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The 2015 North Carolina Rural Assembly

Connectivity was the topic of the North Carolina Rural Center’s 2015 Rural Assembly, and the importance of broadband access for improved opportunity for rural communities took center stage at the two-day event. 

In a panel discussion entitled “Expanding our Leadership: High-Speed Education,” MCNC President and CEO Jean Davis moderated a group of speakers that included Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, State Superintendent June Atkinson, the Superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District Mark Edwards, and Lee County Schools Technology Director Rob Dietrich.

Connecting to opportunity

Speaking first, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest discussed the power of disruptive change in the rapidly changing field of technology. Highlighting advancements in healthcare and transportation, Forest asked how can we educate students to do the jobs of tomorrow when the technology they will use doesn’t even exist today?

“Education has to be very nimble and very able to adapt to this world,” said Forest. 

Broadband connectivity is really about opportunity, according to Forest. Opportunity for any resident of the state, urban or rural.

“Because of this idea [connectivity], we can create equal opportunity for all students,” said Forest.

Forest noted that connectivity means that even a student in rural Bertie County can access the School of Science and Math in real time, giving them the same opportunity as students in wealthier and more urban communities across the state.

Citing the state’s new Digital Learning Plan, Forest said he believed North Carolina is on pace to be the first state in the nation to have every classroom in the state connected to high-speed broadband and have a 1-to-1 ratio of digital learning devices for each individual student.

According to Forest, the plan’s projected average cost of $116 per student to get the state’s classrooms connected was well below the FCC’s projected cost of $150 per student.

“This is just a tool,” said Forest, noting that the basics of education still need to be taught, “we didn’t worship the pencil when it was invented so we really shouldn’t worship the technology either when we talk about education.”

“But it is a tool that is going to help create opportunity for the world and you [rural leaders] are on the front edge of that change.”

From traditional to digital

State Superintendent Dr. June Atkinson spoke to the Assembly about the state’s progress in improving education outcomes for students across the state.

“Ten years ago, our graduation rate was about 68 percent,” said Atkinson. “This past year, it has gone to nearly 86 percent.”

Atkinson noted, however, that the state had made the most of the resources available to it and for education outcomes to improve, the education system in the state needed to be more innovative moving forward.

“In some respects, we have squeezed every bit of juice out of the educational structure that we have in place,” said Atkinson. “It is really important that we be innovative, that we be nimble, that we be flexible, as the Lieutenant Governor has said. That is important for public education.”

Atkinson noted that the traditional education model needed to change to a mastery and competency model, freeing students to move to higher levels of learning and not be confined to the traditional time-certain model–one that may keep a student in a class they have outgrown.

“One of the tools that we know will help us to move from time-certain to mastery and competency, is connectivity and technology,” said Atkinson.

Technology is also changing where learning occurs. No longer are students confined to one classroom or even one school.

“In my day, the place where learning took place–formal learning took place–was in a fixed place,” said Atkinson. “Today learning can take place anywhere at anytime.”

According to Atkinson, the traditional model of one-size-fits-all learning, where students learn within a set number of days is no longer adequate for the state. Instead, education should be more personalized and customized, where letter grades are not the only goal but rather “what did I learn and how am I demonstrating what I learned?”

Atkinson noted that personalized learning means that students are given the supports necessary to master the material and have acquired the compentencies and the standards necessary to be succeful at the next level.

But personalized learning that may work for one student might not work for another. 

“Personalized learning requires a new way of teaching and a new way to use technology,” said Atkinson.

In her presentation, Atkinson noted that the traditional method of a single test at the end of a course was a “20th century artifact.”

“We are on the bridge of going from ‘Let’s do it at the end’ to the place where we have assessments integrated into learning activities,” said Atkinson.

“Technology and connectivity will help us move to a place where students and teachers can get immediate feedback so they will know what to do next in order to improve learning.”

Atkinson emphasized that technology and connectivity were important for moving the state forward, it should not overshadow the importance of teachers and leadership in public schools and in local school districts.

“It’s important that we recognize technology, connectivity, is necessary, but not sufficient,” said Atkinson. “We have to have a great system of public education, with great leaders and with great teachers, and we have to support adult learning of the people that are in that system.”

Mooresville Graded School District

Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District, followed Dr. Atkinson, highlighting the work of his district to improve student connectivity.

Edwards noted that though the district was ranked 101st in funding out of 115 districts in the state and that more than 50 percent of the students in the elementary grades received free-and-reduced lunch, with another 20 percent of students just above that classification, the district has become nationally recognized as a leader in improving student achievement.

“A key to our success is that we are digital. We have not bought a textbook in about seven years,” said Edwards. “Our seniors this year have not had a textbook since they were in the third grade.”

As always, correlation does not imply causation, but the migration away from traditional textbooks has not negatively affected student achievement.

“This year we ranked second in the state in third-grade math and reading,” said Edwards. “Last year we were first, so we are a little disappointed that we are second.”

According to Edwards, the district’s graduation rate for African-Americans was 98 percent two years ago, first in the state, and up from 47 percent from nine-years ago. The graduation rate this past year was down slightly to 89 percent for African-Americans.

Edwards said the overall graduation rate in the district this past year was 90 percent, up from 62 percent for all students nine-years ago, and the district ranks third in the state when looking at this year’s end-of-course and end-of-grade test scores.

According to Edwards, all students in the district have their own devices. Students K-1 have their own iPad Air. Students 2-12 have a Mac Air. Students in grades 3-12 can take home their devices. 

All without external funding.

Edwards said the district worked with local broadband providers so students could have access at home and the town of Mooresville has equipped public places, like community centers and baseball fields, with internet access. The district worked with local congregations to include access in local houses of worship.

“I believe every district in this state can replicate what we have done,” said Edwards. “We are a low-funded district, but we have had outstanding results.”

But Edwards cautioned against thinking that access to technology alone could improve student achievement. Connectivity should be tied into improved instruction and learning. 

“One of the things our students … have become excellent on is using resources to monitor and map their own learning,” said Edwards.

Lee County Schools

Rob Dietrich, technology director for the Lee County Schools, reminded attendees that before technology could be incorporated into the classroom curriculum, the proper infrastructure needed to be in place in the community.

“If your infrastructure doesn’t work, the device you put in a kid’s hand doesn’t matter,” said Dietrich. 

In addition to investing in a robust broadband infrastructure, Dietrich also said Lee County invested in professional development, providing teachers with 14 hours of training.

“We need to make sure that as technology progresses, teaching and learning progresses and therefore we can get that real-time results that we need to see in the classroom,” said Dietrich.


Todd Brantley

Todd Brantley is the senior director of public affairs at The Rural Center. He formerly served as director of policy and research at EducationNC.

He grew up in Randolph County where he attended Farmer Elementary School, Randleman Middle School, and Randleman High School. Todd attended Randolph Community College before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. He received a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity School in 2002 and a master’s from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Prior to his work at The Rural Center and EducationNC, Todd also worked as the associate communications director at MDC providing strategic communications support for several programs, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Partners for Postsecondary Success and the Developmental Education Initiative. Todd was part of the writing and research team that produced the 2010 and 2011 State of the South reports. While a graduate student, he interned at The Story with Dick Gordon and was the editor of The Fountain, the alumni magazine for the Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was part of the research and writing team that received the Governmental Research Association’s 2014 Most Distinguished Research Award for a report on the use of telepsychiatry in rural areas. He was a co-author of How the Triangle Gives Back, a 2008 report that examined local philanthropic and charitable giving in the Research Triangle region. His writing and research has appeared in the Daily Yonder; Insight, a publication of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research; and NC DataNet, a publication of The Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A native of North Carolina, Todd currently splits his time between Raleigh and Pikeville, where he helps maintain his wife’s family’s farm. He says, “As a product of this state’s systems of public education, from secondary, to the community college system, to our public postsecondary system, I have seen firsthand how important these institutions are for the social and economic wellbeing of this state and its citizens. Regardless of whether you are a new resident or a native, a parent or not, we all benefit from the fruits of our current system of public learning, and the hard work and foresight of those who came before us who understood that, regardless of political affiliation, North Carolina needed to be a national leader in access to quality education for everyone.”