In the past four years, Phenix City Schools Superintendent, Randy Wilkes, is not only celebrating a 96% graduation rate, but has galvanized his community to throw their unyielding support behind public education.
Thanks to Mr. Wilkes’ commitment to bettering students’ lives, Phenix City School has become a shining star in the state of Alabama. We were excited to speak with him about his efforts to prepare students for college and careers, and his goal to ensure that Phenix City Schools is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the future workplace.
My first goal was to gather and collect as much data as I possibly could. I wanted to meet everyone I could and be able to analyze what the district’s current situation was like.
I knew the key to success was in creating ownership at every level. I wanted to stress the team concept and have everyone involved and accountable. The last thing I wanted to do was stand up at the podium and say ‘’this is what we’re going to do." Instead we collectively discovered our vision not from the top down, but from the roots up. This lead to our developing the I3 initiative.
There’s ownership and then there’s buy-in. They’re very different; buy-in can be cashed in. With ownership, you’ve got skin in the game.
Our whole focus is to prepare students for college, career, and life. We brought everyone to the table and welcomed their ideas. Together, we projected the careers of 2025, 2030, and 2045 and pieced together a common theme. The workplace of the future will be completely dominated by STEM (some refer to as STEAM or even STREAM).
Very quickly we realized that we were going to submerge every school in STEM ideology in order to prepare students for the job market.
In Phenix City, what we do for one child, we do for every child. Some districts take STEM and say ‘that’s just for our accelerated students,’ and that’s simply not the case here. In reality, all students, even those with IEPs, benefit just as much from these classes.
Inquiry, Innovation, and Impact. We made a push for more inquiry-based instruction, high order questioning, and collaborative thinking in our learning. Our whole focus is to increase rigor and better prepare students for the lives ahead of them. And, we never do anything in Phenix City Schools that doesn’t have a positive impact on the lives of our students.
We started with a 1:1 device initiative that provided all students in grades 6-8 with iPads. We are now 1:1 for grades 4-12 and those devices also serve as their textbooks. There are places that do STEM very effectively, so I traveled to STEM centers all around the country compiling the best concepts to incorporate back in my district. This eventually led to our creation of the Dyer Family STEM Center.
I then sat down with our instructional technology specialist and we created coding, engineering, digital media, and virtual science classes. Now, every 6th and 7th grader attends that STEM center on a daily basis, with courses rotating every 9 weeks.
First and foremost, we needed a robust infrastructure in terms of wireless access points. After that, it’s mainly the people and professional development.
Our instructional technology specialist was actually a former employee of ours, she had since moved on to work for the state but she came back to Phenix City to be a part of this initiative. She handles all of our professional development between curriculum, instruction, and technology. Her main objective is to communicate how to best integrate technology into day-to-day classroom activities.
We also make it a priority to bring our teachers up-to-speed with the systems they’ll be using before they even step foot in the classroom. That’s a huge piece of it! Having professional development embedded in our calendar ensures everyone is on the same page.
It’s a shared philosophy that’s ever-evolving. I believe in coaching for sure. We are always listening and discussing best practices with teachers. I was in classrooms today talking about the Renaissance Star alignment with Classworks. In fact, every Tuesday I travel to one school in the district where we conduct four evaluations for validity and fidelity.
Then, I record the dialogue between the teacher and the principal and follow up directly with the principal. It’s constant coaching. It’s important for leadership at every level including me. I have an executive coach that comes in and gives me feedback. It’s much more meaningful than just silently observing and pointing out what’s wrong and what’s right.
We’ve sent principals to observe schools outside of our district to really embed the idea of collaboration and learning from colleagues.
Let me set the stage really quickly: we all know what happens in the classroom at the kidney-shaped table. When teachers take a group there to work, we have the other 75% of the class left doing their own thing. There was not much intentionality or on-task behavior from those students.
Classworks has given them intentionality that is prescriptive and diagnostic. It is so tightly aligned to Star reading and math and allows us to progress monitor out students. We use Classworks for every student for RTI, and for students with Dyslexia and other reading problems. In fact, every student from Kindergarten to eighth grade has a reading plan that clearly states the use of Classworks - including our accelerated learners.
Classworks is robust and very teacher friendly - our students really enjoy working with it. It truly is a tool for every child.
Classworks really sets itself apart in that it is so tightly aligned with the Renaissance Star assessment we are using in the district. Our strategic plan with proficiency and growth is all aligned with Star. Also, teachers love how user-friendly it is. The learning path is automatically set with the assessment data, and we can even modify or add activities based on the student’s needs.
The real-time data reporting is a key piece as well. It gives us the resources to know exactly where our students are.
What we have accomplished is all because of the people coming together as a community to make a difference. Because of our focus on STEM, we have increased the graduation rate among poverty-stricken students by 20% in just the last 3 years. We are literally ‘STEM-ing our students out of poverty™.’
For context, the national average per-pupil yearly cost is $12,000. In Phenix City, it’s only $9,000. How can we provide for our students without having the same resources as our neighboring districts?
Through grassroots funding, we were able to raise over $1.1M to help build the infrastructure. We sold naming rights to our proposed STEM center and brought in over $200,000 from passing the hat around in our first meeting!
What happened in Phenix City can happen anywhere. That’s what I’d like the other districts to know. You can create ownership, not just in your schools, but in your communities and come together to support public education.
The other thing is the holistic approach we’ve taken. What we do for one child, we do for every child. It keeps us all ahead of the curve. We start coding in preschool and by the time they’re in middle school, they’re pros! It’s easily their favorite class - and anytime a class trumps PE in Alabama, you take note!
We’ve got to stay ahead of the curve. This requires us to always be looking ahead and figuring out what is going to best prepare our students for jobs that may not even exist yet. Our coding progression is actually changing in 12 months because the students have picked it up so quickly!
We really want to modernize our career tech programs and maybe create a new facility. Students already have engineering, advanced coding, and television production added in their high school curriculum and we hope to keep building upon the foundation we’ve laid.
Whenever my time is done, there will be a legacy that has everything to do with students being successful. Whether they need hard skills or soft skills and knowing that they are prepared for life and that the outcome will be better than it ever has been.”