David Woodall’s introduction to Beyond Textbooks didn’t come during a meeting of school district officials, but in between breaths as he was preparing for a marathon.
Woodall, superintendent of the Benson Unified School District, was listening as his running partner, Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker, described a program that would allow teachers and administrators to digitally share curriculums, lesson plans and timelines for when to teach certain state standards.
Just as Woodall was starting to lose interest, he was asked if Benson would help pilot the fledgling initiative, which Baker thought could spread to school districts statewide.
“I’m a cheap person,” he said during a recent Beyond Textbooks conference that attracted more than 400 educators. “He said, ‘Free,’ and I said, ‘We’re interested.’ ”
Five years after that conversation, Benson is one of almost 90 school districts and charter schools around the state using Beyond Textbooks, with many claiming the program has helped improve academic achievement.
The program has expanded rapidly in the last three years, with Vail School District officials traveling to about 250 schools throughout the state to lead training sessions, said Kevin Carney, executive director of Beyond Textbooks.
Beyond Textbooks serves as a database for lessons and resources aligned with state standards, cataloged by grade and subject for teacher access.
Vail officials created the program in 2008 in an effort to digitize the district’s curriculum and operate more efficiently.
“We started to have real success in our schools here in Vail. We said, ‘We’re doing terrific, but how can we do better?’ ” Carney said. “At the time, our process was all paper so we asked ourselves ‘How can we digitize this and create a shared space where teachers can share teaching resources?’ ”
Benson was the first district to partner with Vail in 2009, but other districts began inquiring, asking how they could tap into the database. Vail eventually created a professional development course to guide partnering districts, requiring teachers and officials in those districts to complete five sessions.
“It’s about giving them access to our playbook, so to speak, and, secondly, giving a very structured, required professional development series,” Carney said. “And working really hard on those relationships.”
Some of the challenges include persuading teachers and other staffers to accept changes that come with learning a new system, he said.
It usually costs the partnering school districts at least $10,000 within a two-year period to partner with Vail and receive the training.
Beyond Textbooks has been especially helpful to smaller school districts that have fewer resources to focus on developing and changing curriculums to align with standards.
“For small school districts, we can spend more time working on classroom instruction and less time reinventing the wheel,” Woodall said.
Benson, which is Vail’s neighbor to the east, has about 1,200 students.
The Arizona Department of Education honored Benson last year for having the top-performing school district in the state, an honor previously held by Vail.
Woodall credited Beyond Textbooks for helping the district accomplish that feat.
“It was a big part of our success,” he said. “We have an outstanding staff and, without staff, no curriculum is going to create success.”
Queen Creek Unified School District officials also credited the program with academic improvement, although the district was already one of the higher-performing districts in the state.
The suburban district southeast of the Phoenix area has about 5,000 students.
“The district was in a position where they were approaching new standards and they really, truly lacked the manpower to develop quality curriculum maps throughout all the grade levels,” said Perry Berry, director of curriculum for Queen Creek.
The district implemented the program in kindergarten through eighth grade last year before expanding it to high school, Berry said.
“This system works only if you have high-quality teachers and strong leadership. It’s very important to recognize those other ingredients,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a silver bullet.”