We were in the company of greatness last night at the ninth annual Common Sense Media awards celebrating innovators making a difference for kids in education, media, and technology at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Cohosted by our CEO and founder James Steyer and Dee Dee Myers, honorees included LeVar Burton, ABC’s Modern Family, Dr. Mark Edwards, Senator Edward J. Markey with Representative Joe Barton, and Senator Jay Rockefeller.
But despite the evening’s star power, it was a local school superintendent who had us wowed.
Dr. Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District received our Educator of the Year Award. Since 2007, Edwards has led the District in North Carolina to becoming a trailblazer for digital integration through its 1-to-1 laptop program.
We’re not the only ones to think his work is amazing. Earlier this summer, six years after Edwards spearheaded the process of converting Mooresville into a modern model of digital learning, President Barack Obama stood in the Mooresville Middle School gym to announce ConnectED, a program that aims to connect 99 percent of American students with high speed broadband internet within five years. Obama emphasized Mooresville’s leading example when it comes to integrating both devices and fast internet in schools and communities as the key to American students’ success in a competitive, global economy.
That same year, Edwards won Superintendent of the Year from the School Superintendents Association.
Edwards, 60, comes from a family of educators. Before becoming Mooresville’s superintendent, Edward’s career included positions as a biology teacher, basketball coach, college dean, and a superintendent for a larger district in Virginia. He was the vice president of a testing company before he landed at Mooresville, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Under Edwards’ leadership, the eight-school district with about 5,700 students became an early pioneer in digital integration and the implementation of a 1-to-1 program. All Mooresville students in fourth to 12th grade receive MacBook Air laptops to take to and from school. According to a much-blogged about New York Times feature, the curriculum is completely integrated with the students’ digital tools—instead of textbooks, students use software that allows teachers to easily track their progress and provide individualized assistance. Instead of sitting in rows listening to lectures, students collaborate on projects in pods.
The “all in” approach to updating Moorseville’s schools was innovative, but it was the results of the digital conversion that garnered international attention. In 2008, the graduation rate were 80 percent, compared with 93 percent today. The rise for African American graduates is even starker, from 67 percent in 2007 to 95 percent today. College attendance rates climbed from 74 percent in 2007 to 88 percent in 2012.
“For so many years, I think there was a real discrepancy between students seeing what they’re doing in school connected to their future,” Edwards said in a Transformation Talk he gave at a Discovery Education event. “But in Mooresville, we’re seeing students having this direct sense of connection, building their future in classrooms today.”
In the avalanche of media attention the district has received, Edwards has repeatedly stressed that it’s not just the sleek MacBooks that are responsible for the upturn in test scores, graduation rates, and attendance—it’s the culture of the schools, their curriculum, and the cutting-edge ways the outstanding teachers teach with digital tools. Edwards has explained that all staff from custodians and bus drivers (one started a “read on your way home” program) are engaged in the districts’ mission.
“They come to see digital,” Edwards told the Charlotte Observer, speaking about the hundreds of visitors who come to take tech tours of the schools. “But they leave talking about culture.”
Part of that culture is reflected in the often-repeated district motto: “Every child, every day.” It also reflects one of the goals of the initiative, to narrow the digital divide and prepare every student with the skills imperative in a twenty-first century workforce.
“This is not about the technology,” Edwards told the New York Times. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction—preparing students for their future, not our past.”
“I really believe less is more,” he said of winning the AASA award. “Lots of times we get scattered, and it’s really important to focus on key core elements of the work. Focus on teaching and learning, on building relationships and ultimately on children, every single day.”
Edwards recently published “Every Child, Every Day: A Digital Conversion Model for Student Achievement” to help other schools follow a path towards an effective 1-to-1 program. You can read even more about the work going on in his district in this documentary by American RadioWorks.