In the last four years, this small North Carolina district has become a national leader. So why are they messing with a winning formula?
By Wayne D'Orio
By nearly any measure, Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina has been on a roll the last four years. In 2012, The New York Times published a glowing front-page feature calling the district “the de facto national model of the digital school.” In 2013, the Consortium for School Networking named Mooresville its Team Award winner. That same year, the American Association of School Administrators picked Mark Edwards as its Superintendent of the Year.
The eight-school, 6,000-student district attracts visitors from near and far, including New Zealand, France, and Germany. More than 10,000 people have visited the district; the waiting list stretches past 500. Its most famous visitor arrived in June 2013, when President Obama chose Mooresville as the spot to announce ConnectED, his program that aims to connect 99 percent of schools to high-speed broadband Internet by 2018.
External praise is one thing, of course, but what about documented student achievement? In the wake of Edwards’s digital initiative, where every student received a computer (kids in grades 2–12 got MacBook Airs; K–1 students got iPads), proficiency rates on state tests increased for five years in a row, vaulting the district to one of the top five in the state. (New standards and renormed tests knocked Mooresville’s proficiency rate from 89 percent to 58 percent in 2012, but the district was still ranked third in the state. Proficiency is up to 71 percent in the last two years.) Graduation rates are 90 percent. And this was accomplished in a district that spends $7,614 per student each year, and ranked 96th out of 115 North Carolina districts in per-student spending.
Given all this momentum, it seems the district should be taking a victory lap, not launching a major new initiative. But this year, Mooresville kicks off its “Big Refresh,” work that encompasses everything from hardware and software upgrades to training new principals and teachers. To get a better idea of where Mooresville hopes to go, it’s instructive to see how they got where they are.
The Big Refresh
In 2007, with almost no one paying attention, the district hired Mark Edwards as its superintendent. He had a successful 10-year stint behind him at Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia and was ready for Act II. In Henrico, he found acclaim in 2001 by heading the first district in the nation to hand out laptops to each student. He even enticed Steve Jobs to visit. Edwards proposed a digital transformation once he started at Mooresville, shifting from teachers leading lessons based on textbooks to a new model. The district, which spends less than half of what some of the country’s most affluent districts spend per pupil, eliminated about 65 jobs (37 teachers) and saved more money by discontinuing textbook purchases. The savings helped fund the student laptops and digital resources.
The district moved to a more student-directed type of learning, leaning heavily on digital materials. The model seems to be more project-based learning than blended learning. But neither model is used all the time. Last spring, in the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, students in a social studies class discussed the Freddie Gray case with nary a computer in sight.
The massive change took time to implement. When asked at what point he knew the plan would work, director of technology Scott Smith didn’t hesitate: “Year three.” So, despite the kudos and student gains, Smith and the Mooresville team understood that, after seven years, complacency could be setting in.
The whole idea of a refresh started innocently, as the district was preparing to replace about 6,000 of its computers this school year. When Smith realized that Mooresville was changing its learning-management system as well, he started to sense a trend. Add in that the district has a handful of new principals and that 30 percent of its teachers have two years or less of experience, and Smith and Edwards decided it was time for a reboot. “We rolled a lot of things into this,” Smith explains. “Even the teachers we had have done this for a couple of years. They needed to be challenged more.”
Edwards is more succinct: “You’re either pushing uphill or coasting down. The energy this year is extraordinary.”
So what is this change going to look like? In short, think of it as a way to take something that works and make it a little more efficient. The district, already leaning toward student-directed learning, will push further in that direction. Edwards, now with eight years in Mooresville, will continue to look for future leaders, from first-year teachers to potential superintendents-in-waiting.
“About 70 percent of what kids learn, they learn from each other,” Edwards says. Once you realize that, he notes, you start to look for all the ways you can allow students to talk to one another. That ranges from simple ideas, such as having students lead test reviews, to more complicated ones, such as building collaborative dialogue among students.
“A big part of our classes are student dialogue and discussion,” Edwards says. Students do frequent presentations and have Socratic dialogue with one another. “They are compelled to speak and have a voice. If you walk by our classes and it’s deathly quiet, they’re either taking a test or there’s something wrong.”
Last year, the district started gateway projects, semester-long research activities, in grades 3, 6, 8, and 12. Edwards says one third grader’s work was so good, a visiting professor from the University of North Carolina asked if he could borrow it to show his students.
“We stand out because of our acumen in using digital resources,” Edwards says. He tells a story about a student who graduated last year. When he started college this fall and did his first multimedia presentation, his professor immediately said, “You must be from Mooresville.” The student told Edwards, “It’s the same work I was doing here every day for five years.”
During a visit to the middle school in the spring, I spied my first set of textbooks in an eighth-grade social studies class. When I asked the teacher about their presence, he said, “We use them so students can debunk their accuracy.”
The district prides itself on consistently pushing its teachers for more achievement. “Grow or go” is the district’s philosophy. “What was good here five years ago isn’t good today,” says Crystal Hill, the executive director of elementary education.
But Mooresville’s senior leaders also spend a lot of time figuring out how to keep up staff morale, especially since teachers have had only one raise in the past nine years because of cutbacks in education spending. School leaders try to lift teachers up before pushing them. “We need to acknowledge and affirm the work being done,” Edwards says, citing the enthusiasm of a second-year science teacher who became a catalyst for her school because of her love of hands-on learning and labs.
Edwards also focuses on building leadership, from his newest teachers to administrators who are ready to advance. “We try to build leadership in others.” He notes that 17 current superintendents around the country were nurtured during his time in Henrico, including Baltimore County’s S. Dallas Dance, Philadelphia’s William Hite, and Virginia Beach’s Aaron Spence. Edwards says he sees six to seven leaders in Mooresville as potential future superintendents.
While it’s nice to have politicians, peers, and organizations admire your work, the district’s best reception comes closest to home. Families are clamoring to be part of the district and are supporting its education initiatives. About 1,000 homes are under construction in the town, which has a population of 35,000. Mooresville expected a freshman class of about 400 students this year but found itself with 560.
When the county floated a bond issue for $119 million last year, Mooresville’s part was $40 million. While the county passed the measure by 56 percent, 70 percent of voters in Mooresville favored the bond. “We had people argue to raise the tax rate more” at our public hearing, says board member Leon Pridgen. “No one spoke against it.”
Looking both back and ahead, Edwards says, “It’s taken years. There’s a high level of productivity. Kids have learned how to do that. But we still have a ton of work to do.”
Photos by Peter Taylor via Getty Images