Mark Edwards compares the start of school to Christmas. That's when the superintendent of the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District, north of Charlotte, says the district invites students in grades 4 through 12 to pick up a gift: their own laptop for the academic year.
"It's extremely exciting to see the look on students' faces," Edwards says. "Last year I heard numerous students say—a week before school starts—'I wish school was starting tomorrow.' I thought, 'I've never heard that before.'"
Edwards, who launched the one-to-one laptop program four years ago, says students hover around their screens, researching, creating multimedia projects (basic posters are extinct), and watching flat images (think old geometry textbooks) turn into computerized three dimensional ones.
Most districts nationwide were using laptops in at least one grade at one campus, according to the 2008 "America's Digital Schools" report from The Greaves Group and The Hayes Connection, but the success of such efforts isn't widespread.
Yet, the 5,400-student Mooresville district has drawn national recognition, securing a visit last summer from Karen Cator, director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. "I think Mooresville has a tremendous amount to offer in terms of leadership and what they've learned along the way," Cator told local media.
Test scores in the district have increased, with overall student proficiency rates growing from 73 percent to 86 percent in three years, putting Mooresville in a fourth-place tie in North Carolina's academic index ratings. And the district's four-year graduation rate improved 22 points to 86 percent over five years, according to district data.
Edwards attributes the progress largely to the "digital conversion" effort. Teachers lecture less, and students take control of their learning more. And with online assessments, teachers can instantly score them and modify their lessons to help struggling students. "We really see this as an instructional project," Edwards explains. "It's directly linked to how students learn, how teachers teach."
When Edwards was chief at Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools in 2001, he started one of the first one-to-one laptop programs nationwide. He faced some connectivity issues and a few incidents of students downloading pornography and changing grades. But Edwards says he learned that planning and community buy-in are important—and saw student engagement multiply. "If we're going to prepare these kids for the future," he says, "we need to make sure they can use and understand the tools."
This year, Mooresville doled out 4,000 MacBooks for students and teachers. Because administrators can remotely view students' screens, kids are deterred from goofing off in class. The high school stays open in the evenings for students. For those who don't have Internet at home, the district has negotiated a $9-a-month rate with a provider.
A Dollar a Day
How much does this digital conversion cost, including software and maintenance agreements? One dollar a day per student. The initial infrastructure expense for the eight schools was $1.8 million, which mainly came from the capital budget. Each campus has a staff person running a help desk, and the high school offers a computer class in which students are dispatched across the district to repair laptops. The district has ditched most paper textbooks. To help with the transition, Edwards says he added eight early-release days for teacher training plus an optional summer workshop. "When you have a veteran teacher who's taught 30 years," he says, "and they're in the room for the first time with 30 laptops, it's a challenge."
Mellon Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.