Talladega County schools were celebrated at a national level Wednesday at a conference emphasizing the importance of technology in education.

Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Lacey, Childersburg High School Digital Learning Specialist Jennifer Barnett and student Amber Garrett travelled to Washington, D.C., to participate in a webcast of a panel discussion, moderated by broadcast journalist Judy Woodruff. A video showcasing achievements and teaching methods in the county’s high schools was followed by comments from the Talladega County delegations, with questions and comments from a panel assembled for the discussion.

The event was sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education, an organization that introduced “Digital Learning Day” two years ago to celebrate innovative teachers, help them share great ideas and elevate the profession, especially relating to the effective use of technology.

Adoption of a radical new approach to education, Project-Based Learning, powered by technology, brought dramatic improvements at Winterboro, where the graduation rate jumped from 63 percent to 88 percent in a five year period. At Childersburg, the rate increased from 73 percent to 80 percent. And at both schools, discipline problems decreased by some 40 percent.

Interviews in the video and comments from Lacey, Barnett and Garrett explained how administration, faculty and students worked together in a collaborative approach to bring about changes in the way the schools and classes function, and how technology is used as a tool to help the process.

Barnett explained that while digital devices might be cool, fun and intriguing, that does not give them a purpose in the classroom. Rather, they are tools that can be integrated into lessons, tools that students have a natural instinct to use to accomplish tasks and move forward.

Garrett said that faculty members — some of whom were not as tech savvy as students — had to trust the students during the transition as everyone worked together to chart a new course in education.

Lacey noted that empowering the students is a part of the 21st Century Education philosophy, and that getting “buy-in” from everyone involved has been critical to the program’s success.

Discussion panel member Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner, said, “It’s apparent we live in the digital age, but so many classrooms are stuck in the industrial age.”

The educational philosophy and methods showcased Wednesday show that it is possible to move into the digital age, even in a rural area, where digital tools can open up the rest of the world to students wherever they are.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has a particular focus on students who are traditionally underserved and most likely to leave school without a diploma, or to graduate unprepared for a productive future, and part of that has to do with the poverty rate. In Talladega County that rate is 22.9 percent, higher than the both the national average — 14.9 percent — and the state average — 18.1 percent. For children in the county, it is even higher, around 33 percent.

That tends to foster diminished expectations in life for those children, and to limit the resources available for the schools in the county

The team approach being used in the county’s schools shows that dramatic improvements are still possible.

Lacey told the panel that the new approach is still a work in progress, but the results speak for themselves.

The progressive steps taken in the county’s schools speak volumes about the commitment of the staff and students involved, and bring a level of pride and raised expectations for the county’s children that point to better lives ahead.