Akin, a Hokes Bluff native, recalled many TRS-80 owners connected their machines to televisions to serve as a monitor, and he used a cassette player as his data storage device.
His uncle, a Jacksonville State University professor, gave him a computer-programming textbook and by age 13, he was typing code.
“I was a bit of a nerd,” said Akin.
Now, more than 30 years later, as superintendent of Piedmont City Schools, Akin gives much more powerful computers to each of the district’s students through a project called mPower Piedmont.
The effort, funded by millions in grants and more than $1 million in local funds, has brought national recognition and awards to Piedmont’s schools. Officials credit the program with raising graduation rates, getting more students to college and changing the public perception of the school system of about 1,200 students.
For his leadership in the technology project, The Anniston Star on Thursday named Akin its 2014 Citizen of the Year.
Anniston Star publisher Brandt Ayers presented the award during the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting at the Oxford Civic Center.
Ayers said people in large cities often look down on small towns such as Piedmont. He said his time working as an editor at The Piedmont Journal helped him see what everyone at Thursday’s luncheon already knew: that what policymakers do in Washington, D.C., is felt in small towns across America.
“It starts here, and it ends here,” he said, joking that things often get clogged up in the nation’s capital.
Ayers said Akin and his school district’s technology effort defy the idea that small towns are inconsequential.
After Thursday's ceremony, Akin said the honor should be for the school system and the people of Piedmont.
"We're very fortunate to have so many people in our community who share our vision of changing education through technology and innovation," he said.
Drive for excellence
Bob Davis, editor and associate publisher of The Star, said there's no obvious reason for education reformers across the nation to think much about Piedmont.
“Yet, because of Matt Akin and his drive for excellence in Piedmont schools this school district is a shining example of how stellar leadership drives good schools.”
Consider the results:
- The district’s graduation rate ranked fourth in the state in 2012, at 94 percent. That’s compared to a state average of 75 percent.
- Sixty-two percent of Piedmont’s class of 2012 went on to state colleges. That’s compared to an average of 52 percent for Alabama high school graduates.
- Only 20 percent of the college-bound students in Piedmont’s class of 2012 needed remediation, compared to a state average of 33 percent.
- Since 2010, Piedmont students’ participation in the ACT increased from 58 percent to 68 percent. The ACT is a standardized test used for college admissions.
Akin, 45, said his vision of getting every student access to the best technology comes from a belief that doing so will allow students of rural, lower-income schools to compete with others from larger, more affluent districts.
To get laptops in the hands of every student in the fourth through 12th grades, the school system in 2010 started a four-year lease with Apple computers at a cost of $850,000; $150,000 came from a federal grant.
A $160,000 grant from Susie Parker Stringfellow Health Fund of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama helped provide computers and tablet devices to Piedmont children in kindergarten through third grade starting in 2012.
Piedmont’s schools and a Wetumpka-based technology company set up a citywide wireless Internet system in 2012. The project cost $1.5 million, with $867,000 coming from a grant from the Federal Communications Commission. The city of Piedmont agreed to give the school system most of a $6,500 monthly payment from the technology company. The company offers the payment in exchange for using city-owned data cables. But the city has since stopped the payments and the grant is finished. Now leaders in Piedmont are discussing how the school district can afford the $20,000 monthly payments for the network.
“I do believe it’s a difference-maker,” Akin said, explaining that the system’s technology initiative can’t work if teachers have to worry about which students have Internet access.
According to Akin, the district emphasized professional development for teachers, offering bonuses for educators who earn certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Twenty-two percent of the school district’s teachers are National Board certified, compared to 3 percent statewide.
As great as the improvements are, Akin said Piedmont school officials weren’t thinking about test data when they launched the technology initiative and other enrichment programs, such as robotics competitions and film courses.
“That doesn't show up in graduation scores, but it does in lifelong learning and attitudes toward education,” he said.
Since starting the technology project in 2010, Piedmont City Schools have received several national honors:
- A 2011 U.S. News and World Report study ranked Piedmont High No. 2 in a list of the “Most Connected Classrooms” in the nation.
- Piedmont High was named one of the Department of Education’s 2012 Blue Ribbon Schools, given to schools that make significant efforts in closing achievement gaps.
- Piedmont High was the only Alabama public school to be named an Apple Distinguished School for the 2010-11 school year. The computer company gives the award to schools that “demonstrate Apple’s highest vision of a successful 21st century learning environment, a strong relationship with Apple and a willingness to do outreach activities.”
- In 2012, the school district was invited to join the League of Innovative Schools, a network with 35 member schools recognized for speeding up the pace of education technology and sharing those techniques with other educators.
Akin was one of nine nominees for the state’s Superintendent of the Year award in 2011.
Sharing the vision
Piedmont High Principal Adam Clemons said Akin’s understanding of technology has been pivotal in making the program work, but just as important to the project, he said, are efforts by Akin and other school officials to prioritize the district’s budget.
Education Week, a popular newsletter among teachers and administrators, named Piedmont City Schools one of the most cost-efficient districts in the state in 2011.
Clemons has used the national recognition to invite area lawmakers and business owners to tour his school and learn about the technology program. He said he hopes the project will bring businesses to the area and keep some of the students in the community.
“Maybe that will lead to a factory moving in here,” he said.
Clemons said Akin attends most of the meetings to explain the process to guests.
“Since it’s his vision, he’s able to share that with folks,” Clemons said about Akin.
Path to Piedmont
Akin graduated from Hokes Bluff High School in 1987 and received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education-mathematics from JSU in 1990.
He went to work as a computer science teacher for Anniston City Schools and then became the district’s technology coordinator.
Akin said that during his time in Anniston, he watched the district’s technology program swell. Thanks to grants and donations from groups like the Department of Energy and Alabama Power, the system’s computer room grew from the size of a storage closet to a technology center that was wired for the Internet in the mid-’90s.
Akin remembered one day in which volunteers from the community helped educators lay cable to network all of the district’s elementary schools.
“It was there I saw the power of community involvement,” he said.
Akin earned a master’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1994.
In 1999, Akin became the technology director for the Piedmont City Schools. By his second year there, he was hired as principal of the high school.
As principal, he started a small program to give 25 students laptop computers. He said that for years, he’d read about how giving each student a device could increase his or her engagement in class.
In 2003, the Piedmont Board of Education hired Akin as superintendent.
Michael Ingram, who became a board member in 2010 and has two children in the school system, said Akin’s vision goes beyond the classroom and includes how the school system will make an impact on the entire area.
“That really impressed me, his heart for the children in our community,” he said.
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.