a “Teacher Highlight” to her Twitter feed. These bite-sized stories showcase the innovative ways teachers in Knox County Schools (KCS) are engaging their classes with the ActivPanel. They also provide a way to share teachers’ tips with their peers throughout the district. These highlights are just one of the many parts of Haddad’s robust professional development program—an important component of Knox County Schools’ new strategic technology plan.

Located in eastern Tennessee, KCS is one of the largest districts in the United States, ranking 67th out of more than 13,000 districts across the country. The district manages 91 school sites that serve nearly 60,000 students and more than 8,000 staff. Prior to 2020, each school selected the edtech that fit within its budget, resulting in an inconsistent mix from one site to the next. When KCS leadership decided to upgrade technology across the district, they knew they would need a unified approach for a project this size to be successful.

Inconsistent edtech creates challenges

Before the upgrade, the range of edtech in the district was challenging to support. It was hard for the IT team to maintain the many different devices and effectively train educators to use them. For traveling staff who visit multiple school sites in a day, like Region 3 Numeracy Facilitator Dustin DeArmond, this added the extra complexity of having to learn multiple devices. “Going from room to room, school to school, we saw such a varying degree of what they had,” said DeArmond. Often, the technology simply wasn’t working, and he would have to skip using it altogether.  

Levels of technology also varied between schools. This issue came to the forefront during the pandemic, when KCS couldn’t provide remote classes due to a lack of consistent infrastructure. “When we shut down, we had a large deployment of Chromebooks, but not enough to go one to one,” said Freddie Cox, chief technology officer.

Taking quick action, IT leadership began working on a strategic and unified plan. “The pandemic became a catalyst for us to take a hard look and ask, ‘What is it that students need to be successful? What tools do teachers need to be successful?’” said Theresa Nixon, executive director of academic supports.

By May 2020, they implemented the first stage of the plan, procuring Chromebooks for students and laptops for teachers. But the main audio-visual equipment across classrooms was still a mixed bag. So, the district underwent a thorough needs assessment and determined interactive displays were the ideal solution.

Finding a partner in Promethean

In addition to needing a panel that was intuitive and easy to use, KCS needed a vendor that could oversee the complete project installation—including warehousing, off-loading panels from trucks and into schools, even trash removal—all without interrupting classes. “We thought through each piece of the deployment so that when it came time for a school to get an upgrade, they could just be excited about the benefits,” said Cox.

We were very intentional to make this something that didn’t disrupt time that was precious in the classroom.

Freddie Cox

KCS also knew that for the strategic plan to be successful, teachers would need to be comfortable using the new technology from the start and continue innovating with it in the future. To ensure adoption in a district as big as KCS, they needed dedicated professional development. Ultimately, KCS chose Promethean for its ActivPanel, the ability to facilitate installation through its partner CDW and installer Ebryit, and the ability to provide a dedicated professional development resource.

Rolling out panels and professional development with intention

Panels were installed on a school-by-school basis, and the process surpassed KCS’s expectations. “The installation team from Ebryit was phenomenal,” said Cox. “I visited them on several occasions after hours, unannounced. Everything was clean. It was organized, they were well prepared. It was a very well-oiled machine.”

As panels were installed, teacher training ramped up. Promethean provided KCS with the support of a dedicated Education Consultant, Kate Haddad, who could address the unique needs of the district.

Kate has not only done 101 orientations and follow-ups, but provides this atmosphere where people feel like, ‘Now that I’ve dipped my toe in, I can step in a little further’

Theresa Nixon

Users quickly became comfortable with the panels, and Haddad is continually creating more advanced courses to maximize the effectiveness of the technology.

In trainings, Haddad actively supports different teaching and learning styles by showing teachers the many ways they can incorporate excitement into classes and engage students. Teachers and staff also provide feedback and requests through regular surveys, and Haddad uses survey results to inform training topics. “Something that has come up is the focus on the four C’s—communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking,” said Haddad. “And right now, we’re strategically planning our PD around these identified areas.”

Meeting teachers where they are, Haddad delivers professional development through multiple channels. In addition to in-person sessions, she offers courses synchronously, which allows teachers to be in their classrooms touching their boards at the same time Haddad is giving instruction. She also provides on-demand tutorials, frequently asked questions, panel updates, how-to tips, teacher highlights, and announcements about upcoming courses through a twice-monthly newsletter and a dedicated website she maintains for the district.

Teachers level up engagement with the ActivPanel

As a Region 3 Numeracy Facilitator, Dustin DeArmond supports mathematics programs in 18 schools and frequently travels to multiple sites each day. The ActivPanel is helping simplify his day-to-day work. “No matter what school I’m going to be in, I can connect to the board,” said DeArmond. “I do model lessons in classrooms at times, and I’m able to just jump right in. It’s seamless.”

As a traveling educator, DeArmond has a unique vantage point for observing how the panels are used from one class to another. “A big priority for our district is making sure everyone gets a chance at the same experience,” DeArmond said.

“This has helped level the playing field.” Not only are teachers using the panels to capture students’ attention and boost engagement, but the flexibility to move freely and use the panel from anywhere is increasing one-on-one interaction with students. “They’re giving more teacher-to-student feedback because they’re not tied to the board.”

Rebecca Layton, a 7th grade mathematics teacher, appreciates how easily her students can share their own projects. “Before, I would have them share with me and then I would pull it up,” Layton said.

Now they can just throw their screen up on the panel. Having students showing their work more has been the biggest thing that I’ve been able to do.

Rebecca Layton

The panel has also made learning more interactive. “Multiple students can write on it at once and they really enjoy that. It’s great for them to go up and show how to solve a problem.”

ActivPanel helps with planning and teamwork

Outside the classroom, the ActivPanel is also streamlining planning and supporting collaboration. DeArmond and his fellow facilitators use the display for their weekly department meetings. “We’re always using the panel to do some type of collaboration,” he said. With the ability for anyone to share from their computer to the screen, his team easily creates presentations for district-wide initiatives and new learning materials.

Before, we all had to huddle around the same computer. Now, it’s nice to have that space and technology to be able to really collaborate better.

Dustin DeArmond

Layton appreciates how the panel helps with bi-weekly planning between the other 7th grade math teachers. “It’s very easy for us to switch displaying on the boards,” explained Layton. “If we’re all working on something, we can display it up on the board, which is easier to talk about than looking at our own individual screens.” They also use the panel to access shared materials on their panels, which helps with more than just lesson preparation. “If I’m absent, my co-teacher or a sub can just use the board without any computer, and that’s a big deal,” Layton said.

Seeing a return on investment

While still in the first year of using the ActivPanel, the educators at Knox County Schools have quickly integrated the displays into daily workflows. “We’re starting to see dividends,” said Freddie Cox, chief technology officer. “The comments that our gifted and talented coaches shared about being able to walk in and be prepared in a building that’s not theirs—it’s simple things like that that make their jobs easier and allow them to really focus on the work rather than the technology.”