Dr. Matthew Akin, candidate for Huntsville's superintendent job, got several laughs during his interview tonight with the Huntsville school board. He occasionally joked with the crowd and with individual board members while answering their prepared questions on a range of topics.
He also spoke repeatedly about how serious he was about wanting the job.
"I believe in the potential of Huntsville," he said often. "That's why I'm sitting here."
Akin has been the superintendent at Piedmont Schools in Piedmont, Ala. since 2003. Piedmont has 1,240 students. By comparison, Huntsville High School has 1,900 students and Huntsville school district has 24,000.
"If you choose me to be the leader of this school system, I don't believe you're taking a chance because my background is in a small district," said Akin. "I believe you're hiring a proven visionary leader who will work with you as a team. With the support of our teachers, administrators and our community stakeholders, we'll lead Huntsville City Schools to be the model school system for this country."
Akin has gained some national recognition for his digital curriculum initiatives. Last year he was recognized by EdWeek magazine as one of the 2016 Educational Leaders to Learn From. In 2013, his district was chosen as a charter district in Congress's Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.
Akin was knowledgeable about Huntsville's Digital 1:1 Curriculum, which largely replaced textbooks with laptops or iPads for every student. His own district went digital eight years ago.
He said he thinks the purpose of having a digital learning environment is to give students personalized learning. In his district, he said, using a digital curriculum lets students work at their own paces.
"Technology allows us to meet students where they are academically, and take the forward quickly," he said.
"I believe putting technology in the hands of students can level the playing field, but ultimately it's about quality teachers who are making it work," he said. He is in favor of ongoing professional development in the digital curriculum and employing learning coaches to help teachers use it more effectively.
He spoke about his district encouraging students to take online courses during the summer earn high school credits. He also said his district's growth rate on the statewide standardized ASPIRE test last year was the highest in the state. The proficiency wasn't the highest, but he attributed the improvement to the district's digital focus.
"Does it improve test scores?" he asked. "I don't believe technology alone increases student performance...But I believe software can more easily help us pinpoint where there's a gap.
"Ultimately we need teachers to provide in-depth instruction to small groups of kids."
Akin is one of only two superintendent candidates with direct experience working in a school system under a federal desegregation order. Early in his career, he worked as an administrator in Anniston City Schools, where part of his job was digital mapping of school zones and identifying how moving zone lines impacted demographics.
"I learned very early that clear, concise and consistent communication with the judge and the Justice Department is imperative," said Akin. "Achieving unitary status is extremely important. We're ready to move forward. That's why I'm here."
One of his recommendations for the district concerning its consent order with the Department of Justice was to continually monitor discipline data and test scores.
"You can't wait until May or August and be surprised about your test scores," he said. "Same thing with discipline, for example. You need to be continually, at last every quarter, looking at discipline data, identifying problems...and correct (them) before October when reports are due."
The Huntsville school board has been accused of a lack of open communication by some detractors. Akin spoke about the importance of communication and said if chosen for the superintendent position, he would spend at least two half-days per week in classrooms in the district.
"You have to make time to do that becuase the most important work going on in this district is going on in the classrooms," he said. "The purpose is not to evaluate teachers...the purpose is to elevate teachers and what they do. I believe that by elevating them, they see I care, (which) will create open lines of communication."
He also said he valued detractors.
"I believe each person that speaks out wants our school system to continue working," he said. "Over my career I've found some of the people who complain the loudest, if I sit down and listen and work with them, they can become some of our strongest supporters. We have to try to find common ground."
Read his application here.
Watch his interview here.
The school board is scheduled to meet on Jan. 30 to vote on the new superintendent.