The Piedmont City Schools district serves a small, rural community in northeastern Alabama that, like so many small Southern towns, has seen its share of economic struggles in recent years.
“The jobs in our town over the last three decades have been primarily textile based,” says PCS superintendent Matt Akin. “The cotton mill closed 15 years ago and the largest employer, Springs Industries, moved to Mexico three years ago.” But Piedmont, Akin says, is a community determined to take control of its own fate.
In September, the school district announced that it would become the first school system in Alabama “to engage in a bona fide one-to-one laptop initiative that provides a computer for student use 24 hours a day, seven days a week for all students in grades four through 12.”
Dubbed MPower Piedmont, the initiative kicked off this fall with partnership support from Apple Inc. and ITS, the Wetumpka-based virtual services company. The project’s goal, says Akin, is to strengthen the long-term viability of the Piedmont community by assuring that the young people growing up in the area have the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in the 21st century.
Akin is in his seventh year as superintendent, and his resume reveals his long-standing interest in technology-enhanced teaching and learning. After a stint as a AP Computer Science teacher at Anniston High, he served for five years as technology coordinator and Director of Student Services in the Anniston City Schools, then as Tech Coordinator and Director of Administrative Services in Piedmont City for two years. Before assuming the superintendency, Akin was also principal of Piedmont High for three years.
About 1100 students attend Piedmont City’s three schools, 65% of whom are eligible for the subsidized lunch program. The five members of the district school board are appointed for rotating five-year terms by the city council. To provide a laptop to every student in grades 4-12 (and their teachers), the district purchased a total of 790 MacBooks from Apple for $800,000. A federal technology grant provided $160,000 of the cost, and the school system is using local funds provided by city and Calhoun County to pay off the remainder through a lease-purchase over four years.
In a recent interview, Akin told us about the origins of MPower Piedmont, shared details about the project’s implementation, and offered some early indicators of its impact.
ABPC: Providing a laptop for every student in grades 4-12 is a significant investment, even in a smaller school system. Why do it? And how do you justify the investment to your school board and community?
Matt Akin: Ultimately, our MPower initiative is about giving students opportunities. The Board and administration felt that we have an obligation to provide students with the tools they need to be successful in any career area they choose to pursue.
We continually have conversations in our school system about being the best in everything that we do. Our goal is to be the best “overall” school system in Alabama. To meet that goal, we feel we must do four things: Have a strong academic foundation; have an excellent extra-curricular program; provide outstanding facilities; and utilize the most effective technologies in teaching and learning.
ABPC: Can you briefly describe the rollout – how you funded the effort, how the logistics were managed, and the processes you’ve used to educate students and parents about the initiative?
Matt Akin: Last year we applied for an Enhancing Education Through Technology-2 Grant (federal stimulus funds). Those dollars allowed us to pilot a laptop program at Piedmont High School. We were able to introduce 150 laptops into the school of 325 students. We placed a great deal of emphasis on teacher professional development, and we were really impressed with the initial results.
From that point, we used mostly local funds to purchase 640 additional laptops for all students and teachers in grades 4-12. We have a four-year zero-percent interest lease with Apple Computer (we will own the computers after 4 years). The lease ultimately made the initiative possible. The payment is about 4% of our total budget.
It’s important to understand the foundation that had to be in place before we could actually put laptops in every student’s hands. In the summer of 2009, we used stimulus funds to upgrade every classroom in our school system with 21st century technology. The equipment installed included mounted projectors, screens, wireless slates (equivalent to smartboards), wireless sound systems (teachers wear microphones), visual presentation tools, and student response systems.
This was an incredible commitment by our board —we were one of only two school systems in our state that installed this technology package in every classroom. Additionally, we built a high-speed wireless network on every campus that utilized the latest wireless technology. The network was funded through the federal E-rate program. The total cost was $800,000 and 80% of that cost was funded through E-rate.
In planning our rollout, we looked at several other school systems across the country and tried to implement the practices that best fit our situation. We held community meetings to introduce our entire community to the goals and details of MPower Piedmont. We also spoke at churches and community organizations.
Before the deployment, we had parent meetings that gave all of the details to our parents and students – and they were all required to attend. Students were given their computers at school and they were allowed to take them home after the parent meeting that was held that night.
I think it is also important to note that we have a technology staff of one, so we relied on numerous teacher, student and parent volunteers who worked tirelessly to prepare 790 computers for rollout. It was a very tedious process that our Technology Coordinator, Rena Seals, did a great job of planning.
ABPC: In discussions of the pros and cons of laptop initiatives, at least three issues always come up. Can you talk a little bit about each of these?
People wonder: “Can kids take care of these things? What if they damage them? Or mess them up? How much tech support time is going into just keeping these laptops working?”
Matt Akin: In the early stages, we were asked these questions a lot. My first answer is always, “This is about our kids and giving them opportunities to be successful. I believe that we can truly transform our community and one of the ways is to teach our kids about responsibility.” One of the senior citizens in a group that I spoke to said that this was the best component of all: “teaching kids responsibility.” So we are actually looking at concerns as opportunities.
Can kids take care of these costly machines? The answer is yes. The most important thing is teaching kids about responsibility. It is a community effort. I tell citizens all of the time that we all will have to teach our kids to be responsible. If we see a student leave a laptop bag on a restaurant table, we have to say, “Don’t forget your computer. We’re all paying for that!”
We have a very detailed Required Use Policy (most schools have an Acceptable Use Policy) that outlines how are students are required to take care of the laptops. It has been amazing to see kids reminding each other to be responsible. They will get on to each other if one is not following the policy.
What if they damage them?
Accidents do happen. Students are required to pay a $50 insurance policy (we work with all families on this and assistance can be provided when needed). If a computer is damaged and the student is following the policy then there is no charge. If the policy is not being followed (i.e. spilling a drink on the computer), then the student is responsible for the charge (minus the $50). We are repairing computers in-house, so there is no labor charge. As a side note, we have helpdesks set up at each school and we are training high school students to repair computers. And if a laptop is lost or stolen, we can use GPS tracking to locate it.
How much tech support time is involved?
We are changing the roles of some of our existing employees to help provide tech support. For example, we have an instructional aide who has shifted to helpdesk support for part of the day. All of the MacBooks have a four-year warranty, so if we have an issue we mail them back and they are returned within 48 hours. This aspect really makes our computer repair time quicker than before we had laptops.
What about security and safety? Won’t students being using these laptops to do things on the internet that they shouldn’t be doing? And what if they make contact with inappropriate people, including possibly those who prey on the young?
One of the things that we are really excited about is the filtering system that we have installed on the laptops. Of course, internet access is filtered at school, but our laptops are set up where, when students leave the school network, they are still automatically routed through our filter. No matter how they access the internet when they leave campus, access is still filtered.
Responsibility will always be the key, of course. All of our parents and students have received training about internet dangers. We are continually reminding parents to monitor internet usage and warning kids about the dangers of on-line communication.
In order for the laptop initiative to really advance learning in Piedmont City, teachers have to have the skills and know-how to take advantage of “wired students.” Most teachers in most schools don’t bring this level of skill to the table at the beginning of such initiatives. What investments have you made in professional development and what continuing PD support is taking place to maximize the potential of the laptop initiative?
We’ve made a large investment in professional development. Ultimately, the reason we made the investment in MPower Piedmont was the commitment of our teachers. Over 80% of our teachers in grades 4-12 volunteered to attend a conference in North Carolina the week before school started. At that point, I knew that we would be successful.
The conference was conducted by the Mooresville (NC) Graded School District and was about how to implement a 1-1 initiative. Mooresville has one of the most successful 1-1 initiatives in the country. Their employees (teachers, principals, tech coordinator, superintendent) trained attendees in every aspect of a successful initiative. Our teachers were able to see first-hand both the successes and mistakes of a school system that was in Year Three of implementation. There were actually 40 school systems from 18 states at the Mooresville training. We were the only school system from Alabama, and we had the most attendees of any school system at the conference.
We also have on-going professional development that is largely provided by in-house trainers and through Technology in Motion, which is funded through the ALSDE. Our TIM trainer, from Jacksonville State University, has been involved with us from day one of our initiative.
We also utilize a learning management system called Angel that allows our teachers to structure a digital learning environment. It is very similar to the software (e.g., Blackboard) that is utilized by colleges to teach on-line classes. Therefore, we are using a blended learning approach (on-line and face to face) in all of our classes all the way down to fourth grade.
Just imagine the commitment that was required from our teachers to completely change their approach to instruction. The laptops allow us to really engage students like never before. Students who have been reserved and unlikely to participate in the past have blossomed since the beginning of the school year.
We have teachers who are utilizing the Angel virtual environment to have open office hours at night and help kids with their homework. Students in Advanced Placement classes are setting up virtual study groups at night. It has really been amazing.
ABPC: What has been the reaction from teachers so far? From students? From parents and the community?
Matt Akin: Our teachers have been so impressive. At the start, some were not sure how things would work. But with the training and support teachers have had, we’re hearing lots of good stories.
I had a middle school social studies teacher who wasn’t so sure in the beginning tell me this week that she can now not imagine teaching without laptops. She uses a website to set up on-line reviews for her students to study at night. She actually learned about the site (Quizlet.com) from a high school student who was setting up an on-line study group for her peers! How is that for collaboration?
One teacher showed me an example of an on-line discussion group that she set up for her 7th grade civics class. Students had to list which part of the Bill of Rights was most important to them and why. Then other students in the class had to respond to at least three of their fellow students’ posts. She pointed out that such a discussion (with 100% participation) would not have been possible before our initiative began.
As to parents: In the first week after our deployment, I had two parents who sent me a text message with pictures of our students using laptops. One shot was students after football practice leaning against the gym wall -- all using laptops to work on assignments. Another was students at a volleyball game at another school, all sitting in the bleachers working on a project on their computers. Obviously, all of our parents are thrilled about these opportunities for their kids.
The goal of MPower Piedmont is to transform our community. We are seeing that begin to happen. It is really a source of pride for our community. We have over 500 homes in our town that have a computer for the first time due to this initiative. We are working on providing on-line GED classes for parents and older siblings of our students. Additionally, we will provide computer classes for the community that will be taught by high school students.
ABPC: Your relationship with the Housing Authority and with local businesses that have “gone wireless” (or plan to) as a result of the initiative seems key to the effort. Can you tell us more about that?
Matt Akin: Over 65% of the students in our school system are on free or reduced lunch. We also have a significant percentage of students who live in very rural areas. So obviously, broadband access is an issue. Either it is available and students can’t afford it, or students live where there is no access.
Our local businesses and churches immediately got involved. Two of the three fast food restaurants in town offer free wi-fi and another downtown cafe offers access as well. Many of our churches immediately began offering free access (and supervision) for students and they already have plans to upgrade connectivity. Our network at school is pretty powerful, so it is not uncommon to see kids on the weekends sitting outside on the steps at school to access the internet.
We are working with the local Housing Authority now on grants to provide free access for their residents. Approximately 20% of our students live in public housing, so this can really have a significant impact.
I believe our community can transform into a wireless community where there are wireless “hotspots” at every corner. There are not many communities where every student has a MacBook. I think we can really build on that to create interest and transform our community. We are pursuing a corporate sponsor who will assist with the broadband needs of our initiative.
ABPC: What about “lessons learned?” What might you do differently if you were at the beginning again? And what ideas about launching a successful laptop initiative can you share with other district, school and teacher leaders? Maybe you could give us your top 3-4 “learnings” so far.
Matt Akin: We implemented this project very quickly. We weren’t sure until the beginning of the summer that we were going to be able to move forward. I’ve said many times that it was a “perfect storm” with the commitment from our teachers, school board, and community leaders. So I think we really had to move when we did, but more planning time would have made the implementation easier.
MPower Piedmont has developed rather quickly from a radical idea — giving laptops to every student and completely changing teaching and learning — to becoming a necessary part of teaching and learning in our town. It has created what everyone in education has been after for so long, and that’s student, teacher and community engagement in the learning process.
Here are four of my early insights from our experience:
1. I think the most important thing our initiative has provided is student ENGAGEMENT. I believe if students are engaged that you can teach them anything.
2. I think the current system of education (especially above grade 3) is designed for specific types of kids -- those that are linear thinkers and/or very bright. Our laptop initiative is allowing all kids to shine. There are many, many smart kids who aren’t linear thinkers and need another way to present what they know than, say, “write a 500-word essay.” We are beginning to provide all kids with those other tools and methods.
3. We are able to individualize learning to an extent that is not possible without technology. Kids can have assignments tailored to their needs through the computer. We are utilizing many web tools that are completely free that we didn’t have access to before our initiative.
4. It is really difficult to do this. Our teachers are so dedicated and they are working harder than ever before. We could not be successful without the dedicated teachers and principals that we have.
ABPC: What future plans do you have to help Piedmont City’s students and teachers advance further into the “digital frontier”?
Matt Akin: We are not anywhere near complete implementation. We are working on developing benchmark tests that are aligned to all core subjects in grades 4-12. Students will test (utilizing the computer and Angel software) every nine weeks on the objectives that were covered during the nine weeks. This will enable us to re-teach, on an individualized basis if needed, the objectives that aren’t mastered.
We are also working on implementing challenge-based learning, where students are identifying and solving real world problems. Learning to act like scientists and social researchers. This is a very important step in strengthening them as critical and creative thinkers and problem solvers.
On the technical side, we are continuously working on increasing the broadband access in our community. We would like to keep our media centers open to 9 PM daily to allow access for students who don’t have it at home. I rode by one of our schools at 10 PM the other night and there were two students working on projects by accessing the internet from the parking lot. Hopefully, we can find a corporate sponsor who will help make this happen.
ABPC: Thanks so much for taking the time to walk us through your pioneering efforts. It’s an impressive undertaking, and obviously an exciting educational adventure!
ABPC consultant John Norton prepared this interview. To read media coverage of the MPower Piedmont launch, see this story in the Anniston Star and this video report from NBC Channel 13.