Lessons on digital inclusion from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Commentary: What school districts can learn from a North Carolina school system that took a different approach to closing the digital equity gap.

Keith Krueger
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Keith Krueger CEO

Keith R. Krueger is CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonp...

Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools offers one example of how schools are trying to drive digital inclusion. (Image from CMS strategic plan)

Whether you prefer the term digital equity or digital inclusion, the drive for every student to have access to digital tools for learning remains the same. The fact that some kids still go home to no access for digital tools while others have access continues to widen the digital divide and increasing inequity.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina is among districts that prefer to tackle the issue as a digital inclusion challenge. Other districts can learn from the methodical way that CMS has undertaken their comprehensive digital inclusion strategy as both an inside- and outside-of-school initiative.

Inside of School — Valerie Truesdale, the district's chief of technology, personalization and engagement, is a former South Carolina superintendent who came to CMS in 2012. She is a powerful advocate for using technology as a catalyst for transforming learning.

Keith Krueger

CMS has been growing 3 percent annually since 1994, and just over half of the district's more than 145,000 students qualify for free or reduced student lunches. The district is a majority-minority district of 168 schools.

When Truesdale arrived three years ago, she was surprised at the poor state of technology in the district: No schools were fully wireless so few classrooms had Wi-Fi; classrooms were equipped with three desktops per classroom, which were used primarily for remediation; and teachers did not have laptops with which to build robust tech-integrated lessons. In many instances, applications were simply electronic versions of traditional worksheets. The lack of technical support and the number of old computers ironically led to the decision, for consistency, to remove Windows 7 from newly arriving computers and replace it with older (now obsolete) XP operating system.

Goal One of a new strategic plan, launched in early 2013, calls upon Team CMS to accelerate academic achievement in a 21st century learning environment for all students to graduate college and career-ready. “We were not in a position to support 21st century learning with 1980s technology,” Truesdale said. The technology services team focused on building infrastructure and capacity of teachers for integrating technology. As wireless access grew, schools could allow students to bring their own devices.

With support of district leaders and led by then-Deputy Superintendent (now Superintendent) Ann Clark, the district committed to building infrastructure needed to support 21st century learning. The “Digital Learning Conversion” initiative followed in 2014, focused on providing one device per student, beginning in grades 6 to 8, with a long-term goal of becoming a district-wide one-to-one environment.

To make this happen, the district undertook upgrades to classroom Wi-Fi and school bandwidth were undertaken from 2012 to 2014. It also opted to use Chromebooks and has since deployed more than 82,000 of them for use by students and teachers in CMS schools. When asked what this strategy has meant for students, Truesdale talks about Victor, a student at Kennedy Middle School, who was asked how learning was different now that he had a Chromebook. Victor's response: “I get to be curious anytime I want."

Given the importance of engaging the community, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools helped parents and summer care providers learn how to access digital tools from home or anywhere there is Internet access through a Summer Learning Blitz. The district provides 24/7 access to such tools as DreamBox, Compass Learning, Reading A-Z, Atomic Learning and Discovery Education so worked with care providers to help students access tools all summer.

CMS and the Mecklenburg Library launched a ONE Access program, which allows all CMS students access to Library’s extensive digital tools – anytime/anywhere – using their CMS school ID. Faith-based organizations and community partners such as Y Readers, Bell and Boys and Girls Clubs with summer programs are partnering with the school system to offer access in summer programs and increase digital literacy. The goal is to ensure that CMS students don’t experience “summer slide” when knowledge is lost between when school year ends and restarts.

Another major focus of CMS' Digital Learning Conversion has been on professional development for teachers to integrate use of new devices, increasing student engagement and extending learning time. CMS creates weekly video tips for teachers (www.CMSLearns.org, click on Instructional Technology Weekly ITW). The district has hosted a certification program for Google Apps for Education, resulting in more than 60 teachers' becoming Google certified teachers.

Intensive professional development is provided in summer institutes, with over 500 teachers participating in 2015. While they are not paid to attend, teachers earn continuing education credits, flex certificates redeemable on teacher workdays during the school year and digital badges as Tech Leader I, II or III. The digital badges require a demonstration of mastery. Teachers who reach Tech Leader III and earn Google certification can be hired as trainers of other teachers during summer and Saturdays and serve as coaches for teachers in their schools. CMS has recognized that while success of their Digital Learning Conversion initiative needs to track things like Wi-Fi access points, devices per student and other tangible measures, the true success of the initiative will be new engagement by teachers and students, as well as redesigning how to personalize learning.

Outside of School — Given the strategic vision for a 21st century learning environment, CMS recognizes digital learning has to occur not just at school but at-home and in the community. A small group comprising representatives from the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Mecklenburg Library, Knight School at Queens University, the Knight Foundation, the Urban League and others began a Digital Inclusion Steering Team in 2014. The purpose? To build a community dialogue about distinguishing Charlotte as a connected city, where every child has access to the worldwide classroom and digital tools.

Digital inclusion is major problem requiring intentional, comprehensive partnerships to address inequities. If Charlotte is to realize the promise of increased student engagement and extended learning time, the Digital Inclusion Steering Team recognizes the need for a comprehensive digital inclusion strategy to bridge the city's digital divide.

The team researched, gathered data and information from such sources as the Pew Research Center and launched Digital Charlotte. They learned from partners such as A Child's Place, which serves homeless families, that they can identify “Wi-Fi deserts” – typically high poverty neighborhoods with no broadband — in the city. Based on the need gaps identified, the Digital Inclusion Steering Team is leading a discussion about the importance of home access to Internet for digital equity to occur.

Involvement has spread to over 80 community partners with interest in Digital Inclusion, including higher education's UNC-Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College, service providers such as Google Fiber, AT&T, Sprint, Time Warner Cable, nonprofits and community organizations such as Code for Charlotte, developers, and entrepreneurs.

One nonprofit involved in digital inclusion work is E2D, short for Eliminate Digital Divide. E2D, founded by CMS student, Franny Millen, and her family, has raised funds to provide home Internet in more than 700 low income households. E2D and CMS are working with business partners such as Lowe's, Electrolux and MetLife to repurpose donated laptops to students without computers in the home. Davidson College students provide training support for the families.

Digital Inclusion community partner meetings convene with the question, “What are you and your organization going to do to address digital inclusion?” By building momentum, the Digital Inclusion Steering Team hopes to realize a Charlotte community where all families are connected to broadband and devices to support learning and growth.

It also helped frame these lessons for other districts:

  • Digital inclusion is an inside and outside school system strategy.
  • Think creatively about engaging community partners.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel — learn from other communities.

Keith R. Krueger is CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice of K-12 school system technology leaders in North America.

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Education IT News, Digital Equity, Commentary, Opinions, CoSN

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