By Mike Fine, Deputy Superintendent, Riverside Unified School District and Chris Taylor, Regional Managing Principal, HMC Architects

The current system of how public schools operate is changing and many school districts are realizing that education shouldn’t be one size fits all. With the growth of private and charter schools it is clear parents are looking for choices.

Districts are evolving their curriculum to include programs focused on S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the arts, and language immersion programs. Additionally, districts are transitioning to becoming “Districts of Choice,” meaning they welcome all students including those from outside their district boundaries. Riverside USD has opted to be an early adopter in offering options for learning by giving residents programmatic choices for schools. By realizing that students learn differently and excel in various areas of studies, Riverside has been able to position itself as a district people seek out at a time when other districts are facing declining enrollment.

Creating a district with multiple programmatic choices requires extensive planning. The focus of each school must be determined first; then, individual school sites must tell their own stories to differentiate themselves from one another. This change in curriculum has impacted classroom design and furniture selection. Classrooms are treated as flexible learning environments where teachers can easily shift their style of teaching from a traditional lecture to one that focuses on group study work—all within the same classroom. This flexibility is a critical element in planning for how the next generation of students will learn and how effective teaching will be delivered.

Innovations in instructional technology have also tremendously impacted new options for learning. Technology requirements and capabilities are evolving at a rapid pace and in order for districts to remain competitive they need to stay ahead of the curve. In June 2012, Riverside USD was named the No. 1 Intelligent Community in the World by the Intelligent Community Forum. Riverside’s Ramona High School is building a culture of using technology by integrating it into its classroom design and school curriculum. The school has fully implemented “Data Dashboard,” an online system for measuring student performance. Data Dashboard gives an overview of a student’s course status, attendance, GPA, and homework assignments—all in real time. The school provides all students with Android smart-tablets so they are able to run the system while in the classroom or at home. For many students, owning a device like this is a new experience and they take great pride in taking proper care of the technology and utilizing it for class. Utilizing technology like the smart tablet actually allows learning to extend beyond the classroom walls and become something students can do at any time.

Much of the new technology requirements necessitate that schools undergo some form of modernization of technology infrastructure. The changes to IT infrastructure not only support the “plug and play” learning environment, it also helps improve administrative productivity and operational efficiency. To help reduce upfront capital technology costs, Riverside USD has established an Open Access policy that allows students and teachers to bring their own devices, such as laptops or iPads, into the classroom to promote learning. The District has opened its wireless network to allow these devices access to the internet. By permitting students to utilize personal technology, the District is able to focus its limited resources on students who do not have a computer or internet access at home. This is a key factor to ensuring the delivery of high quality digital curriculum resources to all students.

The District also has a virtual school where it provides classes to more than 3,000 students. A leader in virtual education on many levels, the District has written much of its own online curriculum. It staffs its virtual curriculum with progressive teachers who can properly guide the pace of the courses and effectively lead ongoing student interaction online. Students can take their classes online, make-up courses, or take high-level AP courses. As part of being a District of Choice, Riverside USD grants students from other districts access to these virtual programs. Providing these courses can be of great benefit to students of smaller districts that might not be able to hold and fill AP courses or a full complement of A-G courses on their own. Riverside USD works with a student’s home district to help facilitate the student’s needs and get them enrolled in the desired course.

For school districts to remain competitive they need to position themselves as not only a District of Choice, but also a district that students choose. As Riverside USD is experiencing, a student will best excel in his or her education when provided with a choice in educational programming and unrestricted access to technology.