Stemley Road elementary school has been a fixture in Talladega County for years. In fact, you pass the “old” school to get to the “new” one on highway 34 northwest of downtown Talladega. It is hardly a wealthy community as the school has the highest poverty rate (90 percent) of any of the 17 in the system.
Michelle Head is in her fourth year as principal. I first met her when she was in charge of Sycamore elementary just outside of Sylacauga. This school received the state’s Torchbearer award in 2013. I was there to interview Michelle and take pictures that were part of a video presentation the night Torchbearer schools from around the state were recognized in Montgomery. Michelle and superintendent Suzanne Lacey were invited to sit with Governor and Mrs. Bentley at dinner.
Now in her 25th year in education, Michelle has long proven her capacity to handle the 101 duties of a principal in a very challenging school. She is good. I mean really good. And I’ve never seen anyone more passionate about all the students in a school. To her, they are as much one of her “babies” as her own two daughters.
But according to the state A-F school report card, Michelle is a failure because her school got an F. Which means that all of her 412 students, teachers, support personnel, even bus drivers, are considered failures too. After all, if you get an F, you are a failure. It doesn’t matter that she spends 60+ hours each week doing her job, or that she knows all 412 students by name, or that she constantly deals with issues that have absolutely nothing to do with a classroom.
No. None of matters. Instead, she is defined by a single letter grade, just like some people once were given a scarlet A so the world would know of their shortcomings.
After Michelle took me on a tour of her school, stopping many times along the way for hugs, we spent 45 minutes in her office. The best way to describe her looks that day were “frazzled.” And when she talked about how hard her teachers work, the exasperation was easy to spot. She told me how demeaning and demoralizing the F was to her faculty.
She talked about the challenges they face each day. Children from foster homes, drug issues in the community, bus routes that run for up to 90 minutes one way, mental health issues, little stability in so many homes. About an ever-growing number of ESL students, about those who have to be fed through feeding tubes, those on the autism spectrum.
“I tell my teachers that if they can survive here for one year, they can work anywhere” she told me. “And even though we have seen tremendous growth in some students, that evidently doesn’t matter. We’re still an F.”
Besides Stemley, there are 103 other F schools in Alabama. Schools that now must live with the stigma of being known as failing. These are the schools in greatest need of good teachers. But who wants to work in a failing school? (Which is the very reason the legislature in Virginia repealed their A-F school grading system.)
You can find a list of every representative and every senator who is in office today and voted for the A-F bill in 2012 by going here. (Talladega County is represented in Montgomery by two senators and three house members. All of them voted “Yea” on this legislation.)
Wonder how many of them would like to go to Stemley and face Michelle and her teachers and students and tell them they are failures? I doubt a single one.
Since these grades came out a few weeks ago, some have tried to defend them by claiming they are a great starting point for a conversation about education and that we should be positive about them.
My response? There ain’t a damn thing positive about telling Michelle Head she is a failure.