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Union County Public Schools: A culture of innovation

On a cold winter day in January, Ann Goodnight, director of community relations at SAS and education philanthropist, invited me to join her on a trip to Union County. Needless to say, I was curious and blocked out the day on my calendar.

From the moment I pulled up to the first school, it was clear that the Union County Public Schools (UCPS) want to innovate at a level that is recognized internationally, and countries like Finland, Singapore, and Australia set the bar.

Several visits later, EdNC is spotlighting innovations in Union County, including its Classrooms of Tomorrow and Partners in Learning with UNC Charlotte.


Union County Public Schools

Some context first.

Depending on where you are in Union County, it is about 30 miles or so from Charlotte. Here are the district’s facts and figures for 2015-16:

Everyone I have met in the Union County Public Schools attributes the culture of innovation that pervades this school system to the now-retired Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis. When I request a photo of Ellis, I am told, “She tended to stay away from the camera to let the teachers and students shine.” The mark of a true leader.

And in this district, leadership — at all levels — matters. The strategic plan says:

“Capable, visionary leadership at all levels of the organization that is constantly focused on the aim of the system is necessary to sustain high performance results that inspire and engage students and other stakeholders.”

Savill looks over one of her Classrooms of Tomorrow.
Savill looks over one of her Classrooms of Tomorrow.

On my most recent visit to Union County, Andrea Savill, a former teacher who is now the coordinator for Classrooms of Tomorrow, explains to me how Dr. Ellis strategically built the culture, layering one innovation on another leading up to the implementation of the Classrooms of Tomorrow and the Partners in Learning initiatives.


Savill says it started with a 1:1 laptop initiative six years ago.

An article in K-12 Tech Decisions chronicles the evolution of digital learning in UCPS, including why the district chose a 1:1 initiative over Bring Your Own Device (BYOD):

“Union County wanted its students to be creators of media, not simply consumers. In a BYOD environment teachers would have to be conscious of picking tools that are device agnostic, meaning they would work across multiple operating systems. Otherwise teachers would have to have knowledge of several different tools and how to troubleshoot them.

‘Bring your own device is not really conducive to production in the classroom,’ [said the late] Scott Jacumin, lead instructional technology facilitator at UCPS. ‘What happens is the device becomes a consumption tool and a teacher says let’s research X rather than let’s produce Y.'”

More than 20 career academies were then introduced, including Automotive Repair Academy (ARA)Aviation Academy (AVA)Broadcasting & TV Programming Academy (MPB)Carpentry Academy (CTC)Clean Energy Academy (CEA)Collision Repair Academy (CRA)Cosmetic Arts & Science Academy (CAS)Culinary Arts Academy (CAA)Drafting Academy – Engineering and/or Architecture (DEA)Early Childhood Education Academy (ECA)Electrical Trades Academy (CETA)Emergency Medicine Academy (PSE)Engineering Technology Academy (ETech)Fire Fighter Academy (PSF)Film Editing & Production Academy (MPF)Geographic Information Systems Academy (GIS)Health Informatics Academy (HIA)Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning Academy (CTH)Masonry Academy (CTM)Nurse Aide Academy (NAA)Project Lead the Way Engineering (PEA)Veterinary Assisting Academy (VAA), and Welding Academy (CTW). My guess is any student can find an academy on that list that excites them. I can find several.

According to the website:

Union County Public Schools Career and Technical Education strives to provide a wide array of small personalized learning communities within different high schools across the county. Students can apply for entrance into an academy through a voluntary application process which requires parent approval, support, and knowledge. Academy classes are often taught by teachers from various industries and have real-world experience and knowledge in their specialty area.

UCPS then built its own virtual school.

With seven full-time teachers and several adjuncts, some students take virtual classes because the class is not offered at their school, others want to graduate early, and some just like the ability to pace themselves.

“What makes UC Virtual different from other online programs is the face-to-face learning that students have with their teachers,” says an article written about the virtual school on the district’s website. Teachers in the virtual schools visit and work their students at the students’ base schools.

Kathy Glasheen, a science teacher in the virtual schools, says “I might have 20 science students, but at nine different schools. So when I go to one school, I’m there to see maybe two students, but when I go to another, I might see 10. It all depends on the courses we’re teaching.”

Just to give you a sense, these are the fall 2016 course offerings:

  • ACT Prep
  • Advanced Environmental Science Topics – Honors
  • Advanced Inquiry and Research – Honors
  • American History I
  • American History I – Honors
  • Arts Appreciation
  • Arts Appreciation – Honors
  • Biomedical Technology
  • Business Law (Honors)
  • Career Management
  • Civics & Economics
  • Civics & Economics – Honors
  • Earth and Environmental Science
  • Earth and Environmental Science – Honors
  • English I
  • English I – Honors
  • English III
  • English III – Honors
  • English IV
  • English IV – Honors
  • Global Awareness
  • Global Awareness – Honors
  • Leadership Exploration
  • Leadership Exploration – Honors
  • Math II
  • Math II – Honors
  • Math III
  • Math III – Honors
  • Mythology
  • Mythology – Honors
  • OCS Blended American I
  • OCS Blended Applied Science
  • OCS Blended English I
  • OCS Blended Introduction to Math
  • Personal Finance
  • Principles of Business
  • Psychology/Sociology
  • Psychology/Sociology – Honors
  • Success 2.0


According to the website:

The mission of Union County Virtual School (UCV) is to provide a positive, interactive, and nurturing environment that facilitates learning in an online setting.  UCV incorporates three core values—Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships—into all courses, focuses on teacher student communication, and is dedicated to providing the highest caliber educational experience in a virtual environment.

These innovations set the stage for the Classrooms of Tomorrow and Partners in Learning initiatives that initially caught my attention. Stay tuned…

Union County Public Schools: A culture of innovation

Union County Public Schools: Classrooms of Tomorrow

Union County Public Schools: Partners in Learning Collaborative connects philanthropy, policy, and practice

Union County Public Schools: Talent matters

Editor’s Note: SAS and The Goodnight Educational Foundation support the work of EdNC.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.