As the largest school district in Rhode Island, Providence Public Schools makes up 25% of the state’s entire elementary and secondary student population. Nearly 1,900 teaching and learning staff are employed in 42 schools, each equipped with various types of technology tools (42 in all). By the 2013-14 academic year, the large, distributed academic environment had begun to embrace personalized learning (PL) as part of a statewide initiative developed by the governor’s Office of Innovation and the (now former) Commissioner of Education for Rhode Island.

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Yet challenges presented themselves in a number of areas. There were gaps in student performance, a lack of strategic direction, inconsistent technology sourcing and selection, and little emphasis on data interoperability—some of which persist today. The district has aimed to make significant strides in moving toward a streamlined PL experience for its students and faculty.

Cameron Berube, who began serving as Director of Curriculum and Instruction in 2015, was part of the design team to move the district toward PL. She oversees all content areas, curriculum, instructional practices and assessment, working alongside the district’s Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer to engage school leaders and teachers.

Looking Ahead While Instituting Change

As part of this broader team, Berube developed a contextualized strategic direction for the district in creating PL standards that include implementing culturally responsive pedagogy, bolstering teachers’ efforts toward blended practices, accommodating a rising English language learning population, and instituting best practices for all learners. A five-year plan was developed, with input from parents, students and community organizations.

While the plan was constructed with a sense of urgency, it wasn’t intended to be hastily implemented.

“My belief about change is it’s a long, slow process that requires input and buy-in from students and teachers,” Berube said. “That’s what creates long-lasting change. We need to provide methodical, purposeful support for good instruction – and it has to happen side by side with our teachers.”

Building what Berube calls a “behind-the-scenes” structure to support PL has involved investigating devices and systems and finding innovators and early adopters among the faculty. “Putting tools in teachers’ hands to make their jobs easier improves learning.”

In partnership with InnovateEDU and Rhode Island’s Highlander Institute, leaders from Providence Public Schools agreed to participate in an implementation study during the 2016-17 academic year for a PL tool called Cortex. The study would engage technical staff as well as coaches and programmatic personnel. Teachers were trained in anticipation of a September launch.

Laura Jackson, the Institute’s EdTechRI Testbed manager who worked on the project, said: “There’s no other district like Providence within the state; more and more they’re being recognized as a leader in blended and personalized learning, with a demonstrated willingness to pivot toward reimagined physical space, small-group instruction and leveraging digital content.”

A compressed timeline led to technical challenges in terms of data transfer and configuration required for the launch. Miscommunication occurred between the programmatic and technical teams, which were separately in contact with the support team at Cortex. The tool’s two-way API also raised red flags for district leaders in terms of privacy—and it wasn’t compliant with Providence’s existing Student Information System.

Acquiring Tech and Processes That Support All Learners

Could the approach to a rollout have gone more smoothly? Sure. In a fair retrospective, however, one must acknowledge the broader challenges involved. Like many public school districts across the U.S., Providence has budget constraints that impact human resources.

“Our technology office hasn’t added staff; nor have we increased the size of our research planning and accountability team,” Berube said.

Without a dedicated staff member to oversee a complex implementation such as in the Cortex pilot, it’s easy to see how well-intentioned plans could get forestalled. Constant collaboration is difficult to achieve when staff members are already overloaded in their day-to-day roles.

Providence Public Schools also has a higher than average mobility rate for the state, which has a potentially disruptive effect on the classroom environment and demonstrates the need for automated, real-time data transfers so that student rosters and associated accounts are updated regularly. Berube cited it as a reason for adopting recognized standards, such as the Ed-Fi Data Standard, moving forward.

“Data interoperability is an imperative for multiple reasons. Regarding the high mobility rate within Providence Public Schools, it allows for students to have immediate access to the curricular tools and resources in their home school at the moment of entry, which ensures that there is no loss in learning time.”

– Cameron Berube, Director of Curriculum and Instruction

What does the future hold for Providence Public Schools? If existing progress is any indication, there will be even greater autonomy in school management, enhanced data access and interoperability, and significantly improved student learning outcomes.

For more, download the full Providence Public Schools case study.

This case study is from a Getting Smart series on interoperability. It is part of a larger collaboration called Project Unicorn, led by InnovateEDU in partnership with Getting SmartEdSurge, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and CommonSense Media. These stories are made publicly available with support from InnovateEDU.


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