When the Alabama Department of Education handed out its third annual batch of report cards to Alabama schools on Friday, October 18, one of those most proud to carry it back to the people at home was the Phenix City School System.
Since the time the state of Alabama began requiring the State Report Card system of accountability, Phenix City schools have gone from a D to an A, and it’s a measure that is echoed in other achievements, including graduation rates well above the state average and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum that is system-wide and one of the best in the state. The graduation rate — as measured by federal standards — has gone from 51 percent for 2009-2010 to 97 percent for 2017-2018, which compares to a national average of 87 percent.
Wealth of the community is certainly not the reason for this level of achievement. Phenix City has a per capita income 20 percent below the state average, with almost 19 percent of the population below the national poverty level.
The apparent reason so many students stay in school is the richness of what the schools offer. Beginning in kindergarten, Phenix City students are completely immersed in STEM education. All elementary schools have a SMARTLab, with 6th and 7th graders receiving instruction in virtual science, coding, digital media and engineering laboratories. Students participate in 12-week courses of coding/robotics, engineering and digital media. High school students have 11 academies to choose from, including health occupations, advanced coding and television production. Every student, grades 6-12, has access to a take-home electronic device. Central High offers 24 advanced placement and dual enrollment courses.
Randy Wilkes has been superintendent since 2014 and was named 2018 superintendent of the year by the Alabama Department of Education. We asked him to name three prime reasons why Phenix City’s schools have excelled.
“Everything started with professional learning — over $1 million annually invested by teachers in 75,000 hours of learning activities created for our students to address their needs,” says Wilkes. “Our teachers don’t get off June and July.”
Another important contribution to improvement, says Wilkes, came from recruitment of teachers. It begins with getting the story out in the media. “Telling our story has created a desire to work for us.” And it culminates each year with a recruitment tour of the city and its schools, aimed at the best of recent college graduates.
“In April on a Saturday every administrator and supervisor meets with recruits right out of college and shows them our schools and wines and dines them, and the magic school bus takes them on a tour of apartments and shopping areas and hospitals, and they have a nice big meal, and after lunch we have speed interviews — one of the recruitment tactics we’ve learned in the last few years.”
Big too was the boost that came from the local community, culminating in $1.1 million in private donations raised in less than two years by the Friends of Phenix City Schools. One result of that initiative was the Dyer Family STEM Center at Phenix City Intermediate School, which benefited from a $150,000 donation from Gil’s Auto Sales.
Private fundraising is necessary, says Wilkes, because local taxpayers are already giving all they can. “We already have a high millage rate, 28.5 mills. That’s pretty significant when you consider the median household income is not that great. You would be putting more tax on people who can barely afford to get by.
“In terms of funding per pupil, we rank 120th among the 138 school systems in the state. We spend a little more than $8,000 per pupil, compared to $13,000 for Mountain Brook and $10,000 for Opelika.”