Classroom Technology

Building the Digital District

By Ian Quillen — October 17, 2011 14 min read
Local Area Manager Berry Williams runs an imaging program on MacBooks for kindergarten through 2nd grade students at the Magnolia Annex of Mooresville High School in Mooresville, N.C.
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The Brawley family name adorns about a half-dozen businesses around Mooresville, N.C., including a furniture store on the corner of Broad Street and Iredell Avenue, at the edge of a cute but quiet downtown.

The two-level white brick structure, a transformed agriculture depot bought in the late 1960s, still holds some of the time-capsule allure of the days when Jason Brawley’s grandparents first bought the place and found leftover bales of cotton in the basement. Business goes on much the same as it did more than 40 years ago, when the roads south to Charlotte weren’t clustered with housing developments and fast-food joints.

“They still do handwritten tickets, and they have not wanted to get into the future,” Brawley says of his grandparents, who still own the store that he helps manage. “We finally got laptops a year or two ago. … With bookkeeping and everything, I know [using laptops] would be easier. Luckily, I don’t have to do it, so I don’t have to worry about it.”

But while Brawley spends his days in a world of cherry headboards and magic-marker price tags, his 4th grade daughter spends hers at school working with a laptop issued by the 5,500-student Mooresville Graded School District. Her computer is part of a “digital conversion” program that some educators hope is the wave of the future.

Creating a Digital Culture

Mooresville High School Principal Todd Wirt talks about maintaining the school’s culture in the midst of new technology programs.

Yes, 1-to-1 laptop programs have become increasingly popular across the country, along the way drawing criticism that the results of those efforts are not justifying the substantial investments. But the Mooresville district, which in its fourth 1-to-1 year has stretched its program to reach all students in grades 3-12, appears to be a model of how to do it right, and in a community whose roots are more akin to Mayberry than the state’s Research Triangle region.

Since the digital conversion began, the district has seen an improvement of 20 percentage points—from 68 percent to 88 percent—in the portion of its students who scored “proficient” on all core-subject state exams, in the subjects of reading, math, and science. Six of eight schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, up from two of seven schools during the conversion’s first year. And its 2010-11 graduation rate rose to 91 percent, up 14 percentage points from four years ago.

All of those gains have occurred while the district sat at 99th of the state’s 115 districts in per-pupil funding, at $7,463 a year, as of last spring, not including about 10 percent of the budget that comes from funds for capital outlays, before- and after-school programs, and child-nutrition programs. And while Mooresville’s population is by no means impoverished, the gains came during an economic downturn that has seen the proportion of the district’s students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch rise from 31 percent to 40 percent since 2007-08.

Staunch opponents of assessment-driven education may dispute the merit of some of Mooresville’s success. But other educators are asking how the district’s approach differs from that of less successful 1-to-1 initiatives, why it’s working, whether it can be replicated, and if it’s worth the sacrifices to do so.

Mooresville’s district leaders stress the reason for their success, in their eyes, is that their 1-to-1 implementation made up just a part of a districtwide reform to make teaching and learning more contemporary. And while the district hosts monthly open houses to welcome visitors interested in following the model, the leaders of Mooresville’s conversion say only districts with leaders who see budget and procedural restrictions as obstacles to be conquered, not feared, are capable of pulling it off.

“We have visitors all the time,” says Scott Smith, the district’s chief technology officer, who was hired by Superintendent Mark Edwards during the conversion’s planning phase in 2007. “When they leave, we’re like, ‘Yeah, they can do it,’ or ‘No, they can’t do it, because they have the wrong person in charge.’ ”

Higher Expectations for Teachers

When the principal of Mooresville High School, Todd Wirt, took that job in November 2007, he did so bent on changing what he recalls as a “complacent” attitude among teachers and other staff members in a school where achievement data were average. As he walks the halls nearly four years later, he takes perhaps his greatest pride in seeing most of the same faces standing in classroom doorways.

“What’s great about going from [68 percent] to [88 percent] in four years’ time is, primarily, it’s the same folks that were here four years ago,” Wirt says of his staff. “The true leaders of the staff are the same.”

While many school leaders wary of introducing new technology approaches cite teachers who may be reluctant to comply, by all accounts Mooresville’s teachers were given little choice but to join a new culture where 6,000 district-issued laptops to students and staff served as the centerpiece of Superintendent Edwards’ educational improvement strategy. Similar compliance was also expected in accompanying changes to curriculum, teacher collaboration expectations, and even staff conduct, all of which began to be implemented in the fall of 2008.

“I don’t think ‘threatening’ is the right word—I think ‘expectation’ is the right word,” says Judy Maupin, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Mooresville Middle School, who admits she rejected the 1-to-1 model at first. “The expectation is, ‘Here is your laptop, and you will learn how to use it. You will make it an integral part of your classroom, and you will incorporate it into 21st-century teaching.’ ”

At the high school, Wirt charged each of his academic department chairs with unifying each department’s curriculum during the year before laptops were introduced, and creating schoolwide formative assessments to test progress in that curriculum eight times a year.

See Also

More about the “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” program at Mooresville: “Relationship Building”

Wirt also established the district’s Capturing Kids’ Hearts program, in which teachers are asked to greet students with a pat or a handshake, and open the classroom to details about the good things happening in students’ lives, in an effort to make the school culture less teacher-centered. That program eventually trickled down to Mooresville Middle School, and in varying ways, principals say, Edwards has mandated collaboration—both electronic and face-to-face—between teachers at all levels.

Widespread staff attrition that was feared because of the digital conversion never materialized, administrators say, though Wirt suggests that layoffs that came in two waves—a large one after 2008-09, and a smaller one after last school year—may have been a blessing in disguise. Layoffs that occurred were strategic, rather than adhering to policies such as “last hired, first fired” that in many districts protect teachers on the basis of seniority.

“To be honest, this school was staffed incredibly well when I first came, so much so that I wasn’t exactly sure what some people did,” says Wirt, whose school has lost nine teaching positions between layoffs and attrition as part of an 8 percent to 10 percent cut to the district’s operating budget since 2008. The district lost 50 to 60 positions because of those cuts, Edwards estimates, including 25 teaching positions.

“For some people, it was an opportunity to make some adjustments that needed to be made to our staff,” Wirt adds.

Rebecca Snyder, the president of the local chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s teachers’ union, took no position on the method of the layoffs, but said it was public knowledge that opposing the digital conversion would make a teacher more vulnerable.

But the proportion of turnover in the district’s leadership has been greater. Wirt is one of six principals in the district’s eight schools who were not on staff when Superintendent Edwards was hired in early 2007, though two just departed since 2010. Edwards, who previously led a 1-to-1 program as superintendent of the Henrico County, Va., school system, outside Richmond, brought in Smith from the Burke County, N.C., school system as his chief technology officer to lead the conversion. Terry K. Haas also came on board as chief financial officer in 2007.

“I think a lot of his decisions are based on leadership,” Smith says of Edwards and his management. “You’ve got to have the right people on the bus, but not only that, they’ve got to be on the right seats on the bus.”

Reallocating Resources

A summer institute has become an annual feature of the Mooresville district. That’s where the district hosts others interested in learning more about its practices and also offers sessions for its own teachers—for example, on programs like iMovie and Comic Life—to learn or refine skills for their digital arsenals.

And every year, Haas, the finance chief, offers visitors advice, but no silver bullet, on how a 1-to-1 program lives within its means.

“It’s really just looking at your budget in extreme detail and saying, ‘OK, do we need to continue this?’ ” Haas says. “If it’s not helping student achievement, and it’s not keeping the lights on, do we really need to be doing this?”

Edwards estimates the district has eliminated 95 percent of its spending on print textbooks, thanks in part to state policy that allows districts flexibility in how they spend state funding. Those textbooks that remain typically reside in science classrooms and don’t travel home with students.

The district has also reduced spending on calculators, encyclopedias, and maps, all resources that can be found embedded within a laptop and an Internet connection, says Haas. And it has reapportioned or cut positions for computer-lab coordinators.

Edwards says Mooresville spends roughly $200 per student per year on hardware, software, and maintenance costs for its laptops—which this year are newly unveiled MacBook Airs—with $35 of that covering digital content through subscriptions to services like Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education’s content service.

The district leases its laptops rather than buying them, selling its lease back after two or three years to a third-party buyer that refurbishes the laptops for resale, Haas says. And while Apple machines are typically priced higher than their PC counterparts, Haas and Smith both say the cost is made up on the back end.

“The thing about Apple is they own the hardware and the software. And it’s user-friendly. And again, it just works,” says Smith, who heads an eight-person technology department he says would need more staff if the district was PC-oriented.

“There’s not nearly the technical issues to deal with on a Mac,” he says. “So from a total-cost-of-ownership standpoint, I don’t have to have as many people to help support it.”

The district’s 2010-11 total budget was $46.4 million, and district officials say parsing out expenses solely for the 1-to-1 program is nearly impossible because of its integration within overall district spending.

The district also saves money by resisting the purchase of e-textbooks from major publishers in most subjects; instead, it tells teachers to seek their own content and align it to the subject curriculum. Teachers are expected to share lessons with colleagues electronically via ANGEL, the district’s content-management software, created by Washington-based Blackboard Inc., and all four schools in the district’s 1-to-1 program each employs a technology facilitator to aid that process. The district’s three elementary schools only began distributing laptops to its third graders this year.

Still, the job description for teachers is decidedly more labor-intensive even though Snyder says there are positive tradeoffs, such as the lessening of time spent grading.

History teacher Judy Maupin, right, watches Principal Carrie Tulbert hug Alexis Butler, 12, between classes at Mooresville Middle School.

“I would say the biggest challenge teachers have is the lack of time,” says Marsha Rhyne, the technology facilitator at Mooresville Intermediate School. “It’s a constant challenge for teachers to go out and to find new innovative resources and what actually matches the new curriculum they need.”

But the scariest specter for districts looking to follow Mooresville, says Haas, may be that such a drastic change to the traditional model is usually a one-way portal.

“When you stop and think about all the things we would have to go back and purchase to be able to go back to the way teachers used to teach, if we didn’t have the computers,” Haas says, “going back is not really an option.”

Following the Mooresville Model

Walk the halls at Mooresville High School, and you’ll see more than a few T-shirts devoted to Blue Devils football.

The back of one depicts an aerial view of the new turf field and rubber track installed in 2008 at what last year was renamed Coach Joe Popp Stadium, after a local legend who led the school to its only state title, in 1961. The front of another reads, “Friends don’t let friends go to Lake Norman,” a jab at the local rival that sits only across town, but belongs to the separate, countywide Iredell-Statesville school system.

See Also

Students have come to expect the personal laptops: “Beyond ‘Wow’ Factor”

Allegiance to the town, and the school system, is big here—so much so, says the Mooresville district public-information officer Tanae McLean, that some people who purchase property on the edge of the town seek to have it annexed into the town limits. And among many locals, the school system’s successes, including those in its digital conversion, are attributed to the liberty it enjoys as a one-high-school district and one of only 15 city-based school systems in the state.

“It allows them to make choices,” says district parent and alumnus Jason Brawley, whose family owns the furniture store. “Growing up here and going through it myself, I never knew how good it was.”

Mooresville’s leaders, from Superintendent Edwards to his central-office staff to his principals, acknowledge that the district’s modest size was a key factor in helping it change its culture and improve its achievement so quickly. Further, with the proximity of larger districts like the neighboring 20,000-student Iredell-Statesville system and the 134,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg a few miles south of town, Mooresville’s reputation and relatively few open positions could put it at a labor advantage, with many of its teachers having jumped across district lines for their current jobs.

“A lot of people want to work here,” McLean says. “On the flip side, … we have a lot of our teachers who, let’s say, if their husband takes a job somewhere else, they’re highly employable” because of skills they’ve learned in the digital conversion.

Mooresville’s school leaders also point to a growing list of districts, big and small, that are citing the district as their inspiration. The number of districts visiting at monthly open houses has been steadily increasing, with 17 attending a March event, according to the district’s website.

Alan Lee, the superintendent of the 28,000-student Baldwin County school system in southern Alabama, brought more than three dozen of his staff to observe Mooresville in action at one of its monthly open houses. This fall, he launched a pilot for a similar program at one of his district’s seven high schools, saying the digital-conversion model “may be the one last great hope for our nation.”

Then there is Edwards, a soft-spoken but no-nonsense Tennessean who is in his third district as a superintendent, and whom Karen Cator, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of education technology, has praised for an ability to “set high goals and then maintain a laser focus on them.”

In the Mooresville district, Edwards has assumed a role that at times resembles that of a university president. He established a private education foundation to help raise funds for district projects and has pulled in Mooresville’s business community, especially during the digital conversion’s launch.

Edwards helped persuade Lowe’s Cos. Inc., which has its corporate headquarters in Mooresville, to contribute $250,000 in startup money toward installing a broadband Wi-Fi network in the district capable of handling 1-to-1 access, and also recruited local Internet provider MI-Connection to offer a $9.95-per-month home broadband service for financially disadvantaged students.

And in “Race City USA,” whose claim to fame is serving as the home for more than a dozen NASCAR auto-racing teams, Edwards has gained national attention for his district, attracting PBS news cameras, Wall Street Journal reporters, and even an invitation to speak at a panel at the White House this past September.

Colleagues insist any such effort in other districts must be led by a superintendent in the same mold.

“He just doesn’t allow anybody around him to make excuses or build obstacles,” Principal Wirt of Mooresville High says of Edwards. “That’s not his ride at all.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Building the Digital District


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