A 1996 photo in The Star shows Matt Akin, then the technology coordinator for Anniston schools, standing in front of 30,000 feet of rolled cable, meant to connect classrooms to the internet.
Akin and others that year spent hours drilling holes through concrete walls, running the cables to classrooms so that students could use a single computer in each. At the time, connecting classrooms to the internet was the cutting edge.
Since then, however, Anniston schools have lagged behind other local systems at providing students access to computers.
When told by a reporter Friday that Anniston school board members on Thursday took a step toward putting a laptop into the hands of every student and internet connectivity at home, Akin said “that’s great news.”
Akin is now superintendent of Huntsville City Schools and formerly superintendent of Piedmont schools, which has a nationally recognized technology program. He said Anniston’s push to provide students with laptops shows the system is concerned about providing students with opportunities to learn.
“It gave us the ability to personalize learning, to meet kids where they are,” Akin said, speaking of Piedmont’s laptop program, which began in 2009 and by 2014 had given every student either a laptop computer or iPad tablet device and internet connectivity at home.
Anniston’s decision Thursday moved the system toward offering the same sort of technology to its teachers and students that many other local systems already provide.
The plan approved by the school board Thursday will replace much of the system’s current internet infrastructure in preparation for the laptops. The goal, school administrators have said, is to transform education in Anniston schools.
The Anniston technology initiative comes by way of local attorney Donald Stewart, a local founder of the Stewart Family Foundation and overseer of money left over from a lawsuit against the chemicals manufacturer Monsanto.
Stewart has said he’ll spend about $1.4 million of that money to provide Anniston students, and students in Saks and Wellborn, the same technology and opportunities that other systems already provide. He’s also asked the city of Anniston to pay $600,000 over three years toward the project.
Amy Hurst, technology coordinator for Anniston’s schools, in a message to The Star on Friday said that her vision for the system is to not only build the needed infrastructure for the WiFi internet-capable laptops, but to change the district’s phone system to an internet-based type. Stewart’s plan also calls for that.
“I am excited for any support that our school system can receive in order to make these dreams a reality,” Hurst said.
Attempts to reach Anniston Superintendent Darren Douthitt on Friday were unsuccessful.
In 2009 Piedmont’s schools began rolling out the system’s digital device initiative. A year later Piedmont started a citywide wireless network so students could log on at home. Since 2014 every student in Piedmont has had either a school-supplied laptop or iPad tablet computer.
Jacksonville schools in 2013 started issuing digital devices, and in April agreed to buy new laptops for high school students, which would free up older computers for use in lower grades and ensure every student has a computer.
Students in grades 7th through 12th in Oxford in 2012 started getting school-issued computers as well, and in 2016 expanded the program to include second graders.
In 2012 Calhoun County Schools started a program that invites students to bring their own laptops, smartphones and tablet computers to school, where upgraded infrastructure connects them to the internet.
Asked what difference he saw the technology make for students in Piedmont, Akin said school leaders quickly realized that it gave students “a chance to communicate in ways other than just to raise a hand.”
Students started writing more, making videos and connecting with other students and teachers in ways that Akin said gave staff a better appreciation for how intelligent the kids are.
Akin encouraged Anniston administrators to invest in teacher training on how best to integrate the laptops into their lesson plans.
“Teacher professional development is really important,” Akin said. “But it’s also important to encourage teachers to think outside of the box. You have a framework of what you want to accomplish, but then give your teachers the flexibility to see what works for them.”
Hurst, the Anniston technology coordinator, said she realizes well the need to prepare teachers and students on how to best use the technology, once it’s in place.
“I see the next branch of our plans being the demands to integrate technology into our teacher and student’s everyday lives in meaningful and productive ways,” Hurst wrote.
Akin said he recalls being in the same position Hurst is now in.
“It was hard early on, because you want the teachers to know everything. You have to realize that’s never going to happen,” he said. “You can’t wait until you know it all before you start.”