Fort Thomas expands into the digital environment

Posted at 4:23 PM, Nov 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-22 16:23:32-05

FORT THOMAS, Ky. -- A seventh-grader sits in a classroom with a digital device in front of him, but his teacher doesn’t admonish him. Later that day, one of his classmates completes her homework assignment. Instead of turning in a paper the next day, she clicks a button to submit her work the night it was assigned. 

These scenes have become the norm at Highlands Middle School, as Fort Thomas Independent School District transitions to a digital learning environment. 

“Our district is in the midst of a digital conversion in which we’re attempting to leverage the power of technology to really transform teaching and learning,” said Gene Kirchner, superintendent for Fort Thomas Independent Schools.

The district, which is in its second year of digital conversion, is partnering with McGraw-Hill Education to provide the curriculum and training to prepare kids for college and careers.

“They’re trying to … completely prepare students for the future,” said Christie Silver, marketing manager for McGraw-Hill’s digital conversion.

A Computer For Every Child

Over the past year, district officials put MacBook Air laptops in the hands of every middle and high school student in the district and introduced McGraw-Hill Education’s Thrive platform. 

The digital teaching platform is designed for third- through eighth-grade English language arts and math and sixth- through eighth-grade science classes. It also can be used for algebra I and II and geometry.

Thrive enables teachers and students to interact from their computers, sending messages and creating and submitting assignments. 

“That is the place where teachers and students come together around learning,” Kirchner said.

Reaching Students Where They Are

In addition to facilitating communication and offering an avenue for turning in digital assignments, Thrive allows teachers, students and parents to track kids’ progress. Monitoring students’ progress digitally helps teachers better recognize and cater to students’ individual needs, Silver said.

“We live in a world that is personalized, and education isn’t always personalized,” she said. “Yet, we know that’s the best way to reach every student – is to reach them where they are.

As “early adopters” of digital learning, Fort Thomas Schools recently were featured in promotional footage for the Thrive platform, highlighting the district’s digital learning efforts.

“It’s important for us to share their story because what they’re doing in Fort Thomas is something that can easily be replicated across the country,” Silver said.

Replicating Ft. Thomas’ Success

Not only can Fort Thomas Independent’s digital learning efforts be replicated – they may be a forerunner for the future of education in America.

“I think this is the direction that we’re going in, in terms of our public education system,” Silver said.

While digital conversion comes with its share of risks – from possible dips in district performance to concerns about too much screen time – mental disconnect hasn’t posed much of a threat.

“In those classrooms where it’s really happening in the most effective way, students are more engaged,” Kirchner said.

The engagement may be due in part to youths’ familiarity with the technology.

Teaching The ‘Digital Natives’

“I think students like the relevancy of it,” Kirchner said. “They are digital natives.”

“This is a language that they understand, a medium that they understand,” he added.

Between students’ familiarity with digital technology and the increasing role it plays in the modern work place, Kirchner sees the district’s transition as a natural way of preparing kids for the work force.

“In the real world, the technology is right where the work takes place,” Kirchner said.

“And that’s the way schools should be. If we’re going to prepare students for their future, not our past, then we have to provide them with experiences that mimic their future reality.”

In the second year of Fort Thomas Independent’s digital conversion, district officials aren’t yet finished with their efforts. Next year, the focus will shift to the elementary level. District officials already are in the process of putting together a group of parents and educators to discuss what digital learning will look like for younger students.

“The essential question is, if at the end of a student’s experience here we want them to have these skills and dispositions … what does the experience for an elementary child need to look like?” Kirchner said.