Profile: Suzanne Lacey

Partnering for Progress in Talladega
BY JOETTA SACK-MIN/School Administrator, November 2019

Suzanne Lacey

HAVING SPENT her entire career in Talladega County, Ala., schools, Suzanne Lacey saw an urgent need for the rural, high-poverty district to face up to its high dropout rate and other problems when she became superintendent.

To begin to raise students’ prospects, she settled on a project-based learning emphasis for the 7,600-student district. She joined with district staff and parents to visit schools across Alabama and beyond to see the evidence of personalized technology in classroom use and to learn firsthand how to implement it well.

Through these site visits, Lacey saw a chance to better connect students’ classwork to college and career experiences. She looked to project-based learning using technology to bridge the opportunity gaps. She envisioned classes that focused on STEM subjects, including computational thinking, coding, design and engineering, and that developed students’ communication skills through presentations and team projects.

Lacey then presented the research and data she had amassed to her community and worked closely with teachers and administrators to build support for a transformation.

“The need for change … was readily visible. Those were hard cold facts we didn’t really like to examine, but were necessary to examine,” she says.

Lacey’s first goal was to build a one-to-one instructional system that would let students access the world outside the seven communities that feed into Talladega’s 17 schools, as she noted many students and their families rarely ventured beyond the county line. Without the funding, she looked for external grants, business partnerships and creative ways to manipulate the operating budget to rework the district’s curriculum. She authorized the purchase of iPads, Chromebooks and other devices plus provided in-depth professional training for teachers.

“It has been a real game changer to help rural, impoverished kids get on a level playing field,” she says. “It was never about test scores. It was to do our work more efficiently and being able to connect with the world.”

Students’ test scores and high school graduation rate have improved. Last June, about 94 percent of Talladega seniors graduated from the school system. A decade ago, that rate was 70-80 percent annually.

Lacey, feted last spring as one of Education Week’s Leaders to Learn From, considers her proudest accomplishments have involved transforming the district’s school libraries into digital media hubs. During the past school year, the district experimented with a rolling study halls project with Google, where students could access the internet and live tutors during their bus rides.

Lacey’s deep roots in the community — she became a teacher in Talladega after college — have led her to look for regional partnerships, such as the National Forest Service. Her supporters say the understated superintendent’s secret strength is her ability to forge relationships and nurture the personal aspect of education.

Jeff Langham, assistant state superintendent at the Alabama State Department of Education, compares her work to Disney’s Aladdin movie, saying she has opened “a whole new world” to students by using technology and seeking school-to-work opportunities that “provide real world experiences in areas such as biology and physics and create enthusiasm from the youngest ages setting many on college and career pathways.”

JOETTA SACK-MIN is an education freelance writer in Falls Church, Va.


CURRENTLY: superintendent, Talladega County, Ala.

PREVIOUSLY: deputy superintendent, Talladega

AGE: 57

GREATEST INFLUENCE ON CAREER: Zavius, a student I met early on, had many behavioral and academic challenges. Unwavering commitment by educators enabled Zavius to emerge as a leader in high school, with opportunities to often share his tribulations and triumphs. Zavius’ personal struggle taught me the importance of collaboration, differentiation and persistence. He’s now a college sophomore, studying to become a teacher.

BEST PROFESSIONAL DAY: Passage of two special tax referendums for capital improvements.

BOOKS AT BEDSIDE: The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner; and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck

BIGGEST BLOOPER: I thought it would be great to create standalone 21st-century classrooms. I quickly learned successful change requires a systemic approach.

WHY I'M AN AASA MEMBER: AASA provides exceptional support through publications, networking and advocacy. I always count on AASA.