‘A Teaching, Techie Community’: Schools Get Students Future Ready
For those who follow him on Twitter, Moore County Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence offered a few observations last week regarding the school system’s sweeping technological revolution.
Spence and several other community leaders dropped in on Thursday at Carthage Elementary School to see how students there were adjusting to their month-old iPads.
“School and community leaders get schooled in the use of iPads at CES by amazing kids,” Spence tweeted.
That was followed a moment later by this: “Quick check reveals 1/2 kids at table don’t have home computer. How can we NOT bridge this digital divide?”
Spence, beginning his second year as superintendent here, speaks with passion and conviction when he talks about building 21st century learning in the Moore County school system.
Nowhere is that drive more evident than in his “Future Ready” technology initiative.
“Preparing students to be ‘future ready’ is about having the necessary tools to compete in an ever-growing, technologically driven world,” Spence said. “It is about achievement, learning and the students’ enjoyment of and engagement in their school experience.”
Spence has spearheaded a plan, called the “one-to-one” initiative, to place computer laptops, iPads and other devices into the hands of every student by 2016. All elementary school students will receive iPads for school use, and all middle school and high school students will have access to laptops.
If all goes according to plan, Spence said, the schools will be kept up-to-date with devices “rotated out” every three years.
“This is not about obtaining devices for the sake of having technology itself, but it is about the end result,” he says. “We can either sit on the sidelines and watch other school systems pass us by, or we can take the initiative to help our students become ready for the challenges of the future.”
The one-to-one initiative is one of three particular areas Spence is emphasizing for the academic success of Moore County students. The others include closing the achievement gap and literacy for all by ensuring that all students are reading on grade level by the third grade.
Upgrading technology in all 23 schools is a steep challenge. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and the logistics of putting costly devices in the hands of young kids can be unsettling.
So far, 450 iPads have been delivered to Carthage Elementary, and last semester 100 laptops were distributed at Pinckney Academy.
The first phase of the one-to-one initiative calls still for handing out new devices this spring at Elise, Westmoore and High Falls middle schools. A federal Rural Schools Learning grant of $255,000 will pay for these devices.
Carthage Elementary was supplied for $225,000, and Pinckney Academy’s costs were $106,000, all from a reallocation of school technology funds. These figures included the devices themselves, taxes, and professional development and training for teachers.
During their visit to Carthage last week, Spence and other school officials were impressed with what they saw.
“The students were engaged in learning and were actively working and talking together to solve problems while using apps to record their progress,” he said. “It was energizing to see such a great cooperative activity.”
Carthage Elementary School Principal Denny Ferguson said the students’ reaction was one of “complete excitement” when the iPads arrived.
“Once they were in the classroom, they were immediately hard at work, engaged and focused,” he said. “It was an exciting day at our school.
“The one-to-one initiative gives every child an opportunity for learning. One of our school’s beliefs is that we equip students with 21st century skills needed to succeed within our global community, and part of this belief involves the use of different tools and practices to engage and prepare today’s learners.”
Pinckney Academy Principal Kelvin Watson said the students’ reaction to their devices has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“After having been trained in how to use and care for their laptops, we have seen some very positive developments in learning,” Watson said. “They are being exposed more quickly to information, and they are gaining a wider understanding of what education means, realizing that computer use is not only about gaming. That’s the exciting part, seeing them learn that these devices are an excellent educational tool.”
Watson said the laptops provide avenues for improving the students’ social skills as well.
“I have watched students helping other ones with their laptops, and I believe this peer-to-peer interaction helps the student grasp the problem more quickly than if I had helped them,” he said. “This is just one example of positive sharing that we have seen with the arrival of the laptops.”
Spence said that several schools each year will receive devices until all students are covered.
“Our objective from this point forward will be to supply about seven or eight schools with devices for the next three years, and then start over with whatever is the latest thing on the market at that time,” Spence said.
The final cost of the one-to-one initiative has not yet been tallied. It will depend on future grant funding and other sources of revenue.
But regardless of the bottom line expense, Spence knows Moore County can’t bear the cost of not pursuing the technology initiative.
“I’ve been asked many times if the one-to-one initiative is affordable, and my answer is that we can’t afford not to do this,” Spence said. “We are allocating our funds strategically so that our first phase has been funded with federal Race to the Top monies, a federal grant, and our local technology dollars.
“I will continue to push this forward for what I believe will be to the benefit of all Moore County students.”
The results from this technological conversion are demonstrative. Spence and other Moore County administrators attended a workshop last summer at the Moores-ville Graded School District. That district underwent a digital conversion initiative that has been recognized on both the state and national level.
The Mooresville district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per students, but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates. The district was featured in a nationally televised documentary called “Fixing Our Schools” in 2012.
“I have seen firsthand the difference this can make in student engagement and achievement,” Spence said. “We believe that we are in a unique situation here in Moore County, and with this initiative will be able to merge the county’s great instructors with technology. The Mooresville district’s model is a great one, but I believe we can blaze our own trails and do better than anybody.”
Spence said he’s heard concerns about the computers and mobile devices distracting children because the devices, in some minds, have been associated with gaming or entertainment.
“This is about creating high quality students, not gamers,” Spence wrote in a statement posted to the school’s website. “It is our hope that the kids will be so engaged that inattention is not an issue.”
Selena McNeil, a Carthage Elementary School third-grade teacher, said the students “definitely do not go into a corner and play games” with their new iPads.
“The students are proud of their devices, and they want to share their work with others,” she said. “If anything, having an iPad builds a closer collaboration with the kids.”
Spence agrees, saying the kids “socialize through technology.”
“We are falling behind if we don’t put these devices into their hands for learning, but at the same time, we are always on guard that the new laptops and iPads will only be used for learning, innovation and engagement. It’s how they communicate with each other and with the world.”
Spence is emphatic that the initiative is about learning, not about the technology.
“I had a teacher ask me if I was trying to replace her (with technological devices.) I told her that I was not (replacing her), but that I was trying to replace her chalkboard.
“The truth is that what we are trying to do is to enrich the teaching and learning process. The technology allows us to do things in a way that could not be done before, in a way that’s most interesting and engaging for students. This is teaching in a whole new way, but this is what life today looks like.
“We can’t be behind the curve with technology,” Spence said. “It would be unconscionable for us to send our students to college or into the work force without the skills they need to be successful.”
As Spence wrapped up his morning with the Carthage kids and their iPads, he and the other community leaders talked with teachers about the experience.
He tweeted: “iPad debrief with teachers: ‘We’re learning from each other. That’s the best part. We’re a teaching, techie community.’”
Contact John Lentz at (910) 693-2479 or jlentz@thepilot. com.
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