Taking learning to new heights

Poway USD’s blended learning and professional development environment increases student engagement and the use of education technology
By: | Issue: February, 2020
February 7, 2020
Collaboration and blended learning in flexible seating environments is one of the main tenets of Poway USD’s Voyager ed tech professional development program, which gives teachers more opportunities for small-group and one-on-one interactions with their students.Collaboration in flexible seating environments is one of the main tenets of Poway USD’s Voyager professional development program, which gives teachers more opportunities for small-group and one-on-one interactions with their students.

An ed tech professional development and in-class coaching program has transformed education technology use at a San Diego district, with teachers going from not knowing how to use new technology in the classroom to now helping students in Google Suite while cooking dinner at home. Where random chromebooks were collecting dust, third-graders now collaborate with students in Australia via Skype.

This transformation came after the creation of the Voyager program in the 2017-18 school year. The initiative focuses on implementing blended learning practices and ed tech strategies to increase student engagement and interest.

“We developed a system of support for teachers to learn how to integrate and use the latest technology in the classroom,” says Superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps of Poway USD. “Ed tech allows our students to connect with the world and engage with ideas that help them ask more organic questions.”

Voice and choice

To participate in the Voyager program, teachers must first apply to determine which sessions they would benefit from most. “We provide ‘voice and choice,’ so teachers can choose what they want to learn and take it to the next level,” says Phelps.

Poway USD

  • Students: More than 36,000
  • Superintendent: Marian Kim-Phelps
  • Initiative launched: 2017-18 academic year

Teacher professional development begins in the summer and continue at various times throughout the year (see sidebar). Learning opportunities range from blended learning and station rotations to sessions where participants determine what to discuss and share their experiences.


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Tech cafes focus on specialized new concepts or topics that educators have expressed an interest in learning about.

At the end of the year, teachers participating in the program set up booths at a showcase event to share their best practices and student work. “Teachers who haven’t taken part in Voyager can use this opportunity to see what their peers in Voyager are doing,” says Phelps.

Innovation coaches work with teachers and students to provide expertise on how to use technology in the classroom and to help students share their projects with a wider audience. Innovation coaches also help during professional development for teachers.

Innovation coaches work inside classrooms with teachers and students to provide expertise in using digital tools and to help students share their projects with a wider audience.

Coaching for teachers—and students

To support Poway USD’s 39 schools, the district currently employs five full-time certified tech innovation coaches who went through a rigorous application process.

“We looked for teachers who had strong instructional practices with expertise in blended and tech integration, so they had to be well-versed and comfortable with ed tech,” says Phelps.

These leaders provide in-class mentoring throughout the year. Coaches monitor classes and provide feedback, teach side by side with educators, lead lessons, and share new concepts with teachers—and students.

Ed tech professional development and coaching days

  • Two full PD days in the summer
  • Two 40 minutes of “embedded coaching” each month
  • Two full PD days in the winter and spring
  • Three two-hour sessions after school per month
  • Showcase event at the end of the year

“This way, students can decide how they learn and what they learn,” says Phelps. “Students are more likely to take ownership of their own learning.”
Generating excitement and experimentation

The Voyager program promotes collaboration without much oversight from Poway administration.


Read: View the 2019 District of Distinction honorees


“We eliminated a top-down model where district leaders tell teachers what to do, so educators are encouraged to share ideas organically that they are excited about,” says Phelps. “Teachers feel more supported this way, and when you feel more supported, you are more inclined to try an untested innovative approach.”

Similarly, Poway USD doesn’t use an evaluative model, which further encourages teachers to develop and embrace new teaching methods.

“After PD, many districts have principals evaluate teacher performance and make sure they’re following certain guidelines,” says Phelps. “Instead, we’re telling teachers, ‘Hey, feel free to try something innovative.’”

Editor’s note: Due to a production error, a box accompanying this feature on Poway Unified School District in the February print edition included incorrect information. The info on the district seen above and in the digital edition of the magazine are correct.


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