Investigating the Impact of the Cisco 21st Century Schools Initiative on Forrest County Agricultural High School.

October 1, 2009

Forrest County Agricultural High School (FCAHS) is located in Brooklyn, a small rural town in southern Mississippi and part of the Hattiesburg Metropolitan Statistical Area. Unlike the other schools that participated in the Cisco 21S initiative, FCAHS is not part of a larger school district. Therefore, the unit of analysis throughout this summary is the school itself.

Over the four years of the 21S initiative, the schoolʼs population declined from 602 students in 2005-2006 to 555 students in 2008-2009. In the last year that figures were available (2007-2008), the student body was 30 percent African American and 69 percent White. In 2008-2009, 62 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.

For the 2008-2009 school year, the staff at FCAHS consisted of 4 administrators and 47 teachers. While 3 of the 4 administrators and 205 students (37 percent) completed an online survey in 2009, only 7 of the 47 teachers (15 percent), and only 7 parents (3 percent) did. Because of the low completion rate in all survey groups, in absolute and/or relative terms, it is not possible to derive percentage figures that are statistically reliable. Therefore, this report will focus on more qualitative observations of change that occurred over the span of the 21S initiative.

Vision and Leadership

Establishing a clear vision and well-defined expectations are the first order of business in developing a school change strategy. The Cisco 21st Century Schools Initiative (Cisco 21S Initiative) represents an intensive, four-year, $80 million investment in technology, training programs, and Cisco employee resources in Mississippi and Louisiana. Since the 21S Initiative began 4 years ago, FCAHSʼs vision has become crisper and more focused. In 2009, administrators were able to articulate a more specific goal of preparing students to become productive members of their community, state, and nation. In prior years, the goal was expressed more vaguely-that they wanted to prepare students for future endeavors.

To bring key stakeholders into the change process, administrators say they have created a leadership within the school. But simply crafting a vision is insufficient; it must also be sustained. In order to maintain the 21S vision even after Ciscoʼs support has ended, administrators report they have developed a sustainability plan to establish a dedicated technology budget, seek grants, develop partnership networks, and reallocate budget funds to new areas.

At Forrest County Agricultural High School, as elsewhere, the 21S Initiative centers around three structural transformations:

  • Connected District/School: The Connected District/School component established a secure and manageable baseline technology platform (data, voice, video, etc.), which encompasses all the equipment and human resources necessary to support all administrative and instructional processes in the school.
  • Connected Learning: The Connected Learning component promoted 21st century teaching and learning through new technologies, instructional approaches, and professional development.
  • Connected Community: The Connected Community component focused on fostering positive relationships between the school and a broad set of stakeholders, including parents, businesses, agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Connected District/School

The first step for FCAHS in becoming a Connected School was to build a safe, reliable, and robust technology infrastructure. This included installing cable throughout the building, establishing a security system, and upgrading science and math labs. Once built, the schoolʼs more robust infrastructure enabled FCAHS leaders to effectively address other components of the 21S vision.

The school also used initiative funds to buy equipment such as interactive whiteboards, laptops and laptop carts, Internet Protocol (IP) phones, microphones, video equipment, and scanners. In addition, leaders invested heavily in educational software such as BrainPOP, Fast Math, NovaNet, SuccessMaker Cognitive Tutor, and Ramp-Up. All administrators surveyed reported that the technology infrastructure implementation at the school is now on or above target, whereas none said that last year. The same leaders also said that current technical support is very or somewhat helpful.

In 2009, teachers and students reported a wide variety of technology tools and software in their classroom, including computers, interactive whiteboards, Internet and telecommunications equipment, organizational software, and Web 2.0 tools, but low survey responses made it difficult to determine how much, if at all, access to technology increased over time.

Connected Learning: Educator Outcomes

The Connected Learning component of the Initiative is focused on professional development (PD) resources and programs designed to promote leadership, technology integration, and student-centered instructional strategy. Measures of Connected Learning include the quality and quantity of professional development, and the frequency of constructivist1 teaching practices in the classroom.

Professional Development: At FCAHS, much of the technical training offered to teachers centered on the use of specific technology tools and software, such as Cognitive Tutor software, SAS Curriculum Pathways, and Ramp-Up to Literacy and Math programs. Teachers also attended the Cisco Networking Academy, and received an additional 40 hours of professional development over the summer. As the advancement placement (AP) courses were growing, many teachers also received subject-specific training in order to prepare them to teach those classes.

Teacher Use of Technology: In terms of technology, although results cannot be generalized, all seven teachers who responded to the 2009 survey reported using computers on a daily basis, while six of seven said they used interactive whiteboards, the Internet, and telecommunications daily. All three FCAHS administrators who responded to the survey indicated that there has been significant positive change in the overall quality of teaching in the district. In addition, two of the responding administrators believe there has been significant or system-level positive change in technology integration into the curriculum since the Cisco Initiative began, and a similar number report that teachersʼ ability to integrate technology into the curriculum is currently on target.

Connected Learning: Student Outcomes

Student engagement is measured through student inputs such as levels of participation in classroom activities and everyday reading practices, as well as test scores and changes in student behavior.

Student Use of Technology: Although only 37 percent of students completed the 2009 survey, 93 percent of these feel confident using a wide range of technology tools. Of these students, the vast majority said they were using the technology tools to research, organize, and evaluate, and that they were using more technology tools in their classrooms. All three administrators surveyed agreed that student Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) literacy has improved over the course of the 21S Initiative.

Student Engagement: Overall, students surveyed in 2009 agreed that they are active participants in their learning, indicating that they have opportunities to ask teachers questions about their work, have chances to be creative about their schoolwork, have a voice in their classrooms, and get to make choices about what they study at school. All three administrators who completed the survey and 88 percent of the 205 students who responded agreed that participation in the Cisco 21S Initiative has increased studentsʼ engagement in their classes. In addition, 85 percent of student respondents said they were learning more on their own.

Participation in Math/Science Fairs: The 21S initiative seems to have sparked greater interest in math and science among FCAHS students, as indicated by their participation in various student competitions. In 2009, the number of students participating in state-level math/science fairs increased six-fold over the prior year (from 2 students to 12), while district-level participation went up 50 percent (from 8 students to 12). Additionally, although no data was available for prior years, the school saw a large number of student entries (87) in contests in 2009.

Student Behavior: While there are many factors that affect student behavior, it is encouraging to see positive behavior patterns at FCAHS throughout the course of the Cisco Initiative. According to data provided by the school, absenteeism decreased significantly in 2009 (5673 vs. 7018 in 2008), while late arrivals declined by almost half (467 vs. 879 in 2008). Suspensions likewise declined from 192 to 148.

Broader Course Offerings: Offering more diverse courses was also an important component of the Connected Learning strategy. To prepare students for college, SAT and ACT prep courses are now offered at the school. In addition, FCAHS has made Advanced Placement (AP) classes available to students in a number of areas including Physics, Government, Economics, and US History. And, new agreements with local universities now allow FCAHS students to take college-level courses.

Student Test Results: While the number of responses was low, a majority of administrators, teachers, and students who completed surveys believed that student performance on state tests has improved as a result of the Cisco 21S Initiative. These beliefs are supported by test data.

FCAHS students made gains in three of the four Subject Area Testing Program tests between 2007-2008 and 2008-2009. The largest increase in passing scores occurred in Algebra I, with an impressive 16 percent gain. FCAHS students outperformed their peers across the state on two (Biology and U.S. History) of the four subject tests in 2009.

Graduation Rates: The declining population of FCAHS makes year-to-year comparisons tricky, but it is important to note that even with fewer students, the absolute number of graduates has risen every year of the Cisco Initiative (105, 110, 123, and 125 respectively), and dropout rates have correspondingly dropped (43, 37, 37, and 28).

College Preparation: The 21S Initiative also aims at increasing studentsʼ ability to enter and succeed in college. School data show that over the four years, many more students are taking the ACT college admissions exam. Between 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, the ACT participation rate rose steadily every year. For the first three years, the increased participation was accompanied by an increase in average ACT scores (19.2 in 2006, 20.1 in 2007, and 21.0 in 2008). However, in 2009, the average ACT score decreased by 2 points to 19.0. This decrease may be due in part to the dramatic increase in the ACT participation rate to 96 percent of students, up 27 percent over the prior year). The number of students taking AP courses has also increased over the past four years, but to date, no students have sat for an AP test.

Connected Community

This component of the 21S Initiative involves reaching out to parents and community members to educate them about the 21st century education vision and its implementation. At FCAHS, all three administrators surveyed reported that their decision-making process includes community members, partners such as civic organizations, tutoring programs, community service organizations, and faith-based groups.

Parents are an important part of the school community, and all FCAHS administrators say they have sought out parentsʼ ideas and opinions to inform decision-making when appropriate. However, although survey responses are too low to be statistically reliable, those parents who responded to the survey gave low ratings to outreach efforts and school-provided resources. One bright note is that parent attendance at open houses has increased by 60 percent over the four years of the Initiative.

Remaining Challenges

While important gains have been made over the course of the 21S Initiative, it appears that a number of significant challenges remain before FCAHS fully achieves its vision of becoming a 21st century learning environment. The fact that student response rates-and especially teacher and parent response rates-were low on 2009 surveys may indicate that other issues are claiming stakeholder attention, or may be a symptom of change fatigue. The lack of response perhaps does indicate that fullfledged commitment to the Cisco Initiative may need to be rekindled.

Vision and Leadership Challenges: The low teacher response rate makes comparisons difficult, but in general, FCAHS administratorsʼ expectations for teachers tend to outpace how teachers perceive those expectations. This suggests that teachers may benefit from further education about the 21S vision and their role in achieving it.

Connected School Challenges: The connected schools component of the Initiative may need improvement in the following areas:

  • Two of the three FCAHS administrators who responded to the 2009 survey indicated several areas where they have faced difficulties in implementation, specifically, in providing adequate levels of technical support and in maintaining technology-based security in the school.
  • Of the 7 teachers who responded to the 2009 survey, 4 said their access to stable, reliable Internet connections is below their expectations.
  • While all responding teachers said that they have access to computers, 3 of 7 indicated that they do not have access to enough computers to accommodate their students.

Connected Learning Challenges: EDC analysis of the Connected Learning component of the Initiative shows a number of areas where improvement is needed. Additional focus on these areas may help transform established practices.

  • Changing Practices: Two of three administrators indicated that changing antiquated teaching philosophies has been a challenge.
  • Student Use of Technology: Students report that they rarely use video cameras, digital cameras, and video conferencing equipment, use e-mail to communicate with their teachers or with students from other countries, collaborate with students from other schools on academic projects, or discuss ideas from readings or class with teachers outside of class.
  • Building Teacher Skills: Four of the seven FCAHS teachers who responded to the survey rated their skills using Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), Web 2.0 tools, video conferencing equipment, and student assessment software at the novice level. As these are the areas where the fewest teachers have received training, future professional development on these topics could help build teachersʼ skills.
  • Integrating Technology into the Curriculum: Four of the seven responding FCAHS teachers indicated that their ability to integrate technology into the curriculum is somewhat or not proficient and that they do not receive enough professional development support around using technology tools and software.

Connected Community Challenges: In addition to its successes, there are several areas where FCAHS has had difficulties implementing the Connected Community component of the Initiative. These may be opportunities to target as the Initiative continues.

  • Community Outreach: Two administrators out of the three who responded to the 2009 survey report difficulties getting community members involved in the program, and feel that involvement of local businesses and local institutes of higher learning in the school has not increased over the course of the Initiative.
  • Parental Outreach: Those FCAHS parents who completed the survey reported that the schoolʼs outreach efforts have been largely unsuccessful, and that resources to support their involvement in the school were largely unavailable.

Lessons Learned

As the 21S Initiative draws to a close, and Cisco ends its formal partnership with Forrest County Agricultural High School, it is appropriate to look back at the experience to identify the lessons learned. Effective leadership is among the most powerful factors in any school transformation. Complicating the picture at FCAHS are the low response rates and small numbers of the various stakeholder groups. Still, looking back at the past four years of the Initiative, some recommendations can be framed from both positive and negative findings concerning the FCAHS experience. To achieve an effective transformation, school leaders should commit themselves to:

  • Creating a powerful and dynamic vision of a 21st century learning environment that involves all members of its stakeholder community
  • Crafting structures and processes to enable key stakeholders to share in the vision and guide its ongoing evolution
  • Providing vehicles and processes to foster communication and collaboration among educators, parents, and community members
  • Crafting an ambitious professional development plan and bolstering it with technical and pedagogical support
  • Strategically cultivating community partnerships

To begin the transformation of Forrest County Agricultural High School into a 21st century learning environment capable of supporting greater administrative efficiencies and a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, school leaders did the following:

  • Revamped the technology infrastructure and improved access to software, hardware, wireless Internet connections, and technology-based security systems within the school
  • Installed a variety of educational hardware and software in the classroom to support student learning
  • Provided technical support to teachers and administrators
  • Supported additional professional learning opportunities aimed at promoting effective technology use and instruction within the school
  • Created richer and broader course offerings for students.


Elizabeth Pierson
Harouna Ba
Terri Meade