Ushering in the digital classroom

As superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Terry Grier runs the largest public school system in Texas and sixth-largest in America.

So why, people ask, do he and his teachers learn each year from a school district with only 5,000 students? Grier’s district has 211,000.

The Mooresville Graded School District has sent teams of instructors to Houston in recent years to train teachers, principals and district administrators. Grier and 30 others from his district made another summer pilgrimage to Mooresville this week.

Grier, a Robeson County native and former superintendent of the year in Guilford County, is attending the Mooresville district’s fifth annual Summer Connection conference on using digital technology in the classroom.

He joined nearly 400 teachers, principals and superintendents from 29 school districts and 16 states at the sold-out conference, which began Tuesday and ends Thursday.

The Mooresville district became a national model in recent years because of its digital conversion and high academic achievement rates.

As a result, Superintendent Mark Edwards was named national Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2013, and President Barack Obama visited Mooresville Middle School in June 2013.

During his visit, Obama unveiled a plan to connect nearly every U.S. classroom to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet over five years.

“They know what they’re doing,” Grier told the Observer at Mooresville Intermediate School, where Mooresville teachers are instructing their guests in classrooms. “They got it right. They don’t have an equal in the country.”

Educators came from districts that only recently ushered in or plan to begin the digital conversion Mooresville pioneered years ago.

In Mooresville, 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 and are far more collaborative than when teachers taught from podiums.

“The point is not the box,” Scott Smith, the Mooresville district’s chief technology officer, said Tuesday, referring to the laptops and iPads. “The point is changing the teachers and the learning environment and doing what’s best for kids.”

As teacher Meredith Schwendemann from the Greenwood (S.C.) School District said, “It’s a mind shift in how to implement technology and prepare students for life after high school, for college or careers.”

She and other teachers attended a class Tuesday afternoon on digital “Cool Tools” they can use with their students, including one for videos and another for quizzes.

Another class, “Leading as a Digital Teacher,” encompassed everything from collaboration to digital citizenship, meaning how students should conduct themselves online.

Edwards led sessions for administrators.

“What they’re doing here is what I believe every school district in America should be doing,” Grier said.