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The Changing Classroom in Utah: Innovating Technology in Juab School District

Today we give you a look inside Juab School District—a district that is doing something very different with technology through its one-of-kind Innovation Center.

Nephi, UT – Technology is not just part of the classroom in Juab School District. It’s integrated into every aspect of learning.

“We’re giving each student a voice and choice in their own learning,” said Ken Rowley, Principal, Juab Junior High School. “Each student sets his or her own personal goals at the start of the year. Because of that approach, they’re incredibly engaged as they try to reach their goals. When we do that, it becomes personal and they own it.” Rowley attended school about an hour away in the Nebo School District, graduating in 1985. He later taught at Juab High School for 11 years and 13 years ago became principal for the junior high. Rowley says it struck him that the classrooms didn’t look much different than when he was a student.

“Kids would come into the classroom, turn off their devices, and sit there like it was 20 years ago,” he said. “But as soon as they’d leave, they’d power back up, so in a way, it was like learning just stopped once they went to class. So we started to look at integrating the technology to what students enjoyed learning and how they enjoyed learning.”

The Future is Now
In 2019, the entire district is now one-to-one on iPads for 5th-12th grades—meaning every student has a device they can take home to do homework and other school projects. There are also 100s of Chromebooks available for elementary students, and most classrooms have smart boards or Apple TVs and sound systems to assist teachers with instruction. “We provide all the items to teachers and take time to train them on the technology so they can be even more effective in the classroom,” said Tony Sperry, Technology Director, Juab School District. “This technology can be life-changing for our students. Imagine if they did not have access to it? It impacts everything from applying for colleges to being able to find work. Kids need to develop their technology and computer skills just to take part and compete.”

Sperry also grew up in the area, which he calls a mix of a farming and bedroom community. Located about 45 minutes from Provo, the state’s third largest city, he says many people commute so they can enjoy the quiet, rural life. He graduated from Juab High School and 37 years ago began teaching for the district.

“I think it was the early 90’s that we got computers for all of our teachers. Then shortly after we added our first electronic grade book,” said Sperry. “Then, as things progressed, the internet started to come into play, and we started networking everything. Because I was excited about the future of technology in the classroom, I just sort of fell into the role of Technology Director about 25 years ago and now we just keep looking at ways to innovate for our students and teachers.”

He credits the support of the superintendent and school board for making it possible to do more in the classrooms. That includes developing “The Innovation Center,” which just opened.

“We remodeled a school to include the center,” he explained. “It has big open classrooms and all the latest technology that we can get our hands on. We’re just starting to figure out how to bring students from elementary and junior high to do some high-tech projects like robotics and 3D printing. It’s important for us to bring new things so kids can explore and learn and discover.”

The district also plans to look at how high school students can start utilizing The Innovation Center. It’s that kind of forward-thinking that Principal Rowley says is a must for not only the district but all of Utah’s schools.

“Would I send someone out to build a house without the right tools?” he said. “We must give students what they need to do well. They don’t want to be lectured to all day along. They want—and need—learning to be interactive with and even from their peers. I think technology helps us personalize the learning that goes on in each one of our student’s lives. It means we can meet their needs a whole lot easier and more personally than we’ve ever been able to do before.”

It’s why taking inventory of technology in the Juab School District is so important. Right now, the Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN), in partnership with the nonprofit Connected Nation, is in the midst of doing a tech inventory within all of Utah’s public and charter schools.

In 2015, UETN began tracking how technology is used in the classroom and the access teachers and students have to digital materials, devices, and platforms. Data from another inventory was released in 2018.

“Last year, following our second statewide inventory, we learned the number of classrooms connected through digital teaching and learning had risen thanks to increased distribution of computer devices and newer wireless gear,” said Ray Timothy, CEO, UETN. “However, we also found that more work was needed to connect every student to key technologies that will prepare them for an increasingly digital world.”

The inventory can help districts identify gaps and point to areas that are seeing improvement.

“It’s so important to know where you are,” said Sperry. “You’ve also got to know where you’re going. For instance, if you’re dealing with an old computer lab, the inventory helps you identify when it’s time to refresh it or replace the digital tools with newer tools.” The data gathered during the inventory is also providing opportunities to follow successful models and to explore new ideas—and understand how the world of education may be changing.

The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
As we move into the next decade, both Sperry and Rowley see technology as something that will present challenges and opportunities for Juab School District. “Our district works pretty hard for computer science curriculum,” said Sperry. “So in the last few years, we started doing things a little differently and started doing some training and offering specialized classes. That includes basic computer programming lessons at even the elementary level. There’s even more offered at the junior and high school levels, and we need to keep improving this every year.”

One challenge is the lack of internet access once students take devices home. According to Rowley, about a third of his students don’t have access to the internet once they leave school.

“It would be nice if we could find more ways to get Wi-Fi into all homes,” he said. “Right now, I see a lot of students in the Wendy’s parking lot just to get access.”

The principal also points out the importance of parents being educated on how to use the devices students take home—and the dangers that the internet can sometimes pose. Rowley says everyone working with students must remember that none of the above can be “one-size-fits-all.”

“Tech is changing so fast, so I’m not married to one device. Different kids may learn better with different devices,” he said. “I think it should be internet-based rather than simply device-based, but no matter what we as educators do, I’d never send a student to go learn without technology involved—to do so limits and hinders their progress.”

Next week we continue our month-long series “The Changing Classroom in Utah” with a look at how one 6th grader and her teacher are leveraging technology in Weber County—a district that’s gone from chalkboards to Chromebooks in just a few years’ time.

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