Austin ISD Bridges Innovation with Everyday Classroom

Walking into Small Middle School feels like walking onto a college campus. 

Take, for instance, the school’s library. Unlike the traditionally quiet atmosphere associated with libraries, teachers and administrators want students talking and engaged while they are reading—so much so that Principal Amy Taylor deliberately redesigned the library so that it feels more like a coffee shop. 

Pods of orange chairs and tables are clustered near the entrance, and tall, café-style tabletops are tucked between books and computers. 

“Before we did this, kids would come in, check out a book and leave. Now, kids are hanging out here. They are talking but they are sharing ideas and they are engaged in learning,” Taylor, who has been principal for five years, said.

Next to the library, is the “I Lab,” short for Innovation Lab.

“In the business world, there’s this trend where budding entrepreneurs don’t have access to all of the resources they need—be it copiers, computers, fax machines or expertise. So companies will rent out spaces to entrepreneurs to help foster and support their ideas,” Taylor said. “That’s how the I Lab works for our students.”

Each day, students who want to learn more about a subject—be it aviation or climate patterns—can visit the I Lab to be connected with real-world experts in the field. Since launching the lab this fall, students have Skyped with everyone from a designer at the Pentagon about radio-controlled airplanes to a professor on how tourism has been affected on the Gulf Coast. 

“I had a parent say he had to get his Ph.D. to get this kind of care,” Victoria Kelly, the school’s gifted and talented coordinator and pre-Advanced Placement teacher, said about the lab.   

Small Middle School is not an anomaly in the Austin Independent School District. It is just one of the district’s 129 campuses that is dedicated to ensuring students are college, career and life ready—regardless of background or zip code.

Small also is a testament to the district’s ongoing effort to provide students with 21st century skills and innovative classes, programs and learning environments, where new technology is merged with traditional classroom instruction and students use hands on, project-based learning to better understand the practical and real-world applications of math, physics and science, among other subjects. 

In AISD, students are learning not only how to master subjects with the aid of technology, they are learning how to be resourceful and innovative problem-solvers who can communicate and advocate for themselves.  

That’s the idea behind AISD’s partnership this month with SXSWedu to host the first ever Future Plans College and Career Fair, a free event for AISD high school students and their families that’s aimed at empowering students with practical information regarding their options beyond high school. As part of the March 5 event at the Austin Convention Center, AISD students designed their own business cards to share with educators and professionals at the fair.  

During SXSWedu, many of the nation’s leading education, business, industry and policy leaders came together to learn about and share ideas on the most promising practices and tools to help improve learning.

In AISD, many of these tools and teaching approaches are already making their way into the classroom.

Making the learning process relevant

A year ago, Akins High School Pre-calculus teacher Kristina Vannoy would sometimes have to spend an entire class period reteaching a math concept her students had learned the previous year before she could move onto a new lesson.  

“Sometimes it would take an entire day to review this stuff, so it’s crazy how much further in the curriculum I’ve gotten this year versus last year,” Vannoy said. 

The difference, led by Akins High School Principal Daniel Girard, has been a transition on the campus to “flipped classrooms.” 

Flipped classrooms are a form of blended learning that inverts the traditional teaching model and delivers short instruction at home through interactive, online videos and moves “homework” to the classroom.

At Akins, teachers assign students an online video tutorial to watch outside of the classroom that will prepare them for the next day’s classwork. By watching the video, which could cover anything from how to do a new math equation to a vocabulary review, students gain the required knowledge to understand and participate in the next day’s classwork. Teachers can spend more time interacting with students, helping them solve problems or covering a new topic.    

The school has kept the video assignments short—10 minutes max—and extended the hours of campus computer labs to ensure that students without Internet access at home can watch the videos. 

Recently, Vannoy was going to teach her students how to do rational functions, but in order to do them, her students first needed to know how to do synthetic division. So she assigned them a video. 

“When they came to class the next day they had their prerequisite skill for learning, so I can go directly into the new knowledge and I can go deeper,” Vannoy said. “And the tech piece of having our students watch a video or search for information on the Internet is more relevant and more current to our students than just giving them a worksheet. I think it makes learning more effective.”

Debra Price, magnet director at Fulmore Middle School, believes the same is happening at her campus.  

Led by Principal Lisa Bush, the school has integrated technology in innovative ways, such as posting QR codes around the campus to lead a math scavenger hunt or to create an expansive timeline for a social studies class.

The campus, like many in AISD, uses Edmodo, an online social learning platform. The site has a similar look and interface as Facebook, and allows teachers, students and parents to interact in and outside of the classroom by posting and answering questions on assigments, submitting homework and getting real-time feedback on projects.

“It’s really engaging for our kids when we use the technology they know. I think it enhances the learning,” Price said. 

Student-driven, student-paced

For students like Garza High School senior Henning Wallace, innovative tools at her campus have given her more freedom with learning. 

Last year, the campus launched free, online courses that initially were open only to Garza students but now are available to all AISD high school students who have 10 class credits. The course curriculum is rigorous, designed by Garza teachers and adjusted accordingly based on student feedback. Students 

“We really feel we are meeting students where they are. They’re comfortable online and these online courses allow them to work around their lives. Kids can catch up, but they can also get ahead when they have the option of logging into these courses when it’s convenient for them,” said Dr. Linda Webb, principal at Garza High School.  

Since launching district-wide only a few months ago, almost 170 students have earned 40 credits through the online courses, which include government, algebra, and digital and interactive media, among others, Webb said.   

Wallace and her classmates Gabriella Moore and Giselle Llamas appreciate that the online courses allow them to get ahead or catch up on classes. Between holding jobs, dealing with an illness and family issues that have pulled at their time, the girls are able to stop and resume the courses when it’s most convenient for them. 

And the beauty of the courses is that the students still have support of teachers who are monitoring and checking their progress. 

“I can see when they login and when they’re getting stuck on problems. If I see one of my students hasn’t logged into one of the courses in a few days, I can send them a message or catch them in the hall,” said Diane Sidoroff, online curriculum specialist at Garza High School. “Because the courses are self-paced, it’s ok for a student to put it on hold. In a traditional high school, you don’t have that flexibility of time.” 

Creating a holistic student

Back at Small Middle School, Principal Amy Taylor walks from classroom to classroom, checking in on her teachers and students. 

“Can you tell us what you worked on today?,” Taylor asks a student in Teacher Bill Kernan’s eighth grade Algebra class.

The student explains that day’s assignment: identify and photograph a right angle in the classroom and use the angle to create a multiple-choice problem that covers the pythagorean theorem. Then, using a school-issued iPad or laptop, create a presentation detailing your problem-solving process, including photos and audio recordings or drawings with step-by-step explanations.

The assignment comes with a rubric, which outlines grade expectations ranging from unsatisfactory to exemplary, as well as the project requirements needed to earn each grade. Eighty-five percent of the grade is based on content, 10 percent on professionalism and 5 percent on digital literacy. 

Whether they realize it or not, Taylor’s students are a part of a unique learning opportunity that could transform public education.

Led by Taylor, the school integrated project-based learning and blended learning into classrooms this fall and put laptops and iPads in almost all eighth grade classes. 

The online curriculum is differentiated and self-paced, meaning students tackle content that’s specific to their learning level and teachers can monitor their progress in real-time and intervene with students who are hung up on a problem.   

Students who finish an online assignment early have enrichment activities, and students who get stumped on an assignment receive one-on-one help from teachers. 

“The online curriculum is so advanced that it’s smart. For instance, in an English class, every student will get the same reading passage about Superman. But college-level readers will get a passage with much more advanced vocabulary, and students who are less advanced with reading will receive a passage with vocabulary that’s appropriate for their skill level,” Taylor said. “And kids get instant feedback from teachers because teachers can easily analyze what students are learning at any different time.”

Through project-based learning, students also learn about working with a group and communicating effectively over a real-life, hands-on assignment that could be anything from creating a company or developing a cost-effective recommendation for saving energy on campus.  

Students also present their ideas to their peers, an experience that Taylor and her teachers believe will better prepare them for the 21st century workforce.  

“Today’s workforce demands graduates who have 21st century skills, a good work ethic, and who know how to collaborate verbally and in writing with a team,” Taylor said. 

Taylor views her job as principal as part CEO. It’s her job to attract and retain top students, something she’s started doing by creating promotional brochures that showcase the innovative opportunities available to students when they attend Small. 

The task has been made more challenging, given the quickly changing student population at the campus. 

When Taylor joined Small five years ago, 18 percent of students at the campus came from economically disadvantaged homes. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, the number had jumped to 38 percent. 

“I told my staff to never lower the expectations,” she said. “In some ways, we’re leveling the playing field among our students by making this technology available to students who might not have it at home.”

Students at the campus welcome the technology and innovative programs offered to them. 

Each story they share is centered on how classwork is more interesting and relatable to the real-world. It’s also more accessible. Because so much of their work is online, it’s always available to them and they can post questions and have conversations with classmates about their assignments online afterschool.  

One student who was out sick even used Skype to present his portion of a group project to his class.

“I feel like I’m building skills for life here,” said Reed Hanson and eighth grader at Small.