Located just south of downtown Seattle, the Kent School District (KSD) is certainly unique. It’s the fourth-largest school system in the state of Washington; it’s one of the most diverse districts, with 137 languages spoken; it’s home to a large refugee community given the close proximity to the airport and cheap housing available throughout the area; and it’s a district where a majority of the 27,000 students are on a free or reduced price meal plan.
The district also happens to be one of the most innovative public school systems in the country when it comes to using technology both in and out of the classroom.
From its one-to-one program that provides students with their own laptops to recently installed Wi-Fi kiosks, the district is recognized by educational organizations worldwide for giving students access to technology tools that ultimately help better prepare them for the real world.
“When we think about technology and innovation, and what it can do to help society, education is on the top of that list,” said Thuan Nguyen, the district’s chief digital strategy officer. “For us, the way we try to leverage technology in the Kent School District is to enhance the instructional process for kids.”
Nguyen, who last month was named Outstanding Technology Leader of the Year by the Northwest Council for Computer Education, is a native of Kent, Wash., and first started at KSD as a network engineer in 2001.
Over the past decade, he’s moved up the ranks and helped implement a series of tech-related initiatives for the district, perhaps most notably the one-to-one program that provides a laptop to more than 13,000 students for the entire school year, covering each secondary student in the district.
Nguyen spearheaded the one-to-one idea in the mid-2000s after making it a priority to give each student access to technology. It became clear that to prepare for life after high school, students needed some level of competence with computers.
“The idea that our kids, when they graduated from high school, automatically knew how to be safe on the Internet and how to use software — that was a giant leap,” Nguyen said.
The district did extensive research and looked at how other schools around the nation both succeeded and failed with one-to-one programs. Ultimately it launched a pilot program in 2005 with 90 kids at a middle school that had the highest number of students on a free-and-reduced meal plan.
The first few months were a big learning experience, as administrators figured out how best to provide laptops to students. Expectedly, some teachers were hesitant to embrace new technology and complained that the laptops would be distracting to the learning experience. In fact, one teacher even threatened to retire because of the change.
Ultimately, however, the district decided to expand the program — and it wasn’t a difficult decision.
“From a student achievement standpoint, the worst-performing students in the district became the highest performing with the laptops in every category measured by the state of Washington except one,” Nguyen noted. “At that point, our board decided that this was something worthwhile to invest in.”
Today, the district’s one-to-one program — funded by technology levy dollars — is recognized as one of the top one-to-one initiatives in the nation by Project RED, a non-profit that studies the effectiveness of education technology implementation. The laptops provide a way for students to do homework, check email, log into learning management systems, and access more than 300 applications.
“Our kids use them for something as simple as learning how to type, all the way to developing video games and making movies,” Nguyen said.
Oh, and the teacher who was going to retire because of new laptops?
“She became one of the greatest supporters of our one-to-one initiative,” Nguyen said, proudly. “She didn’t retire.”
Improving student performance
Becky Keene, a 14-year veteran of the KSD, knows first-hand what impact the laptops have had — both as a teacher during the initial pilot phase and now as a One-to-One Program Specialist. Like Nguyen, she also noted how students who are underperforming prior to receiving a laptop in a technology-rich classroom are the ones who grow the most.
“These students are involved in projects that are authentic and that they really care about,” Keene said. “There are fewer behavioral problems, and increases in homework completion and school attendance. It’s sort of amazing to see the side effects when technology is involved.”
Keene added that having access to technology does not mean that students are simply shifting what they’ve done for the past several decades over to an electronic device. She said the instructional process has actually changed because of the laptops and noted how they open new doors for students.
In fact, a seventh-grader once told Keene that “having a laptop is like having a library at my house.”
“Many of our students here have not had rich life experiences and have not left Kent,” Keene explained. “Now they can see a rainforest or travel to the base of Mount Everest on a virtual field trip. They can go see the Smithsonian Museum, or go to the Seattle Aquarium — things that they aren’t experiencing on a day-to-day basis. We give them the opportunity to build a lot of rich background knowledge that enables them to be successful in school. These kids wouldn’t have this experience otherwise.”
Outside the Classroom
The laptop program is just one example of the district’s mission to provide students with access to technology. There has also been a big effort to use technology as a way to continue the learning process outside of the classroom, primarily with providing students an Internet connection when the school day ends.
The district has asked local businesses to provide free WiFi access to students and tried working with providers like Comcast and CenturyLink to help get broadband in the homes of students, many of whom do not have access to speedy Internet outside of school. It also recently installed WiFi-connected kiosks in six schools and three community centers across Kent. The kiosks give students a way to get online after class and offer parents the ability to access the district’s student information system and lets them communicate with teachers.
“We know that what really ensures student success is family engagement,” Nguyen said. “If they are engaged with student learning, that is really what will make the biggest impact on the instruction process.”
However, there are still many students without Internet access at home, and a laptop without Internet in today’s world is not exactly useful. That’s why teachers are instructed to ensure that homework is not Internet-dependent. The district also encourages the use of Microsoft OneNote, which lets students study offline and sync their work to the cloud when they arrive back at school.
‘That great equalizer for students’
There is certainly more work to be done as far as expanding the district’s tech initiatives. Elementary schools are next up for the one-to-one program, and the district is trying to leverage software that can adapt to individual learners. It also remains focused on keeping tech-related costs down and creating a sustainable, efficient environment from a spending perspective — “we get a lot for our buck,” Nguyen noted.
But by now, it’s clear that exposing students to technology tools has greatly enhanced their learning experience.
“I’ve seen the changes that enriched technology access programs make in our students,” Keene said. “I’ve been a teacher in the classroom that has seen a student literally go from being suspended every other week, to being a student who succeeds and has career goals open up for him because of the technology.”
For Nguyen, it’s been quite the ride since he first arrived in Kent as a 9-year-old immigrant from Vietnam, spending his childhood in low-income housing without much access to technology.
Nguyen’s experience growing up is what drives him in his current role at the district — he understands what the families are faced with and how technology is essential for student success.
“It’s a way for us to innovate out of the challenges that we are constantly criticized about as a public education system,” Nguyen said. “Technology can serve as that great equalizer for the students, no matter what they come to us with, or what those challenges and gaps may look like. It just gives us the opportunity to teach kids things we may not even know ourselves, and you can’t do that without technology.”