MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- Come August, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are going to be more like your favorite coffee shop - and officials say the future of children could hang on that change.
Next school year, all schools will have wireless Internet access. Students and staff will be invited to bring and use their own smartphones, tablets and e-readers. BYOT - for Bring Your Own Technology - is a growing national trend, and CMS leaders say it's the best hope for getting some 140,000 students up to speed on digital learning.
"We have two jobs: providing children with a great education and preparing them for the real world. I don't think we do a great job on that second one," said Joshua Bishop, principal of Cochrane Collegiate Academy, one of the schools that's leading the way.
For years, CMS and other public schools have been buying laptops for students and interactive Smart Boards for classrooms. Scott Muri, chief information officer, says those remain important, but personal digital devices are the wave of the future - and CMS can't afford to buy them fast enough to supply all students and faculty.
That means in some schools, parents and PTAs will plan and pay. In others, including Cochrane, public money or grants will buy devices.
The conversion started in earnest this month, when CMS gave iPads to principals and other school administrators. The district is spending $1.2 million to buy the devices and provide software that will help them do classroom observations.
But the real challenge will be making sure teachers know how to use wireless technology effectively. Muri and Bishop say it shouldn't be just a new tool for doing the same things. Instead, students should be doing research and analysis, sharing ideas and presenting their work in creative new ways.
"I don't want to see a bunch of 'type a Word document' for homework," Bishop said.
A BYOT environment poses plenty of challenges, from preventing theft and damage to making sure students use their devices for learning, not for playing Angry Birds or cheating on exams.
But educators have to solve those problems, and do it quickly, Muri says. The real world won't wait.
"It's the adults; we have stood in the way," he said. "Our kids understand it. They get it. They're engaged."
IPads for kindergarten
Blake and Logan Sterling, 7-year-old twins who attend Smithfield Elementary, flip through apps on the iPads they got for Christmas as easily as their parents would flip book pages.
They love everything from the digital version of Highlights, a children's magazine that debuted in 1946, to the NASA website.
"Let's see if there's any aliens on Jupiter," Logan says, touching the planet to get the reference text.
The girls can't wait until they're allowed to bring their tablets to school. They're already using them for spelling, math, reading and art at home.
Their mom, Liz Sterling, is one of the PTA parents who approved spending $8,000 that had been slated for two Smart Boards to buy 10 iPads for the kindergartners instead - along with OtterBoxes, a tough cover that reduces the risk of breakage. Principal Allison Harris suggested the shift after talking with Muri about his vision for a wireless CMS.
"A Smart Board is a fantastic and very engaging tool, but only one child at a time can touch it," Harris said. She envisions five kindergartners at a time working in a small group on iPads while the rest of the class does other activities.
"I think it's a great move forward, especially for kindergartners, who have a hands-on focus," said Kelly Ingram, a kindergarten mom at Smithfield. "I think everything's going to be wireless. I think it's our children's future."
Older students, with their parents' permission, will bring devices that can be shared in similar small-group work, Harris said. About half the students at the south Charlotte school qualify for lunch aid to low-income families, so Harris knows not every child will have the latest gadgets.
Liz Sterling is excited about letting her girls learn digitally, at home and in school: "It's kind of frightening how good they are with technology, because they were born with it."
Says Blake: "It's helped me a lot with addition. I feel like I know every single problem in the whole entire world."
Teaching digital natives
At the eastside Cochrane, 87 percent of students are from low-income homes. Bishop is using federal Title I money, which is provided to high-poverty schools, to make sure each middle-school student has a laptop to use in class (eighth-graders won't get theirs until next year).
And the ninth-graders who arrived this year, as Cochrane begins converting to a 6-12 school, will soon get individual iPads. Tamia Williams, 15, beams when asked about them. She says she can't wait to use them for taking online classes and researching colleges.
Bishop has a desktop computer, a laptop and two iPads in his office. He does podcasts to update his faculty on announcements that used to take up time at faculty meetings. Instead, those meetings now feature dual sessions led by teachers - one on traditional instruction, one focused on technology. Teachers choose which will help them most.
Muri likes to talk about young people as digital natives and adults as digital immigrants. When Bishop is asked his age - he's 37 - he's quick to note that he's not a digital native. Then he grabs an iPad to demonstrate how it might enhance a classroom discussion on that topic. He quickly finds the source of those phrases (a book titled "Born Digital") and the cutoff for digital natives (born after 1980).
Cochrane students may not be wealthy, but they're not technologically destitute, Bishop says: "They all have smartphones," and about half have computers at home.
Like all schools buying expensive, portable technology, Cochrane had to think about theft. The first day sixth-graders got laptops, Bishop says, students tried to swipe two of them.
A count quickly revealed the shortage, and classmates fingered the culprits. That sense of ownership is the best protection, Bishop says - though it doesn't hurt that iPads also have GPS locaters.
Teachers and principals
Providing iPads to principals and their assistants is a first step toward getting adults ready for the wireless transformation, Muri says.
The Teachscape app provided to school administrators gives them a classroom-observation template designed by CMS, which can be customized by school. For instance, Muri said, a school with lots of English-language learners could add items to note how teachers are doing at reaching those students.
Administrators using an iPad on classroom walk-throughs can use it to give teachers immediate feedback via email, Muri said.
"We have to prepare the adults," Muri said. "Before we can equip the kids, who are ready for it, we have to get teachers ready, and before we get teachers ready we have to get principals ready."
Not surprisingly, buzz among teachers began as soon as principals returned from a Jan. 17 districtwide meeting with iPads and classroom-observation software.
One commenter on the Observer's education blog cited it as an example of a "whip the horses harder" management style, while another reported seeing the principal "cuddling her shiny new iPad all over campus" and using it to check clothing websites during a meeting.
But other unnamed commenters just seemed eager to get their chance.
"I have my own iPad - I wish CMS would allow teachers access to the WiFi that is in ALL schools now," one wrote. "But we can't ...I would love to be able to use my iPad to do things in my classroom with students."
Muri says that's true: Faculty can't use their personal devices to connect to CMS Wi-Fi now, but they will be able to next year. "That's the whole concept of BYOT," he said.
Even with faculty and students kicking in their own devices, CMS must find ways to pay its share.
The $1.2 million for administrator iPads, Teachscape software and training in how to use it came from county money. In 2012-13, CMS plans to ask county commissioners for an additional $1.3 million to hire a technology facilitator for all 23 high schools.
There's also federal and state technology money available, Muri said. That's what is paying for the wireless system.