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By changing instruction, creating a technology culture and choosing a visionary path, a North Carolina high school helps students get excited about learning. And that's translated to a 20 percent jump in graduation rates on the South Granville High School campus.
A few years ago, South Granville was a large traditional high school with a 58 percent graduation rate, a low attendance rate and a high discipline referral rate.
Now, the South Granville High School campus houses two smaller schools: the School of Health and Life Sciences and the School of Integrated Technology and Leadership. With the smaller schools, teachers build relationships with students and work on teaching.
This year, the campus expects to see the graduation rate rise above 90 percent and has already seen higher attendance and fewer office referrals.
Some of the students hadn't come to school for months. But in the 2009-2010 school year, they showed up after the district gave every student and teacher a laptop, brought in cafe-style furniture for the lobby and changed the campus atmosphere, said Timothy Farley, superintendent of Granville County Schools.
“It’s much less like a school," he said, "much more like a community. And that kind of relaxed environment, particularly with kids these days, I think is very attractive.”
Instead of being punitive, the atmosphere is more open. Students can use their mobile phones and mp3 players outside of class. And now the energy and noise comes from the classroom, not the hallway.
Students work on projects during class and often sit in circles or squares instead of rows. And at lunch, they pull out their laptops before they grab food.
These changes come from a vision that the superintendent and Board of Education share. The vision involves using something that you know engages kids and represents the future of learning — such as cloud and mobile computing — to take students where they need to be.
To carry out its vision, Granville County Schools partnered with business analytics company SAS, the North Carolina New Schools Project and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. In 2009, they launched the Redesigned Schools 2.0 program on the South Granville High School campus.
Through the program, the district trained teachers to mix technology into instruction and provided MacBooks to each student and teacher. The partnership also gave teachers access to SAS online curriculum content and analytics tools that track students' progress.
Ultimately, the partners aim to reach the goal of a 100 percent student graduation rate and expand the program to other schools.
The visionary approach takes courage because you have to look down the road. From what Farley has seen in high schools, learning tends to be about control. That's why schools traditionally place students in rows.
“And ceding that control takes great courage," Farley said. "Now we facilitate rather than manipulate.”
Teachers have to be facilitators in order to effectively manage a classroom of students with computers, said Vanessa Wrenn, director of instructional technology in the district. When the redesign started, she taught teachers a different way to manage their classes.
“The best classroom management tool is a good pair of shoes," she said. "It’s proximity. You cannot implement this and be behind the desk.”
She also added monitoring software. This new layer of content filtering works within the four classroom walls, so teachers can change permission settings for the class, share computer screens and poll students. And the students can silently ask for help through the software.
Teachers received laptops seven months before the students did so they could become comfortable using the technology in their classroom. And that also gave the district staff time to complete professional development with the teachers so they could learn what an engaging classroom looks like with technology.
Since August 2009, teachers have been attending one-hour professional development sessions on Tech Tuesdays. They drive the topics of the sessions, talk about what they envision that technology would look like in their class and visit other schools.
They've learned how to make classes more collaborative, pull in more digital resources and differentiate instruction. They use SAS online curriculum, post assignments online, create wikis and collaborate in Google Docs.
One teacher was out sick with the flu, but taught her class from home through Skype. Chemistry students needed help after school hours, so their teacher used file sharing to talk to each other.
“You’ve got to change the way teachers have always taught,” Wrenn said. “Teachers had to learn a new way of instructing, so it was almost like becoming a first-year teacher again.”
Now students are excited about learning. They choose how to demonstrate information with videos or other methods, and they thrive at learning with technology. And it's not just the laptop. It's the technology culture that the district has created.
“They don’t feel disconnected from the world," Wrenn said. "They’re very connected while they’re at school.”
This type of culture change has to be organic, Farley said. If superintendents expect to legislate top down that kids will have computers tomorrow and learn differently, it's not going to happen.
In the Granville district, Farley didn't force feed any of these changes. Over the past five years, the district has been on a journey to change learning, and that's a reasonable amount of time to get something turned around and growing.
He advises superintendents to go about a change like this with caution.
“It’s not just about providing machines to students, because they could be just expensive paperweights," Farley said. "You have to be very methodical and you have to understand that the teachers have to come first. You have to work with them first before you can even launch this with kids.”
You have to be patient and make sure you stay on vision and on point. People will try to distract you by asking questions like, "Why choose a Mac and not a PC?"
But don't let these arguments keep you from doing what you want to do. When your district decides to bring learning into the 21st century, do it, and keep going.
"If you choose to go down this path, stay with it," Farley said, "but don’t expect it to change overnight."
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