Investigating the Impact of the Cisco 21st Century Schools Initiative on Forrest County School District

October 1, 2009

Located in southern Mississippi, the Forrest County School District (FCSD) consists of six schools: three K-6 elementary schools, two K-8 elementary-middle schools, and one high school (grades 9-12), all of which have been involved in the Cisco Initiative since its inception. The district employed 16 administrators, 7 technology staff members, and 224 teachers in 2009.

Student enrollment numbers in the district have been relatively stable (with minor fluctuations) over the four years since the Cisco Initiative began. In 2008-2009, 2,420 students were enrolled; 41 percent were African American, 58 percent were White, and 1 percent were Hispanic. Students eligible for free or reduced lunch totaled 72 percent.

In the FCSD, the participation rate in the survey studies has increased significantly over time, so year-to- year interpretation is complicated. For example, 7 of 7 technology personnel completed the survey in 2009, whereas none completed the 2008 survey. Student participation over the same period increased from 3 to 14 percent, but is still too low to provide generalizable findings. Teacher responses were received from 57 percent of staff in 2009, up from 22 percent in 2008 and 19 percent in 2007, but parent rates for all years never surpassed single-digit percentages. Administrator responses were highest in 2009, but even then, only 6 of 16 administrators responded. Because of these challenges, qualitative findings will be emphasized, and all findings in this summary should be understood in this context.

Vision and Leadership

A clear and well-communicated vision is an essential element in transforming a school district into an effective 21st century learning environment. From the beginning of the Initiative, Forrest County administrators' vision for the program has focused on raising student achievement and increasing student motivation.

As the vision has matured over time, the language used to describe it has moved from vague notions of -growth,- -opportunity,- and -inspiration- to more concrete conceptions of -mathematical proficiency,- -successful transition to high school,- and -strong work ethic.- In 2007, administrators spoke of their hope that technology would give students more -opportunities to grow- and would -enhance the educational process.- By the last year of the Initiative, that vision had become more specific, centering on preparing students as -productive citizens [who would be] competitive in a growing market.-

In 2009, 100 percent of administrators and 98 percent of teachers who answered the survey agreed that technology is an integral part of the overall education program in their district, thus showing strong congruence around this central pillar of the 21S vision.

The 21S Initiative is built 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 district.
  • Connected Learning: The Connected Learning component supported administrators, teachers, and technology personnel to create 21st century learning environments through access to expertise and international best practices.
  • Connected Community: The Connected Community component helped schools develop plans for interacting effectively with parents, local businesses, and community members and turn each participating school into a hub of the community.

Connected District/School

To create a 21st century learning environment capable of supporting administrative efficiencies and a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, the district revamped its entire technology infrastructure and acquired new technology tools.

Infrastructure and Tools: FCSD acquired hardware, such as interactive whiteboards, laptops, digital cameras, video conferencing equipment, and microphones. The software purchases included BrainPop, Fast Math, Nova Net, and Berbee Internet Protocol (IP) phone software. New math and science labs were built, security systems were upgraded, and ports were installed for NovaNet curriculum software. District Access: Implementation appears to have been successful in Forrest County. In 2009, all administrators and technology personnel survey respondents reported that the overall state of implementation in Forrest County was on or above target. By contrast, in 2008, 75 percent of administrators rated implementation below expectations, and in 2007, 60 percent of technology staff said that implementation was below expectations. Looking more closely at specific implementation efforts, this past year, 100 percent technology personnel reported that access to hardware, software, network services, and IP phone technology has been on target or above their expectations, and 100 percent reported significant positive change in infrastructure, equipment, and Internet reliability.

School Access: Access to technology at the school and classroom level has also increased in a number of important areas. In 2009, all technology personnel surveyed reported that wireless Internet in the schools is on or above target, compared to only 20 percent in 2007. All agreed, as well, that technology installation into classrooms was on target or above expectations-an increase of 60 percentage points from 2007.

Teacher Access: Forrest County teachers report greater access to a wide array of technological tools and software, with the biggest gains in access to video equipment, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and interactive whiteboards. Almost all (90 percent) of surveyed teachers said they had access to computers, Internet and telecommunications, and organizational software.

Technical Support: Having equipment, though, is of little value unless it is properly supported and maintained. Fortunately, Forrest County has made great strides in providing technical support as well. In 2009, technology staff reported that they spend, on average, 6 hours weekly supporting teachers in their use of technology tools, about the same as in 2007. Since 2007, though, the amount of time spent troubleshooting and maintaining equipment has increased by over 8 hours per week.

Teachers and administrators appreciate these efforts. In the last year of the Cisco Initiative, 100 percent of administrators stated technology staff members were very helpful, and almost three-quarters of surveyed teachers said technical support was either frequently or always available.

Connected Learning: Educator Outcomes

The Connected Learning component of the Initiative is focused on professional development resources and programs aimed at leadership and administrative practices, technology access and integration, and student-centered instructional practice. Other measures of Connected Learning include the quality and quantity of professional development and ongoing instructional and technology integration support for educators.

Professional Development: The biggest focus of professional development in Forrest County centered around pedagogy and instruction. Staff attended seminars by companies such as Understanding By Design, Education Trust, Marzano's Engaged Learning, and International Center for Leadership in Education. Because of an increase in advanced placement (AP) courses offered to students, subject-specific trainings were offered to teachers of those classes. Teachers also took advantage of IC31 technology training, as well as product-specific workshops on tools such as interactive whiteboards and SuccessMaker software.

To change an entire system, all parts of the system need to change. Thus, professional development was offered to administrators and technology staff, as well as teachers, to update their knowledge, skills, and practices. The majority of administrators reported seeing significant change in the quality and amount of professional development provided for them. While only 29 percent of technology personnel reported seeing significant change, the level of their satisfaction was high for the training they did receive.

Technology Integration Support: In addition to the considerable technology support they receive from the district's technology personnel, teachers also benefit from the support of the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) interns. These interns are college students and recent college graduates who provide another level of technology integration support. Teachers' perceptions of administrative support have remained consistently positive over time. Almost all teachers surveyed agreed that research and best practices are shared in their school, and that the discussion of school goals and how to achieve them is a regular part of faculty meetings. Additionally, 70 percent of teachers surveyed said that they have sufficient administrative support to effectively integrate technology into their lessons.

Proficiency: One of the impacts of professional development in the district is that 90 percent of teachers surveyed said they were highly proficient, somewhat proficient, or approaching high proficiency in their ability to integrate technology into their teaching practices. As a result of the training and ongoing support they have received, in 2009 almost 80 percent of teachers surveyed reported using technology in their classes frequently.

Communication and Collaboration: To drive innovation in the schools, teachers must be able to share their growing understandings and exchange best practices. In the FCSD, two-thirds of administrator respondents and over 70 percent of technology staff surveyed agreed that there has been significant change in teacher collaboration over the course of the Initiative. Over three-quarters of teachers surveyed also reported that they frequently meet to share ideas and improve instructional practices, interact with global networks, share samples of students' work, and mentor each other. Research shows too that teachers learn best from each other-so it's encouraging that 75 percent of teachers surveyed said they have role models in their school for integrating technology.

Connected Learning: Student Outcomes

The most significant measure of the 21S Initiative, of course, is its impact on student learning. EDC researchers looked for evidence of student achievement and student engagement and measured such inputs as participation in classroom activities, graduation, absenteeism, and behavior incidents.

As noted earlier, the 2008-2009 school year saw a higher survey completion rate among students than the prior year (14 percent up from 3 percent). The difference in completion rates complicates any year-to- year comparisons of survey data, while the low return rates every year (even in 2009) make it inappropriate to generalize the findings to the whole student population.

Student Use of Technology: Students are the ultimate consumers of the technology that FCSD has put in place as a result of the 21S Initiative. Happily, of those students responding, almost all registered a high level of satisfaction with the technological access in their classrooms, with over 90 percent saying they were using more technology in their classes, and that they felt confident using a wide range of tech tools. All administrators and 71 percent of technology personnel believed that students' Information and Communication Technology (ICT) literacy has improved as a result of participating in the Cisco 21S Initiative.

Student-Centered Instruction: The 21S Initiative also aimed at changing instructional practice to focus more attention on progressive instructional techniques and active teaching of 21st century skills. These efforts have paid off according to two-thirds of responding administrators and over half of technology personnel who report a positive change in the overall quality of teaching since the Cisco 21S Initiative began. Those teachers who responded to the survey report high levels (90 percent) of student-centered teaching practices, such as having students use higher order thinking skills, asking open-ended questions, having students work in collaborative groups, and encouraging them to present their work to the class. Although comparison is tricky, in 2009 teachers reported employing these practices more frequently than in the prior year.

Student Achievement: While test scores should not be seen as the only, or even best, measure of student learning, they are useful ways to assess content mastery. Highlights on state tests include:

  • On mathematics, the percentage of Forrest County students scoring proficient or above increased in two of the six grades tested. The largest increase was for seventh-grade students, where the percentage of students scoring proficient or above increased by 4 percentage points.
  • On language arts, between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above increased in four of the six grades tested. The largest increase was for fourth-grade students, with an increase of 6 percentage points. Further, the 6th and 8th grade students either outperformed or scored at the same level as students across the state.
  • There have been increases in the percentage of Forrest County students receiving passing scores on two of the four SATP (Subject Area Testing Program) subject tests, specifically, the algebra and U.S. history tests. In addition, in 2009, Forrest County students outperformed their peers across the state on the algebra, U.S. history, and biology tests.

Graduation and College Preparation: Graduation rates remained relatively stable in terms of student dropout and high school graduation between the first two years of the Cisco program. Providing a more qualitative view, 80 percent of both teachers and administrators who answered the 2009 survey were confident that students are better prepared for college and the workforce. A similar number of students (80 percent) said they were confident that they are better prepared for college and future employment. Many students have participated in college preparatory activities this past year, with more than 50 percent of those surveyed saying they gained work experience and 43 percent saying they took a college preparatory exam. Far fewer students, however, participated in community service in 2009 than 2008 (a 23 percentage point drop).

Course Offerings: Providing more diverse courses was also an important component of the Connected Learning inputs (33 percent). Forrest County schools chose to offer AP classes for science and math, as well as more courses in language arts and math. There has also been an emphasis on preparing students for college, with an increase in funding for college level courses as well as an emphasis on dual-enrollment classes.

According to the district, the number of students taking AP courses increased in 2008-2009. However, no students have taken AP subject tests in the past three years. In 2005-2006, the American College Test (ACT) participation rate in the FCSD was 80 percent, with students achieving a composite score of 18.9, which decreased to 18.2 in 2006-2007 and went up significantly to 18.8 in 2007-2008.

Student Fairs: The number of students participating in math and science fairs at the district level increased between 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, but then decreased slightly in the following years. The number of student entries in a local reading fair has steadily decreased over the past four years.

Student Engagement: In addition to test scores, EDC researchers sought out other measures of student learning. The vast majority of teachers, administrators, and students surveyed agree that students have become more engaged in their classes. Students report their class participation has increased as has the frequency of measures of student-centered learning, such as the use of higher order thinking skills, preparing two or more drafts of a paper or assignment, and asking open-ended questions.

District-provided data on absenteeism and late arrivals shows very large swings from year to year, suggesting that this data may be unreliable. For instance, absences in the district ranged from 19,597 incidents in 2006 to 23,328 in 2008, but dropped to 5,516 in 2009. Such a precipitous drop is not credible, so perhaps there is a reporting error. Other numbers show similar, if less dramatic, swings. Readers are referred to the full report for this data.

Forrest County students who took the 2009 survey were asked to respond to eight statements about the amount of support available to them in their schools. Most students agreed that they have at least one adult in their school who cares about them (81 percent), and that overall people in their school accept them for who they are (71 percent). Additionally, many also agreed that they feel safe at school (75 percent), and they feel supported and respected by teachers (77 percent), administrators (82 percent), and their peers (66 percent).

Connected Community

The Connected Community component of the 21S Initiative centers on promoting positive relationships with parents and the larger community. Forrest County's multifaceted approach included reaching out to key stakeholders to inform them about the Initiative and to seek their support and input regarding its implementation. The district also made efforts to work with local universities to improve its technology mentoring program, and began to offer after-school computer lab access in an effort to increase ICT literacy among students and community members.

All administrators and most teachers (84 percent) surveyed said that parents' ideas and opinions are actively sought out to inform decision-making when appropriate. Low survey response rates from parents make it difficult to validate that claim. However, according to those who did reply, there has been an increase in parental outreach by Forrest County Schools. The district has employed a variety of communication methods within the schools to keep parents informed, and more parents are receiving phone calls and e-mails from their children's school, and using the FCSD's websites to stay informed.

Remaining Challenges

Vision and Leadership Challenges

Clear Expectations: Despite the high levels of agreement among FCSD leaders, EDC research suggests that teachers are not fully aware of what leaders expect of them. On a number of measures, administrators expect their teachers to engage in activities much more frequently than teachers believe they are expected to, most notably, in the areas of performance-based assessments, preparing students to take standardized tests, and using the Internet to post lesson plans. Setting and communicating these expectations would help ensure that teachers know what to prioritize in their day-to-day teaching.

Change Management: Additionally, the district would benefit from developing a change management process for monitoring innovation throughout its education system. In 2009, 40 percent of administrators reported that they have not developed any type of process, and an additional 20 percent said they have created a process but have strayed from that blueprint. Coupled with well-articulated vision, a change management plan can help identify specific steps to reaching previously identified goals, and assist with budget management and long-term planning.

Sustainability: Forrest County would do well to develop alternative sustainability strategies if the district hopes to maintain its current technology infrastructure and professional development support system. While developing a specific budget for technology is the first step, few administrators or technology staff mentioned responding to grants, fundraising, or developing partnership support networks as a means to securing long-term funding.

Connected District/School Challenges

About one-third of administrators felt that providing ongoing access to hardware was a challenge. A similar number of teachers surveyed agreed that they do not have access to an adequate number of computers for their students.

Connected Learning Challenges

Technology Integration: Two-thirds of administrators surveyed saw challenges ahead in providing sufficient technical professional development, in getting teachers to integrate technology into their lesson plans, and in changing outdated teaching philosophies.

Use of Data: Technology can also promote learning by providing data to enable instruction to be tailored to the individual student. In 2009 in FCSD, more than 80 percent of administrators surveyed reported seeing significant change in the use of data to inform instructional decisions. However, fewer technology personnel (57 percent) reported this level of change in data use. And 40 percent of surveyed teachers reported that they are never expected to use data to inform instructional practices; however, 96 percent believed that teachers used data to inform their instructional practices. This conflicting profile suggests that expectations and practice around data use are not yet well-articulated, and consistent and frequent use of data to inform decision-making has not yet taken hold in the district.

Technical Support: More than half of the technology staff reported the lack of adequate staffing as a great challenge. Lack of training may also be hindering their efficiency. Over 85 percent of technology personnel surveyed reported they did not receive training in 2009 in products, software, or integration of technology, and 100 percent said that they did not receive any training in security administration, network management, wireless Internet technologies, or team building.

Connected Community Challenges

Two-thirds (67 percent) of administrators noted that it is a challenge to get more parents and community members involved in the program the district offers. Yet few of the parents who responded to the survey reported that their children's school offered activities and events outside traditional work hours (35 percent), technical support (26 percent), or outreach staff (26 percent) to help increase their involvement.

Lessons Learned

As the 21S Initiative draws to a close, and Cisco ends its formal partnership with the FCSD, it's appropriate to look back at the experience to identify the lessons learned. Effective leadership is among the most powerful factors in any school transformation. Looking back at the past four years of the Initiative, a number of recommendations can be framed from the Forrest County findings. To achieve an effective transformation, school leaders should commit themselves to the following:

  • Creating and communicating a clear vision of a 21st learning environment that involves all members of its stakeholder community
  • Crafting structures and processes to enable key stakeholders to participate in the change process
  • Providing vehicles and processes to foster communication and collaboration among educators, parents, and community members
  • Building an ambitious professional development plan and bolstering it with ongoing technological and pedagogical support
  • Strategically cultivating community partnerships

In moving the FCSD into a 21st century learning environment, school leaders were able to make important steps towards the realization of their vision by enacting the following:

  • Revamping the technology infrastructure and improving access to software, hardware, wireless Internet, and technology-based security systems at both district and school levels
  • Installing a variety of educational hardware and software in the classroom to support student learning
  • Providing technical support to teachers and administrators
  • Offering teachers, administrators, and technology staff professional development learning opportunities to foster effective technology use and instruction within the district
  • Enabling teachers to collaborate and share best practices
  • Promoting student-centered teaching practices to prepare students for life in an ever-changing global economy
  • Offering richer and broader courses for students

EDC researchers also conducted a correlation analysis to determine the relationships between Forrest County's implementation inputs and project outcomes. The analysis reveals the key programmatic components necessary for the systematic transformation of a small rural school district seeking to become a 21st century education system. They are as follows:

  • Access to software
  • Access to wireless and stable, reliable Internet services
  • An environment where communication and collaboration among teachers is encouraged
  • Consistent support for teachers from administrators
  • High-quality technical professional development, particularly in the area of technical support
  • Inclusion of parents and community members in the decision-making processes

Researchers also sought out those FCSD outcomes that had the greatest correlation to Connected School, Connected Learning, and Connected Community inputs. This analysis suggests that the following items are the most likely outputs when the right mix of school and district level inputs are in place:

  • Decreased student discipline problems
  • Increased student motivation and engagement
  • Increased number of students who are better prepared for future employment
  • Increased collaboration within the district
  • Increased collaboration with other school districts
  • Increased interaction with local institutes of higher learning
  • Improved community perception of the school or district.


Harouna Ba
Terri Meade
Elizabeth Pierson