Educators visit Mooresville to learn how to digitally convert schools

jmarusak@charlotteobserver.comJuly 25, 2013 

— Raul Alanis Jr. sat at a table at Mooresville Intermediate School on Wednesday morning learning how to use blogs, discussion boards and Wiki as a teacher in Houston, Texas.

His district is preparing to digitally convert his and 10 other high schools. So Alanis wanted to learn all he could at Mooresville Graded School District’s fourth annual Summer Connection conference on using digital technology in the classroom.

“These are great lessons and tools,” the high school biology teacher said of the digital curriculum he and 399 other educators from as far away as Seattle learned took in at the school this week

As U.S. schools shift to more digital-based learning, Mooresville has been a national model due to its digital conversion and high academic achievement rates.

As a result, Mooresville Superintendent Mark Edwards was named national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators earlier this year, and President Barack Obama visited Mooresville Middle School in June.

During his visit, Obama unveiled a plan to connect nearly every U.S. classroom to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet over the next five years. The initiative will boost graduation rates and turn out students more prepared for tech-related careers, the president said.

In Mooresville, every student from fourth grade to 12th grade is issued a MacBook Air to use at school and to take home. Classrooms use laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards.

District spokeswoman Tanae McLean said Mooresville’s achievements have made it “a lighthouse district for other schools across the nation wanting to replicate what Mooresville is doing with educational technology.”

Teachers, principals and superintendents from across the nation travel to Mooresville’s Summer Connection conference to learn how to properly implement a digital conversion in their districts.

This week’s conference once again sold out, and the district is putting the money it makes into professional development scheduled next week for its teachers.

Beginning in 2009-10, the General Assembly eliminated the line item in the state budget that paid for professional development of teachers, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction said.

Educators at this week’s conference came from 14 states and 31 school districts.

Edwards, who led sessions for superintendents at the conference, said that while Mooresville instructors led the learning, “there’s cross-training involved. We’re growing together.”

Except for the Cincinnati Christian Schools and a Catholic school in Raleigh, educators came from public schools.

They learned that digitally converting a school means changing its culture.

“It’s not about the box, the computer,” Scott Smith, the Mooresville district’s chief technology officer, said at Mooresville Intermediate. “It’s about changing the learning environment, using the tool sets we have to meet kids where they are. These kids don’t know what a rotary phone is, but they know texting, and we need to meet them where they are.”

Educators at the conference learned how digital learning requires more collaboration in the classroom.

They learned about “digital citizenship” – how students should conduct themselves online – and about “project-based learning,” where the teacher develops a project around a .lesson, such as having students produce an iMovie.

Susan Runnels, an elementary school principal in rural southern Alabama, said she hopes what she learned in Mooresville will help “to bring a digital renaissance to my school. It’s just invigorating to get out and see where it works.”

For Tyna Thompson, who teaches ninth grade English in the private Cincinnati Christian Schools, the goal of digitally converting classrooms is the same one educators have always had for students: To see them make it into college and “great careers.”

Marusak: 704-987-3670; on Twitter @ jmarusak.

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