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School turnaround
Daisy Dyer Duerr (in red) principal of St. Paul High School talked about her small, rural school’s remarkable tech-led turnaround during Digital Learning Day, on Friday, March 13, 2015. The event was organized by the Alliance for Excellent Education and held at the Washington, DC convention center. Also pictured, Lendy Eaton (left) a math teacher at St. Paul High School and Rehema Ellis, chief education correspondent for NBC News, who moderated the event.

Every morning, Daisy Dyer Duerr, the principal of tiny St. Paul High School in northwestern Arkansas, ends the morning announcements with a rallying cry: “No excuses. No limits.”

In the isolated, rural town of St. Paul, on the edge of the Ozark Mountains, the streets are dirt and the poverty is generational. Excuses and limits were once easy to accept here.

When Duerr took charge in 2011, St. Paul was a failing school, with lackluster test scores and falling enrollment, on the verge of being taken over by the state. Four years later, it is brimming with technology and ranked in the top 10 percent of Arkansas schools.

Between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of St. Paul students scoring proficient or advanced in statewide assessments jumped from 59 to 79 percent in literacy and from 54 to 88 percent in math, leapfrogging the state average in both categories.

Tech-led school turnarounds are notoriously tricky. How did a little school in the middle of nowhere pull it off? Duerr, who oversees 115 junior high and high school students, and an equal number at the adjoining elementary school, says success depended just as much on fostering relationships of trust and high expectations as it did on adding computers and connectivity.

Last Friday, the school’s remarkable transformation was honored on Digital Learning Day, an annual event organized by the D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education.

“Technology allowed this small, rural school to connect with the world, personalize learning for students and collaborate with educators nationwide, leading to big achievement gains,” Tom Murray, the Alliance’s state and district policy director, said in an interview.

“What made that technology powerful was dynamic school leadership that created a culture of innovation,” he added. “Whether you’re the smallest or largest district in our nation, that’s something you want to do.”

“We’ve definitely kicked the technology into high gear and caught up with the rest of the world.”

When Duerr arrived at St. Paul, both technology and trust were in short supply. For instance, a cart of 10 new Macbooks had been sitting unopened for a year. Lacking training on the devices, no teachers had dared to touch them. Plus, even though Duerr grew up in a town just 20 miles away, many considered her an outsider who—like a string of short-lived principals before her—wouldn’t be sticking around.

“The consensus was, we’ve been to this rodeo before,” recalled veteran English teacher Kenena Pelfrey.

Within a year, however, Duerr turned Pelfrey and most of the school into believers. She unpacked the MacBooks and landed grants to boost the school’s Internet connectivity, as well as to purchase several dozen iPads. Her only hire was Sabra Eaton, who grew up in St. Paul and was then teaching computer skills to adults in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Part of Eaton’s new job was teaching kids Photoshop and other software. The other part was helping fellow teachers work technology into the classroom.

When the iPads arrived, late in the school year, Duerr and Eaton loaded them with a few teaching apps, organized a one-day training on iPad basics and then told the teachers to take the machines home, along with an iTunes gift card for more apps. They told the teachers to play with the computers all summer, whether for professional or personal use. “We said, do whatever it takes to learn those iPads,” Duerr said, “and just be on fire with them when you come back in the fall.”

The next year, Duerr challenged teachers to use technology in the classroom every week, offering herself, Eaton and other teachers as ready resources.

“I’d help them try something new, even something small,” said Eaton. “Even if they tried it for the next couple weeks and it didn’t work. We made sure teachers knew it was OK to fail.”

Over the next two years, through more grants and pinching pennies, St. Paul’s bumped up its broadband connectivity and stocked up on devices, including Netbooks, Chromebooks and Nooks for reading. Students and teachers use tools such as Google Docs for real-time collaboration and editing, as well as loads of educational apps such as Google Classroom for making and reviewing assignments, Newsela for planning current-events reading lessons, and Kahoot for creating game-based quizzes.

Teacher devote part of every staff meeting to discussing technology triumphs and glitches. If challenges or resource needs arise that can’t be met in house, Duerr reaches out to a Twitter-based professionla network of tech-savvy educators whom she’s met through education conferences and online.

This same mix of expectations, trust and technology has worked with St. Paul’s students. For instance, Eaton asked students to find and review one educational app every week, which she then shared with other teachers. The suggestions included Evernote as a project organizer, Edmodo for online class discussions, and a virtual frog dissection app.

Early on, Duerr nixed the old policy of suspending kids who brought phones to school. Instead, smart phones joined the school’s other connected devices as classroom resources.

Pelfrey’s English class, for example, looked up history on rural families in the Depression while reading The Grapes of Wrath. The art class went on virtual tours of famous museums to find artwork that inspired their own projects.

Meanwhile, Duerr has made it clear to students and their parents that she expects everyone to apply for federal student aid and be accepted to a post-secondary institution before graduation.

Historically, college wasn’t the norm in St. Paul. There have always been plenty of manufacturing and timber jobs for which no college degree is needed.

“But we should have the expectations for these kids, that they’ll go out and be something amazing,” said Duerr.

“We’ve definitely kicked the technology into high gear and caught up with the rest of the world,” said St. Paul junior Alicia Boyd, whose career ambitions have wavered between finance and social work.

Duerr also instituted an advisory program where teachers meet with students before lunch to check on their academic progress and help them navigate online internship and scholarship applications. The advisors also listen. When students’ families hit hard times, teachers have sent kids home with backpacks of food, let them crash at their homes, and even helped them afford formal wear for prom.

“I want every one of our students to know that their teachers care about them, and want them to be successful,” said Duerr.

Every Friday, advisory sessions are replaced by “genius hour,” an educational take on Google’s policy of letting employees pursue “passion projects.” During genius hour, some students might produce digital videos while others hunt online for recipes and practice cooking exotic meals.

In 2013, the school opened a blended-learning lab in partnership with Arkansas’ state colleges, allowing students to take college courses online and earn both high school and college credit.

The school also offers St. Paul’s adults computer training, and invites extended families for evenings of food, conversation, and technology show and tell.

“Before it was, well, we’re from St. Paul, and that was the excuse,” said Pelfrey. “Now we are proud to be from St. Paul. It’s not like we’ve arrived. We get to a certain point, and [Duerr] is like, there is the higher mark, and here we go.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more stories about blended learning, and stay up to date on the latest trends by subscribing to our free newsletter.

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