25 Districts Worth Visiting

Leading a public school district is difficult and complicated work but done well, there is no other job where you can change how a community thinks about itself, its children, and its future. Following are 25 districts that are changing the trajectory by working on blended, personalized and competency-based learning. Most are making career preparation–including communications, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration–a priority. They are big and small, urban and rural, east and west–representative of the the American education challenge.


1. Mooresville, north of Charlotte, North Carolina, is a well known 1:1 district with an interesting configuration: three K-3 schools, two 4-6 schools, and a 7-8 middle and a high school. Superintendent Mark Edward says, “It’s not about the machine, it’s about heart,” but his students sure make great use of their MacBooks. The innovation in Mooresville is the system-wide expectations, culture, curriculum, tools, and support. The district adopted gateway multimedia projects in 3rd, 6th, 8th and 12th grade. It’s worth attending their summer conference. See Mark Edward’s book, Every Child, Every Day. Other metro Charlotte districts of note include:

  • Rock HIll Schools, just across the state line in South Carolina, they are serious about engaging, “All students in meaningful and profound learning.” The district’s tech-enhanced instructional initiative is called iRock Anytime Anywhere. (See feature)

2. Reynoldsburg Schools, east of Columbus, Ohio, has 4 innovative high school academies including eSTEM (featured here) which has a K-8 STEM feeder pattern. Hannah Ashton Middle School in Reynoldsburg (profiled here) is a blended model powerd by Education Elements and Edmodo. Despite a recent strike, Reynoldsburg is still worth a visit. (For more metro highlights, see Smart Cities: Columbus.)
3. Kettle Moraine School District, west of Milwaukee is a small district working on blended, personalized and competency-based learning. The district has authorized four charter schools including three themed flex high schools (see feature). (For more metro highlights, see Smart Cities: Milwaukee.)
4. Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire is a leader in competency-based learning. The high school features flexible learning time to personalize instruction and provide students with support for intervention, extension, and enrichment (see feature).
5. Mentor Schools, east of Cleveland, is becoming a regional blended learning development site with Education Elements (@EdElements). Mentor anchors the Ohio Blended Learning Network which won a state Straight A grant and is supported by The Learning Accelerator.
6. Middletown City School District (NW of NYC) is a RTTD grant winner where teachers and students focus on goal setting. See an OpEd from superintendent Dr. Kenneth W. Eastwood where he details partnerships with Education Elements, iReady, Dreambox, Achieve3000, Lexia and MyOn.
7. Milpitas School District, north of San Jose, is making progress on blended learning using a lab rotational model and playing with ideas of mixed age grouping and other new models.
8. Utica Community Schools, in Michigan, serves about 30,000 students, has award winning high schools, an AdvancePath flex academy, a decent tech plan, a data partnership with BrightBytes, and is a member of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools.
9. Lebanon School District is a high challenge suburb of Harrisburg. NGLC winning Lebanon High School, a member of the Pennsylvania Hybrid Learning Initiative, implementing a station-rotation model school-wide (see profile).
10. District 49, Colorado Springs, has an interesting portfolio of schools in 4 feeder patterns. The iConnect Zone includes Falcon Virtual Academy — an online school with a lot of drop in and scheduled supports and activities with a cool 21,000 square foot facility that looks like a “Google meets Starbucks” environment. It is profiled here, featured here, and captured in video here. POWER Zone staff are dedicated to facilitating a mission focused on Purposeful risk, Ownership of learning, Whole child-student concept, Engaging inquiry and Respectful relationships (POWER). The Sand Creek zone is an IB feeder pattern.
11. Cajon Valley is one of several San Diego County districts with unified executive leadership around next gen learning. They boosted math proficiency with district wide use of ST Math. (See Smart Cities: San Diego.)
12. Fulton County Schools, north of Atlanta, gets high marks for identifying and supporting teacher tech leaders–the Vanguard Team. The charter district has pushed down budget and planning responsibility to the school level rather than attempting a district wide move. (See recent innovation update, a feature on teaching hiring.)
13. West Warwick Public Schools has a competency based model designed around an innovative usage of their SIS system with strong Chromebook implementation starting in kindergarten. (See Smart Cities: Providence)
14. Dysart School District in rapidly growing northwest Phoenix is a technology leader and (like many AZ districts listed below) takes career preparation seriously. They have a good model for scaling professional learning around performance assessment.
High performing suburban districts with a strong commitment to college and career readiness include:


15. Howard Winneshiek School District is one of many Iowa districts promoting analysis, evaluation, and creation with a great 1:1 plan. They are working hard on creating relevant career pathways and making global connections.
16. Danville Schools (south of Lexington) demonstrates that Good Schools Start With Good Goals. Carmen Coleman (now at working with Gene Wilhoit, National Center for Innovation in Education) led community conversations that resulted in a Deeper Learning agenda. NGLC winning Bate Middle School was profiled in Deeper Learning for Every Student Every Day. (Read Carmen’s detailed feedback to the Bate staff.)
17. Toppenish Schools, in eastern Washington, is a Project Lead the Way STEM-focused rural district (e.g., all freshmen students are required to take introduction to biomedical classes in engineering). AVID and advisories help the district far out perform neighboring districts in grad rate and college going.
18. Lindsay Unified School District in California’s central valley, is a leader in competency-based (they call it performance-based) education — ”Students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.” Watch Transforming Education.
19. Piedmont City Schools, between Birmingham and Atlanta, is 1:1 K-12 (watch video) and a member of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. NGLC winning Piedmont Middle School was featured in 100 Schools Worth Visiting.
Also recommended by colleagues for their commitment to professional learning:

  • Teton County Schools, Wyoming, narrowed the achievement gap for Hispanic students with a deep investment in embedded professional development.
  • Woodburn School District, between Portland and Salem, serves a high ELL population in five small high schools with strong graduation rates.
  • Pike County Schools, GA is promoting Authentic Intellectual Work.


20. Houston ISD was recognized as the best urban district in the US last year by the Broad Foundation as a result of a full court press on talent development. Smart EdTech procurement kicked off the Power Up initiative. For more metro highlights, see Smart Cities: Houston.
21. Miami Dade Schools won the 2012 Broad Prize. Reviewers noted the use of data to drive minority achievement gains and a unique problem-solving strategy to help challenged schools improve their student performance. iPrep Math is a blended learning middle school math program. There are 8 iPrep Academy flex model high schools and 340 choice programs in over 100 schools. For metro highlights, see Smart Cities: Miami.
22. Denver Public Schools may have the most aggressive improvement and innovation of any city with an elected board. Elected with the support of strong advocacy organizations, the board has created partnerships with quality school networks including DSST, Strive Preparatory Schools, and Generation Schools Network.
23. Horry County Schools, on the South Carolina coast, serves 42,000 students with a solid strategic plan with a vision for Personalized Digital Learning. Some innovative secondary schools feature blended, STEM, and early college strategies. (See Lessons from Horry County.)
24. Clark County School District (Las Vegas) serves over 300,000 students. With per pupil expenditures of $8K, Clark spends a lot less than the five larger districts in the country. Despite the challenges, they’ve made a big commitment to blended learning and have a well developed network of magnet schools. (For more, see Smart Cities: Las Vegas.)
25. New York City has lots of schools and networks worth visiting despite less interest in an innovation agenda. (See Smart Cities: New York)
Colleagues recommended:

We obviously missed hundreds of districts doing great work. We’d welcome your suggestions. Please comment to add!
This post is part of the Smart List series published in partnership with Getting Smart Services, provider of advocacy, advisory, consulting and public relations services to turn ideas into impact.
MIND Research Institute, The Learning Accelerator, Next Generation Learning Challenges, Curriculum Associates and DreamBox Learning are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Tom Vander Ark

@SuptVPS: #26 is @VancouverSD! America's Vancouver. Founding @DigitalPromise LIS member. 3 time NSBA tech site host. #FutureReady grads!
I'm over due for a visit to VPS (north or Portland); it was the first district where I saw a great pedagogical vision (from Supt Jim Parsley) reflected in school architecture

Tom Vander Ark

Developing 100 Schools Worth Visiting and 25 Districts Worth Visiting I checked out hundreds of school & district websites--most are really bad!! They lack basic information, are hard to navigate, and are frequently void of social media connections. Time for an upgrade folks--your website is your most valuable real estate.

John Marschhausen

We'd welcome the opportunity to share our work at the Hilliard City School District. We are taking personalized instruction, blended learning, and innovation to the next level.
We have our Innovative Learning Center which provides personalized learning networks for students from all three Hilliard High Schools and all three Hilliard Middle Schools - http://www.hilliardschools.org/ilc/about/
We are launching our One-2-One initiative this January in our 6th grade buildings. Next year our plan is to expand to all three middle schools - and all three high schools will follow the following year. http://www.hilliardschools.org/one2one/
In Hilliard City Schools, we believe that blended learning should create an environment where students and teachers learn and teach more effectively. Blended learning can provide students with choice and voice in their learning and is dynamically customized for each student, reaching students of varying learning styles. Here are the seven characteristics of Hilliard’s Blended Learning Environment. - http://www.hilliardschools.org/blendedlearning/
Hilliard has created 67+ complete on-line courses - written and created by our own staff. We recent created our own science books (in iBook author) for 6-9 grade science, biology, and honors biology.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks John, love the 7 characteristics--they reflect deep thought (in fact, they'd make a great guest blog).
Love the fact that you're developing/offering online courses.

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