30 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 30 districts that are changing their community 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 American education challenge. Many belong to the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, 73 districts piloting new approaches to teaching and learning and leveraging technology to improve student outcomes (noted with [DP]).


  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. (See nearby Charlotte Mecklenburg below). [DP]
  1. 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 powered by Education Elements and Edmodo and supported by a partnership with The Learning Accelerator. Despite a recent strike, Reynoldsburg is still worth a visit. (For more metro highlights, see Smart Cities: Columbus.) [DP]
  1. 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.) [DP]
  1. 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 by Sanborn Principal Brian Stack and four CompetencyWorks posts).
  1. 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. [DP]
  1. Middletown City School District (northwest of NYC) is a RTTD grant winner where teachers and students focus on goal setting. See a post from superintendent Dr. Kenneth W. Eastwood where he details partnerships with EdElements, iReady, DreamBox, Achieve3000, Lexia and MyOn. [DP]
  1. Milpitas School District, north of San Jose, is making progress on blended learning using a lab rotational model and experimenting with mixed age grouping and other new models. (See Christensen Institute district feature and feature on i-Ready at Marshall Pomeroy Elementary School.)

  1. Utica Community Schools, Michigan’s second largest district, has award winning high schools, an AdvancePath flex academy, portfolio of choices that support career and college readiness, and a data partnership with BrightBytes. Later this month 46 Michigan teams will compete in the First Lego Robotics competition, a quarter will be from Utica. [DP]
  1. 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).
  1. District 49, east of Colorado Springs, has an interesting portfolio of schools in 4 feeder patterns. The iConnect Zone includes Springs Studio, 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 and featured 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.
  1. Cajon Valley USD is one of several San Diego County districts with unified executive leadership around next gen learning.  The 1:1 district has boosted math proficiency with district wide use of ST Math. Partnerships include Code.org, Qualcomm, The Classroom of the Future Foundation, University of San Diego, and TEDed. Cajon has competency-based progression in some schools. They (See Smart Cities: San Diego.) [DP]
  1. 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 and supported local school design efforts based on readiness. (See 6 keys to success.) [DP]

  1. 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.
  1. Montour is a one high school district near the Pittsburgh airport. The new leadership team introduced core values, university partnerships, innovative practices, and learning communities. The district has hosted a Maker Faire, PLTW conference, and EdCampPGH, and features a Virtual Immersion Lab. (See update on Pittsburgh EdTech innovation.)
  1. Albemarle County Public Schools (@k12albemarle), Charlottesville Virginia, seeks to inspire the natural curiosity of our students… by cultivating engaging learning environments, hands-on learning experiences, and real-world learning opportunities. They design backwards from well defined expectations and focus on essential questions. The district hosted Startup Weekend EDU. [DP]

High performing suburban districts with a strong commitment to college and career readiness include:


  1. 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.
  1. Danville Schools (south of Lexington) demonstrates that Good Schools Start With Good Goals. Carmen Coleman (now working with Gene Wilhoit, National Center for Innovation in Education) led community conversations that resulted in a Deeper Learning agenda. See the the Danville Diploma for a compelling vision of opportunities and outcomes. NGLC winning Bate Middle School was profiled in Deeper Learning for Every Student Every Day.
  1. 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.
  1. 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. (See 10 relevant posts on CompetencyWorks.)
  1. Napa Valley USD launched project-based New Tech High School and continues to partner with the New Tech Network in 10 of 30 schools. Magnet schools focus on STEM, arts, IB, and dual language. [DP]
  1. Piedmont City Schools, between Birmingham and Atlanta, is 1:1 K-12 (watch videoand a member of Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. NGLC winning Piedmont Middle School was featured in 100 Schools Worth Visiting.  [DP]
  1. Chugach School District serves small villages near Anchorage. It was an early leader in competency-based education. Chris Sturgis said, “Chugach has figured out the ways to manage quality control and organize content and skills in ways that are meaningful to students and teachers without relying on courses.” Read her seven-part series.

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.


  1. Charlotte Mecklenburg serves 144,000 students in 168 schools in Mecklenburg County. Project L.I.F.T. is a zone of 17 schools seeking dramatic improvements in student learning working with Public Impact in an effort to implement strategies to leverage great teaching using technology. The district is assembling a toolset to support a clear vision of a personalized learning.  [DP]

Right across the South Carolina state line is Rock HIll Schools where they are serious about  challenging and authentic work. The district’s tech-enhanced instructional initiative is called iRock Anytime Anywhere (see feature).  [DP]

  1. Houston ISD serves 212,000 students in 283 schools. It was recognized as the best urban district in 2013 by the Broad Foundation as a result of a full court press on talent development. Smart EdTech procurement kicked off the 1:1 Power Up initiative. For more metro highlights, see Smart Cities: Houston.  [DP]
  1. Miami Dade Schools serves 345,000 students in 392 schools. It won the 2012 Broad Prize for data driven minority achievement gains, support for struggling schools, and more than 100 magnet schools. 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.
  1. Denver Public Schools may have the most aggressive improvement and innovation of any city with an elected board (see feature). 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. New networks will develop around Grant-Beacon Middle School and Roots Elementary (pictured below).


  1. 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.)  [DP]
  1. 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 including Bracken STEAM. (For more, see Smart Cities: Las Vegas.)
  1. Santa Ana USD is a dense low income rectangle in northern Orange County. Shifting from managed instruction to a portfolio approach, district leadership gives schools the ability and responsibility to create coherent personalized learning models. [DP]
  1. El Paso ISD is a district on the rise; after a decade of test prep the new leadership team has the district focused on active learning supported by a 1:1 initiative, open CK12 flexbooks, and tiered support for struggling schools. Two New Tech Network schools opened this fall with more planned.

Colleagues recommended:

We obviously missed hundreds of districts doing some great work. We’d welcome your suggestions.

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.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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Curt R.

Way to go Montour! Nice work!

Robert C.

Awesome work Montour!

Margaret Westaway

Don't forget Surrey, BC, Canada. We have won awards for innovation :-)

Ann Flynn

Happy to see Sunnyside (AZ) on the list! The National School Boards Association will be hosting one of its Ed Tech site visits with the district May 4-6. Our other 2016 visit will be hosted with Colonial School District (DE), April 20-22. To learn more about NSBA's 2016 visits, check out www.nsba.org/tlnsitevisits.

Also pleased to see several districts on the list where we have hosted past site visits including Mentor, Miami Dade, Clark County, Blue Valley and Dysart.

Trace Pickering

Full competency-based, community-immersed HS program. Designed by community, achieving amazing results.

Dr. Darryl Adams

I know it is difficult to get every district in but my district the Coachella Valley USD is the first in the nation to provide a mobile device an iPad for every student from preschool through high school. And Recognized by President Obama for our innovative wifi on wheels program which parks buses in isolated rural areas to provide access for students snd families with no internet service. We are an Apple Distinguished district and have been visited by the US Navy and The Ohio State University among others. We sure would appreciate a mention in your next column.

Tom Vander Ark

District to watch: D51 in Grand Junction CO, http://www.mesa.k12.co.us

Tom Vander Ark

iNACOL and CompetencyWorks.org recommend a rural Maine district, RSU2. Read a great trip report by Chris Sturgis

Tom Vander Ark

Add Lake Co FL to the list, check out this CompetencyWorks feature:

Tom Vander Ark

Twitter nomination from @DrDaveFPS
Need to get @FraserSchools on this list. CBE focused, great strategic plan, early college on campus, CTE, coding

Tom Vander Ark

See Chris Sturgis' series on the shift to competency in Charleston SC


District to watch: D214 in Arlington Heights, IL (Redefining College & Career Readiness), mentioned in Superintendents Aim to Redefine Ready post and podcast

Tom Vander Ark

Time to check out Fraser MI http://www.fraser.k12.mi.us/pages/FraserPS

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