Students in Merritt Oklahoma working on tablet in a classroom

Merritt Public Schools: How a Rural Oklahoma District Developed its Digital Learning Program

Walking into a Merritt Elementary School classroom today, you’ll find students using iPads to figure out math problems and submit their answers, while teachers grade those answers and provide feedback and follow-up support in real-time.

Merritt, a rural school district in a tight-knit community, wraps around three sides of Elk City, Oklahoma. It serves 807 students from pre-K through 12th grade, 60% of whom are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program. Many of the kids’ parents work on farms, oil fields, in the local prison, or for the school district itself.

While the feedback loop between teachers and students is rapid and highly personalized today, it wasn’t always that way. Merritt has spent the past five years steadily investing in a 1:1 student-to-device program and building out the technological infrastructure to support it. As a result of their efforts, teachers have seen far greater opportunities to marry critical thinking with digital learning in their classrooms.

The Path to a Successful Upgrade

Five years ago, when District Superintendent Jeff Daugherty first took on his role, he saw that the district was lagging behind in its technology use. 100 kbps per student may have been sufficient bandwidth when there were only 520 students and few devices, but as the student population and technology use grew, so did the district’s need for more robust broadband.

Merritt solicited the support of its E-rate consultant, Julie Watson, who provided invaluable advice on how to fund an upgrade. By the time two years had passed and the school had 800 students, Merritt had fully implemented a 1:1 student-to-device policy. With 1 Gbps of bandwidth and 1 Wi-Fi access point per classroom, the district meets the bandwidth goals set by the Oklahoma Connect & Learn Initiative and SETDA. Merritt can now rely on Internet access throughout the school without having to worry about the signal dropping.

The Impact

Before each student had an iPad, Merritt’s teachers used traditional worksheets, textbooks, and reading texts. Now, teachers create their own curriculum in iTunes U, and the majority of classrooms are paperless. Students learn through interactive courses that involve video, active creativity, and real-time feedback from their teachers.

Four years ago, before Merritt upgraded its network, no one in the third grade passed the Alpha Plus pre-test program at the beginning of the year. Each year since then, the number of third graders passing the test has crept upwards.

Creating Guidelines Around Classroom Technology Use

The process of upgrading a school network is never easy, and it isn’t just about adding devices or getting more bandwidth. The changes in technology use that Merritt’s leaders advocated were initially met with resistance.

Then, when each student had a device, it took time to develop structures and policies that would make technology use in the classroom safe and productive. Ultimately, Merritt decided:

  • Rather than blocking a set of websites, like Facebook or YouTube, when students first started on the 1:1 program, they would keep Internet access open and work backwards from there to see which sites students should not be able to access at school.
  • Regarding device ownership, they found that the best solution for them was to allow 5th grade students and older to “own” their devices and take them home.
  • In grades 7-12, students are permitted to download their own apps, games, music, and pictures to their devices.
  • The district implemented periodic checks to ensure that student device use adhered to the guidelines.

Naturally, integrating technology into the curriculum was a shift for some teachers. The district encouraged them to step outside of the box with their lessons and supported them through trial and error. With this approach, the excitement about the newly digitized curriculum was contagious amongst teachers. They began helping each other implement the digital classroom tools, going to ISTE, and sharing information and best practices with each other and at Edcamps.

Most importantly, Merritt educated the students’ parents about the purpose behind the 1:1 policy and the desired outcomes of increased technology use in the classroom. That gave parents the chance to decide whether they wanted the iPads brought home, and strengthened the overall communication between teachers and parents.

Learn more about how districts can use network upgrades to grow their digital learning programs.