MOORESVILLE You could call Mark Edwards’ move to lead Mooresville public schools a midlife crisis.
He had already wrapped up a long and acclaimed stint as superintendent of a much larger district in Virginia. He had moved on to be a college dean, then vice president for a testing company.
But as he waited for a delayed flight far from home, missing yet another milestone in his daughter’s senior year of high school, he realized he wasn’t happy.
And so he came to Mooresville, a town that reminded him of his childhood home in Tennessee, to lead a district of 5,800 students. His pay dropped by about half, and he reports to work in an old post office that still has mail slots and a walk-in safe.
You could call that a midlife crisis. You could also call it a second-chapter success story.
Edwards, 60, was recently named national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, the professional group for superintendents.
Ask almost anyone in the national education scene about Edwards and they’ll tell you he’s the laptop guy, the guru of digital learning.
He has just published a book on “a digital conversion model for student achievement,” with a forward by former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia.
Visitors stream from across the country — the next group will include New Zealand educators — to watch Mooresville’s teachers and students in action. Tech tours of Mooresville Graded School District are booked through spring of 2014.
Yet Edwards, whose daily routine includes readings from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, insists his work is more about love and respect than Apples and apps.
“They come to see digital,” Edwards says. “But they leave talking about culture.”
Edwards majored in religious studies at University of Tennessee, with an emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. But when it came time to earn a living, it’s no surprise he chose teaching. His grandmother, mother and father are all educators.
After a couple of years as a biology teacher and basketball coach in Florida, Edwards started moving up the ladder. When he was a new principal feeling a bit lost, he asked his mother, Ernestine Edwards, for help.
“Go in classrooms all the time and thank the teachers and ask them what you can do to help,” he recalls her saying. That advice has guided him since.
Edwards spent two years as superintendent in Danville, Va. But it was the 10 years he spent leading Henrico County Schools in Richmond that put him on the national map.
Henrico County had about 50,000 students, almost evenly divided between black and white, middle-class and low-income, Edwards says. He saw technology as an equalizer, and in 2000 he launched a push to get 26,000 laptops into the hands of students.
Many were watching. Apple founder Steve Jobs came to speak at a convocation.
Colleagues from that time recall the human side that made the work fun. Two retired members of his executive staff, Vicki Wilson and Janet Binns, drove down to congratulate Edwards recently. They recalled another convocation, where Edwards led a Riverdance-style Irish clogging line — and the folks who had agreed to join him on stage took their time about coming out, smirking while he stomped alone.
After Edwards left Henrico County, he tried the life of a traveling sales executive and decided it wasn’t for him. He thought he’d like to be a superintendent again, but in a smaller district.
In 2007, friends from North Carolina told him Mooresville was looking for a leader.
The town of 33,000 people, about 30 miles north of Charlotte, has one of North Carolina’s 15 remaining city school districts. Bordered by the suburban wealth of Lake Norman and surrounded by Iredell-Statesville Schools, it’s an old-fashioned small town that Edwards describes as a working-class enclave.
Residents have long been proud of their schools: One high school, one middle school and five elementary and intermediate schools.
But there were fault lines. The district is 70 percent white. African Americans make up 17 percent of the student body, and many adults believed they were being shortchanged.
Leon Pridgen, whose two children were in middle school at the time, was one of them. He said educators tended to value black students as athletes, but not much else: “They were not challenged. They were not included. The expectation wasn’t as high.”
Edwards told the school board that digital conversion could be the key to rallying everyone behind improvement.
High tech, low cost
Here’s what grabs people’s attention about Mooresville: Every student from fourth grade up gets a Macbook Air to use in class. They can take them home in a protective backpack provided by the school. Younger students use laptops and interactive whiteboards in class. Wireless internet is available throughout the district.
That’s the hook. But what Edwards wants to talk about is the way teachers teach and students learn. Going digital requires lots of support for teachers, he says.
“A lot of districts are buying hardware and thinking something is going to happen,” Edwards said. “The teacher is still the key.”
For instance, teachers now make videos to reinforce their lessons, so students can watch and review at their own pace. The night before a test, a teacher might invite students to an online discussion board or Skype conference to review.
Senior projects have become sophisticated multimedia affairs. Edwards recalls one student whose architectural design for an auto repair shop was so impressive that one of the project judges offered him a job on the spot.
Edwards says he has paid for the technology (laptops are leased) through the existing budget, with the exception of a $250,000 grant to get the wifi set up.
And that budget is not big. The latest state rankings of per-pupil spending puts Mooresville 108th of 116 districts, spending $7,716 per pupil in 2012. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools ranks 93rd at $8,121 per student.
The cost of going digital was partly offset by savings on textbooks, Edwards says. And while the transition sparked some resistance, district employees and Mooresville leaders now take pride in being leaders.
Payoff for students
In 2007, the year Edwards arrived, Mooresville had an on-time graduation rate of 77 percent. For black students it was 67 percent.
Last year it was 90 percent for all students — and 95 percent for African American students. The state average was 80 percent for all students and 75 percent for African Americans.
Scholarships for all students are on the rise, and suspension rates have declined — especially for black students, who had disproportionately high rates when he arrived, Edwards said.
That’s not to say no challenges remain. Mooresville’s African American, Hispanic and low-income students perform well above state averages on reading and math exams, but have not caught up to white and middle-class students in the district. New, tougher exams being introduced this spring are expected to bring setbacks for most districts.
In February, Edwards joined three other finalists for national Superintendent of the Year at the American Association of School Administrators conference in Los Angeles.
CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison was there, too. As 2012 Superintendent of the Year, Morrison would hand over the ceremonial blue blazer to the winner.
Morrison and Edwards have known each other for years, and when Morrison was hired to head CMS last year their connection became closer, literally and figuratively. Morrison says he was delighted when Edwards won.
Edwards says he’ll use his new status to speak up about the need for better teacher pay in North Carolina. His daughter, a student teacher in Iredell County, has told him she can’t afford to stay in North Carolina after graduation when nearby states pay so much more.
He and Morrison have also talked about ways to slow the state’s push for standardized testing. The two have tallied more than 200 required exams. “We’ve gone test-crazy,” Edwards said.
As Edwards assumes Morrison’s title, an obvious question arises. Within two months of last year’s ceremony, Morrison, who was honored for his work in Reno, Nev., was hired by the much larger CMS. Will recruiters for other districts start swarming Edwards?
Morrison laughs at the notion. “Trust me, the headhunters already know,” he said. “I think people across the country know about Mark Edwards.”
Edwards says he likes Mooresville and wants stability for his youngest child, who’s in seventh grade.
On a recent evening, Edwards’ admirers lined up for more than 90 minutes to congratulate him.
Frank Rader, a school volunteer who calls himself a cheerleader for Edwards, was one of the first in line.
“I think what will keep him here,” Rader said, “is a big community hug.”