Once upon a time, a high school senior at a small Kentucky school district walked across a stage to accept a diploma, turned his tassel, and smiled for the camera–happy to have served his high school sentence with passing grades. Similar events led Dr. Carmen Coleman — then Danville’s district superintendent — to ponder the value of the high school diploma and the real world readiness every student should carry off the stage with them. Dr. Coleman began her work as a major change agent in the K-12 space by leading district staff and educators in the creation of the Danville Diploma.
What is the Danville Diploma? It is a collection of skills that are beneficial to the student and their success, a list that became the foundation for change in Danville, Kentucky and now in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville. Dr. Coleman brought her experience to JCPS working alongside JCPS Superintendent, Dr. Marty Pollio, and district leaders, school staff, community, and business leaders to identify the skills that are most essential to student success beyond graduation. To that end, she met with each group and prompted each participant to imagine a child who is special in his/her life. Once that child was in mind for each person, they were prompted to identify the most important life skills they want that child to have when she graduates. Dr. Coleman challenged each group with the question: “If that child comes to school with a backpack that would continue to be carried long after graduation, what do you want us to be sure we put inside?”
Using the results of that question, the list of Success Skills became clear: empathy, communication, work ethic, critical thinking, collaboration, and perseverance. These Success Skills developed into the five key areas where students would digitally collect and reflect on examples of their work, or artifacts. Educators would provide experiences to support the skill areas and students would make the case that they were ready for the next step by choosing work samples to use as a defense for each skill during major transition points — at the end of the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades. To ensure every single JCPS student had the ability to collect and preserve their work over time, Dr. Coleman and Dr. Pollio realized the Backpack of Success Skills (known in our district as The Backpack) had to be digital. This made the Backpack equitable and accessible for all students.
Next, some key change agents came on the scene: Dr. Kermit Belcher, CIO, and Heather Warrell, Executive Administrator of Digital Innovation, both new arrivals to Jefferson County. Dr. Belcher and Mrs. Warrell were charged with making the Backpack of Success Skills possible in a technical capacity as well as connecting key school-level teams with training and support on the initiative. While looking for a digital system to house the backpack, one question became pivotal, “Do we use a pre-built platform, or do we build our own?”
The decision was made to build The JCPS Digital Backpack of Success Skills as an extension of the Google Drive platform. This decision was heavily influenced by student feedback through surveys and discussions that overwhelmingly favored the idea that Backpack should be deeply integrated with the Google tools they already use to produce their work. When the decision was made to build, one company — a trusted Google EDU partner with deep experience developing custom solutions on Google’s APIs — stood out above any other, Amplified IT.
Our teams began rapidly working through development, which meant daily discussions, to ensure that Backpack could deploy before the first day of school, which was August 15, 2018. Development started in July and Backpack was successfully deployed to all students the night of August 14th. We cheered and encouraged one another through the finalization of a late night deployment. We were excited about the launch of something that would become an evolving, breathing, living, beautiful thing in our district. Five major releases and many new features later, the development and refinement of The JCPS Digital Backpack of Success Skills continues today based on the feedback of our students, teachers, and leadership.
Backpack is built on a backbone of folders maintained by the app in Google Drive, but we encourage using the easy and intuitive Backpack user interface. The Backpack user interface (UI) offers the ability for students to tag work as artifacts in any or all of the 5 skill areas, reflect on tagged work, create a Showcase — a simple webpage that includes selected artifacts, reflections, and a Google Slides presentation to be used in the Backpack defense — and request Showcase feedback from teachers. Teachers have the ability within the Backpack UI to see artifact counts for each student on their roster, tag student work as an artifact, and engage in providing Showcase feedback to the student. Backpack is available in the Chrome “waffle,” as well as, in a bookmark quick link and a shortened URL. Each method of arrival lands the user at the Backpack Homepage. The Backpack Homepage offers navigation to Artifacts, Showcases, a metrics dashboard (unique to JCPS and built by our development team), and the Google translate option. You can see a full walk-through of the current Backpack UI here.
With almost 101,000 students and roughly 6,500 teachers, how did we scale training, messaging, and continuous communication? An expert at scaling initiatives, Heather Warrell formed our Digital Innovation team to mirror our district structure of 5 zones. Each zone consists of approximately 25-30 schools, 2 district-level instructional technology leaders were assigned to each zone to provide support. Each school identified an in-house Backpack leadership team consisting of their Library Media Specialist, School Technology Coordinator, and another chosen staff member (typically an Instructional Coach or Resource Teacher). Our zone leaders communicate directly with the school level teams to provide direct support and share the consistent message with each of our 166 schools.
Digital Innovation Leaders hosted Backpack Camps, complete with tents and smores, for our newly created school level Backpack teams as the initial kickoff before the start of school. Shortly thereafter, school visits and Google Classroom trainings for each zone were scheduled to support digital collaboration and communication. This strategy continues today. It works!
School Backpack teams and school leadership work together at each school to strategize the school plan for assisting students with quality work production and “artifacting.” School teams reach out to the district level Digital Innovation team for support and guidance when needed. Schools have created Student Backpack Teams where students work in their own schools proofreading artifacts, listening to other students practice their Backpack defenses, and assisting with technical needs.
Our Digital Innovation leaders also began to develop digital support by creating the JCPS Digital Learning Channel on YouTube (jcpsdigitallearning.com). We began posting videos on Backpack and quickly the channel grew to include both live shows and on-demand videos covering a plethora of subjects. This cornerstone of the implementation and support strategy for digital learning in our district offers viewers the “power of pause,” perfect for busy educators and leaders.
The JCPS Digital Learning Channel is a key support strategy for technical help which reaches far and wide. It was necessary to make sure our centralized technical support teams and school level Backpack teams were equipped with a knowledge base of scenarios. A knowledge base covers how to assist the customer (teachers and students) in resolving the issue or question. We created the Digital Backpack FAQ page accessible to our entire district, which is a Google Doc with an index–a quick guide to fixing or helping resolve known questions as fast as possible. We see viewing trends peak after any new release–proving the importance of a one-stop shop for a quick answer.
We worked to understand and differentiate between a bug and a break in the ever-evolving platform. We also learned quickly the difference between issues our Digital Innovation Leaders could handle with training and issues that need to be raised to Amplified IT. Operating System (OS) platforms became another technical support point since the district has a combination of Windows, Chromebooks, and iPads–How did Backpack behave on each OS, what challenges were being reported and how were we going to address these? We worked and searched for answers, posting quick fixes or suggestions on our Digital Learning Channel and FAQ.
One potential barrier we were able to easily remove was rostering. How we were going to roster the students to the teacher in the Backpack platform without the teacher having to manually create the roster (think Google Classroom)? Amplified IT suggested we introduce Little SIS Sync Agent to JCPS. We worked together to set up the structure as part of the release of Backpack and provisioned Google Classrooms (with live rosters) via Little SIS Sync. Amplified IT’s brilliant developers built in the ability to import and sync Google Classroom rosters to the Digital Backpack. Genius. Today we have over 70,000 Google Classrooms provisioned in our district with about 40,000 regularly accessed Google Classrooms by educators and students. Implementing the Little SIS Sync Agent not only removes the rostering barrier it also supports the effort of digital collaboration.
There are other rich instructional experiences worthy of capturing Backpack artifacts outside of the numerous innovative, project-based learning units and activities designed by classroom teachers and curriculum teams at JCPS. These other experiences are supported through several key district-wide technology initiatives: digital citizenship, STLP (Student Technology Leadership Program), Girls Who Code, Minecraft, Hour of Code, Competitive Robotics, Virtual Reality and more. Our Digital Innovation team tracks evidence of this digital transformation, as well as, supporting Google Classroom, G Suite for Education and Backpack adoption. These initiatives aim to increase student use of technology by encouraging them to create, curate, and innovate.
Another great support for digital collaboration and access to Backpack has been the Digital Promise & Verizon Innovation Learning Schools rollout. Five of our middle schools received an iPad for each student, creating a 1:1 environment. The initiative represents a multi-million dollar investment by Verizon in JCPS to bolster technology-infused curricula for underserved students. As part of the initiative, the schools also received funding to help support a full-time instructional coach and professional development for all teachers and staff, as well as ongoing project planning and implementation support.
Graphic courtesy of Jefferson County Public Schools
Finally, our teams continue to collaborate on technical support and device support throughout the district. Here’s how:
Infrastructure and network teams are involved to ensure solid network connectivity in our schools.
Our Service Desk provides technical troubleshooting and remote assistance.
Digital Innovation Leaders provide training to schools and teams.
Educational Technology teams work to manage devices and provide ease of access.
The metrics of change on the back of these technology initiatives are astonishing. All within this school year:
Over 40,000 active Google Classrooms were created at JCPS (up from 800 the previous year)
Over 40,000 managed Chromebooks (up from 13,000 the previous year)
399 Google Educator Level 1 Certified staff
Over 800,000 artifacts in student Backpacks
Over 7 million files shared on our Google domain within 6 months
The growth of digital collaboration and start of a digital transformation at JCPS is clear. We’re removing tech barriers one student, one classroom, one school at a time.
Today at JCPS, students in grades 5, 8, and 12 are defending their Backpacks. Parents, educators, district staff, and community members get an opportunity to sit on a defense panel and I’ve had the extreme pleasure of sitting on defense panels at each grade level. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve been proud–all within 5 minutes of hearing about the student from the student. The work they share is all about them as a learner. Some students share statistics from MAP Testing or GPAs during their defense, others focus on sharing passion projects.
W.B. Yeats said best what is happening at JCPS, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The Digital Backpack of Success Skills lights fires, shares student passion, and creates lasting culture within our learning community–fully preparing our students for the real world.
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Technology Specialist/Google Workspace Admin,
Jefferson County Public Schools
About the Author:
Formerly a campus technology coordinator, Stefanie Mills is the silent giant behind the management of JCPS Google Workspace domain, patient guru of Little SIS Sync implementation at the scale of 40,000 classes, and gentle wrangler of many stakeholders across departments in support of the Digital Backpack.