Mooresville’s public schools are used to visitors coming to learn how they blend technology with classes. That’s because they’ve had a lot of success doing that. But yesterday they got the ultimate visitor. President Barack Obama used Mooresville Middle as a backdrop for his plan to provide all public schools across the country with high-speed internet.
Mooresville isn’t a fancy place. It’s not known for big salaries or a high tech industry and, yet, every public school student 4th grade and up has a MacBook Air. Eighth grade science teacher Mark Buda has students putting together movies and news broadcasts on subjects like diseases.
“As a teacher, instead of being the person leading everything, you become more of the facilitator. You give the students something, a topic, and you let the students go with it. You direct them in where they go, but you let them become the leaders in what they’re doing,” says Buda.
He says that gets them collaborating and excited about learning in a way paging through books just doesn’t. Buda says you can see it paying off.
Over the past four years, the graduation rate rose from 80 to 90 percent and test scores have jumped too. That has gotten the attention of a whole lot of people, including a very influential one.
“Now here at this school, this has only been going on for a few years, but so far the results have been remarkable,” President Obama said to a packed school gym yesterday.
He used Mooresville schools to push his plan to connect public schools with high speed internet. Many schools already have internet service, but it’s not fast or robust enough to support a couple hundred kids with laptops and tablets. Obama said only 20 percent of students in the U.S. have good, high speed access in their schools.
“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools, right? Why wouldn’t we have it available for our children’s education?” Obama asked the crowd.
The plan involves getting the Federal Communications Commission to expand its program to provide discounted high-speed Internet to schools. Phone companies pay fees to support that work and those are often passed on to consumers. The White House says families could see phone bills go up an extra $5 a year to help connect schools.
“I actually do think that right now infrastructure is the biggest expense that we need to pay particular attention to,” says Karen Cator who leads a non-profit called Digital Promise.
Up until recently, she was the director of technology for the U.S. Department of Education. She says broadband infrastructure is a bigger obstacle than the cost of actually buying kids laptops and tablets.
“The per student expenditure has come down dramatically and I don’t think that is something that’s onerous for many school districts across the country. But it does take focus, it does commitment, it takes a particular mission,” says Cator.
Mooresville is a small district with only about 5500 students. The district got grants to pay for some of the costs of installing Broadband service and the laptops are leased for about $200 a year. The district has saved some money because students don’t need many textbooks any more. One of the trickiest things to figure out was training teachers to use the technology in their lessons.
“It’s just dealing with the people and helping them feel more comfortable with such a significant change. It’s just hard when you’re asking people to change how they’ve done things for a very long amount of time,” says Mooresville Middle Principal Carrie Tulbert.