Just about everyone agrees on the value and importance of education. North Carolina allocates roughly fifty cents of every dollar in our state budget to education, and while we appreciate our dedicated teachers and acknowledge the good things happening in our schools there are enough problems and challenges in meeting 21st century demands to warrant education reform. But these reforms are slow in coming.
That’s not the case in the 5,600-student Mooresville Graded School System. Worried their schools were losing ground this small system hired Mark Edwards as their Superintendent. Edwards had demonstrated leadership excellence in Virginia and is a common sense reformer who understands you can’t educate for tomorrow’s needs using yesterday’s methods.
The results have been so dramatic that many national broadcasts and publications have interviewed Edwards and steady streams of educators from other states come to experience and learn from the Mooresville model. Edwards admits small school systems have a greater probability of success with reforms, but quickly adds that 40 percent of his students qualify for free and reduced lunches, a group who often fall behind and don’t perform well. While North Carolina boasts an 80 percent graduation rate, Mooresville’s is 91 percent. In 2009-10, Mooresville was one of only six school districts (out of 115) to achieve all Adequate Yearly Progress targets and all schools were recognized as “Schools of Distinction.”
What’s the secret? It began with a meeting of 1,000 parents and community leaders who agreed they wanted their children to receive the best education available. Mooresville administrators understood that the teacher was the key to excellence; if teachers didn’t buy into reforms they wouldn’t work. Many teachers didn’t understand or were skeptical about new technologies. Edwards bought laptops for every teacher, conducted a summer institute and followed through with an intentional and intensive professional develop program that empowered teachers to be innovative and urged them to customize instruction using new technology. This led to a culture change as the role of the teacher evolved from being the focal point, lecturing in front of the class, to being a facilitator and collaborator, guiding students to needed resources.
Edwards raised and reallocated funds so that every child above third grade received a laptop computer. Most of the students already used Gameboys, computers and smartphones, so transitioning to digital technology wasn’t such a giant leap for them. Instead of purchasing textbooks that cost as much as 80 dollars each Mooresville depends on digital technology and online resources that cost 33 dollars per child per year. Another essential key is measurement, knowing how well each student is learning the material. Teachers now have access to easy-to-use assessment tools that allow them to do online assessments every four and a half weeks. Teachers can quickly gauge a child’s progress, see needed areas of improvement and develop individualized assignments that focus on concepts that need strengthening instead of having them fall hopelessly behind. Skeptics became believers and then champions of individualized learning.
The Mooresville model isn’t perfect but this small system, among the lowest in per capita funding in our state, demonstrates we don’t have to accept less than education excellence. Committed leadership, empowered teachers, involved parents, engaged students and outstanding results affirm Edwards’ mantra, “Every child, every day.” If it works in Mooresville it can work statewide.
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be contacted at www.ncspin.com.