In a year like no other, the ninth annual State of the Schools also looked different than before.

Sponsored by the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber, Chamber Foundation and The Schools Foundation, what was normally a breakfast for local business and community leaders, Redstone leadership and educators, changed to an online platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the first time, the superintendents were joined by Principal Matt Massey from the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering magnet school. Massey, a former Madison County Schools superintendent, updated on the progress of the school, which has 70 students. Massey said the school is accepting applications through February and has 80-90 slots open for qualifying rising freshmen and sophomores.

After Massey, the superintendents each spoke of the unprecedented challenges their school systems faced in 2020 and their plans for 2021. Each applauded their educator workforce.

“COVID is not a stumbling block, it is a stepping stone,” Madison County Schools Superintendent Allen Perkins said.

Both Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Christie Finley and Madison City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols shared about navigating the past year as an educator and parent, with each having a child in high school. Finley spoke of watching her child’s spark return once he returned to on-campus school. Nichols shared that he had encouraged his daughter to stay positive as she embarked on her senior year.

All three discussed how they had consulted each other during the pandemic. And while “sometimes sitting in the seat of the superintendent can be lonely,” according to Finley, they banded together as they made decisions for their systems.

One big change that all of the superintendents pointed to was the hiring of added counselors to help students cope with the pandemic.

“Our focus is a ‘whole child’ focus,” Perkins said.

Nichols said his main goal when taking over as superintendent in 2020 amid the pandemic was to find the students who might be slipping through the cracks and help them find success. He pointed to a $150,000 grant from Mazda that will create a college and career readiness program for underserved students in the Madison school system.

“All of our kids are gifted – our challenge as educators is to find the gift of a child that drives them to do their very best,” Nichols said.

Nichols thanked Assistant Superintendent Eric Terrell for stepping up as interim superintendent during the school closures in spring 2020. He said that he understood when decisions were made that parents did not agree with, and that he recognized where communication could be better. But on those bad days, he said he would step out of his office and visit a school.

“It puts a smile on your face – even behind a mask,” Nichols said.

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