John Bailey | Hickory Daily Record

CLAREMONT — Technology continues to march into the future, and N.C. Rep. Mitchell Setzer and Sherry Butler, K-64 board member and Catawba County commissioner, got a glimpse of what this journey is looking like in education after a visit to River Bend Middle School.

Last October, the K-64 board approved a plan to provide Chromebooks for the 1,900 seventh-grade students in Catawba County, across all three school districts: Hickory Public Schools, Newton-Conover City Schools and Catawba County Schools.

The total cost was $435,100, and the devices were deployed in January.

“I’m extremely impressed with what I’ve seen. It is amazing to me how far technology has advanced in my time. I can’t imagine what’s next, but this generation is going to be equipped to handle whatever it is,” Setzer said after the visit.

“It’s a good foundation for Catawba County’s future.”

River Bend Middle received 242 of the 1,306 Chromebooks distributed to the Catawba County middle schools. Students will carry their Chromebooks all the way through high school.

River Bend Principal Chip Cathey told Setzer and Butler his teachers have done a good job of using the devices as tools for collaboration, rather than just using them as replacements for textbooks.

“They’ve come up with tools where kids can share more, and it’s really changed our classrooms,” Cathey said.

The Chromebooks allow for more personalization of each student’s education.

“You might see kids reading an article, and the article itself looks the same, for instance an article on protons and electrons,” Cathey said. “There are programs that will automatically level the text for the student.”

This allows teachers to match a version of the text to the reading level of each student. It’s the same general information, but allows those who are ready to dive deeper into the subject the chance to learn even more while classmates who may be struggling with it can still work at their own pace.

Teachers aren’t spending as much time trying to schedule computer lab time. Now the students carry the lab with them wherever they are in the school.

Butler said the K-64 board would like to provide Chromebooks for two more grade levels (sixth and seventh again) if they can find the funding.

“When they graduate and the devices are still usable and workable, we’ll take them and rotate them back through,” Butler said.

K-64 Chief Executive Officer Mark Story likes the fact the initiative is a public and private partnership with money donated from local businesses and the county commission matching whatever is fundraised, two-to-one, through the first year.

He has a $580,000 commitment from local industries so far.

“We’re getting funds in place because businesses see the value of what we’re trying to do,” Story said. “They need these potential workers to stay here. Things like this attract people to the county.”

Story said this is a step towards addressing the workforce crisis in the country.

“It’s not just in this community, but I believe the solution is community based and it takes the type of partnerships we have going here to solve this problem,” the K-64 CEO said.

The summer before the rollout, K-64 funded professional development to help prepare teachers to integrate the Chromebooks into their classrooms.

Catawba County Schools Superintendent Matt Stover was equally “shocked by the engagement difference” with the students.

“I thought it would move it a little, but it moved it a whole bunch. The second thing is how our teachers have bought into it and transformed already how they deliver lessons,” Stover said. “It’s been incredible.”

When Butler asked students what they liked about having their Chromebooks they gave her several reasons: being able to get more done at home, being able to stay caught up with classwork when sick and it’s easier to take and organize notes.

For more information about K-64, visit k-64learning.com.