How Napa’s Public Schools are Transforming Education

How Napa’s Public Schools are Transforming Education

By Doug Ernst

napalearns WP

What began in the mid-1990s as New Tech High School, an effort by private business leaders to improve public schools, has blossomed into NapaLearns, a public-nonprofit partnership serving as a model for educators throughout the nation. NapaLearns grew from Student-Centered Learning for the 21st Century (SC21), instituted five years ago by the Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD), to scale the New Tech model district-wide.

NapaLearns is now taking the next step – promoting the New Tech best practices throughout Napa County. “Today, over 8,000 of the 20,600 K-12 students, more than half of Napa County’s 950 teachers and the Napa County Office of Education have participated in NapaLearns programs,” said Peg Maddocks, NapaLearns Executive Director. Within the next three to five years, NapaLearns aims to have every school in Napa County fully engaged in 21st Century Learning – that’s 47 schools by 2018, ultimately resulting in higher graduation rates and enrollment in post-secondary education, which will translate to success in a variety of careers, and active contributions to the Napa Valley community and civic life.

District leaders and teachers partner with NapaLearns to implement a variety of initiatives focused on engaging students in projects, achieving proficiency in core subjects, and developing the 21st Century Skills of  collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity that are  needed for success in today’s work world.

These initiatives include:

•  Digital Early Learning, in which students from pre-kindergarten to second grade use iPads for reading and math, and parents are trained to help them. This year, over 800 kindergarten and first-grade students are using iPads across the county

•  K-12 Project Based Learning (PBL), in which core subjects are woven into real-world projects that are relevant to students. At New Tech High, where students are immersed in PBL, their API score, a California state measure of school performance, increased in 2011-12 from 807 to 841.

•  Digital Curriculum and Real-Time Assessment, implementing online programs to enable personalized learning paths for every student.

•  Access to Technology, allowing one-to-one digital devices for all students and Internet access at all times at school and at home.

•  Professional Development for all educators to participate in training, coaching, collaboration and planning.

“NapaLearns programs will ensure that students excel in meeting California’s, 2015 “Common Core” standards for public schools,” said Patrick J. Sweeney, Superintendent of NVUSD. “But, more importantly, students will also gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college, life, and the careers of today and tomorrow – regionally, nationally and globally.”

Students who are involved in project-based learning really like the new approach. An 11th grader at American Canyon High School had this to say:  “PBL encourages the use of technology, teamwork, and public speaking. I believe these skills are preparing me for the world beyond school and in the workplace.”

“Technology is really changing the way teachers are working with students, enabling them to do so much more with each child,” said Pam Rubel, a veteran teacher.

“I always thought a kindergarten teacher’s job was to bring the children into our world, to have them sit still, raise their hands and have me tell them how well, or not so well, they are learning,” said Rubel. “With the iPads I see their natural ability to be creative, learn independently, and see their progress. Now I know I need to let them bring THEIR world into mine.”

Barbara Nemko, Napa County Superintendent of Schools, agreed. “The support we get from NapaLearns is an enormous boost to our teachers and administrators, and makes us work twice as hard to integrate project-based learning and technology into the curriculum,” said Nemko. “Business leaders recognize the importance of innovation and they’ve challenged us to get beyond our comfort zone to make learning more rigorous, engaging and relevant and…. it’s working.”

Chuck McMinn, founder/president of NapaLearns, said education must change to meet today’s expectations. “We are no longer a manufacturing society; we’re an information society,” said McMinn. “If we don’t educate our children appropriately, they won’t be equipped for the rapidly changing world of today. Education isn’t an expense; it’s a fundamental investment in the future success of the country.”

Last year, the Napa County Office of Education and Napa Unified School District were invited to join the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a US Department of Education alliance of 30 school districts in 18 states committed to using technological innovation to dramatically increase student achievement.

As a result, last October, over 100 educators from around the nation toured Napa County schools to learn how school leaders are transforming existing schools into 21st century learning environments. Peg Maddocks foresees that all this interest in Napa will spawn a new industry: “edu-tourism.”  According to Dorothy Lind-Salmon, one of the business visionaries who helped create New Tech High in 1996 along with Buzz Butler, Ted Fujimoto, Barb Nemko, and Virginia Rue, NapaLearns is part of a tradition of innovation in Napa County. “Like so many things in Napa County we are blessed to have visionaries who live here or move here, who can see into the future, dream about what should be and have the talent, passion and ability to make those dreams come true,” says Lind-Salmon. “Passionate, committed visionaries make change happen. It’s been that way forever and it’s that way now for NapaLearns.”

NapaLearns works in partnership with the five school districts and the Napa County Office of Education, as well as key community groups, with support from foundations and generous and concerned individuals, to ensure that students have access to digital, early learning, project-based learning and technology in public schools throughout Napa County. NapaLearns also partners with organizations on professional and leadership development, training, and research.

To become involved in a partnership, or to make a donation or sign up to volunteer, please call 707-265-2712, or email For more information, visit the website:


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