Marquitta Mitchell is a magnet programs specialist for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.
Walk into any North Carolina high school classroom in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) at the end of the day, and you will see students tucking their Chromebooks into their backpacks and walking out the door as a part of CMS’s recent 1:1 Chromebook initiative. As an educator in the district, I thought we were already 1:1. At the school where I taught, every classroom had a cart filled with 30 Chromebooks for teachers to use with students as often as they needed. Turns out, we weren’t 1:1 at all.
In the fall of 2018, most high school staff in the district probably received an email from their technology personnel with a message much like this one:
"Long story short, the superintendent has mandated that all schools will give a Chromebook to each student by the end of first semester. Obviously, that represents certain challenges for our school. The date downtown selected for us is the week of ______. Students will be required to bring their devices each day."
At one CMS high school, this message left the staff with more questions than answers, and educators were immediately anxious about such a daunting process that did not seem to come with many details. An instructional accountability facilitator at one high school shared, “It is great for high-poverty schools, but I worry about the implications during testing time as we move towards online tests...” Other educators, like Kevin Poirier from West Charlotte High School, were more optimistic about the implications: “I’m amazed at how little kids know about how to use a computer. Students are not always tech savvy when it comes to improving efficiency. Maybe this will help us think intentionally about how we model behaviors when it comes to digital literacy.”
When asked her opinion of how the initiative might affect staff and students at her school, long-time West Mecklenburg High School educator Rupi Young stated, “It allows students to complete work at home, and educators can now assign work...and not feel guilt or hindrance due to a lack of technological tools. Students can collaborate with each other and complete work more conveniently in this new on-demand era.” Young is right. In an October 2018 article about Mooresville Graded School District’s implementation of the 2009 laptop program, Lauraine Genota cites data showing that there was "potential for 1:1 technology programs to increase achievement in the short term, but more so in the medium term.”
Many districts in North Carolina, like Orange County Schools and Perquimans County Schools, have already become 1:1. It was just a matter of time before CMS did the same. But as the second largest district in North Carolina, serving more than 146,000 students, what can be expected from such a large-scale measure? Following is what we know about the CMS 1:1 Chromebook Initiative.
The need to be 1:1
CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and Derek Root, chief technology officer, began the initiative. This was not Root’s first rodeo at 1:1 district-wide technology integration. He led this work for the Washington County Public Schools and as the director of technology infrastructure for the Frederick County Public Schools. Root cites Mooresville Graded School District as an example of why our district is moving in this direction. “Where schools have the technology, it’s now a part of their infrastructure. It’s like having the lights on,” according to Root.
Ann Clark, the previous interim superintendent, was not a proponent of sending the devices home, but our current administration realized that our Chromebooks were being under-utilized. Chromebook carts present in grades 3-12 were normally full, but there weren’t always enough carts for every classroom. Root explained that “seeing [Chromebooks] sit in the back of the room in a cart when another room doesn’t have access to enough” was unacceptable in his eyes. Poirier agrees, “The school wasn’t truly 1:1 before because there could have been some classes/students who didn’t have a Chromebook. We should have been doing this years ago to close the digital divide if I’m being completely honest.”
Quick decision making or thorough planning?
While an educator like Poirier may have welcomed this initiative and seen it coming, other educators across the district were caught off guard. Despite a three- to four-month notice to principals on the CMS Chromebook Take-Home site, school-level staff felt the notification was last minute. Schools were scheduled a window for their roll-out, and the decision for how to implement that roll-out in schools was left up to administrators, instructional accountability facilitators and technology facilitators.
While there appeared to be a lack of transparency at the start of the initiative, it was not pulled out of thin air. The planning began way before school staff were notified. Two CMS schools, Phillip O. Berry High School and Garinger High School, served as pilot sites, starting this process after the winter break in January of 2018. Root notes that the principals of these schools were on board for trying something new, despite the challenges of an open campus or a student body with a variety of home situations.
The pilot went well, and the districtwide initiative was announced to high school principals in May of 2018. Root also spent the summer meeting with principals, both individually and in group sessions, to explain the process. He presented principals with some facts around 1:1 technology efforts, permission slips with a variety of translations for English learners and specific solutions for each high school. Some principals used that time to customize the roll-out as needed for their school population, but Root’s focus was to make sure he set a standard so that every student has access to the technology they need.
Before Chromebooks were distributed to students, school staff and a team who came into schools to assist checked the devices for missing keys, cracked screens and busted corners. Some schools had 500 devices that were broken in some way or unusable. About two years ago, CMS swapped out their inventory system and inventoried its 200,000 devices using Hayes, what Poirier calls a “top-notch program,” to track the computers using scannable asset tags. It works like a library check-in/check-out system. When devices are lost or stolen, they can be scanned and identified using barcodes and RFI scanners provided to schools. When a device is broken, it is couriered to the CMS Depot, and it takes about 8 to 10 days for the device to be fixed and sent back to the school. In the meantime, students don’t miss a beat — they are immediately able to get a new device from the school because each school has a small number of devices ready to go.
The 1:1 hurdles and their outcomes
Educators across the district were at first concerned about all that could go wrong. “Teachers were terrified of the process," Poirier says. "They thought students would forget to bring their laptops or charge them, but that is the opposite of what happened. All the teachers I talk to are quite surprised.” He adds that “90% of kids see the value in it and are doing the right thing. There are only about 10% who aren’t and need to continue to work on their responsibility skills.”
When it comes to the value of these devices, West Charlotte has ways of monitoring the usefulness of students possessing working devices at home. According to early surveys conducted by the school, 40% of their students were without consistent, high-speed internet access at home, not including their cell phones. Through Sprint 1 Million, which began at West Charlotte, CMS high school students are able to sign up for a hotspot to use at home. By the time the Sprint 1 Million grant is complete, over 20,000 CMS high school students will have received hotspots to increase their internet access at home. Poirier is excited by what he sees when he logs into his own computer in the evenings. The school uses Google Slides as school announcements that automatically pop up on students’ screens when they log in to the computers. “When I log in, I can tell that more students are using their devices. I often see over 70 students showing as having that announcement slide open on their computers.” Through this, West Charlotte has seen an increase in the amount of students using their devices when at home and being more aware of what is happening on and off campus.
Assessment was another major concern, Root acknowledged. Testing coordinators around the district already struggle to get 95% of students to take their end-of-course and North Carolina Final Exams. There were many questions up for discussion: Should a student be punished if he or she doesn’t bring a device on test days? Should schools collect the devices two or three days before exams to avoid this? Maybe the student should be made to take the exam on a makeup day instead. Young at West Mecklenburg High decided that she wants all students to be able to test if they show up for their exam. “There will be more students testing in June, and we may have to create an ‘extra block’ at the end of the school day so students can turn in their Chromebooks and leave them charging overnight. We could also stagger the start times for our North Carolina Final Exams because those exams are only two hours long.” It’s likely that the school will use a little creativity to make sure they are ready for testing.
Parent concerns focus on digital literacy and safety. Some are worried about online content becoming a bad influence on their children. Root explains that the same blocks and filters that would apply on a school campus will apply to the Chromebooks no matter where they go. Students should be using their devices for schoolwork, and only CMS users can log into them, which has the added effect of the devices not being used if stolen. Students will also be automatically greeted with CMS’ acceptable use policy twice a year, and students must read and accept the policy in order to proceed with using the device. Most schools also have some sort of program or resource, like Common Sense Media, that they implement during the first few weeks of school. Teachers are also encouraged to use DyKnow classroom management software, which allows teachers to monitor students’ screens as they work in class.
Many are asking why the district didn’t implement this initiative when it had the opportunity to buy additional computers instead of offering students the same devices they were using in classrooms. Root’s response is clear: “Why have Chromebooks sitting around unused when the kid can carry it from class to class? It’s just not financially sound to have a duplicate device — having the spares around for the purpose of a spare. Instead of trying to decide how many spares to have, we work with what we’ve got. We would love to have double the amount, but it takes a lot of funding.” To sustain such a large undertaking, Root is optimistic that CMS will figure it out when the time comes. Currently, we don’t charge loss fees or damage fees for the Chromebooks. Schools may charge their own usage or damage fees as a disciplinary action, but the district will accept a broken Chromebook and provide students with another one for free. Currently, the district has seen about a 12% breakage rate, which Root says is in line with other school districts, so it doesn’t seem as though the district will be in need of outrageous amounts of funding for broken devices.
The future of the 1:1 initiative
So how does the 1:1 future look for CMS? The high schools have done it, but when will it happen in middle schools? What is being done to make sure this initiative is sustainable and not just another one that CMS will adopt, roll-out, and either change or abandon?
Root says now it’s all about preparing schools. “Devices mean nothing. Handing a kid a device doesn’t help them to read or write any better.” Nick Sutton, superintendent of the Stark County School District in Illinois, concurs in this article. “Many educators assumed that just enabling a ubiquitous access to technology would lead towards positive results," he writes, citing research showing "positive outcomes when schools focus on more training and immersion rather than just implementation with 1:1 initiatives.”
Root also gives an example of how instructional time was being lost at one of CMS’s large urban high schools prior to implementing the 1:1 initiative. They operated a room where students would go in the morning to “check out” their Chromebooks for the day. “When a kid doesn’t have to do that, you gain that time back — 10 to 15 minutes for 180 days” — in other words, 45 hours. Even if schools didn’t have a campus-wide system, any classroom that used Chromebooks dealt with a similar amount of lost instructional time. With the initiative in place, teachers must now be prepared to make effective use of that time that has been given back to them.
Middle school deployment is expected to happen early in the 2019-2020 school year. Root plans to personally spend time with all principals after the first semester of testing is over to gain their critical feedback about the process. He’s also looking to make changes based on feedback he gets every day from the 20 engineers in our district. The technology facilitators at the school sites have been invaluable in this process, and Root wants to re-launch the regular leadership meetings that the district used to hold for people in this role. The three-hour question-and-answer session held before this roll-out wasn’t enough, Root says.
In the future, Root would like schools’ technology facilitators to have the opportunity to step away from the added responsibility of overseeing Chromebooks. He would like to see kiosks at every school so that a student can scan and insert his/her broken Chromebook and immediately get a new one. This would also eliminate human errors in coding, labeling, and transporting devices.
Districts looking to make the 1:1
Root will tell you that the 1:1 move is not an easy one, but it doesn’t have to be filled with great obstacles either. Districts that are considering such an initiative should learn from the processes that other districts, like CMS, have put in place.
Consider the benefits for students and whether this change makes sense. Everyone can agree that making education more accessible and equitable for all students is a win for any school district, and if putting devices in students’ hands for use at school and home can achieve that, then the answer is easy.
Create a plan for maintaining transparency. Communication from the creators of the initiative cannot get lost in translation before it hits school-level staff. This will lessen the amount of overreactions and increase and quicken school staff buy-in. Teachers may have felt they were trading the security and control of having the devices in their rooms for the insecurity of putting them in the hand of students, but communicating the actual outcome would have helped ease that initial tension.
Put measures in place to address parents’ concerns around online safety.
Have a plan for instruction after the roll-out. Just giving students devices has not proven to be a determining factor for increasing student achievement, but what happens with the devices over the months after the roll-out will be. Schools need to be prepared to create meaningful educational experiences that allow students to understand the value of showing up prepared for in-class instruction, as well as those that spark curiosity and reflection at home.
CMS high school students now have the tools to do great things, and the playing field has been made just a little more even. Will the move to 1:1 help increase student achievement? Only time will tell, but as an educator in the district, I applaud the fact that we’re taking such a big chance on our students.