Munford, Alabama, is surrounded by the Talladega National Forest and situated at the foothills of Cheaha State Park, the southernmost tip of the Appalachian mountains and the highest point in Alabama. A small rural town of just over 1,300, Munford is defined by its tight-knit community and pride in the beautiful nature that surrounds it. About 1,400 students attend Munford Elementary School, Munford Middle School, and Munford High School, from PreK through 12th grade.
“Munford is extremely community oriented, and we are proud of where we live,” said Dr. Debby Smith, the principal of Munford Elementary School and a nearly 25-year veteran of the district. “We promote taking care of our natural resources and showcasing the area’s beauty. It gives our community a sense of pride.”
This pride in Munford’s surrounding nature is palpable inside its schools. Visitors to Munford Elementary School are immediately immersed in a museum-like display of the area’s naturescapes. A cave replica serves as the school’s entrance, complete with stalactites and lifelike wildlife peering from behind the rocky structures.
This scenic entrance is just one visible example of Munford’s 25 year-long partnership with the United States Forest Service, a relationship largely forged by longtime Talladega County resident and school board member, Johnny Ponder. When the partnership began, he set out to bridge the gap that he saw between Munford’s students and the Talladega National Forest in their backyard.
For the first few years, the partnership mostly consisted of annual field trips, but it quickly grew deeper roots. In July of 1999, Munford Elementary broke ground on a new, environmentally-themed school. Twelve years later, thanks in large part to advocacy from Mr. Ponder and superintendent Dr. Suzanne Lacey, the Forest Service and the district hired a full-time science resource teacher, Kim Murray. It was then that the partnership began to transform Munford’s schools into what they are today.
“The partnership [with the Forest Service] changed when Mrs. Murray was hired,” said Dr. Smith. “She holds us to the fire and won’t let us forget that we’re a nature-themed school.”
Working across grade levels, Mrs. Murray leads students in meaningful project-based learning (PBL) that is both rooted in STEAM and has a tangible impact on the Munford community. In addition to the Forest Service, the partnerships that Mrs. Murray has helped to form across the region, state, and country have been key to building real connections between students’ learning and the outside world.
Munford describes their PBL as “environmental education with a STEAM focus.” It is based on the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) model and STEAM themes, including coding, 3D printing, robotics, and other Next Generation Science Standards. Their goal is to create an environment where students actively express their ideas, think outside the box, and tackle challenging problems with innovative solutions.
Attendees of the League of Innovative Schools Spring 2023 Convening witnessed this STEAM-centered, whole-school model around PBL first-hand. League members, guests, and partners visited the Munford campus and were immersed in the collaborative, cross grade-level PBL that happens across Munford’s 130-acre campus and within its school walls.
At Munford Elementary, PreK students learn how to conduct experiments from middle school students through the “Tomatosphere” project, which involves growing tomato plants from seeds that have spent a month on the International Space Station, thanks to a partnership with NASA and the Alabama Space Grant Consortium.
Through Munford’s Forest Service partnership, ninth graders study the eastern bluebird and its habitat needs. During the convening, attendees saw kindergarteners work with high school students to create bluebird houses to support the bluebird habitat that students have helped to build on Munford’s campus.
The PBL that Mrs. Murray is perhaps most-proud of, however, involves Alabama’s endangered state tree, the longleaf pine. As a member of the southeast’s Longleaf Steering Committee, Mrs. Murray saw an opportunity to educate students about the importance of the longleaf pine and how to plant and maintain seedlings through prescribed burning.
The result was a multi-grade level project that has helped to transform Munford’s campus and the surrounding area. With help from local and state-wide partners, fourth grade students planted 1,500 longleaf seedlings across Munford’s campus, and high school students created public service announcements (PSAs) to educate the community about prescribed burning.
“Our students do projects based on needs across the state,” said Dr. Smith. “Mrs. Murray knows those needs because of the partnerships that she’s formed.”
These partnerships also facilitate students’ pathways post-high school. Each year, Mrs. Murray surveys students and identifies opportunities that align with their interests.
Eighth grade students, for example, take field trips to local employers and universities—from Gadsden State Community College, which has a 100 percent employability rate in high-demand fields like welding, mechanics, accounting, nursing, and cosmetology, to the local Honda plant, where students learn about assembly lines and production directly from employees.
“Our community partners tell us that they need employees who can work with people from different cultures and backgrounds and can problem solve,” Mrs. Murray shared, “Our students love to problem solve and figure things out, especially with technology at their fingertips.”
The connection between PBL and career opportunities shows up at the elementary level as well. Munford Elementary hosts annual STEAM career days to expose students to the range of career options that exist, in Munford and beyond.
“We try to represent all areas of STEAM and jobs that require different levels of education and experience—whether that’s a high school degree, a certification, or a secondary or post-secondary degree,” said Dr. Smith. “We want students to know about opportunities beyond what they see in Munford.”
At Munford High School, students are involved in work related to college readiness with dual enrollment and AP classes, and professors from Jacksonville State University, a local university about 30 miles from Munford, guest teach math classes. Students also engage in work related to career readiness, which prepares students to go into a variety of fields including manufacturing, nursing, construction, and more.
Munford’s strong community partnerships exemplify the types of innovations that can emerge when districts collaborate with one another. Dr. Suzanne Lacey, superintendent of Talladega County Schools, credits many of their innovations to what she witnessed across other League districts.
“In order to create a vision for innovation, we visited several innovative school districts across the country,” Dr. Lacey shared during the convening. “We talked extensively about what we saw and how these successful models might look in Talladega County Schools. Most importantly, we utilized the talent and expertise of our very own people to craft the vision for our schools.”
Is your school district interested in gaining insights and learnings from innovative districts around the country? Check out these resources from the League of Innovative Schools: