After several months of rather uninspiring reports out of Newark, New Jersey, here’s something that we might be thankful about: The public school district earned a national award for its evolving use of education technology.

The Newark public schools distributed about 12,500 digital devices last school year – 25 times the number of computers previously available for classroom use. Yes, you read that right. Until recently, there were only about 500 mobile devices available for use in this city school district of about 37,000 students (nearly 85 percent of whom qualify for government-subsidized lunches).

But there’s more to the story than that. The district, known more widely for failure than success, has managed to avoid the colossal flops experienced by other districts that suddenly ramped up technology, such as the one in Los Angeles. Newark did so with careful planning.

Joshua Koen, special assistant for technology in Newark’s public schools, said the work began years before any of the new computers hit the classroom. When Koen arrived about two years ago, the district had already undertaken several crucially important tasks, such as starting to train staff and updating the Internet connections to ensure the network was ready for an influx of mobile devices.

The district also tested various computers, and opted for low-cost Chromebooks because they turn on quickly (less than 10 seconds) and rarely need tech support. And it hired a contractor to help the district distribute the devices.

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Now the district’s teachers and leaders have embarked on the next step: working to ensure those digital devices are used for more than fancy versions of paper worksheets, Koen said. They don’t want these gadgets to make life harder. They want them to transform teaching and learning by giving teachers data they can use in real time, both to help students who are struggling and challenge those who are ready to move ahead. The district is working to train staff and to develop real-life examples of this work, so people can see it.

“It’s easy to define what a transformational practice is not – it’s harder to define what it is,” Koen said. “What it can do is not as clean and prevalent. It’s just all a great hope.”

To figure this out – and show a hard-to-explain concept to the public – special attention is going to a handful of high-flying schools in Newark where teachers and leaders are advancing quickly in this work. These serve as Lighthouse schools, a term and strategy borrowed from Baltimore County Public Schools, a district that has earned accolades for its use of education technology planning. Lighthouse schools will be a place where teachers, parents and community members can come see the district’s vision in action.

And so, as the think tanks and thought leaders continue to debate what’s happening in Newark, school employees, students and parents continue the ground-level work that’s often invisible unless something goes horribly wrong. For sure, there’s a lot to be learned from mistakes, but there’s also value in acknowledging what’s going right.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.