How one school district is staying on the cutting edge of technology

It’s hard to tell what innovative careers will emerge in the future, but Houston County wants to make sure its students have the technical know-how to navigate them.

The school district was recently named one of the nation’s most tech-savvy. Houston won first place in the 2016-17 Digital School District Survey for public school districts with 12,000 or more students, and it received the same award in 2007 and has placed in the top 10 six times since 2004.

“We need to make sure we’re giving our teachers support and the tools they need to be effective in the classroom,” said Brian Trent, the district’s director of technology. “We want to make sure (students) have the ability to adapt and to learn and to be able to succeed in any new jobs that may be forming in years to come. In education, sometimes we’re a little bit behind, but we try our best to make sure we can give our students the latest and the greatest.”

The district has spent more than $25 million over the last five or six years outfitting all its classrooms with technology such as smart boards, projectors and sound systems.

Some schools are testing out smart panels, which are like interactive TV displays. Over the next three years, all teacher laptops will be updated so they’ll have the technology for the panels.

Kids can share school laptops and iPads, or they can bring their own devices, Trent said. In addition, every school in the district has a computer lab, said Northside Elementary Assistant Principal Rebecca Oakley.

Using Microsoft Office 365 suite, faculty and students in middle and high school can use Word, PowerPoint and email and access their data anytime and anywhere, Trent said. Teachers can create online instruction opportunities with OneNote Class Notebook, where they can do virtual assignments and open up discussion boards.

Many Houston schools are focusing on science, technology, engineering and math and incorporating coding and robotics into their lessons, he said. Northside and Eagle Springs Elementary schools are state STEM-certified schools, and several others in the district are working toward that classification, said Beth McLaughlin, the district’s director of community and school affairs.

“We want (students) to be competitive in a global society,” Oakley said. “I don’t want them to learn subjects isolated. I want them to learn all the subjects together.”

Northside Elementary students work with coding programs like and Tynker two or three times a week, Oakley said. Fifth-graders teach pre-kindergarten students how to steer the Code-a-pillar learning toy toward a target. This year, lower-grade students will begin using the Osmo system, which connects with the iPad, for hands-on coding activities.

Fourth- and fifth-graders learn to do coding to fly and land a drone and take photos, and teachers are working on a drone obstacle course. Upper-grade students also learn about electricity through Snap Circuit projects, and Northside started using the Ozobot robot program for science and math lessons this year.

Several teachers in the Houston district use Skype video conferencing to take their kids on virtual field trips to locations from Wyoming to India, Trent said.

All schools have full wireless coverage, but the district is in the process of upgrading the infrastructure to ensure it can handle a large volume of personal devices. The goal is to eventually increase the bandwidth from 2 to 10 gigabytes.

“Usually, (the students) exceed our expectations and surpass our knowledge,” Oakley said. “We’re looking to make our kids successful. This technology is just helping promote that and showing them jobs they can work toward later in life.”

Northside teachers know how to effectively weave new technology into the curriculum and integrate it into common core standards, she said. Students work harder, stay engaged and flourish when they have the opportunity to use technology. They’re always willing to try something new.

Andrea Honaker: 478-744-4382, @TelegraphAndrea