Top 30

Sam Brooks

Prior to 2008, Putnam County Schools had no digital presence to speak of, and teaching models hadn’t changed much in decades. That all changed in a big way when district leadership began to build an educational engine that disrupted previous learning models, steered students toward greater achievement and expedited their pathway to college. At the heart of that engine is dual learning for middle school and high school students and a virtual learning program known as VITAL - Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning. 

 
Brooks, Putnam County personal learning coordinator and principal of the Putnam County VITAL Program, has been key to the program’s success. While it got a healthy start prior to his arrival by partnering with skilled vendors, Brooks, a former high school coach, has taken the ball and run with it. 
 
Entering into a strategic affiliation in 2008 with Florida Virtual School, an online education pioneer, Putnam County hired online instructors from within the district and offered courses at $300 per class through Florida Virtual School. After two years, Putnam was able to model that program on its own. Now, county students access instruction online in a classroom or from home, any time of day or night, synchronously or asynchronously, with facilitators available on-site, via video or by email - all for just $75 per student per class. VITAL gives students the opportunity to make up credits or obtain advanced credits that will ultimately expedite their pathway to college. 
 
Under Brooks’ leadership, VITAL has grown and developed exponentially, expanding to include credit recovery, credit advancement, blended learning, distance learning, dual enrollment, technology professional development, a college-oriented high school and a platform for young homeschooled students. All of these elements have gathered momentum, building from one another.
 
Dual enrollment is the secret sauce behind VITAL. Brooks says, “High-achieving seventh and eighth graders with dual enrollment take high school algebra, geometry, Spanish, personal finance and English in distance learning - allowing them to accrue those high school credits by the time they leave middle school.” 
 
Fast forward to 11th or 12th grade, when those same students have general requirements behind them and are eligible for VITAL dual enrollment. They are taught university-level content online by a college professor, accruing college credits. Brooks says, “Now we have students from Putnam County Schools with the ability to earn an associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school.”
 
The program continues to deliver benefits as students move through each phase of education. High school graduates seeking scholarships become more attractive commodities to universities when they can enter college as juniors - meaning that they’ll only need scholarship funding for two instead of four years. Alternately, they can deploy the final two years of a four-year scholarship in graduate school. 
 
Next up, Brooks is putting the finishing touches on an online program with financial guru Dave Ramsey and Florida Virtual School, which will offer online personal finance classes for any student in the United States and beyond. Brooks’ voice crackles with excitement when he talks about it. Given the enthusiasm and expertise this former coach pours into his work, it’s not surprising that Putnam County is held up as a model in Tennessee for what personalized learning can achieve.
 
“For me to be in a role where I can specifically engage students and make a difference in their lives - that’s what’s important to me,” he says. “I wake up every day motivated to go to my job. And how important is that - for someone to love what they do?”