MOORESVILLE, N.C. » Sixty educators from across the nation roamed the halls and ringed the rooms of East Mooresville Intermediate School, searching for the secret formula. They found it in Erin Holsinger’s fifth-grade math class.
There, a boy peering into his school-issued MacBook blitzed through fractions by himself, determined to reach sixth-grade work by winter. Three desks away, a girl was struggling with basic multiplication — only 29 percent right, her screen said — and Holsinger knelt beside her to assist. Curiosity was fed and embarrassment avoided, as teacher connected with student through emotion far more than Wi-Fi.
"This is not about the technology," Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, would tell the visitors later over lunch. "It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past."
As debate continues over whether schools invest wisely in technology — and whether it measurably improves student achievement — Mooresville, a modest community about 20 miles north of Charlotte best known as home to several NASCAR teams and drivers, has quietly emerged as the de facto national model of the digital school.
Edwards spoke on a White House panel in September, and federal Department of Education officials often cite Mooresville as a symbolic success. Overwhelmed by requests to view the programs in action, the district now herds visitors into groups of 60 for monthly demonstrations; the waiting list stretches to April. What they are looking for is an explanation for the steady gains Mooresville has made since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 fourth- through 12th-graders in five schools (three K-3 schools are not part of the program).
The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.
"Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership," said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education. "There are lessons to be learned."
Start with math lessons: Each student’s MacBook Air is leased from Apple for $215 a year, including warranty, for a total of $1 million; an additional $100,000 a year goes for software. Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the money was freed up through "incredibly tough decisions."
Edwards said the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Others see broader economic benefits.
"Even in the downturn, we’re a seller’s market — people want to buy homes here," said Kent Temple, a real estate agent in town. "Families say, ‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’ Six years from now, you’ll see how many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and make it."
Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: They correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can. Technology, here, is cold used to warm.
Mooresville frequently tests students in various subjects to inform teachers where each needs help. Every quarter, department heads and principals present summary data to Edwards, who uses it to assess where teachers need improvement. Special emphasis goes to identifying students who are only a few correct answers away from passing state proficiency standards. They are then told how close they are and, Edwards said, "You can, you can, you can."
Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.
"I’m not a very social person, but I have no problem typing on a keyboard," said one of those shy ones, Chase Wilson. "It connected me with other students — opened me up and helped me with talking in public."
In math, students used individualized software modules, with teachers stopping by occasionally to answer questions. ("It’s like having a personal tutor," said Ethan Jones, the fifth-grader zooming toward sixth-grade material.) Teachers apportion their time based on the need of students, without the weaker ones having to struggle at the blackboard in front of the class; this dynamic has helped children with learning disabilities to participate and succeed in mainstream classes. "There are students who might not have graduated five years ago who have graduated," said Melody Morrison, a case manager for Mooresville High School’s special education programs. "They’re not just our kids anymore. They’re everybody’s kids — all teachers throughout the school. The digital conversion has evened the playing field."
Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Edwards said; others, he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.
"You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them," he said. "Your teachers have to be willing to give up control."
That was the primary concern that the 60 visitors expressed during their daylong sojourn to Mooresville in November. "I’m not sure our kids can be trusted the way these are," one teacher from the Midwest said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid trouble back home.
Mooresville still has some growing pains. In one ninth-grade social studies class, a video that easily could have been shown on a large screen instead went through the students’ laptops, several of which balked, "Unable to find proxy server." One fourth-grader, having to complete 10 multiplication questions in two minutes for the software to let her move on, simply consulted her times tables, making the lesson more about speed typing than mathematics.
And those concerned about corporate encroachment on public schools would blanch at the number of Apple logos in the hallways, and at the district’s unofficial slogan: "iBelieve, iCan, iWill."
After three years of computers permeating every area of their schooling, Mooresville students barely remember life before the transformation and are somewhat puzzled by the gaggle of visitors who watch them every month. ("At times it’s kind of like being a lab rat," one 11th-grader said.) But Mooresville understands its growing fame in the world of education, much of which has yet to find the balance between old tricks and new technology.
"So," Higgins asked her English class after the bell rang, "you think you’re going to like transcendentalism?"
"Only if you’re a nonconformist," a student cracked.