“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” inarguably one of the longest running All-American clichés -- dating back more than 75 years to the 1939 premier of “The Wizard of Oz,” is being turned on its head by a Kansas City-Area school district. Olathe School District is merging a visionary educational philosophy with state-of-the-art technology to create a new kind of learning environment, all without crossing the Sunflower State’s borders.
With its total of nearly 30,000 students, the district contains five high schools, each with 21stCentury Academies that are themed to specific subjects such as public safety, culinary arts and sports medicine. The district has nine middle schools, 35 elementary and other specialty support buildings, making it one of the largest and the most progressive school districts in all of Kansas.
It is a nationwide pioneer in creating innovative physical and cultural communities. At the district’s newest high school, Olathe West, it has communities that offer centralized teacher office hubs rather than classrooms designated to individual teachers and enable students from separate district schools to take specialized classes together.
Such dynamism – students commuting between high schools to attend classes of special interest to them, classrooms within buildings being repurposed on a day by day basis – requires the hardiest infrastructure technology can provide. With more than 1600 projectors and over 700 flat panel displays deployed throughout the district, Panasonic, plays a key role in providing that infrastructure in both existing and planned buildings. When the district opened Olathe West in August 2017, they once again turned to Panasonic for their display needs.
According to Ron Wagner, the district’s Manager of Technology Projects, the district’s reliance on Panasonic is due to long experience with Panasonic’s reliable technology. “I'll have some unknowncompany come in and say ‘I'll sell you this one with twice as many lumens at half the price.’ But that’s just it. They are unknown. Who knows what quality I’d get? I know the quality of Panasonic and know they will take care of me if I do have an issue.”
Olathe West’s advanced teaching philosophy includes providing students with a college-like environment in which upper-class students get to pick and choose from related courses in a specific discipline – similar to “declaring a major” in college. It allows students undertaking a specific course of study to learn and collaborate together under the tutelage of educators with the most expertise in that coursework.
In each classroom, a 75-inch TH-75EF1U display with an integrated Crestron touchpad and Apple TV gives teachers access to general instructional videos, teacher-created lessons, hard-wired events happening in other parts of the school and carefully curated websites. “Within the constraints required by our secure networks, teachers have fairly wide access to the web,” Wagner notes. “They can, for example, use YouTube in the classroom with the caveat that we are not content providers for YouTube so we can’t tell them what is going to be on there. It’s their responsibility to find what they want to use and proof it before they show it to students.”
Most of the 55-inch TH-55LFE8 based kiosks host menus of where classes and special events are being held on a given day—essential in a district without teacher-assigned classrooms and spaces. “Sort of what you’d have on an airport arrival/departure board,” Wagner said. “We need that because classroom assignments are frequently changed around day by day and even period by period.”
Still other kiosks are earmarked strictly for teaching. According to Wagner, one of the school’s key points areas of study, public safety, is manifested in a 9/11 Memorial housing a 1,000-pound sliver of steel from one of the trade center towers and a kiosk continuously looping a informational video about the tragedy. Other areas might have kiosks running videos about their particular subject matter; for example, gymnastics content in areas dedicated to the study of sports medicine.
“Olathe and Panasonic have had a fantastic relationship for almost five years,” says Panasonic Territory Account Manager Gary Birkemeier. “There are a lot of factors that go into building and sustaining of a relationship like that but basically, at its core, I believe it’s really about the product line, the image quality and, of course, the reliability.”