Leveling the Playing Field
Mebane Foundation Paves Way for SMART Implementations in North Carolina
Philanthropist Allen Mebane had a strong belief that each child should have an opportunity to improve his or her education. In 2000, when Mebane retired from a successful career in business, he turned his focus to the Mebane Charitable Foundation, which was formed in 1992. In recent years, the Foundation has sought to improve public education in the North Carolina counties surrounding its headquarters in Mocksville, N.C.
Non-traditional school funding from sources such as the Mebane Foundation doesn't just magically appear in the bank accounts of school districts. Grants and other funds must often be gracefully coaxed from sources. The procurement of large grants is an arduous and time-consuming process. Yet, for all the trials, the acquisition of grant money can make a monumental difference in the operation of a district, especially in light of today's economic realities. While courting non-traditional funding sources, districts can learn practical lessons and acquire useful knowledge of how to best work with these wonderful, charitable partners. North Carolina's Davie County Schools (DCS), for instance, managed to procure $2.25 million in grants from the Mebane Foundation and the community at large.
To forge a partnership with Mebane and other community supporters, DCS produced a plan that detailed how it would use its benefactor's funds to make DCS classrooms models for the use of interactive technologies.
"Allen Mebane took a proactive and aggressive stance on the use of technology in our district early on," says Dr. Linda C. Bost, assistant superintendent for DCS. "He helped us build a consensus among leaders in Davie County for the incorporation of technology in classrooms and for the training of teachers to deliver technology-driven instruction."
As Mebane gained the support of the community, according to Bost, he challenged Davie County's citizens and the County Commissioners to rally in support of the school district. According to Bost, Allen Mebane came forward with a remarkable proposal: if the community raised $1.5 million dollars, his Foundation would add $750,000 to the amount.
The strategy worked. The grant money has enabled the district, which has 10 schools that educate approximately 6,500 students, to install hundreds of SMART Board™ interactive whiteboards from SMART Technologies. The SMART Board interactive whiteboard consists of a large, touch-sensitive screen that is connected to digital projectors and a computer. The computer is controlled by touching the board with a pen, or with a finger.
Today, DCS has approximately 385 SMART Board interactive whiteboards in classrooms throughout the district. "With SMART, we see a higher level of student engagement," says Dr. Bost. "These are 21st century students, and this technology is being used to directly impact instruction. When it comes to getting students engaged, we've never seen anything like it. Any time you engage students, you're going to have more learning and a higher level of achievement. Today's kids have grown up in a digital world, and a school can't engage them unless it uses interactive technology."
The success of the SMART Board interactive whiteboards at DCS prompted Mebane to fund the "Mebane Masters Program," developed in conjunction with nearby Appalachian State University.
"By establishing the success of interactive classrooms in our district, we produced a county-wide emphasis on the incorporation of technology, which, in turn, led to the Mebane Masters Program," says Bost. "As a result, our County Commissioners came forth with another million dollars to be used for a teacher development hub. They also encouraged us to continue to furnish classrooms with technology, including video conferencing units."
The availability of additional funding was the result of the "absolute popularity" of the SMART Board interactive whiteboards from SMART Technologies, according to Bost. "The next logical step was to make sure our teachers gained more experience and skill with interactive classroom technology. This led us back to the Mebane Foundation and resulted in the formation of the Mebane Masters Program."
Through the Mebane Masters Program, a select number of "pre-service" DCS teachers now have the opportunity to:
- earn a Master's degree from Appalachian State,
- receive additional professional development training, and
- act as a mentor within Davie County Schools.
To immerse Mebane Masters in the technology of the 21st century classroom, program participants are living in housing—purchased by the Mebane Foundation—equipped with SMART Board interactive whiteboards, which gives them plenty of opportunity to become familiar with the technology, in and out of the classroom.
"The Mebane Masters Program formed a partnership with our school system because we had established ourselves at the forefront of technology utilization," says Dr. Bost. "Like all districts, we compete for the best and brightest teachers. We believe that this experience will provide the incentive for these technically astute teachers to remain in Davie County. There's no other county that can offer them what we can, as far as technology goes."
As a result of DCS' pioneering efforts, the district has been tapped to run North Carolina's first SMART User Group. "Now that the SMART equipment is in place, we're turning our attention to professional development geared to teach educators best practices," says Davie's Instructional Tech Facilitator, Sarah Rhyne. "We also intend to collaborate with other districts so that local teachers can begin to share SMART lessons, projects, and ideas.
Bost adds, "As a result of our continuing and evolving partnership with Mebane and other community leaders, we've developed an example to be emulated throughout the entire state and beyond. Others can look to non-traditional sources, like we have done, to acquire funding. With the support of civic-minded people and organization, they can find the resources they need to create world-class, interactive classrooms."
Meanwhile, in the nearby Wilkes County Schools (WCS), the Mebane Foundation, along with other local benefactors and businesses, has helped WCS to purchase SMART Board interactive whiteboards for almost half of its 640 classrooms. The initiative is part of WCS' comprehensive technology plan, called the "Technology in Education (TEC) Challenge," which will affect more than 10,000 students and teachers in WCS.
The TEC Challenge is one of the most aggressive implementations of education technology in North Carolina, according to Dr. Stephen Laws, superintendent of WCS. The goal of the TEC Challenge is to prepare students to compete for enrollment and achievement in prestigious state and national universities. By taking an aggressive and comprehensive approach to the implementation of technology, WCS hopes to give its students the marketable skills and practical experience necessary to compete in the global marketplace.
"We're 95th out of 115 school districts for per-pupil-funding—that's tax funding, federal, state, and local combined," says Dr. Laws. "So, we don't have a lot of money, and we had to develop a viable plan, including a foundational plan. Five years ago, we knew we were going to have to fix our facilities; they couldn't house the technology we wanted to put in. We upgraded our high schools and five elementary schools. They're all in position now to have technology installed."
"At the same time," Laws continues, "We also put into place a structured teacher training program. We, like most school systems, have a good number of mature teachers, and because of that, they have trepidations about altering the way they teach. So, we put into place a significant staff development program called ‘Creative Achievers Specializing in Technology (CAST).' These teachers have embraced technology and are on site to get other teachers excited about using technology. Today, when we go in search of grant money, funders see that we have a detailed plan that has been well executed."
According to Laws' plan, WCS will equip the other half of the district's classrooms with SMART Board interactive whiteboards, laptops, and other technologies by January 1, 2012.
West Wilkes High School, a crown jewel in WCS, is a SMART Showcase School, which means it acts as a host site for other school or district stakeholders interested in learning how SMART products and services can improve teaching and learning.
With the implementation of SMART Board interactive whiteboards at West Wilkes High School, "things began to take off," says Julie Triplett, director of technology at WCS. "When teachers began using SMART Boards, they immediately saw a difference in their students' behavior. They overheard students in the hallways bragging about the number of classes they were taking with SMART Boards. The whole school bought into using technology tools with students, and they've seen great rewards from that."
Today, Triplett is pleased to report that West Wilkes High School students attend more classes and have fewer discipline problems, something she attributes directly to SMART Board interactive whiteboards being in the classrooms. "SMART Boards are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic," she says. "We're engaging the learners by reaching them with a learning style they're comfortable with. The SMART Boards have been a major benefit in our classrooms because we're not just teaching to the few students that learn auditorially, we're teaching to the whole classroom."
It's not just WCS students that are re-invigorated. "We're seeing teachers who are applying to the national boards after being part of this technology initiative," says Triplett. "They have a renewed love for the profession. We have teachers that are commuting long distances to work here because of the tools that we're giving them. We are hiring teachers before other counties because of our technology initiatives. So, we've seen a number of positive developments as a result of this effort."
The Great Equalizer
For other districts around the country eager to following the footsteps of the WCS's success, Triplett advises they start with a sound plan, carefully thought out, and strategically implemented. "Everything fell into place once we had our plan, our community's support, teacher buy in, our principal's support, and administrative support," she says.
Superintendent Laws adds, "Our best spokespeople are the students. When they go home and tell their parents what happens in school, and there's excitement in their voices, then the community engagement increases and there is a competitive feel among the schools for who can equip their classrooms the fastest. There's always a little bit of fear among some, but it lessens when the momentum builds."
"Even before we embarked on our TEC plan," Laws continues, "Wilkes County had performed academically quite well, but our drop-out rate was not satisfactory. Today, our graduation rate is at 73 percent. That's up from about 63 percent six years ago. The technology is keeping kids interested and in school. I expect to see a steady increase in our graduation rates and in preparedness for college. Technology is the great equalizer; certainly there are families who can't afford a laptop for their children, and those kids who don't get one are going to be behind forever until we do something to catch them up. This program has been put in place to ensure that every child has the same accessibility to technology. It has leveled the playing field."