With few textbooks, some schools left to their own devices

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Walk into Karen Parks’ math class at East Forsyth High School, and everything looks pretty typical.

Parks stands in front of a whiteboard at the front of the room, while about two dozen students in rows of desks look toward her, taking notes. Parks is teaching five sections of Math II this semester, so her classes are filled primarily with freshmen and sophomores. Each student has a sheet of paper or a notebook out. Graphing calculators, rulers and scissors stack up on desks.

There’s just one thing missing.

Textbooks.

No student has a math textbook. The Math II course that Parks is teaching doesn’t have one. It’s the first year for the new course — part of the state’s realignment of its math courses to match the Common Core State Standards implemented last year. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools didn’t have money to buy new textbooks, so Parks has to teach the course without one.

“In a perfect world, it would be great to have a resource that’s in line with the curriculum,” Parks said. “We know what we are to be teaching right now. We do that the best we can.”

For her students, though, it still means having to work through the course without a textbook.

“If I didn’t get something, I can’t go back (to the book),” said Lina Walsh, a sophomore. “We’ve got our notebook, or we can ask the teacher.”

Third graders use their iPads at Montlieu Academy of Technology. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

Third graders use their iPads at Montlieu Academy of Technology. (Lauren Carroll/Journal)

Textbooks scarce

There haven’t been new textbooks in five years — the last time the state gave the district enough money to buy an entire set.

Over the past five years, money allotted for textbooks has been a fraction of what it once was. Spending on textbooks for each student fell from nearly $60 to just $14 this school year. Most textbooks cost between $50 and $75 each, said Guy Lucas, purchasing operations manager for the district.

Lucas said that districts across the state used to adopt a new set of books each year, working on a five-year rotation to cover each subject area. That meant that almost no textbook was older than five years. The last time the district bought a set of books to cover an entire subject area was six years ago. More and more classes are now working with books that are more than 10 years old.

The books can be outdated; some are held together with tape. For the classes fortunate enough to have even old textbooks to use, some have only enough usable copies for a classroom set. Students can use them in class but can’t take them home because there aren’t enough to go around.

Then there are the classes, like Math II.

Unlike math courses of the past that focused on one specific topic at a time — such as algebra or geometry — Math II includes content from several different areas of mathematics. The district doesn’t have one book that includes all of the content that the course covers. Instead, Parks pulls lessons from a variety of sources. She supplements lessons from old probability and algebra II books with materials that she finds online. Parks said she spends a lot of time making copies.

“We have had to pull from different resources to make sure that all our standards are addressed in the curriculum,” Parks said. “Virtually everything I’ve given my students this year has been in the form of copied paper.”

In place of the traditional book, Parks requires each of her students to keep a three-ring binder to organize all of the materials. Keeping track hasn’t been a problem, says Amy Creider, a freshman in Parks’ Math II class. But it’s still not a substitute for a book when students are working at home.

“I try to use my notes, but a book would be better,” Creider said.

When she can’t find the answer in her notes, she turns elsewhere.

“I ask my dad,” she said. “If he doesn’t get it, I go to the Internet.”

Another freshman in Parks’ class said he doesn’t go that far if he can’t find an answer in his notes.

“I just leave it blank,” Gary Hart said.

Stuck in the middle

The lack of adequate math textbooks became such an issue last year that district officials were poised to buy new ones. For months, Superintendent Beverly Emory hesitated to buy new books with money other than that appropriated by the state for textbooks because she worried about the precedent it would set. Emory said she worried that if the district found a way to buy the book itself, the state would never reinstate textbook financing.

Finally, though, the problem became too big to ignore. The district was going to spend $800,000 on the math books, but then a legislative committee established to review the Common Core state standards put into place last year recommended replacing those standards with new ones developed by the state.

The district hit the pause button again. Emory said she didn’t want to spend money on books aligned to standards that could be changing.

It’s unclear whether the state’s textbook budget will ever return to its peak in the 2009-10 school year. That school year, the state budgeted $111 million for textbooks. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools received more than $2 million for textbooks that year. The next, it received just $88,000.

This school year, the state textbook budget was $23 million — about $760,000 coming to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal, presented on Wednesday, calls for doubling the state’s textbook budget to $46 million for next school year. The General Assembly will consider adjustments to the two-year budget approved last year during the short session, which started Wednesday.

Eric Guckian, McCrory’s education advisor, said the long-term goal is for schools to move away from traditional textbooks and toward digital resources, but that McCrory says he realizes there needs to be money for textbooks during that transition.

‘Next natural step’

Eventually, North Carolina’s public schools will look more like Montlieu Academy of Technology, a High Point elementary school.

Like Parks’ Math II students, the kids at Montlieu don’t have textbooks on their desks.

They have iPads.

Three years ago Montlieu received a generous donation — iPads for every student. Not only did the school get the new tools, it got a new culture. Since the implementation of the school’s one-to-one program — where every student receives an iPad to use in tandem with their teacher — enrollment has grown, attendance has improved and discipline problems have dropped.

Principal Ged O’Donnell attributes the many positive changes he’s seen to the increased student engagement and teacher buy-in that the program has created. The school operates a “blended” environment, where the technology integrated into the classroom is combined with traditional methods.

“They (iPads) are not a magic wand,” O’Donnell said.

The real key has been well-planned implementation and full integration into the school culture. The devices have helped energize teachers and students to do the hard work needed to transform the school, O’Donnell said.

The success at Montlieu prompted Guilford County Schools to move ahead with a large-scale one-to-one initiative. With the help of a $30 million federal grant, the district will implement a one-to-one program at each of its 24 middle schools in the fall. Every middle school student will receive a tablet computer for instructional use.

Jake Henry, executive director of instructional technology for Guildford County Schools, said the district will start slowly, but long-term goals include extending one-to-one programs into all of the high schools and eventually elementary schools, too.

“This is the next natural step in education as the world evolves,” Henry said.

This is the direction state officials are pushing all of North Carolina’s public school systems. Some small systems, like Mooresville Schools, have already taken great strides toward digital learning. It’s harder for large school districts, though, Emory said.

“I fully support that direction, but the problems remain,” Emory said. “You’ve got to fund it.”

Whether the discussion is traditional textbooks or digital devices, money is still the obstacle. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools doesn’t have the money to buy a tablet, laptop or other device for each of its nearly 54,000 students. Instead, officials are going to start letting students bring their own devices.

The district piloted a “bring-your-own-device” program in six classrooms earlier this school year. The program was expanded in January to additional classrooms and several entire schools. Kevin Sherrill, chief operating officer for technology services for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said the district is using the program to help offset the number of devices the district will have to provide to students in order to bring digital resources into all classrooms.

In the fall, the bring-your-own-device program will be rolled out in every school. The level of device integration will still vary by school, but it will be present to some degree in each of them, Sherrill said.

Jefferson Middle School is jumping in with both feet. Principal Brad Royal said he’s 100 percent behind the initiative, though he will allow each teacher to decide how and how much technology will be integrated in the classroom.

“You need the buy-in from teachers,” Royal said. “They still have to teach the content, but this just gives you a different resource.”

Jefferson has been the site of one of six pilot classes for what the district is calling “mobile learning communities.” It works similar to Montlieu’s one-to-one program, except the students use the digital devices in the pilot class and don’t use them throughout the rest of the day.

Mike McDowell has been using Galaxy tablets in his math and science classes for two years now. Originally, the pilot program set out to determine the types of devices the district should purchase for instructional use. McDowell said that question quickly changed to how best to use technology in the classroom.

He’s been working to answer that question for two years now.

“If you can get kids to create, that’s learning and thinking at the highest level,” McDowell said.

The devices allow students to create and interact with content. They also provide immediate feedback on student performance and allow McDowell to efficiently collect more data on his students to drive his instruction. Homework, study notes and quizzes are all done digitally.

His classes are nearly paperless.

McDowell said he’s still learning, exploring and discovering things. But with two years of practice under his belt, McDowell is leading the mobile learning effort at Jefferson. He holds monthly meetings to share best practices and resources for other teachers interested in bringing technology into their classrooms.

Royal said there are more than 30 teachers already signed on to the mobile leaning community initiative. When that effort kicks off with the bring-your-own-device program in the fall, he said he expects that number will grow.

“That’s the direction we’re moving,” Royal said. “In order to prepare students for the 21st century, we need to put 21st century tools in their hands.”

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