Micha Villarreal – Ysleta Independent School District
In one of Thomas Manor Elementary School’s popular common areas, where comfy couches and chairs sit alongside traditional tables, a student runs through a battery of math and science exercises on her Chromebook.
Just down the street, at Riverside High School, three sophomores huddle together in social studies class, devices in hand. They’re drafting a mock bill. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the group’s fourth member, home sick with the flu, chats with his peers while using the same application.
All told, Ysleta Independent School District (YISD) has issued Chromebooks to 31,000 students and plans to outfit the remaining 13,000 students by 2022.
The real game-changer, however, is what that initiative enables, not just the presence of technology.
“Several years ago, we identified a solution to put all of our digital content into one place,” says Micha Villarreal, director of innovative learning for the El Paso, Texas, district. “Kids can now log in and access any of these tools 24/7. It’s been transformative—for students and teachers.”
Until recently, YISD’s application suite was akin to a sprawling restaurant menu: With so many options, finding the right resource—say, a tool designed specifically to teach students about quadratic equations—often required clicking through dozens of individual applications.
In 2016, Villarreal and her team introduced a dashboard that allowed users to more easily search and access the district’s trove of resources: lesson plans, open-source applications, digital content issued with course textbooks among others.
What’s more, the dashboard is directly tied to both the student’s email account (Outlook) and Google Classroom, wherein teachers can provide links to specific applications—such as coding programs or e-books—and even assign different projects to different groups or individual students.
“If I’m a high-school algebra teacher and have seven classes for seven periods, having that kind of flexibility is so important,” Villarreal says. “If a student or group of students needs more time on a specific area, you can do that. It lets the teacher be a lot more dynamic in terms of how students learn the material.”
Outside the box
Indeed, if there’s one pillar to which Villarreal and her team have been steadfastly committed, it’s dynamism—fostering an environment where students not only have flexible tools, but flexible spaces as well. In 2016, buoyed by a multimillion-dollar bond, YISD embarked on an initiative aimed at creating more flexible learning environments within the district’s schools.
No matter the school’s age, a host of cutting-edge wares are incorporated: interactive displays that allow for both traditional teacher-driven lessons and collaborative Chromebook exercises; common areas where students can work on lessons and projects outside the classroom—all made possible by a robust Wi-Fi network.
Even the furniture is getting a makeover, with traditional desks being replaced by lighter options that can be easily moved and reconfigured to accommodate learning styles.
Meanwhile, in schools where old-school furniture is still the norm, teachers are letting students work wherever they feel comfortable. At Capistrano Elementary, for example, it’s not uncommon to see students working on lessons while lying down or standing up—or sitting on couches, pillows or under counters.
“Even if the building you’re in is 50 or 100 years old, there are things you can do to make the learning environment more flexible,” Villarreal explains. “It’s about honoring different learning styles and paths and making students feel comfortable enough that they’re engaged.”
The right blend
According to Villarreal, who spent 10 years as a YISD teacher before transitioning to an administrative role in technology in 2000, the district’s push for more flexible spaces is part and parcel of a broader effort to implement blended learning, which emphasizes online and digital tools to complement traditional classroom approaches and personalized learning.
YISD’s growing trove of digital content is part of that equation. Same for the district’s Chromebooks, with students permitted to take the devices home during the school year.
The goal, Villarreal says, is to encourage flexibility in three key areas: place (where students learn), pace (how quickly they learn) and path (what they are interested in).
“Not everyone learns the same way. The trick is figuring out how students learn and meeting them on their level,” Villarreal says. “Some students excel when they’re given a quiet space to themselves. Others do better in groups. Our teachers now have the tools to satisfy both, and everything in between.”
While YISD is still gauging the statistical impacts of the district’s blended-learning push, Villarreal says the anecdotal evidence is clear—and profound.
On a recent visit to Pebble Hills Elementary School, Villarreal spoke with a special education teacher who marveled at how, in blended classrooms, it was impossible to pick out the students with special needs because “the students knew exactly where their own learning gaps were and how to attack it. They no longer wait for the adult to tell them what to do.”
At Ysleta Elementary, it’s not uncommon to find groups of students working on a project in the learning pods outside the classroom, where the relative quiet makes it easier to relay ideas. With just a simple change of scenery (and a bit of blood flow), the kids are animated and engaged.
“They feel a sense of independence,” Villarreal says. “The teachers trust them to do their work even though they’re learning somewhere else.”
In a district where 78 percent of students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, using technology to level the playing field isn’t some rosy-eyed pipedream. It’s happening, with impacts that promise to be felt for years to come.
“Our motto here is ‘One Vision: Infinite Possibilities,’ and that pretty much sums it up,” Villarreal says. “Whenever I go into a classroom, I see that wonder in their eyes. I see those possibilities. Our district has undergone a lot of change—transformational change. And we’re starting to see the results.”
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