2012 Sylvia Charp Award | Profile

The Winning 1-to-1 Strategy

Mooresville, NC's four-year path to a districtwide laptop program led to across-the-board academic achievement and this year's Sylvia Charp Award.

The Mooresville Graded School District may rank 100th out of 115 North Carolina school districts in per-pupil spending. It might serve a community where 40 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Nevertheless, since the initiation of a progressive digital conversion program four years ago, Mooresville has risen from 38th on the list of the state's "Schools of Distinction" to No. 3 in 2011. End-of-term composite test scores at Mooresville High School rose 21 percent during the same period, and 13 percent for third-graders across the district. Oh, and the district's dropout rate fell 54 percent.

The fact that MGSD was able to create one of the most successful 1-to-1 laptop computing programs in the United States--despite rough economic conditions--might qualify it as a Cinderella story all on its own, even without the accompanying academic success. It's one reason why this program and its impact on academic achievement earned the Mooresville district the 2012 Sylvia Charp Award .

But Mark Edwards wasn't thinking about the accolades--yet--when he stepped into his position as Mooresville's superintendent a little more than five years ago. Bound and determined to raise the bar of academic excellence at MGSD, Edwards saw a digital transition as a surefire gateway to improving academic performance and graduation rates, which were hovering near 65 percent when he arrived. Edwards had pulled off a sizable laptop program earlier at Henrico County Public Schools in Richmond, VA, so he had a vision of how he could take advantage of 21st century technology to turn things around at Mooresville.

The Sylvia Charp Award

The Sylvia Charp Award is an annual award sponsored jointly by THE Journal and the International Society for Technology in Education to recognize district innovation in technology. Named in honor of THE Journal founding editor Sylvia Charp, each year the award recognizes a school district that has shown effectiveness and innovation in the application of technology districtwide. For more information about the award, visit the ISTE Web site.

According to Tom Greaves, CEO of the ed tech consultancy Greaves Group and a cofounder of Project RED, a national education technology research and advocacy organization, of the nearly 3,000 US schools that can boast today of 1-to-1 computing programs, Mooresville is one district that has gotten it right.

"I don't know of another school district that is doing what Mooresville has done or has achieved the results that it has," says Greaves.

Technological Transformation
A modest community 20 miles north of Charlotte, Mooresville's school district serves 5,590 K-12 students with the help of 700 employees in eight schools: three elementary, two intermediate, one middle, one high school, and one technology and learning center.

Scott Smith at Mooresville Graded School District (NC) helped introduce a 1-to-1 laptop program
Standing in front of a wall of MacBook Airs, Scott Smith, chief technology officer of the Sylvia Charp Award-winning school district, checks on the laptops that will be issued to students.

Walk into almost any of the district's classrooms and you'd be hard-pressed to find many students seated in straight rows at individual desks, working from textbooks or scribbling notes as a teacher lectures them from the front of the class. In Mooresville's classrooms, kids sit together at tables, their 11-inch MacBook Air laptop computers open in front of them as they work on in-class projects, learn at their own pace with digital coursework, or take exams.

Instead of being told to sit quietly and listen closely, students are free to search Google, watch interactive videos, conduct online research, and collaborate with one another on their group assignments.

"I provide the students with a challenge where they're trying to solve some sort of problem or issue and they're in collaborative groups where I'm in the learning process with them," says Chris Gammon, a social studies teacher and assistant football coach at Mooresville Middle School. "I feel like the classroom is one big community now."

That is an apt description of what has developed in the Mooresville district over the last four years: a 1-to-1 computing program that put a laptop in the hands of 5,000 third- through 12th-graders and their teachers. Certainly, MGSD is not the first district to implement 1-to-1, but its success has earned it a reputation as a pioneer in the movement toward digitized, personalized learning.

But major transformations don't happen overnight or without a plan, so in 2007 Edwards and his leadership team set out to create a six-year strategy with goals focused on academic achievement, engagement, opportunity, and equity. Technology would merely be the tool that helped it along.

"In the beginning we spent a lot of time discussing and focusing on a 21st century classroom and what that looks like, what a 21st century educator looks like, what a 21st century student looks like," says Scott Smith, MGSD chief technology officer. "It's not about the technology. Yes, it's technology-rich, but it's about changing the teaching and learning environment."

The conversion took place in three phases beginning in the winter of 2007 and continuing through the 2010-2011 school year. The first step was the advance distribution of teacher laptops and a pilot program at Mooresville High School, with 400 laptops on carts--at that point, solely for English classes. After seeing an almost immediate jump in attendance, preliminary advances in student achievement, and a drop in suspensions, Edwards and his team decided to go forward the following fall with full 1-to-1 deployment at MHS and Mooresville Intermediate School.

On the heels of that promising first full year, the program was extended to East Mooresville Intermediate School and Mooresville Middle School, then to the district's elementary schools, with laptop carts placed in every third-grade classroom in the fall of 2011. In addition, every classroom was outfitted with interactive whiteboards, data projectors, and response systems.

One of the most crucial components of the process was the drive to gain the support of and buy-in from school-level administrators, teachers, parents, and community members. To help get teachers on board and prepare them for the transition, the district implemented a comprehensive professional development effort consisting of summer institutes and special training days throughout the year. Sessions focused on technology and pedagogy training, including the effective and safe integration of technology and customizing teaching and student learning.

To date, approximately 90 percent of MGSD teachers participate in these ongoing training sessions, differentiated by content, grade, and teacher response levels, says Smith.

"Staff development was a big piece to make sure our teachers were ready to make it happen, again focusing on academic achievement, looking at data, and using it like we never have before," says Smith. "One of the biggest growing (pains was) change, especially for our teachers. Let's face it, teachers are traditional in how we teach. So turning their world upside down was a big deal."

To help with parental buy-in when the initiative was introduced, more than 800 of them attended a symposium to help them understand how to help their children use the technology wisely and effectively--an essential component in preventing laptop loss or damage. The district still holds technology nights throughout the year to assist families new to the program.

Realigning Spending and the Curriculum
According to Edwards, repurposing funds by realigning traditional expenditures with virtual expenditures was the key to Mooresville's success.

Instead of spending money on textbooks and traditional instructional materials, the district reallocated those funds to make digital resources and electronic communication its primary tool set. Instead of buying desks, it purchased tables, which are more conducive to collaborative learning. More than a dozen computer labs were scrapped and converted to regular classrooms, with support staff transformed into tech staff. Relying more on virtual field trips and biology dissections also helped cut costs.

To get the program off the ground, MGSD sought assistance from the local business community to fund the program's wireless infrastructure, then got creative with the district's operating budget to make it doable and affordable. By the time the fourth year of the transition wrapped up, Edwards says, the program was cost-neutral for the district.

"In the last several years, we've had hundreds of visitors from districts in 40 different states, and their No. 1 question is how did we afford it," says Edwards. "It's really been about repurposing funding more that anything else."

Somewhere around 3 percent of the district's total budget is devoted to computer hardware, software, training, and maintenance. A lease agreement with Apple provides every fourth- through 12th-grade student with his or her own laptop on the first day of every school year. It remains with them 24/7 and is returned on their last day before summer vacation. Third-graders also have their own laptops, but access is limited to the classroom.

Families pay $50 a year to subsidize computer repairs, although scholarships are available for those who can't afford it. In addition, the district has worked out a deal with local telecom providers to offer students' families low-cost Internet access.

"When we look at the fact that we spend about $7,400 per student per year and we want to take 3 percent of that to provide this incredible level of resources for our students and teachers, it's an excellent investment and the return on it has been significant," Edwards says. "Other districts look at this model and see that it's doable."

One result of the fiscal realignment is that the district is now almost completely reliant on online content and teaching tools, Edwards reports.

"We haven't bought a textbook in four years," he notes.

To create the curriculum, Edwards says, "We brought together a team that included grade level and department chairs from the schools. We looked at online content providers that had high levels of correlation with North Carolina course of study and looked at functionality."

That curriculum team took resources from everywhere it could think of, including Discovery Education, Pearson, and BrainPOP--and it took advantage of open source content.

"We're constantly sharing, using, and embedding new sources," Edwards says. "But one of the things that we're excited about is, if you take all of the content that we spend per child, it's in the range of about $40. When you juxtapose that with the cost of one textbook, the value, the functionality, and the resources they get is just tremendous."

An Altered Learning Environment
In Robin McElhannon's fifth-grade reading and social studies class at Mooresville Intermediate School, class protocol can follow a variety of formats supported by digital technology and curriculum, ranging from remediation sessions where kids work with online curriculum to improve their skills to challenge-based projects that allow students to complete tasks in collaborative groups.

"It depends on what's going on, but usually we'll have a block of time for enrichment or remediation," says McElhannon. "For kids who don't necessarily have any learning concerns, we're enriching with projects where they're given tasks that they can perform in any way they desire as long as the end result (meets the assignment). The remediation group is on a program online called Reading Plus, which takes them where their ability lies and builds them up little by little. You can watch the kids with a graph that lets you chart every child so you know if they're really working or just wasting time."

The result of this shift in technology and culture is a more student-centric learning environment that has taken the focus off of the teacher and put it on the student, says Smith.

"Teachers are really more facilitators of instruction," he says. "It was an adjustment and it still is for some, but I'd say the vast majority have bought in."

Now almost completely textbook-free, everything from coursework and testing to progress reports and homework assignments are done electronically. Teachers use an online learning management system that includes Web 2.0 tools in classroom instruction that involves blogs, discussion forums, chats, wikis, and e-mail.

"As a reading teacher, I use the computer every day," says McElhannon. "We have so many tools we didn't have in the old days, which I call the stone-and-chisel era. Classroom management and behavior is so easy now. The kids stay engaged in the lessons, they're having fun, they're learning, and they're getting along at the same time."

In this collaborative, two-way learning environment, teachers also have the added advantage of being able to get immediate feedback through the district's quarterly assessments that allow them to monitor student progress and adapt their teaching to meet individual needs. After each districtwide assessment, administrators and teachers meet to examine data, which is separated out by content area, grade level, and department, as well as by individual teachers and students.

"We'll look at data by particular items or objectives, so there's really a very significant level of precision in terms of understanding and using it," says Edwards. "That brings some efficiency. Instead of reteaching with a shotgun approach, we reteach with precision and drill down to individual students. In those sessions we develop a plan for the next few weeks, so it's very detailed."

According to Edwards, Mooresville's current graduation rate now is over 90 percent, and close to 85 percent of its graduates go on to college. Still, it hasn't all been easy--by any stretch of the imagination.

"We've gone through some budget cuts over the last several years," he says. "We've lost 10 percent of our workforce, our class sizes have gone from 24 students per class to 30 students per class in grades four through 12, and yet our achievement has gone up in every single area, every content area, in every school. Our teachers haven't had a salary increase in four years and yet their morale is strong, because when students are more successful, teachers are more successful. There's a universal sense that we're doing the right thing for kids and they feel good about it."

Future, Not Past, Tense
Edwards says he believes providing technology to every student has virtually erased the "digital divide" the district faced prior to the conversion, with some students having access to technology at home while others did not. MGSD's 1-to-1 program has helped level the playing field by giving its kids equal access to technology and digital resources, he says.

At the very heart of MGSD's digital conversion remained the intention to create a program that reinforced its motto: "Every child, every day." With continued support from all parties involved, including the teacher associations, says Edwards, Mooresville's program will continue to develop, evolve, and prepare more children for brighter futures.

"We're excited about seeing students learning at faster paces more successfully, so it really has implications for the school environment as a whole," says Edwards. "It's an unbelievably exciting time to be an educator in the US."

Despite the Storm: A Charp Honorable Mention

An EF-5 tornado (the strongest category recognized by the National Weather Service) would be enough to throw most communities into chaos. That certainly was the case when one of the most severe tornadoes in American history hit Joplin, MO, May 22, 2011. Hit equally hard was the Joplin School District, which serves the southwestern Missouri community.

But was the tornado--which completely destroyed the district's only high school, a middle school, two elementary schools, and a technology center--enough to delay the implementation of a long-planned 1-to-1 computing program at the high school the following fall?

No way.

Administrators at many districts might have focused on simply getting things somewhere close to back to normal by the time school started three months later, but Joplin used the tragedy as an opportunity to propel itself into the 21st century. It is because of the determination and ingenuity the Joplin School District displayed that THE Journal and the International Society for Technology in Education awarded a first-ever Sylvia Charp Award Honorable Mention to the district.

Comprising 18 schools serving 7,400 students, the district's first order of business was to contend with the damage left in the storm's wake. Coming, as the tornado did, close to the end of the school year, the Joplin district faced a daunting list of challenges before classes were scheduled to resume in the fall. Along with finding space to accommodate 3,500 students whose classrooms had been destroyed, the IT staff needed to get its data center up and running and rebuild its network infrastructure.

"My team and I were standing in a basement full of water, hard hats on, ceiling tiles falling everywhere, but slowly but surely we got our payroll running," remembers Traci House, district director of technology. "That was my first epiphany, when I knew Joplin Schools would survive this. We lost a secretary at one of our buildings and seven students but, had this happened during school hours, we would have had so much death."

Known as a tech-savvy district throughout the state anyway, Joplin wasn't content to return to the technology status quo. So, along with working tirelessly to get its schools up and ready and scrambling for available temporary space all over town for thousands of displaced students, district officials decided to go ahead and implement the 1-to-1 rollout as planned--in just 55 days.

Luckily, the district had been planning a tech transformation for some time anyway. There had been visioning meetings, planning sessions, and visits to other districts that already had 1-to-1 programs. Seven years earlier the district had started its Technology Leadership Academy, a program that requires every teacher to complete 60 hours of professional development in digital teaching in order to receive a laptop, interactive whiteboard, and projector for his or her classroom.

Joplin administrators were confident they were prepared to make the swift and critical decisions needed to go forward with the initiative. And when a good Samaritan, in the form of a local company, offered a $1 million grant to help, the district had what it took to get the program off the ground--only to a greater extent than it had previously planned.

Instead of replacing textbooks lost in the tornado and computer labs and classrooms that were destroyed, Joplin moved forward, more quickly than previously planned, with a high school 1-to-1 initiative that included MacBooks for every student and an open source digital curriculum focused on personalized learning.

"My superintendent, C.J. Huff, said to me, 'With everything on your team's plate as far as infrastructure, I wouldn't expect you to try to have 2,200 laptops ready by the first day of school,' but the way he said it (inspired me)," says House. "So I had to go tell my team that in addition to everything else, we've got to deploy on the first day of school."

What followed was an intense focus on professional development for the high school's teachers, preparing them for the conversion, teaching them to use and teach with the laptops, find resources, and use the new digital curriculum the district was developing.

"Everything we had to go through--weekends, nights, volunteers, and our local universities helping--it was just so worth it on that first day of school," says House. "ABC and CNN were there and our governor gave out the first laptops. Our network director, Justin Myers , was a nervous wreck: You're having 2,200 students jump on your wireless (network) within a three-hour period. But it was a thing of beauty and it couldn't have gone smoother."

Just over a year after the disaster, JSD sees promising results with its personalized learning initiative, including a 30-percent drop in student discipline issues and improvements in attendance and engagement.

"We took the silver lining and said, 'Let's do this,'" says House. "It hasn't been a perfect picture and we've had our share of struggles ... but our success came down to the people, the resilience of the teachers and the students. I didn't know the kinds of relationships we had until we had a tornado."

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. A previous version of this article stated that Tom Greaves was CEO and cofounder of Project RED. While Greaves is a cofounder, he is actually CEO of Greaves Group, an ed tech consultancy. [Last updated October 1, 2012] --Stephen Noonoo