How this nationally recognized superintendent is ‘building champions’ by opening doors

When this superintendent took the helm at Alabama’s Alabaster City School District in 2013, he was given a unique opportunity not many leaders get to experience: to be the district’s first superintendent. More than a decade later, he’s received national recognition for his ability to equip students with the knowledge and tools necessary for life beyond high school. Meet Wayne Vickers.

ACS, which was formerly part of the Shelby County school system, separated from the district on July 1, 2013. The district housed good schools, good traditions and good academics. However, Vickers set out on a mission to transition from being a “good” district to a great district.

Since its inception, the district’s tagline has included a promise to raise students to become “champions of their future.” Vickers would describe it as a responsibility to open doors for his students.

“And sometimes, as my grandfather told me, it’s not just about opening doors,” he says. “That’s the easy thing. Sometimes, we have to create hallways and doors that do not exist for our students.”

Superintendent Wayne Vickers speaking to students. (Photo provided by Alabaster City School District).

He adds that this mission is reflected in how the district invests its funding toward things like the construction of new facilities and renovations.

“We have moved from probably in the middle of the pack when the district first started to now being number eight in the state,” he says. “Our students have bought into the understanding that we’re going to take care of them and they are going to do their part as well.”

Related to this student-centered approach to leadership, he relies on his superintendent advisory committee, which allows students to meet quarterly with Vickers to voice their concerns and opinions about how things are being handled throughout the district that otherwise may be overlooked. For instance, whether or not the high school should have lockers.

“When we built our high school, we were talking about lockers and they hesitated a little bit,” he explains. “They finally said, ‘Dr. Vickers, we don’t use lockers. You’re wasting your money.'”

Thus, once the high school was built, they were able to witness what was inevitably a direct result of their leader listening to their opinions. The hallways were “locker-less.”

Advocating for public education

Vickers also serves on The School Superintendents Association’s executive committee, a platform he leverages to advocate for public schools, and was recently considered a top three contender for the AASA presidency.

He makes the argument that nearly 90% of parents choose public schools. Only about 11% have chosen private schooling for their children.

“So, in my opinion, the American people have chosen public schools,” he says. “They’ve made that choice. I’m a tremendous advocate for making sure we get the good news out about the wonderful things that are going on in public schools across our nation.”

Superintendent Wayne Vickers and students. (Photo provided by Alabaster City School District).

He calls on leaders to reflect on the work they’ve done over the past several years since the pandemic and congratulate themselves for setting high standards and maintaining excellence during such uncertain times.

“It’s truly amazing,” he says. “I think we need to spend more time changing that dynamic, making sure that we hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions that they make concerning public education.”

Narrowing the scope back toward Alabaster, Vickers says many things make him proud to lead his district. Both of his sons—who are now college graduates—graduated from the district’s Thompson High School.

“So, not only was I superintendent, but I was also a parent,” he explains. “You learn a lot when your children are going through school. I do think that’s something that’s very important and has been an integral part of my leadership. I live in this community. I have that ownership of what’s going on, and, you know, you can’t hide! I can’t drive out of town and forget about it until the next morning.”

Superintendent Wayne Vickers and school board. (Photo provided by Alabaster City School District).

But much of his pride stems from what we discussed earlier: moving the district from good to great. ACS is home to some 6,300 students, about 44% of whom receive free and reduced lunch. Now, they’re recognized as a top 10 district in the state, according to Niche rankings. He also says they’re looking at a 99% graduation rate this year.

“I can remember having a conversation when we started the school system and I said we’re going to improve and people said, ‘We have an 89% graduate rate. How can you do better than that?’ And I said, ’90 percent… that’s better than 89!'”

“It’s one of those ‘good to great’ kinds of situations,” he adds.

Furthermore, nearly 98% of his students are graduating high school with a college or career readiness indicator. Similarly, they’ve just announced that they’ll soon be opening a craft academy where they’ll provide students with workforce training in fields like welding, for example.

“We’re changing lives,” he says. “I think as a school leader, what I’m most proud of is that we work every day to open doors and create opportunities for every child that we come into contact with. I think that’s been the difference here.”