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District : Bristol Tennessee City Schools

State : Tennessee

Level : P-12

District Enrollment : 1,001-10,000 students

Community Type : Rural

Related Tags : #GoOpen, Digital content, Openly Licensed Educational Resources, professional learning

Bristol Tennessee City Schools: From Obstacles to Opportunities Through Digital Learning Conversion

Bristol Tennessee City Schools has just over 4,000 students enrolled among five elementary schools, a single middle school, one brick-and-mortar high school, and a virtual high school. The district’s free and reduced lunch rate is just over 53%, with the rate at some of the four Title I schools significantly higher.

In an effort to provide all students with a high-quality, equitable learning experience through personalized learning strategies, Bristol embarked on a digital conversion in 2014 that has since expanded to provide every child in grades 4-12 with a laptop computer to keep and use throughout the school year.

A combination of changes including shifting content standards, a new state accountability and assessment system, and newly approved instructional paths, among other things, presented Bristol with opportunities disguised as challenges. One such opportunity was related to teaching math at the high school level.

Rather than teaching math as disparate disciplines, such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and analysis, districts now have the option to create integrated mathematics courses, which integrate topics and strands each year. Overwhelmingly, Bristol’s math teachers felt the integrated curricula was a superior option to pursue. This change, however, required different instructional resources than the traditional math textbooks that the district had been using. Unfortunately, no funds were available to purchase new textbooks as most of those resources had been shifted to purchase laptops for the digital conversion. “The digital conversion has enormous potential, but it requires a shift in how we approach teaching and learning. It also requires a different prioritization of resources,” said Dr. Gary Lilly, the district’s superintendent.

Additionally, teachers were excited about the change but a bit anxious about what it would mean instructionally. They needed a resource to provide direction, yet flexible enough to change as their understanding of the approach changed and in response to student needs. To meet this need, they formed a partnership with the Niswonger Foundation, to create an Integrated Math “Flexbook” OER that can be used by the district and others throughout the state (and elsewhere).

“The Niswonger Foundation is committed to scaling improvements in educational outcomes. The development of Open Educational Resources is a sound strategy to accomplish that and an efficient use of resources,” noted Dr. Richard Kitzmiller, the foundation’s Director of Programs.

With oversight from the foundation’s Director of Programs, and the district’s Curriculum Supervisor, a team was created to work on the resource, including district math teachers, a curriculum specialist, and a well-respected mathematics professor from nearby East Tennessee State University, who vetted chapters as they were created to ensure they were conceptually and pedagogically sound and consistent.

Through the foundation’s support, two adjunct teachers were hired to assume the teaching duties of Mr. Scott Lamie, one of the district’s virtual school teachers, for a semester which freed him to contribute to and assemble the Flexbook using the tools and framework available through He remarked that an added benefit to the project was the connection, trust, and understanding that formed among team members. “Creating the Flexbook was like having a PLC on steroids,” said Lamie.

The Flexbook has proved invaluable as teachers have embarked on their first year of integrated math instruction. While serving as a resource to plan instruction, it remains malleable, giving teachers the autonomy to use their professional judgment.

Here is some advice that Bristol Tennessee City Schools offers to other districts who are just starting out on this journey:

  1. There are no unicorns – No software or program will ever have everything that you want, and you can drain the energy out of a project by spending an inordinate amount of time looking for this. Your team needs to pick the products and systems that meet an appropriate amount of criteria and then work to integrate other parts into that system as you move along.
  2. Don’t forget content creation – It’s great to find material already available online, but students may lose some connection to the process if the teacher never provides digital materials that he or she has made. Even a few items for every unit can make a big difference to show students that the teacher and school are as invested in the process as they expect students to be.
  3. Focus on short term goals – It’s easy to think about all the wonderful things that can be done to connect students to openly available resources, but the likelihood of spirit-deflating problems is increased with every level of complexity added to a process. Focusing on small projects in the beginning gives teachers and students motivation to push further, and it makes for a strong base to build on once everyone is ready to tackle the next adventure.
  4. Create a small core of tech evangelists – No projects will run as smoothly as hoped. When frustration and confusion start to take over, it’s invaluable to have a group of people who are both dedicated to the process and to the staff available to address these issues, answer questions, and to act as sounding boards. There’s a major emotional component to making large shifts in practice, and it’s often nice just to have someone who understands what you’re going through…..and to help you figure out why “that program is doing that thing again.”

  5. Additional Resources

    From Bristol Tennessee City Schools:

    From the U.S. Department of Education:

    Point of Contact

    Dr. Annette Tudor