Teacher, assistant principal, principal, coordinator of elementary and federal programs, coordinator of personnel, deputy superintendent, superintendent.
In her 34-year career with the Talladega County, Ala., schools, Suzanne Lacey has held a job at nearly every level of the district. She’s spent those decades transforming the educational environment in the sprawling, low-income, rural district.
That has meant putting a device in every student’s hands, creating high-tech tinkering spaces, providing teachers with innovative professional development, and showing the Talladega school board, students, educators, and the community what lies beyond the engine roar of the Talladega Superspeedway.
Lacey, 56, uses technology to bring the world’s resources to Alabama, but she also wants to open the wider world to her community. She’s taken students, parents, and school board members to see what project-based learning looks like in Sacramento, Calif; she brought educators to Pittsburgh to soak up innovative uses of maker spaces. Last year, Talladega middle school teachers found themselves at Google’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters for specialized technology training.
“We don’t have the most resources, but we’re going to find a way to provide really great opportunities for our kids,” Lacey said. “That is our driving force, and it never gets old.”
The Talladega County district is 60 miles long dotted with small communities and wide swaths of rural woodland, including the Talladega National Forest, and, of course, the famed NASCAR speedway. Seventy percent of the district’s 7,600 students are low income, and 36 percent are minority.
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To understand Talladega County schools today, it helps to look at the path of Winterboro High School, a district standout, attracting visitors from around the country to observe its project-based-learning model.
In 2007, the low-income, 300-student school had discipline problems and a graduation rate that was below the state average. Test scores were dismal. Its rural location—GPS struggles to get visitors there—means the school is a linchpin for the community.
The historic Winterboro school building, constructed in the 1920s with stones parents dug out of their yards, was dilapidated and crumbling. In 2007, under a previous superintendent, the district had planned to partner with a national group to overhaul the school, complete with a new building.
Lacey became superintendent in 2008, and shortly after, Alabama lawmakers slashed education funding. Lacey was undeterred, though she had to pivot, said Vicky Ozment, the deputy superintendent of the district who was at the time the Winterboro principal.
“One of the deepest driving forces in her soul is that every single student in our district gets the same opportunities as a student in an affluent district,” Ozment said.
Winterboro cobbled together a project-based-learning model relying on the school’s own educators as experts, giving students “voice and choice” in solving real-world problems in their community. It forces them to work collaboratively, take control of their own learning, to present, to research. Technology helps to boost and support the effort, but it isn’t the focus, Lacey said.
Simultaneously, the district invested in a physical school redesign, tearing down walls and beefing up tech infrastructure. In a nod to the school’s history, Lacey kept the building’s stone façade that previous generations helped build.
A year after project-based learning was implemented, the graduation rate rose from 64 percent to 82 percent, and disciplinary referrals dropped from 1,800 to 300. Last year, all seniors graduated, with a college-acceptance rate of 96 percent, said Winterboro Principal Emily Harris. The transformation wasn’t without some pain—a number of teachers not on board with the new approach left, Lacey said
Today, visitors might see 8th graders racing robotic Sphero chariots in the hallways, after learning about the Roman Empire. Students might be using the 3-D printer or coding in the school’s STEAM lab. In 2014, the Alliance for Excellent Education highlighted progress at Winterboro High, featuring the high school at a Library of Congress ceremony.
Lacey pressed for the changes at Winterboro because of her commitment to students, said Eric G. Mackey, Alabama’s state superintendent. “That community has no political clout—no state senator or board member saying, ‘You have to do something,’ ” he said, “She was just not willing to let students there lag behind.”
Within a year of Winterboro’s success, Lacey began to roll out the project-based model to other schools in the district.
Now, Talladega students in grades K-2 have iPads, and those in grades 3-12 use Chromebooks. All schools have adopted some form of project-based learning. Lacey continues to push the technological envelope with a focus on maker spaces and STEM or STEAM, insisting schools incorporate those concepts into all classes—not just science and math. All 17 schools are seeking specialized STEM certifications from nonprofit AdvanceEd.
Childhood Ambitions Realized
There was never any doubt that Lacey would be a teacher. Growing up in a neighboring county, Lacey set up a classroom in her house, complete with school library and chalkboard. Her Christmas presents came from the teacher supply store. “I truly felt like it was a calling from early on,” she said.
She came to Talladega County right out of college and recognized it as a progressive place. The district has a history of strong female leadership—the two superintendents who preceded Lacey were women—in a state dominated by district leaders who are men.
But Lacey never aspired to the superintendent’s job. In fact, when first offered the job of an assistant principal, she couldn’t imagine leaving the classroom and initially turned it down. But after taking that step, she steadily climbed the ranks in the district, reaching the central office and taking on the superintendent’s role. Over that time, she’s built up an unprecedented level of trust with her community, observers say. She’s legendary for remembering the names of current and former students, recalling family members and interests. She writes notes to board members, students, and colleagues thanking them, praising them, recognizing their accomplishments.
Jennifer Barnett, whose children have attended Childersburg High School, said Lacey sent her youngest son a note after he became the school’s first male cheerleader. “She said she was so proud of him not being afraid to go for what he wanted,” Barnett said.
Lacey is known for being prepared, a motivator, well-organized, and setting a high bar for herself and her staff. She’s not a superintendent who hogs the limelight, often shifting praise for the district’s accomplishments away from herself and toward her team.
“She sets the culture for the whole county,” said Monique Chatman, the technology-integration specialist at Talladega’s Drew Middle School. “She helps us understand that we’re all in the process of learning so we’re not afraid to take risks.”
Lacey’s rapport with the Talladega school board makes members receptive to her often experimental ideas, said Mackey, the state schools chief. “When she tells them she wants to do things that are kind of earthshaking … the board doesn’t hold her back. They stick with her,” Mackey said.
That comes down to the relationship she’s built with board members, said board Chairwoman Sandra Tuck, who taught for 35 years in Talladega County. “We really trust her,” Tuck said. “She doesn’t leave us out of anything.”
Lacey calls or texts board members once or twice a week with updates. She often takes them to see cutting-edge programs in other districts, or brings students to board sessions to present about their school projects.
“I try to educate [the board] on the front end, so when it’s time to make a decision, they have all the facts and knowledge,” Lacey said.
Getting Creative With Funds
To do all this, Lacey and her staff have had to be creative with funds. When the district was starting to emphasize technology, Talladega took castoff PCs from a bigger district. When the state of Alabama told districts they could use state textbook funding to pay for technology, Lacey jumped on board. Sometimes she chooses to patch a school roof instead of replace it or wash walls instead of paint them, in order to buy more devices, said Avery Embry, the district’s chief financial officer.
Embry admits to being “a numbers guy” but said Lacey insisted he understand what was at stake beyond the spreadsheets. “She changed my focus,” he said. “She gave me the opportunity to go into the schools and see what students were doing with this technology.”
We don’t have the most resources, but we’re going to find a way to provide really great opportunities for our kids.
A $300,000 grant from the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative helped her bring training around STEM, coding, and computational thinking to the district. Other grants followed, including $1 million from the National Science Foundation—shared with two other districts—for teacher PD. She’s also willing to share what she’s learned—Lacey is a former president of the School Superintendents of Alabama, as well as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, among other state and national leadership positions.
To sustain her efforts in Talladega, Lacey emphasizes a “grow-your-own model.” For example, Ozment is finishing a Ph.D. in computational thinking. “We can’t go out and hire people to do this,” Lacey said. “We may not have the money, but we have extraordinary talent.”
Lacey voraciously seeks out opportunities. “Sometimes I think, ‘Lord don’t go to that conference,’ because she’ll come back with 100,000 ideas,” Ozment said.
A big part of that has been the district’s acceptance into Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, Lacey said. Through Digital Promise, Talladega was chosen to participate in the Dynamic Learning Project—a partnership with Google to train teachers on innovative ed-tech uses. That’s where the trip to Google came in.
For educator Chatman, visiting Google was a “complete game changer.” The experience helped her understand how to coach teachers to avoid using technology as a substitute for learning. Chatman felt Google officials were surprised by how advanced the rural Alabama district already was in this area.
“They were shocked, working with our system,” she said. “But that’s because Dr. Lacey gave us a strong foundation.”
Lacey’s vision isn’t limited by technology. The schools in the Munford area of the county partner with the National Forest Service on projects like tracking black bear movements or the health of the fisheries environment. Talladega schools tap the resources at the Speedway to study physics and motion. She’s constantly trying to connect project-based learning to the community. For example, a notable project had 5th graders research the redevelopment of a city park and present findings to the Lincoln City Council.
“When I see what our kids and families don’t have, that drives me harder to make sure what we do at school is the very best,” Lacey said.
“I will spend my last working hour with that as the ultimate goal.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2019 edition of Education Week