Superintendents discuss school system updates, pandemic challenges

By EMILY SPARACINO / Staff Writer

PELHAM – Superintendents from the four public school systems in Shelby County shared updates in local education at The Shelby County Chamber’s annual State of Our Schools luncheon on Wednesday, Aug. 25 at the Pelham Civic Complex.

Each of the superintendents – Dr. Wayne Vickers of Alabaster City Schools, Dr. Dee Fowler of Hoover City Schools, Dr. Scott Coefield of Pelham City Schools and Dr. Lewis Brooks of Shelby County Schools – had several minutes to speak before taking turns answering questions from the Chamber’s Career Readiness Work Group.

Below are comments from each superintendent, listed in alphabetical order by school system.

Alabaster City Schools – Dr. Wayne Vickers

Vickers provided a snapshot of the Alabaster City School System, which consists of five schools with student enrollment totaling 6,219.

In addition to pre-K programs and instructional coaches at the schools, Vickers said ACS offers four career and technical academies as feeder programs for Thompson High School.

“Over the past few years, we’ve had a 730-percent increase in the number of students participating in our Health Science Academy,” Vickers said. “At this time, we have over 400 high school students enrolled in some part of our Health Sciences program.”

Vickers described THS as the cornerstone of the district’s motto, “Champions of our future,” noting it houses 10 college and career academies, 12 CTE programs, honors and AP courses offered in all four subjects, 20 AP courses and 130 different electives.

Vickers said the school system’s 2021 College and Career Readiness rate of 97 percent matches the graduation rate.

“We’re very excited about that,” he said. “We want every child to walk across that stage for a diploma that means something, where they have a pathway to success after graduation.”

Vickers also provided an update on facility upgrades ACS has completed at each school campus, including a third gym at THS, gym renovations at Thompson Middle School and enhancements at Creek View Elementary, Meadow View Elementary and Thompson Intermediate schools.

Hoover City Schools – Dr. Dee Fowler

Fowler, who started as Hoover City Schools’s new superintendent in July, said the district’s school doors are “wide open.”

“I’ve been visiting schools, and I’ve seen a lot of happy children,” he said. “I’ve seen children happy to be back in school, I’ve seen children that are happy to learn, and I’ve seen children that are happy to be with their friends. I’ve seen a lot of people that have shown caring for students and adults as we face a very difficult situation.”

The district’s student enrollment has reached 13,600, and the 2021 graduation rate was 94 percent.

In August 2019, HCS opened the Riverchase Career Connection Center (RC3), a career training center that combines college prep academics and career technical training.

As the school system continues its 30-day limited masking plan, Fowler said employees are working hard to maintain a safe and positive learning environment for students.

“We will work our dead-level best to love your children, we will work our dead-level best to educate your children, and we will work our dead-level best to prepare your children for a brighter future,” Fowler said. “We will do everything we can to protect your children.”

Pelham City Schools – Dr. Scott Coefield

Coefield said Pelham City Schools has accomplished most of its five-year goals, including setting a solid foundation for finances and improving school facilities.

The district is looking to acquire property that could house a new school building in the future, he said.

“Another thing was the relationship with our city,” he said. “Our mayor and City Council have made a tremendous statement by signing a contract with us and making sure the 1-cent sales tax cannot ever be touched by the city government.”

Coefield said the district’s goals also included teaching students about accountability and developing a district-wide identity that was not limited to numbers and metrics.

“We talk about creating value in our school system,” he said. “It’s the relationships; it’s having special people and special places, and I’m just so thrilled that in Pelham we have a lot of special people and special places.”

The district’s student enrollment is currently 3,394, and the 2021 graduation rate was 93 percent.

On the latest Education Report Card, Pelham ranked in the Top 20 percent of all Alabama school systems and received a 97 in the indicator for academic growth.

Shelby County Schools – Dr. Lewis Brooks

Brooks said all seven high schools in the Shelby County School System are ranked in the top one-third of the best high schools in Alabama by U.S. News and World Report.

Oak Mountain High School ranks 13th, Helena High School ranks 25th and Chelsea High School ranks 45th on the list.

“We’re very proud of the instruction that goes on in our buildings,” Brooks said. “We’re very proud of our teachers. We have launched a new strategic planning process, and we have a leadership team that’s working very hard and looking at what the next steps are for our school district moving forward.”

Brooks said innovation, community partnerships, recruitment and retention, organizational commitment and leadership development are among the district’s top priorities.

In February, SCS launched a $41 million campaign to complete capital improvement projects on school campuses throughout the district.

“Shelby County continues to grow,” Brooks said. “We have tremendous growth areas in Chelsea, Calera and Helena. We’re looking to make sure that we can accommodate that growth.”

The district’s student enrollment is currently 20,689, and the graduation rate is 95 percent.

Looking ahead

During the question-and-answer portion of the discussion, Coefield talked about the pressure superintendents and district leaders have been under to make difficult decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nobody up here is qualified to be a health officer,” he said. “In times of crisis, I think there needs to be some type of centralized command control. I hope when we get through this pandemic that our state leaders, before they’re introducing bills or passing bills, will think about getting in a room with the Department of Public Health, and the educational leaders and the governor.”

Brooks, Vickers and Fowler echoed Coefield’s statements.

“We need direction, we need guidance, and we need to have something that we can all hang our hat on,” Fowler said.

A spirit of mutual support was evident among the four superintendents.

Vickers complimented Brooks, Fowler and Coefield on their leadership and said he enjoys working with them.

“Shelby County is very blessed to have four outstanding school districts,” Vickers said.

Fowler also praised Vickers, Brooks and Coefield for their work.

“Shelby County is very fortunate to have these three gentlemen as your superintendents,” Fowler said. “I’ve known them for a long time, and I would trust all three of these guys to lead the education strategies for my child.”

Brooks said all four school districts offer a quality education to thousands of students in Shelby County.

“We feel very strongly that not only at Shelby County Schools, but the districts you see here, there’s a great deal to offer for our students,” Brooks said. “We just appreciate you all as business leaders supporting what we do.”