As you sift and sort through data dealing with public education in Alabama, you realize how much information is taken out of context and how much is simply ignored. For instance, it is readily apparent that there is a constant realignment and migration of children (and obviously their parents) in many parts of the state.
It has been going on for decades and is as natural as the sun rising in the east every morning.
But we seldom bother to take such into consideration as we shuffle through state school superintendents and their next grand plan to float all boats on the same rising tide.
In the last decade, way more than half of the state’s local school systems have lost enrollment. Those hit the hardest have two things in common–they are poor and minority dominated. Here are the 10 systems with the largest percent drop in students. (Actually there are 12 in the list because three are tied.)
Sumter, Marengo, Macon, Coosa, Perry, Choctaw, Fairfield, Barbour, Lowndes, Wilcox, Dallas and Greene. Except for Fairfield, all are rural. They had 16,467 students in 2018-19. This was just slightly less than Tuscaloosa County with 18,194. But 10 years ago they had 24,837, as compared to Tuscaloosa County’s 17,351.
Some 69.4 percent of students in these systems are on free-reduced lunch (compared to 50.3 percent statewide) and 73.6 percent are African-American (compared to 32.4 percent statewide).
These students and their schools are largely forgotten by education bureaucrats and the politicians who become instant education experts when they take the oath of office. Of course, we used them as political props when we touted the Alabama Accountability Act and said it would “help poor children trapped in struggling schools by their zip code,” but as time has shown, this promise was largely a charade.
And we have clamored for fistfuls of cash from Washington We were going to turn water into wine with School Improvement Grants that ended up in places like Coosa, Lowndes and Marengo counties. While some consultants did well, the impact on school systems was negligible and a report from the Thomas Fordham Institute said the SIF program was largely a bust.
Time and time again we expect educators to solve all the societal ills these children bring to school with them–but that is a fool’s dream. Instead, we should heed the words written by Alabama’s own David Mathews in 1996 in his little book, Is There A Public For Public Schools? Only 80 pages long, this book should be required reading for every member of the House and Senate and a great many in public education.
David tells us: “School reform many need to be recast as community building. In other words, certain things may have to happen in our communities before we can see the improvements we want in our schools. It is unlikely that schools will change unless communities change”
I could not agree more. I have been in too many of these communities and too many of their schools to think otherwise.
So in places like those mentioned above, we need a new approach. One that looks at the totality of issues impacting schools and their students and bring new resources to the fray. All the traditional strategic plans in the world that just focus on the classroom, all the promises of vouchers to send kids to private schools and all the talk about A-F report cards (actually of these 12 systems, three are rated as D, one as B, and eight as C) have little meaning.
However, what is meaningful is a child going to the dentist for the first time in their life, regular visits to a doctor, proper attention to mental health concerns, clean clothes (probably about 75 percent of all high-poverty elementary schools I visit have a washer and dryer), parents who can read, etc.
Our forgotten children do need help. Lots and lots of it. However, it is not very likely to come until we heed what David Mathews told us more than 20 years ago. Schools are part of the larger process of community building. Such thinking requires a very different mindset than most Montgomery educators and politicians exhibit.