Phenix City Schools full of controversy when he arrived. Now, he’s named state’s best.

Four years after he arrived to lead a school system embroiled in controversy surrounding the previous superintendent’s departure, Randy Wilkes has boosted Phenix City Schools to statewide esteem.

Wilkes was named the Alabama Superintendent of the Year on Wednesday during the School Superintendents of Alabama 2018 Fall Conference at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence.

“I’m very proud of our school system, first and foremost,” Wilkes told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview while he was driving back home.

Realizing his peers chose to honor him out of the state’s more than 130 superintendents is “very surreal,” Wilkes said. “They’re just as talented and work just as hard. The difference is the people in Phenix City — everyone, from the students and parents, to business and industry, and our employees.”

Since the Phenix City Board of Education hired him in June 2014 from Crenshaw County, the school system raised its graduation rate from 63% in 2013 to 96% in 2017, recorded its highest math and ACT scores in system history and established a reserve of nearly $11 million.

Other signs of progress the school system has made under Wilkes’ leadership include the deployment of 1:1 computer devices to all students in grades 6-12, the development of the $3 million Dyer Family STEM Center, the $4 million Central High School expansion facility, the addition to Sherwood School, the new transportation facility, and the Friends of Phenix City Schools initiative which raised more than $1.1 million for school needs.

Phenix City also had its educational leader named the Alabama Superintendent of the Year in 2011. But two years later, the seven-member school board refused to explain why it unanimously voted in a November 2013 called meeting to place Larry DiChiara on administrative leave, abruptly ending his 9½-year tenure. Then, in October 2014, the school board agreed to pay $587,412 to buy out the 4½ years left on DiChiara’s contract, plus the more than $30,000 in legal fees spent on their 11-month-long dispute. The settlement of DiChiara’s breach-of-contract lawsuit prohibits them from publicly discussing the case.

DiChiara previously had complained about the city council meddling in school board issues. He also wrote a 2½-page letter dated July 1, 2013, with the intention of alerting then-Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice about a series of incidents he considers board misconduct. But after DiChiara shared the letter with then-board president Brad Baker, the board agreed to mediation conducted by the Alabama School Boards Association, and DiChiara agreed to not send the letter.

Two mediation sessions lasting more than two hours each failed to ease the discord, however, so the board voted in a Nov. 26, 2013, called meeting to place DiChiara on administrative leave and authorize Baker to complete a buyout.

“We’re going to have bumps,” Wilkes said. “Progress might not be as fast as we want it to be. But we stay focused, we stay out of politics, and we do reading, writing and arithmetic in a STEM culture.”

Wilkes now is a candidate to be the National Superintendent of the Year, which the American Association of School Administrators will announce during its 2018 national conference, Feb. 14-16 in Los Angeles, after reviewing applications and interviewing four finalists.

“We get to tell our story on the national level,” Wilkes said. “That’s huge. It’s affirmation, but we’re not a finished product. There’s still a lot to do.”

The selection process for Alabama’s award started with nominations by fellow superintendents. Wilkes declined to disclose who nominated him. Superintendents in each of the state’s nine districts voted for their representative to vie for the title. Wilkes was chosen among 21 superintendents as the District 4 winner. A panel of four retired superintendents and the Alabama State Department of Education chief of staff reviewed the applications and interviewed the nine district winners to determine the state winner.

Asked what during his tenure in Phenix City makes him most proud, Wilkes said, “The change of culture in our school system. Yes, graduation rates are up and ACT scores are up, but the mindset of our people has changed, and it’s reflective in what we’re able to do.”

Wilkes described that change of culture and mindset.

“There’s ownership of what we do,” he said. “There’s a difference between ownership and buy-in. With buy-in, you can cash-out anytime. But with ownership, you have skin in the game. So everybody takes hold of the vision and marches in tandem for the common good of the students. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Wilkes explained how it happened here.

“We didn’t stand up at the podium and say, ‘This is your vision.’ It wasn’t top-down. It was, ‘Let’s figure out together where we are and where we want to be.’ The whole team concept might seem corny, but it’s never been about an individual.”

Developing the school system’s team required a deliberate approach.

“When we got to Phenix City — and this is no reflection on anybody but just a statement of what was — we were not a school system; we were a system of schools. Everyone was in a silo and doing their own thing, and it was difficult to measure where we were.”

So the superintendent decided to dive into those silos. For example, he observed an eighth-grade math teacher instructing students how to measure the perimeter of a rectangle — a fourth-grade concept, according to the state standards.

“We collected the math books and told the teachers, ‘You develop your own curriculum based on the standards,’” Wilkes recalled. “Now, every one of our employees is accountable for their actions.

“We had to school some people. We spent over a million dollars of our own money to reteach some teachers. But math took off, and we’re going to make progress in reading real soon.”

The school system is holding students accountable as well, Wilkes said.

“They know what their reading level is now,” he said. “They’re understanding that the responsibility for them to learn is as much theirs as it is ours. There’s been a lot of candid talks with students and parents.”

Conversations with students, parents and teachers have emphasized why learning state standards is important, especially in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.

“We told them three years ago that in 2018, which is now, 70 percent of jobs will be STEM-related,” Wilkes said. “I think it’s 100 percent now.”

In the past year and a half, Wilkes said, he has made more than 150 classroom observations. And if he doesn’t hear the teacher tell the students how the lesson they are supposed to learn is linked to the world outside their classroom, he informs that teacher.

“We’re making learning relevant,” he said.

Asked how he will celebrate his state award, Wilkes joked that the pork skins and Diet Dr Pepper he bought at a convenience store on the way back from Wednesday’s conference would suffice.

Then he added, “I want to celebrate this with the school system in some form or fashion, but I also want this to light a fire underneath them. Now, the target is on Phenix City. So if we don’t continue our student progress, this doesn’t matter.”

Phenix City Board of Education president Mesha Patrick said Wilkes’ award is “exciting for our school district, for him and for all the people who work to put our children in the right direction. It’s also confirmation that we are going in the right direction.”

Patrick views Phenix City Schools from various perspectives. The Phenix City Council appointed her to the school board three years ago, and board members elected her president earlier this year. She graduated from Central in 1991, has a child in the school system and has been an educator for 24 years, working now as the federal programs director for the adjacent Russell County School District.

So she evaluates Wilkes through multiple lenses.

“Going into the job, he had a fine line to walk,” Patrick said. “Politics sometimes can get in the way of educating children. He came in understanding that we’ve got to keep the main thing the main things, and that’s the children. All the conversations we have with him, it’s what’s best for the kids, not the adults.”

Wilkes arriving as an outsider helped him make successful changes, Patrick said.

“It was good that he wasn’t from the area,” she said. “You’re not privy to a lot of the history and some of the biases that come with that if you’re not someone coming up in the system.”

Patrick also praised the faculty and staff for bringing Wilkes’ vision to fruition.

“He assesses the situation and sees the possibilities and creates the plan,” she said, “but he couldn’t do that without the support of the people in the school district.”

Although change can be difficult, the positive results have lifted morale, Patrick said.

“When you see numbers like the graduation rate, people coming to Phenix City to see what we’re doing, bringing in STEM education, you see other possibilities for our children. Most of our parents made it by working in the mills. But now that they’re not there, what is next? How are we going to maintain and sustain a viable community if we don’t’ have jobs?”

Patrick called Wilkes a “transformative” leader.

“He puts ideas and dreams into action,” she said.

His interaction with board members is constructive, Patrick said. The “one or two” times she has disagreed with the superintendent, she said, Wilkes has handled the situation professionally.

“He’s been very accommodating to us when we have questions and concerns,” she said. “He does his best to address them and bring back the information we need. He’s been very open to us. We might not always agree, but we appreciate him.”

Tallapoosa County Schools superintendent Joe Windle, the SSA’s District 4 president, has known Wilkes since 2011.

“I’ve always always found him to be personable,” Windle said. “He has a great leadership skill set, a lot of common sense, doesn’t get overly excited with success or too low when things don’t go well. He’s consistent in his decision making, and he’s consistent in the way he deals with people. Those people skills give him the opportunity to earn trust from those that he leads.”

Windle cited two examples of Wilkes’ leadership gaining statewide recognition.

“The 1:1 (computer device) initiative got the right devices in the hands of his students, but he did it in a thoughtful process,” Windle said. “He didn’t do it without training the teachers first on how to integrate those devices into instruction. … He sees the big picture, but he knows the devil is always in the details.”

Windle was so impressed with that implementation, a contingent from his school system visited Phenix City to learn how to do it.

The STEM center and teaching computer coding through the school system, from pre-K through 12th grade, is the other example.

“He’s on the leading edge in the state with implementation of STEM,” Windle said. “He’ll have lots of people across the state visiting his system to see that. The idea is one thing, but the implementation is where the hard work is, and Randy understands that.”

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.