At the beginning of September, Piedmont was the very picture of small-town life on the south end of the Appalachians. A town of shotguns and pickups, where football is the only thing to do on Friday night, and the drive-in theater —- when it was still open —- could draw a crowd.
That was 10 days ago.
Today, the city is Alabama's largest Internet cafe. Young people gather at MacDonald's not to make trouble, but to do their homework. At high school volleyball games, people pull out their Macs and surf the web. You'd have to go to the airport to find more people pounding away on keyboards in public.
What happened? Last Monday, Piedmont City Schools started distributing free laptop computers to every student in grades four through 12. By Friday, every middle and high school student —- and about a third of Piedmont Elementary School -— had access to a MacBook, the top of the line in laptop computing.
School and city officials say the move is unprecedented, and in many ways they're right. Yes, "one-for-one" laptop initiatives have been tried in other places, including Alabama cities such as Cullman, Auburn and Birmingham. But pound for pound, there may not be a laptop initiative as muscular as the one in Piedmont.
This city had roughly 5,100 residents at the last Census count. About 60 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch, a number that school officials say is reflective of a high level of poverty here. Many families here had never owned a home computer.
Now, Piedmont has 750 MacBooks, one in almost every home with children.
And, remarkably for a town this size, it's very much a local project. The federal government picked up only $160,000 of the tab for this $750,000 initiative.
In a time when cities are struggling to pay for the basics, Piedmont's move is an uncommon one. Local leaders are clear about their motivations.
"It's an investment," said Piedmont school superintendent Matt Akin. "Our City Council, and our whole community, understand that if our children are going to compete in the economy, we need to give them tools as good as you'll find anywhere else."
Not far enough
There's just one problem. Even though Piedmont has ponied up, the rest of the world seems a little less eager to boost these kids into the 21st century.
The school district's most far-flung students live in communities —- namely, Vigo and Borden Springs —- that have never been wired for broadband.
Within city limits, the cable is there. But that doesn't mean all Piedmont parents can afford to buy it.
Many kids in the school district live with their grandparents, noted Rena Seals, director of technology for Piedmont schools. When you're raising a family on a retirement check, she said, it's hard even to pay the $50 insurance deposit Piedmont requires before handing over a laptop.
"One grandparent —- who's paying for insurance in installments —- asked me how on earth a person could spend $50 or $100 a month for cable," Seals said.
That's why kids are doing their homework at McDonald's, or at volleyball games, Seals said. They're going where the wireless hot spots are.
Curiously, Piedmont —- and Vigo and Borden Springs -— seem to have fallen through the cracks of the stimulus-funded initiative to wire rural America with broadband. At least so far.
When Alabama announced its plans to spend federal stimulus money for rural broadband last month, Piedmont wasn't on the radar. JKM Consulting, the contractor for most of Calhoun County, announced that it would lay cable from Anniston to Chimney Peak, with a branch leading down to Pleasant Valley. That's a few miles short of Piedmont —- arguably the state's best small-town market for broadband.
Incidentally, the federal push to expand rural broadband has taken a lot of heat lately, and not usually from people who want broadband coverage. This project has become a favorite punching bag for conservative talk show hosts, who portray it as an entitlement program, or as a solution for something that isn't really a problem. Just search Youtube for "Glenn Beck broadband" —- if you can —- and you'll get a good sample.
ZIP doesn’t matter?
But not every conservative is opposed to wiring the rural South.
Last week, Gov. Bob Riley held a triumphal press conference to celebrate the state's huge gains in progress on Advance Placement tests. AP courses are widely considered to be a must for college-bound school kids. While Alabama still has a dismal rate of participation in AP, the state's numbers are surging. The number of kids taking and passing the AP test surged by 17 percent in the last year alone. And, significantly, the growth is strongest among black kids, rural kids and kids in poverty, populations historically shut out of AP courses.
The Internet had everything to do with that. By investing in ACCESS, a statewide computer and teleconferencing system, the state made distance-learning AP courses available in schools that could never afford an AP course.
"ZIP code doesn't matter anymore," Joe Morton declared at the press conference.
People in the Piedmont ZIP code are mystified by the federal broadband initiative’s seeming failure to cover their students. In a visit to Piedmont Elementary last week, Kwasi Asare of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement referred to the shortfall as "almost criminal" and pledged to help superintendent Matt Akin work on the problem.
The broadband contractors say they may have the area covered soon. Janine Moses, spokeswoman for JKM consulting, said the federal government's changing schedule led some contractors to make last-minute revisions to heir proposals, leaving gaps in planned coverage. She said JKM is in negotiations with another contractor, Georgia-based Appalachian Valley Fiber Network, to draw up service areas that cover everybody.
"Our plan is to meet up with the other companies so all of this part of Alabama is covered," she said.
Meanwhile, Matt Akin and others in Piedmont are planning to approach local cable companies to try and get a reduced rate on broadband for people who can't afford it now. And they'll be seeking help from anybody in the community who can kick in a few dollars.
Piedmont officials say they'll come calling on Asare, the federal education official, for help as well. But they aren't looking for a federal handout, not in this budget climate.
"We're not expecting the federal government to come in and magically fix our problems," said Seals, Piedmont’s director of technology. "We're just looking for people who can connect us with folks who are willing to help."
Seals believes the real help for this project will come from a higher power.
Ask Piedmont officials why this one city is so dedicated to educational computing, and they'll give you a variety of answers. But Seals, who emphasized that she was speaking only for herself, believes the push came because a small group of local people began meeting regularly and praying for transformation of their community —- a community with its fair share of drugs, poverty and crime.
"We prayed for a transformation," she said. "And transformation is what we're getting."
A Teachable Moment is assistant metro editor Tim Lockette’s weekly look at public schools. Contact Lockette at 256-235-3560.