Piedmont, Ala., is a town with three traffic lights, a defunct textile industry, and few job opportunities. But students in the small school district there have MacBook laptops, free Internet at home, and shiny new school media centers that look like they’ve been transplanted from Google headquarters.
All those projects—and more—are the brainchildren of Matt Akin, the superintendent of the 1,200-student district. Akin has made it his mission not only to improve the prospects and education for the students in the Piedmont city schools, but also to provide a boost in self-esteem to the entire community.
A former computer programmer and computer science teacher, Akin is fluent in the language of ed-tech, but he’s been able to match that savvy with an ability to get school staff members on board with even the most challenging initiatives, and a talent for unearthing funds to make his ideas reality. He’s an educational entrepreneur in the truest sense: pitching to investors, marketing his brand, and “pivoting” when things don’t go as planned.
“He’s the most forward-thinking administrator I’ve ever worked for,” says Piedmont High School Principal Adam Clemons. “We’re just a small, rural town—a cotton-mill town—but he put us on the map.”
A Computer Nerd
Akin, 47, has the Southern drawl of a native Alabaman. Raised in a neighboring city by a mother who was a teacher and a social-worker father, Akin “knew how to play school well.” A computer nerd who was proud of the TRS-80 his family had hooked up to the television, he liked programming and ultimately got a bachelor’s degree in math and education.
Akin took a job in an Alabama district not far from Piedmont. When he was tapped to teach an AP computer science class, Akin realized he lacked the practical know-how, so he sought out a course at the local college. “I took the class at night and then I would teach what I learned the next day in school,” he recalls.
When he wanted to buy new computer equipment, the then-23-year-old took a grant-writing workshop and collaborated with the mayor to establish a T1 line and create a 40-device computer lab. It was the early 1990s, and he used that equipment to teach a course called supercomputing, which connected students with scientists all over the country. “It was probably the only fast Internet connection in most of the schools in Alabama at that time,” he says.
One of the projects sticks in his mind: A student who was a ballet dancer was linked with a professor at Stanford University to study the science of the pirouette. Seeing how engaged his students were when they were connected to the wider world made an impression, Akin says.
In 1999, Akin became the technology coordinator in the Piedmont city district. Because the district was so small, he was also the federal-programs coordinator and the director of facilities. Later, he also became the principal at the high school, where his wife currently works as a counselor. All those responsibilities, and a willingness to jump into unknown territory, taught him a lot about how to navigate the system, he says.
Seven years after he took over as superintendent in Piedmont in 2003, Akin launched a 1-to-1 initiative he branded “mPower Piedmont.”
Currently, all students in grades 4-12 have MacBook laptops they take home, and younger students have access to MacBooks, iPods, and iPads in school. Though the district was already using a fair amount of technology with students before the mPower initiative, “what we were doing wasn’t very impactful,” Akin says.
But in the first year of the 1-to-1 initiative in the low-income district, Akin noticed the glow of computer screens in the evenings in district parking lots as students without home access tried to tap into school Wi-Fi. Others downloaded assignments at the end of the school day and had to upload them in the morning, a cumbersome process.
So he found a grant for nearly $900,000, through a federal E-rate pilot project, and persuaded local leaders to chip in to create a citywide network for student devices. Since then, students within the city limits have had free Internet access at home. Those outside the city use a “Mi-Fi” device, which acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot to log on at a cost of $15 a month if they qualify as low-income.
For students like Piedmont High School senior Samantha Smith, 18, the free home Internet was a lifeline at the time, since she wasn’t connected otherwise.
“It made learning a lot easier,” says Smith, who will start college at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University in the fall and says she feels confident because of her experience with computers, online classes, and other technology.
But Akin didn’t stop there. He established a district virtual school, and high school students take at least one online class per year. All foreign-language classes and many Advanced Placement classes are taught online, and virtual summer courses help students catch up or leap ahead.
Then there are the new media centers, in both the high school and middle school, paid for with a combination of district capital funds and state money. Out went most of the paper books, which students weren’t checking out. In their place are e-readers and a sleek workspace with Apple TVs, glass conference rooms for projects or instruction, and modern seating.
Colleagues say Akin is constantly pushing the district forward, using creative methods to pay for his ideas. “If there’s a grant out there, he can smell it a mile away,” says Bill Baker, the mayor of Piedmont.
Akin is also the first one to volunteer for nearly any project that fits his mission of bringing technology and opportunities to students, says Sara Schapiro, the director of the nonprofit Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, which gathers forward-thinking district leaders for collaboration. Piedmont was in the initial cohort of 25 districts in the league and “helped us shape what the league has become,” Schapiro says, particularly when it comes to the challenges faced by rural districts.
Akin is known for soaking up ideas from others—visiting districts, going to conferences— and jumping at the chance to expand the district’s horizons. He’s participated in research projects with Harvard University and Jacksonville State. “He raises his hand for every opportunity,” Schapiro says. “He’s like a sponge and absorbs so much information.”
And he has built a team, though small, that can keep up with his ambitions, says Rena Seals, the district’s director of technology, who often has to figure out how to make Akin’s grand ideas a reality. “He’s got the big vision,” she says. “And we’re not going to do it later, we’re going to do it now.”
When Akin proposed going fully 1-to-1 in the Piedmont district, it was over the summer, just a few months before school would begin. A small pilot project had run in the high school the year before, but district staff members didn’t even know what a districtwide program would look like, Seals says.
Akin had heard about the Mooresville Graded school district in North Carolina, which was getting accolades for its 1-to-1 program. Despite the fact that Mooresville had ended its district tours for the school year, Akin finagled a visit—using a friend of a friend’s private plane to ferry his staff north.
“He’s always reaching out beyond the standard limitations to see how he can leverage resources for the benefit of everybody,” says Mark Edwards, the superintendent of Mooresville.
Akin says when he gets an idea that he thinks will benefit students, he doesn’t want to wait. “If you’re going to do something, just jump in and do it,” he says. “Some others say to go slow to go fast, but I struggle with that.”
He acknowledges that it may be easier in a small district to make adjustments if things aren’t going right, but he doesn’t seem daunted when that happens. In 2012, Piedmont applied, as part of a consortium of districts, for a federal Race to the Top grant to do mastery-based education in its middle school. The district didn’t get the grant—missing out on qualifying by 1 point. It was a huge disappointment, Akin says.
Then came the pivot: Akin decided he would do what he had proposed in the grant application anyway, winning a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant for $150,000, with the option of $150,000 more if the district found matching funds. The middle school started implementing mastery-based education two years ago and spread the initiative to grades 6-9 this school year.
Switching to mastery-based education from traditional teaching was complicated, says Jeff Barber, a social studies teacher at Piedmont Middle School, but teachers are willing to make the shift because they believe Akin will allow them to experiment and give them the support and professional development they need.
“You see that trust here,” says Barber, who graduated from Piedmont High School and whose wife teaches at the elementary school. “There’s very little turnover in the school system.”
If you’re going to do something, just jump in and do it. Some others say to go slow to go fast, but I struggle with that.
Though Akin makes it clear that the rationale behind these initiatives was not specifically tied to improving test scores, by several measures they are making a difference. The district has had a 400 percent enrollment increase in AP courses since mPower Piedmont began.
After years of waning enrollment, student numbers are rising. The percentage of Piedmont students enrolling in Alabama public colleges is growing and is higher than the state average. And Akin wants to know more: He has plans to start measuring how many of his students graduate from college.
Wanting to know what students do beyond his district’s boundaries speaks to his wider mission: improving the community as a whole. The northeast Alabama town, population 5,000, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains has natural beauty, but little industry.
Strengthening a Community
Without the textile jobs that once dominated the area, most adults work in the service industry, at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, or travel out of town for construction jobs, Akin says. Many families are low-income—68 percent of the students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—and struggle, but Akin says he is committed to making sure families and students have access to information, tools, and benefits that those in more urban settings enjoy.
There’s clearly Piedmont pride in the multimillion-dollar athletic complex that rivals some state university facilities and the success of the district’s sports teams. (The football team won the state championship in 2015.) Because of that—and despite the lack of industry in Piedmont—people are moving there, says Eric Mackey, the executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama.
“Even if there aren’t any jobs here, people are willing to settle down and raise a family there,” he says. “If you have 20 or 30 miles for work, it’s worth the drive.”
And Akin’s mission extends beyond his own community’s borders, Mackey says.
He routinely works with other districts in the state to spread his ideas. In collaboration with Jacksonville State, he helped develop the Collaborative Regional Education Initiative that brings together Alabama educators for professional development several times a year and for a large, three-day conference over the summer. But there’s no time for Akin to sit back.
The grant money that paid for the citywide Internet access has run out, the system needs maintenance, and it’s unlikely to continue for much longer in its current form, he says.
But home Internet access for all students “can’t go away. Our instructional program relies on it,” he says. “We will find a way to provide for students who don’t have access at home.”