Editor's note: This is the 4th in our series of best practices in Edtech transformation. Today’s focus is on collaboration with guest author Peg Maddocks, Executive Director of NapaLearns, a non-profit in northern California. In this post, Peg shares how Napa County, a region with 47 schools of diverse needs, has scaled project-based learning with the help of Google for Education. Read more about their experience in their case study.

Napa is much more than wineries, restaurants and rolling hills. Despite the perceived wealth and luxury of the region, many families are in financial need. In Calistoga, for instance, 73% of families fall below the poverty line. Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) serves 18,326 students, many of which have a history of limited access to technology. In 2012, NapaLearns partnered with NVUSD to create a program for promoting student engagement through project-based learning supported by technology.

We modeled the program on the approach of Napa’s New Tech High School, which serves 400 students. Since adopting Google Apps for Education in 2011, project-based learning has taken off at New Tech. Students use Google Docs and Sheets, stored and shared in Drive, along with Gmail and Hangouts, to work together on group projects. Students spend about 95% of their time solving real-world problems, like building a business plan for a local farm. This hands-on, collaborative approach has paid off—95% of New Tech graduates enroll in postsecondary education, compared to the standard of fewer than 40% in the region.

We wanted to bring project based learning to students in other schools, too, but we needed to do it at scale, and without the extra funds that New Tech High had used. But when we started, we found that many schools were still using PCs with slow, on-premise software, had no wireless networks and lacked enough devices for all students to use. At schools like St. Helena High School, our team worked with principals, administrators, IT leaders, teachers and families to support technology adoption. St. Helena switched to Google Apps for all of its students and teachers in 2012, and introduced Chromebooks for students in grades K-8.
By the end of summer 2013, 10 schools in NVUSD had started using Google Apps and Chromebooks to bring project-based learning to 7,200 students. Teachers who were early adopters of this approach have become examples for their peers. So far, the district has purchased 3,500 Chromebooks for schools, and NapaLearns also started an access program to offer Chromebooks on a low-cost installment plan for students in financial need. We also provide free devices to foster children.

Today, students are more often bringing their learning outside the classroom. Napa recently experienced a 6.0 earthquake that shut down schools for two days, but because their work was in the cloud, thousands of students were able to work on assignments from home. One student who was injured in the earthquake has been homebound, but with Google Apps, he’s been able to continue much of his school work from home, regularly having Hangout sessions with his teachers.

Overall our schools have made great progress. Up and down the valley, we’re seeing project-based learning and improved collaboration transform students, schools and the community we call home.