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Gen Z Students Ditch Lockers in the Age of Digital Learning

The bell rings at Granville Central High School to signal lunch time on a recent afternoon. Hundreds of students pour into the hallways carrying bright-colored backpacks, lunches and laptops. But not one student is holding a book – or stopping at a locker."I never use my locker," says sophomore Makayla Debolt, while standing in a long hallway of lockers. "The last time I used my locker was in the 6th grade, and I barely used it then."

Makayla’s not alone. Here at Granville Central High, students have to request a locker. Assistant Principal Dwayne Waddey has been sitting at lunch every day for the first week of school, waiting with a clipboard for students to sign up for one.

“We've got over 500 lockers and about 670 kids, and only 7 or 8 of them signed up for lockers," Waddey said. "When I got here, I asked myself why they don't use lockers, but since they have less books and with the computers, they have no need for lockers."

Granville Central High is ahead of the curve when it comes to digital learning in North Carolina. It's a rural school about 30 miles north of Raleigh that graduates about 120 students a year. When the class of 2018 graduates, each student will return a MacBook Air to the school district. This is what's called a 1-to-1 school, where every student has an assigned computer.

hugh school student at computer
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
The ratio of student to computer at Granville Central High is actually lower than 1-to-1. There are more computers than students when counting desktops, too. La'Kiva Young uses her laptop while in a school computer lab. Other students work on their assignment using both screens at once.

Less than 40 percent of schools in the state have a ratio of one computer per student, and at some of those schools, the students can't take the devices home. Granville County Schools started its digital initiative relatively early, back in 2009, with one high school going 1-to-1. Now it offers devices to students at all of its high schools.

The district's Director of Instructional Technology Services Vanessa Wrenn sees the trend of students not using lockers as a good sign of the school district’s progress with its digital initiative. She’d even like to see the high school some day remove all of its lockers and put charging stations in their place.

My brother told me 'Don't get a locker because you'll be the only one.' So, I didn't. I didn't want to look like a freshman. - Sophomore Macy Lowery

Until then, Wrenn says Granville County Schools has worked hard to get to this point.

"When you’re doing something for the first time, you’re thinking of everything. You’re thinking of the infrastructure. Can your internet handle it? Do you have enough access points? Training, your teachers, security," Wrenn said.

At first, the computers were bought with grants, and now they’re paid for fully by state funds dedicated to technology. In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law stating its "intent to transition" to digital learning materials by 2017.

So what do those materials look like in a classroom?

Stacey Mangum is an English teacher who shares a digital notebook with her students. They can type questions from their laptops while she teaches from a smartboard.

student in classroom
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Stacey Mangum's classroom has a smartboard, not a blackboard or whiteboard at the front of the room.

"I can touch it, write on it, go to websites with it, and if my computer is not hooked up to it, it’s like a whiteboard," Mangum explains.

She says the technology is great for getting deep into literature and taking notes in the margin, and some students can take more advanced classes online. Mangum also likes being able to text her students reminders to study for a quiz, but she says all this technology could have a drawback.

"If you don’t know how to communicate through talking, you become shy, it becomes difficult for you to step outside of your box," Mangum said. "And when you go to apply for a job or get employment, you might not interview well."

When Mangum was in high school ten years ago at Granville South, she says she also didn’t use a locker.

"We just kind of carried everything with us,” Mangum said. “We had the giant book bags, with every textbook for our four classes."

high school student in classroom
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Precious Branch listens in Stacey Mangum's class, with a typical load of book bags on the ground.

Today, her classroom floor is strewn with bags. Although the students carry light backpacks, they also have sports equipment and jackets and snacks in hand. But it hasn’t occurred to any of them to get a locker. Sophomore Macy Lowery says her older brother tipped her that lockers just weren’t cool.

"My brother told me ‘Don’t get a locker because you’ll be the only one’,” she said. “So, I didn’t. I didn’t want to look like a freshman." The class laughs knowingly.

Another student says she thought the lockers were for decoration. In one way, Mangum says, they actually are.

"The teachers here, they know the students aren’t using them, and if they don’t have room outside of their classroom to hang and display student work, they will hang and display student work on top of the lockers," Mangum said.

Finding a Granville Central High student with a locker isn't easy. Principal Brian Mathis came across two in the course of a day. One was a freshman. Then there was sophomore Cameron Harris, who got a locker for the first time this year.

Cameron says before she was like many of her fellow classmates, carrying around all her stuff, including equipment for cheerleading and band. She was so frustrated carrying everything, that she asked her mom to bring her things to school at the end of the day.

“She was like, ‘How about you just get a locker?’ Cameron said. "I did.”

Cameron opens the door to her locker. She struggles a little, because she doesn’t remember the combination. When she finally gets it open, it is totally empty. Not a single celebrity photo, or notepad, or pack of pens, or even one textbook.

“I didn’t have much today, so I didn’t put it in there,” Cameron explains. “It’s just my bag and my shoes, so I left it in my classroom.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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