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Rural Alabama School Seeks to Transform Community through Education

Piedmont, a town of 4,799 people in rural, northeast Alabama, was once a thriving small community, fueled by an active cotton mill and a half dozen successful textile industry businesses. But like much of the state of Alabama, Piedmont is in the midst of a transformation.

The cotton mill closed several years ago, as did the textile industry businesses. Today’s largest employer in the town is an auto industry supplier producing truck seats in a high-tech plant. City leadership is recruiting more 21st-century manufacturing to support the growing auto and aviation sectors in the state, encouraging businesses of all kinds to consider the town as a possible location.

Knowing that economic development starts with education, local elected leadership and educators worked together to launch a program called mPower Piedmont in 2012.

The goal of the program is to refocus education around preparing students for the jobs of the future by inspiring innovation and teaching resourcefulness. That started with bridging the “digital divide” by giving every student in grades 4-12 a laptop and setting up city-wide wireless Internet.

“It was all about community transformation,” Piedmont City Schools Superintendent Matt Akin said of mPower. “We wanted to change the outlook and perception of the community.”

Due in large part to the demonstrated success of the program, Piedmont Middle School was one of 12 recipients of a $50,000 Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS) grant for the 2013-2014 school year, which will help extend the use of mobile technology in the classroom. The school is the first in Alabama, and one of only 24 schools across the country, to be named a Verizon Innovative Learning School.

Under the VILS program, the Verizon Foundation and the International Society for Technology Education provide teachers with two years of professional development to help them better incorporate mobile technology into classroom learning with strategies that support teaching STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – making these topics more appealing to students and enabling more individualized learning.

Akin said it is his hope – and the hope of many Piedmont leaders – that through education they can appeal to businesses, grow the community, and provide jobs that will either keep their students in Piedmont or entice them back home after pursuing a college degree.