Innovator

How Connecting the Community Transformed a Rural School District

Matt AkinUnder superintendent Matt Akin’s leadership, Piedmont City School District, a three-school district in rural Alabama, has gained national acclaim. The district’s Piedmont High was named one of “America’s Best High Schools” by U.S. News & World Report as well as “Apple Distinguished School,” and a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Akin may be best known for using federal funding to make the entire town wireless as a way to increase equity for Piedmont students, about half of whom did not have Internet access at home.

THE Journal: What’s been the driving factor behind your technology strategy for the district?
Matt Akin: Well, we were once a big textile town, and as in a lot of other communities in the South, in the last couple of decades all of our industry has left. Five years ago, our board and I realized that if the school district didn’t become the catalyst for change, our community might not be here. It was at that point that we looked at how we could educate kids differently to give them the same opportunities they would receive if they lived in the suburbs or a big city … and how we could do that in an environment where we don’t have a lot of teachers and our curriculum is limited.

THE Journal: How did you go about using technology to increase access?
Akin: We began with a federal grant that enabled us to obtain laptops at the high school. We then built on that with local funds, and five years ago we started a 1-to-1 initiative for our kids in fourth through 12th grades, putting MacBook Airs in everyone’s hands 24/7. We’re not an affluent community, so we really had to prioritize our local funds to make it happen. 

We quickly realized, though, that even when all of our kids had computers, once they left the school grounds things weren’t equal. One night in December, I was working late, and as I left school I thought, “What’s that on the front porch of our middle school?” It was the glow from a MacBook, with kids sitting around it pulling off of our wireless at school.

THE Journal: How did you end up making the entire town wireless after that?
Akin: We were one of 19 school districts chosen to participate in an E-rate program pilot project. Others used their funding to give a device to every kid; since we already had the devices, we hired a vendor to build a network over our city and then used the funds to lease Internet access from that vendor. This ensured that wherever our students went, they could pull up lessons and instructional resources. It changed everything for us. Our teachers could truly do flipped instruction and require projects that needed Internet access to complete. We had been saying, “Whatever your kid needs he can download before he leaves school,” but that’s just not possible. 

When the pilot program ended, we worked out a funding agreement with the city and the vendor to keep it going, because people would probably run me out of town if we took it away now.

Matt Akin's Top 3 Strategies for Using Tech in Rural Schools

Access is vital: “To truly utilize technology to personalize learning, students must have 24/7 access to devices and the Internet.”

Break the mold: “Provide an ‘innovation safe’ environment for teachers and administrators to take risks with instructional techniques.”

It’s all about the teachers: “Effectively teaching in a digital environment is not easy, so my No. 1 goal is to support our teachers in the effort.”

THE Journal: How are you using the technology in ways you couldn’t have before?
Akin: For one thing, all students at Piedmont High School take at least one online class. Our thought is that if kids in high school learn the self-discipline and management to take an online class and be successful, when they get to college they’ll have those skills. We’ve also begun expanding that to middle school kids. More than 40 percent of our middle school students earned high school credit for online courses this summer, which keeps them engaged in learning.

We’ve also used a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant at Piedmont Middle School to redefine education to utilize competency-based learning, project-based learning, and mentors for all students. We try to meet kids where they are and progress them quickly by using technology to provide individualized instruction. Instead of teachers being in front of the whole class teaching one standard, they can pinpoint which students need teacher-led instruction, which ones benefit from computer-led instruction, and which ones can be working on an advanced project that really gets in depth into a standard.

THE Journal: When did you become sold on the importance of technology, particularly for rural communities?
Akin: I grew up as a computer nerd. I got my first Tandy Radio Shack computer when I was 13, had an uncle who was a college professor who gave me a programming textbook and learned a lot of that on my own. I got my degree to be a math teacher, and the first job offer I had was teaching computer science. Even then, teaching in a low-income school in 1991, I saw the impact technology could have in motivating kids and how it could give them access they wouldn’t normally have. As I moved into a district role, I saw how it could individualize instruction, whereas you could never hire enough teachers to provide that individual instruction. It is definitely a game-changer in Piedmont, Alabama. And I think there are a lot of Piedmont, Alabamas in the country: small, rural school systems that can use technology to provide opportunities that their kids wouldn’t otherwise have.

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