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Technology brings the world to every teacher and student

If you’re looking for a school system that can splurge on the latest technology for all students and teachers, Rutherford County Schools wouldn’t appear at the top of that list. By nearly every measure, this county struggles: 21 percent of the county’s population income is below the federal poverty level; 22 percent receive federal food and nutrition assistance; and unemployment in Rutherford County is 7.4 percent, which is 1.9 points higher than the statewide average and among the highest rates in the state.

But despite these challenges, the school system has managed to increase school graduation rates over the past few years from 64 percent in 2009-10 to nearly 82 percent in 2014-15, dramatically outpacing regional and statewide rates of improvement in recent years.

And during the last four years, Rutherford County Schools (RCS) has used federal Race to the Top funding to bring the world into nearly every classroom. The district’s RttT funding supported efforts to expand and improve the wireless infrastructure in every school, to equip classrooms with interactive whiteboards, and to purchase laptops for every middle and high school student.

“Rutherford County Schools has created a 21st century learning environment that frees students from the barriers of time and place,” said Assistant Superintendent David Sutton. “Digital resources and tools enrich their experiences in the classroom and also allow them to access instructional content, lessons, learning materials, and teachers outside the classroom.”

The district’s original 1:1 program provided MacBook Air laptops for every teacher and middle and high school student. This year, the district expanded its 1:1 program to provide similar laptops to students in grade five and iPads to students in grades kindergarten through four. For many students, devices made available to them by Rutherford County Schools were the first high-tech devices in their homes.

As a result of these investments, students at all levels have become more engaged. Interactive whiteboards, for example, enable teachers to project images from a computer on a large screen. Teachers and students can then interact with the board and images through touch or special pens. Students collaborate with peers and their teachers using a variety of web-enabled tools, access digital learning resources, and participate in online college courses.

“Equipping every classroom with a Promethean (interactive) whiteboard and providing laptops to all middle and high school students were major milestones of a long-range plan for our district. Race to the Top funds helped us to complete that work,” said Benny Hendrix, the district’s chief technology officer. Today, all classrooms from pre-kindergarten through high school — approximately 645 in all — have interactive whiteboards; 6,600 laptops and 3,789 iPads are deployed for use by teachers and students.

While deployment was an important dimension of the district’s plan, providing appropriate training and support for the educators who use it was just as important. Kim Carpenter, director of instructional technology, explained that related training has focused on the effective use of those resources to support rigorous content standards, leveraging them to access the Home Base suite of tools and other high quality teaching and learning resources, and adapting teaching practice for the 21st century learner. Early in the project, the district also held information sessions to help parents understand and appreciate changes to teaching and learning.

“Computers are the necessary tools of daily life and work in the 21st century educational environment, just as they are in college and in the vast majority of today’s jobs,” said John Mark Bennett, a Rutherford County school board member and chairman when the school district launched its Going GLOBAL initiative.

Today, technology is broadly integrated into the instructional program. The interactive and collaborative nature of this technology has been a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning across the school district. It has inspired teachers to create engaging learning experiences and to adapt lessons to meet individual learning needs in ways that were not possible before.

Walk into an elementary classroom today and you will see third graders exploring the physical states of matter and documenting their experiments using their iPads. In another class, you will see students creating their own digital textbooks using iBooks and responding to questions on a class discussion forum. Down the hall, students are writing code and programming a robot they’ve constructed out of Legos. In a middle school classroom, you will see students working collaboratively to conduct research and solve complex problems, or analyze literature and writing pieces using Google Docs, or even traveling the globe and learning about ancient civilizations using Google Earth. Pick any high school in the district and you will quickly see how learning has been transformed to provide opportunities for students to learn from experts outside the school. For example, history classes are collaborating using video conferencing software with classes from the Netherlands, Norway, and Russia to explore the role of the United States in the world and how that has changed over time, while biology classes are talking with a scientist about advancements in stem cell research. In addition to engaging classroom experiences, you will see high school students in media centers using the technology to take college level courses that have never been offered before due to limited resources or lack of transportation. 

“Our commitment to ensuring college and career success for all students is reflected in our commitment to providing them with the tools necessary for that success,” said Superintendent Janet Mason. “Our Going GLOBAL effort not only enables us to overcome the digital divide, but also ensures that our students graduate ready for success. By experiencing a technology-rich environment that supports creativity, collaboration, inquiry, and curiosity, our students graduate with the knowledge and skills required by today’s colleges and workplaces.”

Seth Effron

Seth Effron has spent more than 35 years in journalism as a reporter and editor, including founding “The N.C. Insider.” He has also worked in North Carolina government communications, serving in five agencies under three governors.