One Year In, East Orange Shines as 'Future Ready' Exemplar of Digital Learning
Paulette Salomon distinctly recalls April of 2016 as a critical point in her school district’s journey to provide the right digital learning resources and opportunities to the students of East Orange, New Jersey — a district where she has been an educator for 22 years, and has served as the educational technology supervisor to approximately 600 teachers and 10,000 students since 2010.
“Our acting superintendent at the time, Gloria Watson, had just learned about the Future Ready program at a summit for local mayors prior to the program being launched,” said Salomon. “She had immediately summoned me, the assistant superintendents, and network manager to her office to discuss participating in the program. “I’ll never forget that day when she said, ‘make it happen’.”
In the year following that summit, Salomon’s district began organizing educators, board members and parents to form a district-level “Future Ready” leadership team. The team’s sole task: to align their schools’ digital learning goals with those set by Future Ready Schools New Jersey (FRS-NJ) — New Jersey’s certification program based on the nationwide Future Ready Schools movement to provide schools and students with the needed educational guidance and resources for success in the digital age.
By May 2017, the FRS-NJ program was officially ready to launch at its first-ever FRS-NJ Certification Summit at NJIT, announcing full details of the program’s certification process and outlining its roadmap for schools seeking to bootstrap themselves toward digital readiness. Salomon’s team jumped at the chance to attend.
“I was excited when Future Ready came along. The first summit brought our whole team to the table,” said Salomon. “It gave us a plan and gave us steps to let us know we could do this. When we walked away, we felt very confident we could do it.”
A Future Ready Leap
Since the 2017 FRS-NJ summit, Salomon’s team led by current superintendent, Dr. Kevin R. West, has seen their district make significant leaps toward better digital education opportunities for their students, with all 21 schools now actively participating in FRS-NJ initiatives. Two schools — STEM Academy and Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts — have become fully certified for implementing exemplary digital learning policies and practices.
With budget and resources guidance from FRS-NJ, the district has closed the gap in student-computer access, moving from a 3:1 district to a 2:1 district. Once a predominantly Mac district, East Orange schools now boast over 2,500 Chromebooks in their classrooms. If plans go accordingly, the majority of the district’s classrooms could become 1:1 in as few as three years.
“Once we decided to pursue Future Ready, my classroom was fortunate enough to receive a new lab and brand new computers with Adobe Suite installed on them,” said Bonnie Taylor, a technology educator at STEM Academy, who is currently teaching web design courses to 9th-12th-grade students. “I think it has been easier to prepare my students with skills they need now.”
“You see students in amazing programs and engaged in 3D printing, programing, media design and filmmaking here,” she added. “They are getting a lot of exposure to things that will be to their benefit once they graduate.”
East Orange elementary schools are embracing the initiative too. In an effort to provide on-demand, personalized professional development opportunities for staff, Salomon’s team created “4 Us By Us”, a website designed for housing teaching resources created by East Orange educators for East Orange educators. The district has also rolled out Google Classroom, enabling teachers and students to share lessons and assignments, upload work into digital portfolios and collaborate in discussions with classmates.
Even the district’s youngest learners are benefiting from expanding educational opportunities. All of the district’s K-5 students are now being trained with computational skills needed to code.
“A pre-Future Ready classroom at our elementary level included six computers in a computer station,” said Salomon. “Students would rotate and work on computers in isolation. Now you see students collaborating, communicating and creating with one another. In fact, the whole district is collaborating more instead of working in silos.”
Certified schools like STEM Academy and Tyson have taken FRS-NJ’s digital education initiatives even further. Tyson teachers are embracing innovative teaching models like blended learning and “flipped classrooms” with their advanced placement students, allowing students access to videos and tutorials where they can submit and share work anytime, anywhere.
STEM Academy students have entered Google-sponsored digital design competitions and have started up their own urban sustainability initiatives, which feature school gardens and hydroponics towers that students maintain to grow produce throughout the year.
“Students will even volunteer in the summer to maintain the garden, grow vegetables and donate the produce,” said Taylor. “We think becoming a sustainable school really plays into Future Ready because there is a great opportunity out there for green engineering and technology, which is not always tapped into as much in urban areas. We are hoping some these initiatives provide students with new ways of thinking in terms of carbon footprint and conserving resources."
Rising With the Tide of NJ's Future Ready Schools
Since FRS-NJ’s first Certification Summit in May 2017, many more districts like East Orange have begun participating in the program’s effort aimed at transitioning New Jersey schools into tech-ready learning environments, capable of preparing students for college and career in the digital age.
In February 2018, FRS-NJ expanded to three Regional Certification Summit events throughout the state, celebrating an inaugural year in which 72 New Jersey school districts have pledged to support their schools’ Future Ready certification efforts.
From those districts, more than 100 schools have announced their participation in the program with the goal of implementing technology resources and updating educational practices that are in tune with today’s technologically-driven workspaces and higher education environments.
"Committing to a brand new and unproven program shows that those inaugural cohort districts like East Orange were truly dedicated to the ‘why’ of Future Ready Schools - New Jersey and the Future Ready mindset,” said Jeremy Reich, FRS-NJ’s project coordinator at NJIT. “The FRS-NJ process provides schools and districts with the opportunity to continuously and inclusively ask themselves where they are now, where they want to be, and how they are going to get there, and Paulette and her team have clearly taken that process to heart over the last few years that I've known them."
According to Reich, the program has learned from its first-year run and has identified ways to improve on the success of its inaugural campaign, announcing updates to the pathway for schools seeking certified status at this year’s three FRS-NJ 2018 Regional Certification Summits.
Along with updates to the program’s certification process, this year’s summits also saw the return of certified school districts like East Orange, seeking to get more of their schools certified in the second year of FRS-NJ. “My goal this year is to move STEM and Tyson to bronze or gold status and get more schools certified, Salomon said. “We’re not going to stop until all of our schools are certified.”
Salomon’s team also hopes to continue to connect to and learn from other educators in the program, as well as offer guidance and inspiration to new schools and districts just now thinking of embarking on the journey to ‘Digital Readiness'.
Salomon’s message to those schools: Just get started.
“My advice to new districts who may be overwhelmed or on the fence about applying for certification is to just start the process,” said Salomon. “Attending the summits has been a great opportunity for me to network and share our story. With the support of the district and Future Ready team, all of our students will be Future Ready.”