As a hazy morning sun rises over this rural North Carolina farming community, middle school students settle into their seats and lift their MacBooks, each face illuminated by an electronic glow.
A seventh-grade Social Studies class is rapt by videos about the toll of World War II, while nearby, sixth-graders work through online math drills, testing their knowledge of ratios and percents at a rapid clip. Across the hallway, English and Language Arts teacher Lori Meyer marvels at how much her eighth graders enjoyed doing their final project: a research paper and iMovie on the 1960s.
“This is the first time in my 12 years of teaching that students said writing the research paper was their favorite assignment,” Meyer says, “and I know it was due to the laptops.”
North Iredell Middle School, about 60 miles north of Charlotte, leaped into the digital learning age in March when it gave each of its more than 650 students MacBook Air computers. The gear is part of a $20-million federally funded plan by the Iredell-Statesville Schools District to issue MacBooks to some 11,300 students across nine middle schools and seven high schools. The grant, part of the federal Race to the Top program, is intended to convert the district to a hybrid approach fusing traditional teaching with digital instruction, a concept known as blended learning that has captured national attention.
“This is about changing the way we instruct students,” says Patrick Abele, executive director of the federal Race to the Top District grant. “It’s not just about technology…This is about having teachers be highly effective and highly engaged with students to close academic gaps.”
Iredell-Statesville didn't have to look far to see the potential. The neighboring Mooresville Graded School District has been hailed as a national model for the future of technology-aided public education since it made the digital jump in 2009. Last year, President Obama chose the district as the site of his announcement of a new federal program to connect nearly all American schools to high-speed Internet during which he praised Mooresville’s digital classrooms.
Yet while the district's academic improvement since the digital switch has been substantial, it is not a particularly representative model for the rest of the nation. Mooresville is a relatively small district of eight schools and 6,000 students. Just next door, Iredell-Statesville – with 36 schools and nearly 21,000 students – offers a more realistic portrait of the potential and challenges for larger school districts attempting to navigate the digital conversion.
Iredell-Statesville pulls students from a bucolic cross-section of NASCAR country, a mix of kids from of suburban enclaves and rural farm communities. It's predominantly white, though not entirely -- nearly 69 percent of students identify as white, 14 percent as black and 11 percent as Latino, according to the district’s most recent enrollment figures. And it is not wealthy. Nearly half of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.
The achievement gaps among black, Latino and limited-English students are significant, says Melanie Taylor, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. In 2012-2013, only 47 percent of black students and 50 percent of Latino students in grades four through eight scored proficient on math and reading end-of-grade tests, compared to 78 percent of white students. In that same year, only 13 percent of black students and 22 percent of Latino students in 11th grade scored above average on the ACT, compared to 53 percent of white students.
Digital resources had been scant. The school lacked the money to truly integrate technology into the classroom and the early efforts were hampered by painfully slow school Internet connections.
But that began to change in December 2012, when the district was awarded the $20 million Race to the Top grant by the Department of Education. By June 2013, the district had hired 15 full-time blended learning coaches to train and support teachers in the transition to digital and personalized instruction. Parents were required to pay a $20 technology usage fee for each student receiving a laptop. In September, the fee will rise to $50, though low-income families can request a hardship fee waiver. District officials called their program IMPACT, short for Innovative Methods for Personalizing Academics, Complemented by Technology.
The first step for teachers was understanding the concept. Last September, before any MacBooks were handed out, the blended learning coaches began training teachers on how to form small groups or “stations” in the classroom, and creating digital lesson plans tailored for each student.
“A lot of it was understanding what blended learning is,” says Erin Walle, a blended learning coach at North Iredell Middle School. “It’s understanding that this is personalized learning. It’s not just putting a student in front of a computer. I think that was the fear.”
Not everyone was on board. In February, about a month before the laptop distribution, East Iredell Middle School Principal Jimmy Elliott held a parent meeting on the laptop plan and was caught off guard when some said they were against it.
“There are games, videos, music and other things on there and I didn’t want him abusing it,” says Sissy Shew, whose grandson attends East Iredell.
Elliott says he was able to allay most concerns by explaining that teachers used filters to block certain sites in class and would instruct parents on how to do the same at home. But he wishes he had made a stronger case at the outset.
“If I could go back, I would do a better job of educating parents as to what benefit or how much benefit these devices can have in the classroom,” Elliott says. “Because we saw immediate change in the way our kids were engaged. I mean, it was immediate.”
Some teachers, especially those with more experience, also struggled with the changes and questioned why technology was being “mandated” by the district, according to school officials.
“The learning curve is significant for some teachers depending on their comfort level with technology,” says Meyer, the English and Language Arts teacher. “But in the end, it makes teaching easier. I enjoy the creativity it brings into my classroom."
Across the four middle schools where students have been given laptops, blended learning takes on several different forms.
On recent morning at Mt. Mourne International Baccalaureate Middle School, Spanish teacher Victoria Principe divides her class into three groups. One conjugates verbs online, using the site conjuguemos.com; another busily types as they translate a handout on Costa Rica, and Principe sits with a smaller group engaged in Spanish conversation.
At East Iredell Middle School, Michell Fandino, 13, is a digital learning success story. For Michell, whose parents immigrated to North Carolina from Colombia, math was a weakness and she was close to failing in June. But, after about two months with her new laptop, the chatty seventh grader with long dark hair smiles widely and says she is now getting “A’s.”
The secret? Michell said the digital drills on the MobyMax math program allowed her to review problems independently — in class and at home — until she understood them.
“The laptop makes it fun, so it makes you want to work more,” she says. “The teacher can’t just keep going back for you, she has to keep on going with the whole class. So, with the laptop, I keep working until I get it.”
East Iredell seventh grader Andrew Johnson says the ease of emailing assignments has helped boost his average.
“I would always lose my homework,” he says. “With the laptop, there’s no way to lose it…I feel more organized because I know everything is right there.”
Those sorts of responses are why district officials are figuring out ways to keep the program up and running after the federal spigot runs dry. Iredell district leaders estimate the technology expenses will amount to approximately 8% of their $175 million budget, or about $14 million, and Superintendent Brady Johnson says discussions are underway on how to sustain the technology budget after the Race to the Top grant ends in June 2016.
“Everyone in the school district realizes that we are now a technology rich district and to maintain that, sacrifices have to be made,” Johnson says.
It’s still too soon to say if the laptop program will be worth those sacrifices. In Iredell, the real test comes this fall when the remaining 12 schools receive their laptops. Still, many educators are convinced a change has already occurred. For some students, the simple act of having their own laptop has led to a deeper sense of ownership over their assignments and education, says East Iredell science teacher Angela Trusler.
Before East Iredell seventh grader Iyana James received her laptop, she said she never used her home computer for school. Asked how having her own computer has helped her in school, Iyana starts to answer, then has a better idea.
“For science class, I did a PowerPoint on Newton’s Law,” she says. “Can I show you that?”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet at Teachers College, Columbia University. This story is part of a Hechinger series examining the digital divide in American schools. Read more about how technology is changing education.