MOORESVILLE A half-dozen eighth-graders at Mooresville Middle School showed President Barack Obama how they use their smart whiteboards by marking up a poem read at his first inauguration. Circling a metaphor on the board automatically updated an iPad Mini in a classmates hand.
Then Obama told the country he wants every school in the U.S. to have access to the same level of technology.
From the gymnasium of a school that has garnered national attention for its tech savvy, Obama unveiled Thursday a plan to connect nearly every U.S. classroom to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet over the next five years.
He said it would use money already budgeted and would not require authorization or approval by Congress. And he billed it as a way to boost graduation rates and turn out students more prepared for tech-related careers.
In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldnt we have it in our schools? Obama said. These are the tools our children deserve, and theres no reason we cant do this.
The remarks capped a whirlwind visit to the Charlotte area, the presidents first since the Democratic National Convention last fall. It was billed as the third stop on a nationwide tour on boosting the middle class and job creation. He visited Austin, Texas, and Baltimore last month.
After Air Force One landed near the Charlotte airport, Obama was ferried by a Marine helicopter caravan to the football field behind the school in a steady rain.
Between 500 and 600 seventh- and eighth-graders packed into the schools gym hours in advance of the presidents arrival, many of them with smartphones and tablets in hand. Some high-profile guests were in attendance as well, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and actress Claire Danes.
The gym was so packed that eight students were sickened by the stifling heat and were treated by emergency workers. All were rehydrated and were OK.
Behind the scenes
Thursday wasnt the first time the White House has recognized the Mooresville Graded School District for its technology. District Superintendent Mark Edwards has been invited to speak on White House panels and briefed Duncan on his districts efforts. Edwards was also named national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators earlier this year.
Every student from fourth grade to 12th grade is issued a MacBook Air to use at school and to take home. Classrooms use laptops, iPads and interactive whiteboards.
Before the presidents speech, he met with about 10 students in the schools media center.
Two students in a math class demonstrated a project that simulated an M&M-selling business project they put together on MacBooks. They showed him graphs theyd put together with their expenses and revenues.
Those are profits right here? Thats what Im talking about, Obama said when shown the students graphs. Thats excellent. Im ready to buy one.
Another math class showed the video explaining rational and irrational numbers theyd cut using iMovie, a video-editing program. And the language arts students showed an active reading assignment, using the poem Praise Song for the Day, composed and read by Elizabeth Alexander at Obamas 2009 inauguration.
Give every child a shot
Mooresvilles methods have gotten results. Despite spending among the least per pupil, the district had among the highest graduation rates, Obama said in his speech.
Copying some of their methods would particularly help rural and low-income schools that dont have speedy Internet service or teachers trained to use technology, he said. Fewer than 20 percent of teachers say their classrooms Internet access is adequate, the White House said earlier Thursday.
Some Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have jumped into digital access as well. Project LIFT, the five-year, $55 million initiative aimed at boosting performance in west Charlotte schools, includes a subsidized package that gives students a netbook computer and a years worth of wireless Internet for $150.
If the country can bring its schools into the digital age, Obama said, theres no reason why it cant take other steps to improve education, such as hiring more teachers in science, math and technology and making sure that middle-class families arent priced out of a college education.
We have to give every child a shot at the success they deserve, he said.
Despite the raucous reception, Obamas visit to Mooresville was something of a trip into hostile territory. Iredell County voted 65 percent for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in last years election. Mooresvilles eight districts went 67 percent for Romney, state voting data show.
And North Carolina Republicans criticized the trip before Air Force One even touched down.
State party Chairman Robin Hayes and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Cherryville Republican, held a conference call to describe the trip as a distraction from scandals in Washington, like the investigation into whether the IRS targeted conservative groups. They also challenged his record on job creation.
While we welcome the president once again to the state of North Carolina, his record of achievement has not been one of success for average North Carolinians, McHenry said. His economic record speaks for itself. We have a sluggish growth rate, and many challenges.
Charlotte Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger said he is glad the Mooresville school district is getting more recognition and hopes Obama learns something when hes there.
President Obama should pay close attention to their method of success, and also to the fact that Mooresville has one of the smallest budgets out of the 115 school districts in North Carolina, he said in a statement.
More money and more bureaucrats do not lead to success. Good leaders, dedicated teachers, and proactive community involvement is the key, especially when we give them the freedom to make decisions at the local level.
That didnt keep local elected officials from turning out Thursday. Several said the event had nothing to do with politics.
Im not going to embarrass the school system and not be here, said Iredell County commissioner Ken Robertson, a Republican.
Staff writers Joe Marusak, Liz Crampton and Sarah Ellis contributed.
Dunn: 704-358-5235 Twitter: @andrew_dunn
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