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Laptops in the classroom
Two students at Greenville’s Em Boyd Elementary, work on a science project on an iPad. Districts across Mississippi, like Greenville and Columbus, have adopted technology programs in classrooms. Credit: Jackie Mader

When Philip Hickman took over the role of superintendent in 2014 in the Columbus Municipal School District in east Mississippi, technology was almost nonexistent. Students used slow desktop computers and mismatched keyboards that were at least 10 years old. Hickman, who formerly worked as an assistant superintendent for the technology-rich Houston Independent School District in Texas, said he panicked when he saw the state of technology. “It was inappropriate to even present that to our kids,” Hickman said. “It was very scary to realize we were not preparing our kids for the future.”

Hickman decided to infuse the district with digital devices in an attempt to boost opportunity for students. Just a few weeks after he took the helm, he returned nearly $900,000 worth of textbooks the previous superintendent had ordered. He used that money to buy enough laptops and iPads for every high school student to have their own device, and for every elementary and middle school student to have access to a device in their classroom.

Initially, Hickman said, this move caused an uproar in the community. “A lot of people were very upset that their children were not coming home with textbooks,” Hickman said. “They were saying kids weren’t learning.”

Hickman was slowly able to get the community on board as he spoke to families and teachers about the importance of preparing students for a global society where technology use is inevitable. He organized professional development for teachers and provided coaches to help teachers learn about and roll out technology in classrooms. “When [students] grow older, they’re going to be utilizing technology, it’s going to be a main part of what they do,” Hickman said. “One of our responsibilities is to really prepare that 21st century child.”

Now, Hickman estimates that students in the Columbus district spend 70 to 80 percent of their day on a device. The district uses digital resources and online learning tools that personalize lessons for students by first analyzing a student’s achievement level and then providing lessons geared to that student’s ability level. The district also installed wireless internet on school buses and bus drivers park those buses in their driveways instead of a bus barn so children in the community can access the internet outside of school.

Hickman said he has seen academic performance and attendance increase and behavioral problems decrease. (Test score data is not yet available from the past year). More students than ever before are participating in dual enrollment with two local colleges, in part, Hickman said, because they now have more access to college and career information and understand the importance of college readiness to achieve their career goals. (A recent report from Bellwether Education Partners suggested that personalized learning, like the program in Columbus, is especially promising for rural students because they can access more courses and opportunities like dual enrollment). “No matter what background our kids come from, they deserve [opportunity] like everyone else,” Hickman said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

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