1,300+ Posts And Counting

I waded off into the blogosphere in the spring of 2015.  That was now more than 1,300 posts ago and at an average of about 500 words per post, more than 600,000 words.

Or, since Google tells me that the average book is 100,000 words, six books ago.  No wonder I feel plum tuckered out at times.

Since I am totally out of my realm when it comes to today’s technology (as attested to by my old flip phone), I would never have made it without the help of Deb Geiger of Spanish Fort, who calls her business Content Fresh.  All I can do is put words on my computer screen.  She’s the one who manages the site, sets up the occasional survey, posts pictures from time to time and answers my questions.  (If any one reading this is looking for help she might provide, drop me a note and I’ll be glad to put you in touch with her.  larrylee133@gmail.com)

It’s been quite a ride, both literally and figuratively.  My old car has covered thousands and thousands of miles from one end of Alabama to the other going to meetings, visiting schools and classrooms, sitting in on school board meetings, making presentations, etc.  I’ve made some wonderful friends and every day realize that education in this state would be far better off if we paide more attention to teachers and principals and a lot less attention to politicians and folks with big titles and big egos.

It has definitely been a journey filled with frustration, which no doubt comes across often in some posts.  I am constantly baffled at the unwillingness of those who envision themselves as “leaders” to stand up and be counted when public schools are under attack.  I’ve learned that just because someone says, “I’m doing it for the kids,” does not mean it is true.  Way too many decisions are made that are guided more by self-preservation than anything more altruistic.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the faithfulness of hundreds of folks who come to this site every day.  The fact that I get more than 200,000 views annually blows me away.  Granted, that does not mean that 200,000 different people visit, still I am overwhelmed.

And because I am who I am, I did some homework before writing this.  The single most read post was this one, posted on August 11, 2016, the day Mike Sentance was chosen as state superintendent.  It got 30,000 views.  It was the first of many I wrote about him.  His selection was the most illogical thing I’ve ever seen a group of adults do and this episode is still not over because former state school board member  Mary Scott Hunter still awaits going to court about her role in what transpired.

Number two on the “hit” parade belongs to this one.  Published on November 2, 2016, it got more than 12,000 views.  This was when Governor Robert Bentley earned the total disdain of every educator in the state by declaring that “education sucks.”

While probably at least 90 percent of what I write about deals with our public schools, from time to time I stray and write about Auburn football, the passing of a favorite entertainer such as B. B. King, Etta James and Billy Joe Royal and memories that pop into my mind.  (Which I consider to be OK since it is my blog, I am my own boss and I pay my own bills.)

How much longer will I keep on keeping on?  That is something I ponder all the time as I think about hitting the road to explore places I’ve never seen or visit long time friends without feeling an obligation to fill another empty page.  But for now, I guess I will keep on writing and hope that you will keep on reading.  However, I have promised myself to take more time for myself.

Of course, I am always looking for good stories.  In spite of what some want us to believe, our schools are full of them.  If you know of one, don’t hesitate to share it with me.  larrylee133@gmail.com

And again, from the bottom of my heart, thanks for stopping by.




Once Again, Woodland Prep Tips Its Hand

While the handful of supporters of Woodland Prep charter school in Washington County insist that all they want is better education opportunities for local students, their actions tell a far different story.

For example, the Oct. 11 edition of The Washington County News has a full  page ad announcing an open house at the Woodland  Prep construction site on Oct 17.  Those who attend will see that progress is being made on the school and will learn how Woodland Prep’s curriculum will differ from the one now offered by local  public schools.

But a bold headline at the bottom of the page let’s the cat out of the bag as to what is really going on.  It proclaims:

Free Tuition!  To  anyone who lives in Washington County.

Charter schools are so-called public schools funded with taxpayer dollars.  Public schools do not charge tuition.  Period.

So how the heck do you have “free tuition” when there is no tuition?  They might as well be offering “free air” to any student.

It is another marketing gimmick, probably hatched up by their PR guy, Jon Gray, from Mobile.  It is an attempt to convince people that Woodland Prep is really a private school paid for with public dollars.

But the real message in this ad is that Woodland Prep is a BUSINESS VENTURE and has precious little to do with education.  It is all about Soner Tarim of Houston and American Charter Development of Utah trying to get money our of Alabama taxpayers.  If this school was all it is supposedly cracked up to be, why are Tarim and ACD trying so desperately to round up students so Woodland Prep can open its doors and get money from the state?  Why have they paid “recruiters” to scour the county in hopes of enrolling students?

In Alabama, business recruitment is handled by the Commerce Department, while schools are the domain of the state department of education.  But once again, Woodland Prep supporters show that they don’t understand the difference.


Checking The Bucket List: Coalwood, WV

It’s not hard to find Coalwood, WV.  Go north on highway 19 out of Abingdon, VA, take a left on highway 16 in Tazewell, VA and don’t get in a hurry because the road soon clings hard to what little space there is between a meandering creek bank and whatever mountains you are passing.

After a bit you will go through War, Cucumber and Caretta and find Coalwood, where the road takes a hard turn to the right.  Truth is, you will find what used to be Coalwood because there is scant left of what once was a thriving mining village of 2,000.

But the real question is: why would anyone go searching for Coalwood, WV?

For me, it started with a book I read more than a decade ago that told the story of Homer Hickam, Jr. and his teenage years in McDowell County.  A story that recounted how Homer, better known as Sonny, and his friends Roy Lee, O’Dell, Billy, Quentin and Sherman learned to build rockets.  In fact, they learned so well that they won a gold medal at the 1960 National Science Fair.

As things do sometimes, the book captured my attention and I filed Coalwood away in my mind, promising that if the opportunity ever came along, I would pay my respects.  So one August day in 2019, I paid a visit to this little spit of West Virginia.

The story goes that a George Carter wandered through the hills and hollows of McDowell County in the early 1900s and found coal.  He bought 20,000 acres and over time, built Coalwood, most of which he owned lock, stock and barrel.  Everything belonged to the company.  Houses, school, company store, doctor, dentist, church, post office, utilities, everything.

Homer’s daddy was the mine superintendent.  Coal was his life–and his death–and at a young age Sonny determined that it would not be his.  Oddly enough it was an event on the other side of the world from Coalwood that gave purpose to young Homer.  Russia sent Sputnik into the heavens in the fall of 1957 and when Homer watched from his backyard as the first space craft passed far, far above he set his heart on building rockets.

Decades later Homer recalled it all in his book Rocket Boys.  I could relate to the book for the simple reason that Homer and I are the same age.  But while he was learning to build rockets in the mountains of West Virginia, I was chopping cotton in south Alabama.  And it was Sputnik that convinced my father that I should study engineering at Auburn.  So while Homer was at Virginia Tech becoming an engineer, I was at Auburn coming face-to-face with the realization that calculus was not my pathway to success.

At one end of Coalwood’s main thoroughfare these days is a large metal sign proclaiming it to be home of The Rocket Boys.  But rust is about to reclaim the sign, just as nature is reclaiming Coalwood.  The house Homer grew up in is across the street from the only store in town.  But most all of Homer’s boyhood hometown is gone.  The railroad, the mine tipple, even the post office.  Only a handful of houses remain.

It’s hard to believe that a bustling community was once here.  That this was were boyhood friends, spurred on by the encouragement and support of a teacher, Freida Joy Riley, created the Big Creek Missile Agency and launched their rockets from a coal slack site dubbed Cape Coalwood.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the mine closed.  Coalwood closed with it.  But the dreams this little community birthed never died.

So I took highway 19 at Abingdon and took a left on highway 16 at Tazewell a few months ago.  Not so much as to see another mountain and winding creek as to be reminded of how powerful the human spirit truly is.

Editor’s note: Homer Hickam Jr. became an engineer, working for NASA in Huntsville from 1981 to his retirement in 1998.  He trained astronauts.  Rocket Boys was published in 1998.  The movie about Homer and Coalwood, October Sky, was released in 1999.  He has written a number of books, including The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone and From Rocket Boys to October Sky.  They are all about Coalwood and I have enjoyed each of them.  He lives in Huntsville.

Soner Tarim: Live And In Person.

It was Monday, September 30 and right there is front of me, only 25 feet away, stood Soner Tarim, the wizard  of charter schools, all the way from Houston, TX (even thought he said in the meeting he lives in Montgomery).

It was the most recent meeting of the state charter school commission and Tarim was there to first tell the world how wonderful things are at LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery; and then give a progress report on the effort to put Woodland Prep in Washington County.  It was the first time I’d ever seen him in person.

He dodged question after question for at least an hour, apparently suffering from some malady that prevents a person from giving a direct answer to even the most basic of questions.  For instance, when commission member Jamie Ison asked if he lived in Montgomery. he told her he does, which every person in the room knew was untrue.  In fact, the next day LEAD board chair Charlotte Meadows went on a Montgomery talk radio show and said that he lives in Houston.

As this dog and pony show droned on, I suddenly realized I had seen this movie before.

It was when I watched the video of him before the Texas State Board of Education on June 14 when he was trying to get approval to open four charter schools in Austin.  Just like in Montgomery, he dodged and dodged question after question.

Some examples:

Texas board member Georgina Perez questioned the numbers he had on his application for the Austin charters.  She pointed out that the percentages of ESL students he said his schools would service were much lower than the numbers Austin schools have.  He told her he was using numbers from a school district in the Houston area.  His application said the six public schools in the area where he wanted to put charters were all failing schools.  Perez pointed out that the state does not show they are failing.  To which Tarim replied that he has his own grading system.

Perez, who taught in El Paso for 17 years, was especially interested in his thoughts about students with discipline issues.  At one point, Tarim asked her, “Do you want these kids in your classroom?”  She quickly told him that THESE were the students she had worked with.  He made a big deal of saying that his schools would use something known as “social, emotional learning.”  To hear him tell it this is the greatest thing since sliced bread and because of it, his charters would be far better than Austin public schools.  But this bubble burst when someone pointed out that schools in Austin have been doing this for eight years.

During his presentation, Tarim boasted that when he ran the Harmony charter chain of schools, they received a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.  Board member Pat Hardy of Ft. Worth seized on this and asked Tarim if his schools use Common Core, which is by Texas law illegal.

“Oh no,” replied Tarim.  “Common Core is a dirty word.  We are 100 percent Texas.”  Hardy then pointed out the Tarim’s $6 million grant was for Race To The Top, a Federal program that required recipients to use Common Core.  At this moment Tarim looked like a deer in the headlights.

(Tarim’s application to open four charters in Austin was denied.)

I interviewed both Perez and Hardy by phone.  Hardy told me that she could not believe Alabama was being hoodwinked by Tarim.  Perez said that Tarim should not be allowed near a school–much less allowed to run one.

The more I listened to him on September 30, the more I agreed with both of them.

Charter schools are required to show the charter commission that they are engaging locals with community meetings.  To verily, they are to send sign up sheets of meeting attendees to Montgomery.  Woodland Prep has not done this.  Tarim said the reason was that charter supporters in Washington county are “afraid” to sign anything.

So we are to believe that a parent is afraid to sign a sheet of paper, but they think it is OK to send their child to a charter school?

Tarim was asked when Woodland Prep will hire a principal.  He said they had hired one, but the local community “bullied” this person and they withdrew.  Months ago Woodland Prep did announce they had hired someone.  But they only identified her as “Amy O” and did not say where she lived.

Some time later, Washington Post education writer Val Strauss somehow found out who the person was and tracked her down in California. Strauss was told the person had no intention of coming to Washington County.

But Soner Tarim wants us all to believe that out of 329 million people in this country, someone in Washington County found someone they only knew as “Amy O” with no address?  Like most of what he says, this is unbelievable.

The Alabama Education Association is suing Tarim (and Woodland Prep) for fraud.  Anyone who watched his “performance” on September 30 knows why.

An Evening In Troy Is A Lesson For All

On a recent Monday night about 100 people gathered in Troy for a community discussion about their public school system.  Billed as a discussion of “cradle to career,” the meeting was coordinated by the David Mathews Center for Civic Life in Montevallo.

The crowd was broken into discussion groups, eight to the table.  They talked about topics such as: what are Troy’s greatest education assets, what are its challenges, what would you like to change, what would you like to preserve, etc.

My table had three parents and a grandfather who moved to town to be near his two grandchildren, two long-time teachers and a Troy University student serving as recorder.

It was all very interesting.  But I heard nothing I haven’t heard over and over in communities across the state.

Lack of parental support.  Teachers having to be surrogate mamas and daddies.  The impact of poverty.  The need for more after school programs.  Lack of transportation for many families.  Not enough sense of community both inside and outside of schools.  The need for more volunteers.  The increasing mental health issues schools are not equipped to handle.  The need for more community partnerships.

Never once did anyone say they needed a charter school.  No one talked about A-F grades for schools.   No one mentioned the Alabama Accountability Act and scholarships for children to go to private schools.  No discussion as to whether the state school board should be elected or appointed.  Not a soul said we need a new statewide strategic plan for education.

Jan Baxter Lee is now in her 27th year in an elementary classroom.  I have asked dozens of longtime teachers what has changed over their career.  So I did the same with Jan.  And got the same answer I have before.  “Lack of respect for teachers from both students and parents,” she said.  “When I first started teaching, I could call a parent about an issue with their child and they took action.  Today, whatever issue the student is having is the fault of the teacher.”

As I headed north on highway 231 after the meeting I reflected on the evening which once again highlighted the divide between what politicians, and many education bureaucrats, think we need to do to make our schools better and what the real world thinks.

Too many want to build a better mouse trap.  Yet, they don’t even know where the dad-gummed mice are.