From STEM roots, Phenix City has risen … just in time

This Alabama school district has leveraged technology to dramatically improve student outcomes and overcome challenges, including a successful pivot to hybrid learning during the pandemic
By: | November 2, 2020
Phenix City School District Superintendent Randy Wilkes with student Miles Walden. (Photos courtesy of Phenix City School District)

When Randy Wilkes became the superintendent of schools in Phenix City, Ala., in 2014, he and other school officials did an assessment of workforce development in the area.

The top job held by constituents in Phenix City, population 36,000-plus, was meat cutter because of the large chicken processing plant nearby. The second most prevalent job was cashier. They both still are, and they each pay $11.50 and $10.50 per hour, respectively.

It was a humbling data point for the new man in charge of a school district with a very diverse population and one where 70% of students live in poverty. He knew it was time for change.

“We’ve got a lot of parents that are doing those type jobs, and we appreciate them very much,” Wilkes says. “They are doing the very best for their families, for their children. But none of those parents wants that for their children. They all want something better. So we came up with this notion, and we coined the phrase, ‘Stemming Students from Poverty.’ ”

So began a years-long quest to bring the students of Phenix City into the 21st century. Looking as far ahead as 2032, Wilkes and his team created a plan of opportunities and hope for those who would come through the system and be able to overlook the jobs of yesteryear and focus on the jobs of tomorrow. STEM, where Wilkes figured 80-90% or more of jobs would exist, would be the driver. They decided to start with grades 6-8.

“The reason I chose middle school was when students came out of those elementary schools into one feeder pattern, we had a flight of students of wealth that left the district,” he says. “They loved our elementary schools. They loved the neighborhood concept. But they said we’ll go private, parochial or home school before we’ll go to the middle school.”

Rendering of Dyer Center from Hecht Burdeshaw Architects Inc.

That mindset has changed. The end result of Phenix City’s i3 initiative (Inquiry, Innovation and Impact) gives students a piece of STEM every day. Phenix City’s Dyer Family Center (above), built through more than $1 million in donations in 18 months, serves students in fields such as coding, digital media, engineering and robotics.

But the one thing Phenix City Schools did that was truly innovative four years ago was it began a 1:1 device drive. Every child now has their own Chromebook. Faculty and ed tech specialists have the latest in technology offerings, and the district has spent $1 million each year to infuse professional learning.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the district that had more than enough reasons to not be prepared, was more than ready for it.

“Not knowing what we were doing for the last six years, but now in retrospect, we were preparing for COVID,” Wilkes says. “We never missed a beat.”

Setting the plan in motion

The Friday the 13th announcement by Governor Kay Ivey – which would close schools the following Wednesday – prompted Phenix City School District to call off school on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, it announced it was going fully remote, K through 12.

But there was still work to be done:

  • They got devices to all K-5 students who had left them at school
  • They distribute a remote doctrine they had developed in late February (Tamara Sanders, the system’s instructional ed tech specialist had been reading about developments in China in January with a school going remote because of coronavirus and alerted Phenix officials)
  • They bought wi-fi hot spots and distributed them to students
  • They drew up a map of all the hot spots in town and then asked churches to move their hot spots to the windows so people could sit in the parking lots if necessary to use them
  • They bought devices for buses and made them wireless

By April, they had 96% coverage for both devices and internet access. They completed the school year in May and students all got grades.

Fast forward to fall, and Phenix opted for a unique hybrid start. With 33% of parents requesting their students remain remote, the school obliged. The 2,400 students became part of a Virtual Learning Academy that housed 62 teachers who video conferenced from cubicles in a revamped building, along with two coordinators. The remaining students were split in half – one group called the trailblazers, the other innovators. They received instruction on alternating days, with Wednesday being closed for cleaning. On each of those days, the other group got the same virtual instruction as classmates.

“We’ve pretty much been Burger King,” Wilkes says. “We’ve let people have it their way.”

That continued for two weeks before the big test: all of the live students coming in on a Wednesday.

“I said, let me let me see what social distancing looks like,” Wilkes recalls. “Let’s see what buses look like. Let’s see what restrooms look like. Let’s see how far backed up we get during lunch.”

Lunch of course was done in classrooms, but it worked. So they tried again the following Wednesday. No problems. For the past three weeks, those students have been going every day. The positivity rated of those students is only 0.2%.

Phenix City School District staff and students with Governor Kay Ivey at the Dyer Center in February 2019

How did they pull it off

The devices and internet were a key part of the equation, and Wilkes credits the professional learning piece and the diligence of staff as maybe the most crucial of all.

Sherlita Gilchrist, Elementary Virtual Learning Academy teacher

“I’m so proud of our teachers,” he says. “We don’t have a group that says, ‘you know what, cleaning this desk, that’s not my job.’ Our bus drivers and our custodial staff have all performed well. Our CNP staff have delivered meals daily to both virtual kids and to kids in person.”

But what Phenix City has really done well is make their schools as safe as possible.

They used CARES Act fund money to get two dozen Clorox 360 machines that can sanitize classrooms in 2-3 minutes. They bought hand sprayers from Home Depot and Lowe’s. They got fumigators for buses and purchased face shields for teachers. They put UV lighting in HVAC systems. They created an online COVID response form that gets directed to the school nurse. They got every kid and every teacher three masks.

“I’ve already told parents, they make nice stocking stuffers,” Wilkes jokes, noting they might need more the longer the pandemic lasts. “I would not be surprised if we’re not still sitting here in the fall wearing masks. I’m talking fall 2021.”

And the final piece … they engage the media, getting out front in their mission with TV and news reporters.

“By sharing it on the news, it really took the angst out of the parents,” Wilkes says. “Showing the public what we’re doing has made a huge difference.”

Phenix City set the bar high with its reopening strategy. It also was one of the first in the nation – if not the first – to hold live graduation ceremonies – 100 kids for five consecutive nights at its football stadium, with social distancing in place.

Planning, pivoting when needed and being empathetic has been vital to its success. Wilkes recommends other school leaders “overcommunicate with parents, thank them for their kindness and patience and assure them we’ll get through this together.”

As for returning fully in person, Wilkes isn’t ready to go there just yet. Like everything else, Phenix has a plan.

“We’ve got to put safety above everything else,” he says. “Until we have a good grasp and a good control of what we’re doing and making sure of the things we’ve implemented, we’re not rushing at anything. We’ve got 8,000 lives here at stake. We’re not going to jump off into the deep end of the water. We’re going to wade in and see how that shakes out before we go much farther.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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