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10 Lessons From the Best District in the Country

Mooresville’s Mark Edwards on how it took his district five years to become an overnight success.

If they haven’t been tossed already, textbooks at Mooresville Graded School District sit unused, piled in corners of classrooms. Desks are no longer neatly arranged in rows, and students rarely sit quietly and listen to extended lectures.

At Mooresville, 20 miles outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, this is the new norm. The district undertook a massive “21st Century Digital Conversion” in 2007. Students now frequently work in groups, and they use one of dozens of interactive learning platforms instead of textbooks. Rather than lecturing, teachers act as facilitators, circulating among groups or leading students in interactive lessons.

Results of this transformation are off the charts—the graduation rate for African-American students was 95 percent in 2012, up from 67 percent five years earlier. The overall graduation rate is the third highest in the state, and 88 percent of 2012 graduates are attending college, compared with 74 percent in 2007. Mooresville has accomplished this while keeping spending in check—among the state’s 115 school districts, it ranks 100th in spending per student at $7,463.

Mark Edwards has spearheaded the digital conversion since taking over as superintendent in 2007. The centerpiece is a one-to-one approach—every student from fourth grade on, along with every teacher, receives a MacBook Air. (Third graders get MacBooks.) Despite the major undertaking of distributing and maintaining 5,000 laptops, Edwards made it clear to parents, teachers, administrators, and students that the digital conversion wasn’t about technology. It was about preparing all of the district’s students for a successful and bright future.

“Ninety percent of our visitors come here talking about hardware and leave talking about culture. This was very much about engendering a culture of caring,” says Edwards. “We implemented the digital conversion to increase student achievement and close gaps between different groups of students.”

The success of the eight-school, 5,600-student district has earned it numerous accolades—Edwards spoke on a White House panel and was named AASA’s Superintendent of the Year in February. A New York Times front-page profile of the district in 2012—which called Mooresville the “de facto ­national model of the digital school”—was the most blogged education story of the year, Edwards says. Reports in The Wall Street Journal and on Fox News and PBS followed. In March, CoSN joined the parade, naming Mooresville as the winner of its TEAM Award. All that publicity has led to a steady stream of visitors from more than 40 states and countries. For educators with grand plans to transform their schools through technology, Mooresville has become a mecca of sorts.

Visitors to Mooresville schools may be inspired by what they see, but they probably won’t get a full picture of the careful long-term efforts that made the success possible. Given the cultural shift and the moving parts involved, district leadership had to navigate a minefield of challenges to realize the digital conversion.

But before heading to North Carolina or buying thousands of computers, say veterans of the Mooresville transition, consider the following 10 lessons.

1. Build a Foundation
Among the many things that are “easy to say and hard to do” is building enthusiasm among stakeholders in the schools and community, says Edwards. Before going digital, it’s crucial to convince them that they have a vested interest in the success of the conversion.

“It took a good two years to build a firm foundation,” says Edwards. “We needed to build trust and a sense of shared aspiration.”

He did this by emphasizing the “why” of the digital conversion. The district needed to become more focused on truly engaging students in learning and imparting skills that would equip them for real-world success. Achievement gaps, which had been widening for poor and minority students, needed to close, and graduation rates had to improve. Mooresville adopted the slogan “Every Child, Every Day” as a guiding mantra.

Edwards brought in outside education experts to explain how the conversion could transform learning and how it aligned with the skills students needed to succeed in a tech-centric economy.

Advisory councils of teachers and parents were created to consult on all aspects of the digital conversion plan. These groups still meet quarterly with school district officials.

2. Form Strategic Alliances
To provide the resources needed for the conversion, Edwards and other district leaders reached out to a wide variety of partners. Mooresville brought in instructional technology experts from Apple and Discovery Education. Through professional development sessions and consultation, they helped teachers and administrators implement curriculum changes and new approaches to learning. Colleagues from Virginia’s Henrico School District—where Edwards had previously served as superintendent and pioneered a similar initiative—offered training and advice on implementing the one-to-one program.

Community partners also joined the effort. About one third of the district’s students lacked Internet access at home, so the local cable company offered discounted packages to students’ families. Fifteen percent of homes still don’t have Net access, according to Scott Smith, the district’s chief technology officer. But by working with town officials, the district was able to secure agreements for free Wi-Fi in parks, at the local library, and in all municipal buildings; some businesses also offer free Internet access.

To provide teachers and administrators with more intensive training to help lead the conversion, the district worked with nearby Wingate University to offer three graduate degree tracks—two doctoral programs in educational leadership and a master’s program in instructional technology.

3. Thoroughly Think Through Logistics
“You name it, we probably discussed it,” says Smith. “We played out so many different possible scenarios and challenges, and did a lot of vetting of equipment, services, and educational software programs—no decision was made lightly.”

Before distributing computers, school officials created a detailed code of conduct that set clear expectations for laptop care and use. Students are required to charge their laptops at night so the ­devices are powered up for class time. They must use a school-issued backpack with a laptop sleeve, in addition to another protective case, for transporting their laptop between home and school. A robust firewall keeps ­students from accessing content that lacks redeeming educational value—including Facebook. Students and their families are required to take introductory classes at the beginning of each year to ensure that they understand how to operate and care for their laptops.

4. Rethink Fund Allocation
With 5,000 MacBooks in circulation, a district-wide management learning system, ongoing tech support, dozens of paid subscription software services, and new staff positions, one might think the cost of the digital conversion would have been prohibitive. But Mooresville officials insist it can be done without an influx of outside donations and grants. Though the district did receive a $250,000 start-up grant from Lowe’s, it funds 98 percent of the digital conversion costs through its operating budget, which is smaller than it was five years ago.

“Basically, we did this by repurposing existing funds,” says Smith. “Textbooks are pretty much out of date by the time we get them, and we eliminated some positions to create new ones. We save on other expenses as well.”

When budgeting, it’s important to regard equipment expenses as operating costs instead of one-time capital expenses. Mooresville leases its equipment from Apple so it can spread the cost over multiple years. According to Smith, districts can make a big mistake by buying a ton of equipment because they often don’t budget for maintenance costs, and technology can quickly become obsolete.

5. Apply Gentle Yet Sustained Pressure
To make huge cultural changes in how teachers were teaching and how students were learning, Mooresville’s leadership eased teachers into the transition incrementally.

Teachers received brand-new MacBooks to take home over the winter break in the first year, with encouragement to “just try them out.” The following semester, PCs that had been in every classroom were removed. High school English teachers were the first pilot group of instructors required to incorporate the Macs and learning software in their classroom instruction. Students used laptops wheeled in on carts.

Teacher enthusiasm began to build as they saw colleagues applying tech in the classroom. The following year, laptops were distributed to all 1,650 Mooresville High School students and 850 middle school students. By the beginning of the ­2012–13 academic year, 4,400 of the original computers had been replaced with Airs and all students from third grade on up had their own MacBooks.

The steady pace of the transition was pivotal in convincing teachers that the digital conversion wasn’t just the latest whim. Once they knew it wouldn’t fizzle out, they were more willing to invest their time and effort into making the technology work for them.

“I’ve been a teacher, and I know, by our very nature, that we are control freaks,” says Smith. “There was a lot of initial skepticism toward making this change, because it made everyone a first-year teacher all over again.”

6. Empower and Educate Your Teachers
As you ease teachers into the transition, be sure to provide meaningful, sustained professional development and the time to complete it; Edwards built 10 early-release days into the academic year for professional development.

Prior to each school year, Mooresville also offers an annual summer training institute for its teachers—more than 90 percent attend. From the beginning of the digital conversion, teachers have been encouraged to experiment and collaborate to find the most effective methods and digital learning resources.

“Anything we are asked to do, the support is there,” says Felicia Bustle, principal at Mooresville Intermediate School. “Having the time to get ­together and share ideas as teachers and administrators is key. The teachers are empowered to determine which programs and approaches will best serve the students.”

The district also hired instructional technology specialists to help teachers find and incorporate appropriate resources and technology-based teaching approaches to meet Common Core curriculum standards.

Furthermore, Mooresville’s school and district administrators tap “leader teachers” who identify particularly effective and innovative strategies and tactics to lead training seminars for their colleagues.

“Competency is evolutional,” Edwards says. “Our best teachers five years ago wouldn’t be in our top 70 percent now if they didn’t grow.”

7. Watch the Transformation
Once the district had cultivated trust and enthusiasm among a critical mass of Mooresville teachers, momentum spread rapidly. The noticeable uptick in student engagement inspired the more skeptical teachers to embrace technology in their classrooms.

“The kids think it’s the coolest thing ever,” says Stephen Mauney, Mooresville’s executive director of secondary education. “They see how it is relevant to their future, and they love that they get to explore and analyze and think creatively.”

Absentee rates have plunged, and the district is seeing far fewer disciplinary problems.

And the technology saves teachers time and provides them with more insight into their students’ progress: Instead of manually grading quizzes and assignments, teachers administer them digitally and analyze aggregate and individual student test scores more easily. The technology also allows for a “flipped classroom,” in which teachers use class time to help students work through assignments and present new material by recording their lectures on videos that students watch as homework.

8. Collect and Use Data Wisely
For parents, teachers, and administrators, the ability to track students’ progress (or lack thereof) in real time is a huge advantage of the digital conversion.

Administrators benefit from having a bird’s-eye view of overall progress and can swiftly intervene when a particular school, grade level, class, or even individual student seems to be falling behind. “I know where every student is every day, and I don’t have to interrupt the teacher’s day to get data on specific students,” says Bustle. “It makes parent meetings entirely different, as we can talk about particular assignments and assessments.”

And parents no longer have to rely on their children to find out when tests are scheduled or what the results are. In most cases, if a student finishes a test at 11 a.m., parents can log in remotely to see how their child did by 11:15.

Teachers say the data yielded by the conversion has created a far more collaborative environment with their peers. Each school is required to conduct quarterly data meetings to review progress at every level, but the majority of teachers meet informally with their colleagues on a weekly basis to compare results.

9. Share Best Practices
Success can be challenging to sustain, which is why Mooresville’s leadership does not shy away from opportunities to share its experiences and best practices with education colleagues far and wide. The goal is to sustain momentum, and thus far it seems to be working. Parents like Shawn Huggins chose a two-hour round-trip commute so his 9-year-old son can attend school in Mooresville.

Teachers and administrators don’t plan on leaving the district anytime soon. “I can’t imagine going back to the way it was. It would seem like going backward,” says Bustle. “Teaching here has been the best experience of my life.”

10. Continue to Evolve
Though they enjoy their success, just about everyone involved thinks of the digital conversion as a work in progress. They know they have to remain flexible and respond quickly to changes in technology. Teachers, curriculum experts, and tech staff are constantly vetting new interactive learning platforms and open-source courseware. They are considering moving to cloud computing. Dozens of vendors are regularly monitored to make sure Mooresville receives the best deals and service.

Responsibility among students is reinforced through monthly digital citizenship lessons that emphasize Internet safety. Committees of parents and teachers meet regularly with district leaders to collaborate on improvements and changes, and teachers are expected to attend the annual summer training.

Administrators say that as a result of the great strides their schools have made, and the improved baseline they use to judge their progress, moving the needle even further becomes more challenging.

“We’re still building the plane as we fly it, and that’s always going to be the case,” says Smith, Mooresville’s CTO. “It’s easy to get hung up on the logistics, but the important part is why we are doing this: to change the teaching and learning environment in ways that are better for the kids.”

—Spring 2013—

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