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Howard County
Public School System:
Case for
Success
Howard County
Public School System:
A Case for Success
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ancy Czarnecki is the curriculum coordinator for Secondary Language Arts in Howard County, MD. She works with all the English teachers in grades six through 12 and the reading specialists who work with students in those grades as well.

Currently, the district is completely virtual.

Howard County began operating virtually for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year and then extended virtual learning. They still have small groups of students who need support that come into the school buildings at all grade levels. When the pandemic subsides, they have created a hybrid model, but have not yet chosen to employ it.

According to Czarnecki, “Last spring, our school system made tremendous gains and did wonderful things with getting technology to all students. Previously, we had not been a 1:1 school system. At Howard County, we’re made up of 32 secondary schools, 12 high schools, and 20 middle schools. So, the first thing we did last spring was to get the technology out to students, and that was very successful. Once we did that, we knew that virtual learning was more of a possibility. Starting the 2020-2021 school year, there were a lot of factors that went into the decision, including input from parents and teachers, to begin the year virtually. And that gave us an opportunity to plan. Instead of waiting to the last minute to see what the metrics were, making that decision early meant we could go into a plan and have some normalcy and routines for everyone involved, and families could plan around that. I think we were very grateful for that. It’s never perfect, but knowing what to expect goes a long way.”

Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. on the I-95 corridor. The district has a lot of families that work in different government agencies or educational institutions. It is also remarkably diverse. They have farmland and areas that are densely populated.

Activity Learn logo
They were in a system that relied on novels for their English classes, that had a very novel-focused approach. What they needed was an excellent resource for their novels. And that led them to Actively Learn.
Collage of illustrations of people
Going virtual

HCPPS has used Canvas as their learning management system for several years now. Every teacher has a Canvas page and uses that to communicate with students and families, and a variety of other programs that they use regularly. Prior to closing schools for the pandemic, education technology was more of a supplemental piece, and part of the overall curriculum mix complementing textbooks. The shift to 1:1, post pandemic, created a structural change.

“The learning curve was steep,” said Czarnecki, “teachers had to learn about new tools, new platforms and new best practices. There was a lot of learning for us as a school system. We still dedicate a day per week to professional learning. Teachers need to access the support when they need it. Our professional learning has been ongoing, and teachers have said to us, it’s been exciting, because they know they will do things differently. It’s going to be very different when we go back into buildings, because now students will have devices, and our teachers have learned about these technology tools.”

 Actively Learn platform on laptop
Working with English teachers, Czarnecki’s primary focus last spring was to see how the district would access digital-text novels. They were in a system that relied on novels for their English classes, that had a very novel-focused approach. What they needed was an excellent resource for their novels. And that led them to Actively Learn. They had been using Actively Learn as a supplement to their reading intervention classes in high school, along with Achieve3000 Literacy, but they had not been using it for all their English classes. They looked at a lot of programs and came back to Actively Learn.

“We got a lot of input from teachers,” said Czarnecki, “and what we found with Actively Learn is that it was kind of a one-stop shop. It had the short text, the informational text, and the current event kind of text, but we were also able to access the literature. It has multimedia resources along with the novels, because we are using it for all of that. It was going to be one place to send our teachers and one place to send our students to have all of that, as well as the features that are there to support students. It really had the complete package. So, we went all in.”

Actively Learn student data on laptop
“We got a lot of input from teachers,” said Czarnecki, “and what we found with Actively Learn is that it was kind of a one-stop shop. It had the short text, the informational text, and the current event kind of text, but we were also able to access the literature.
Providing equity for the district

“We are very fortunate to have an unlimited account with Actively Learn,” said Czarnecki, “we have access to all of the text and all of the novels. That was unprecedented for us, that instantly every school had the same book room. One of the important things we’ve been doing over the past few years is adding additional text selections for teachers to choose to work whole-class instruction around a novel. So, we’ve been adding to that list.”

Previously, budget constraints meant the district would buy texts and roll them out as the budget allowed. Now all schools have access to every title, which goes a long way towards equitable access.

“That’s been a tremendous gift,” said Czarnecki, “especially all of the built-in supports that Actively Learn provides. I think kids are getting the benefit of that. You may have two teachers co-teaching, but now they are co-teaching, and they are on the same platform. They are not bringing in something from here and something from there. It’s all focused, and that is helping support all our students as well.”

Actively Learn student data on laptop
Engagement has been high with students during this time of virtual learning. Even though teachers report they are sharing class time with students who may not have their cameras on, they are finding other ways to measure engagement. One feature they enjoy is seeing the interaction with the text on Actively Learn and watching the engagement. They can see the time students have spent, and they can also see the supports that students are accessing, or they are building in support for specific students.

“They can get the data, and they’re tracking the success of their students,” said Czarnecki, “we are heavily using the opportunities provided for co-teaching and co-authoring in Actively Learn. Everyone who is working with students can see what’s happening.”

One reason Czarnecki and the district chose Actively Learn was, in Czarnecki’s words, that it gave them ‘one-stop shopping.’ “In this environment,” said Czarnecki, “being able to be consistent for the students’ sake and have them comfortable means teachers can streamline their instruction. They can get used to patterns of the work and can then focus on other things because it’s just become part of what they do, their work habits. I think that is important. I work with English teachers, but other content areas are using Actively Learn as well. Our Science and Social Studies teachers are also using it. It really has created some consistency for students and that goes a long, long way.”

Teachers have mentioned they feel like it gives them more immediate feedback. It scores some activities. Multiple-choice questions are scored immediately. On others , such as short answers or students who are annotating while they read, teachers can get in there and give their students real-time feedback. “It provides one more place for teachers to talk to their students outside the limited synchronous time they have,” said Czarnecki, “so that’s really been nice.”