A teacher’s greatest reward is witnessing the spark ignite in a child when they finally “get it.” Imagine when the spark turns into a wildfire spreading throughout a school system, like it has in Piedmont, Alabama.
On a recent tour of the schools, the contagion for learning was apparent. The activity in every classroom was intense with students actively participating on their laptops, or with multi-media screens grabbing their attention and engaging them in creative, interactive pursuits.
Piedmont is a great Alabama public school, and is an example of what can happen when educators, the community, and students work together for excellence.
Alabama has struggled to prove itself nationally on the quality of its education. Piedmont is one of several innovative systems across the state demonstrating what Alabamians can do when working collaboratively and creatively to move kids to greater levels of success. This progress is in spite of the economic challenges faced by many small Alabama towns when most textile mills have closed and moved off-shore.
“Our kids are just as capable as those in more affluent communities,” said Matt Akin, Piedmont City Schools Superintendent. “What they lacked was a culture of high expectations, resources, and greater opportunities to succeed.
“If a child is going to get to college, they first have to believe they can go to college,” he explained. “We wanted to do something to help implant the internal confidence of our children to go to college, regardless of their personal situation.”
Even during a time of pro-ration, the past two years have been a remarkably culture-changing time, thanks to the leading efforts of Mr. Akin and his local board of education. This small, rural community is among the elite 35 school systems nationally chosen to participate in the League of Innovative Schools, the “Top 20 to Watch” by the National School Boards Association, and is tied for second place as the most “connected” community in the nation because of its bold and ground-breaking use of technology.
The idea came to Mr. Akin through his participation in the *Alabama Best Practices Center’s Superintendent Leaders Network (SLN). This network of superintendents meets several times a year to learn from each other, from research and from best practice.
“Participating in SLN has truly transformed my approach to leadership,” Mr. Akin said, as he was recognized as one of the top 10 winners of the National Tech savvy Superintendent Award in 2010.
In response to a question from the media asking how he could make such an investment during hard economic times, Mr. Akin explained, “I was reminded of a chapter in The Leadership Challenge, (a book discussed at an SNL meeting), in which Jim Kouzes discussed pushing forward in times of adversity; adverse times allow you to clarify what you value most. For us, it is fostering our students’ achievement potential.”
Building on that inspiration, Mr. Akin and several teachers toured an innovative school in Mooresville, N.C. which lead them to launch “MPower Piedmont 1:1,”a one-to-one laptop initiative. Through a grant and ongoing local support, every child from 4th to 12th grade is provided a MacBook. The program has encouraged teachers to innovate and teach differently. “When every child has a computer, you have to change the way you teach,” said Mr. Akin.
But as Mr. Akin stated, what good is having a computer if you can’t access the Internet? With overwhelming support from local businesses and churches, free wi-fi connections were offered to kids who didn’t have access at home. Building on that success, a more elaborate plan to “hot-wire” the entire city was implemented with the help of the City of Piedmont and Information Transport Solutions, Inc. Now any child can gain access at home from the wireless routers placed strategically on power polls all over town.
During the tour in Piedmont, one boy in a class for kids with learning disabilities was eager to show how he can now understand complex fractions. He used a free, online tutorial website (KahnAcademy.org), available for the most difficult subjects at every ability and grade level, to visually demonstrate solving the math problem.
“He has always struggled to understand math concepts,” said his special education teacher. “And now he gets it. It’s amazing.”
In a public school with over 65% of its students eligible for free or reduced lunches, remarkable strides have been made academically. In one year, Piedmont saw an average 13% increase in the graduation test scores across the board. Most notably from 2009-10 to 2010-11, the ARMT level IV (above proficiency) math scores for 8th graders on free lunch jumped from 15.38% to 47.06%, and level II scores (below proficiency) were reduced from 15.38% to 7.84%.
“I’m not sure if we can directly link these big increases in scores directly to the computers,” said Mr. Akin. “But clearly the students are more engaged in learning, they are more fully participating in class, and they are enjoying coming to school.
“Also the teachers can provide more one-to-one instruction to kids struggling with any concepts,” he explained. “They can see from the computer oversight when kids are having trouble, so the students don’t have to raise their hands and draw attention to themselves when they need help. With this type of discretion, more students are getting the help they need where they may have been more reluctant to ask before.”
Driving into downtown Piedmont, the old buildings and quaint storefronts are like a step back into a simpler time. But when it comes to their students, this town is well connected to the 21st century, advancing a stronger, smarter Alabama workforce for the next generation.
*The Alabama Best Practice Center is a division of A+ Education Partnership. Visit www.bestpracticescenter.org for more information.