My interest in public education began in 2008 when I ran the Center for Rural Alabama at the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. One project was a study of 10 high-poverty, high-performing rural schools. Two colleagues and I spent months trying to figure out why they did so well in the face of so many challenges. We drove 10,000 miles and interviewed more than 300 people in communities from one end of the state to the other. I went to more PTO meetings, Fall Festivals, Native American Days and other school and community gatherings than I will ever recall.
The result was the publication, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools. It was the most heart-warming project I tackled in a 45-year career. And I stored away a lot of memories and friendships. Even today the memories pop up all the time and the friendships endure through emails and phone calls.
I met principals who work 60 hours a week, teachers who not only give time and energy to their classes, but also make sure kids who don’t have much at home never want for snack money or a hug. I met volunteers who give unselfishly of their talents to bring smiles to the faces of their young friends.
In the midst of all of this something struck me.
While I saw dedication and commitment with my own eyes, all I heard or read about education painted a very different picture. I was constantly told how poor our schools are, how lazy and unmotivated teachers are and that because of our education system, the greatest nation on earth is on a fast track to Hell.
So I decided that while I am just one voice, I will use it every chance I have to tell the story of what I see and hear as I visit schools around the state. Now I drive thousands of miles each year to visit schools and attend meetings, I write articles for newspapers and I speak to any group who will listen. I have never been an educator, nor do I consider myself an expert by any measure. (Disclaimer: Despite what some misinformed say, I am on no one’s payroll. I pay my own way. However, I have had small contract projects in the past for the School Superintendents Association, the Council for Leaders of Alabama Schools, the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association.)
But years of being a journalist taught me how to watch and listen and ask questions. And like most who have now seen a lot of years roll by, I’ve learned to tell when someone has thrown reason and logic to the wind and is far more inclined to look for quick fixes to problems that can not be fixed quickly.
And I think it is telling that in my visits to high-poverty schools, I have never run across one of the politicians who would have us believe they have all the answers.