The Birthday I Have Been Dreading

75.  Seven decades and half of another one.  Half a century plus a quarter of a century.  Fourteen presidents.  It becomes official on Jan. 21.

How in the world did this happen?  Why it was just a few days ago I had a full head of hair, wore pants with a much smaller waist size and ran in 10 K races.

Honest, I have never been all that concerned about birthdays coming and going.  However, I do recall that becoming 30 seemed a bit of a jolt.  Suddenly the 20’s were gone and I was plunging headlong into middle age.  Then 60 got my attention a bit.  What I remember most about that one was hosting a birthday party for friends from all over the south.  That was great fun.  One friend said he came because he could not believe I was footing the bill.

But 75?  Dad gum.  I am much older than my grandpa was when I first met him.  And he was the oldest man on earth.

However, I am not complaining about getting here.  Just glad I made it.  Too many friends and colleagues did not have this good fortune.  But this does not prevent you from spending time wondering how it happened.  And where did all the days go?  How did I end at this point where I have many more yesterdays than tomorrows.

And I of course reflect on so many good times and am grateful for all the kindnesses I’ve been shown along my life’s path.  I am especially grateful for so many new friends I have found during my venture into blogland.  People who have been willing to join me in my wee little effort to bring attention to our educators in public schools and all their contributions to our way of life.  People who have stepped forward when I’ve asked for emails to the governor, or state school board members or legislators.

I will always be thankful for you.

And for anyone so inclined, I direct your attention to the little place on this home page where you can support the cause by using PayPal.  In honor of the occasion, may I suggest $7.50.

Editor’s note:  While I appreciate the friend who suggested that 75 is really the new 74, not sure I am yet convinced.

Snow School Today

My little front yard in Montgomery is a blanket of white this Wednesday morning as Mother Nature sprinkled between one to two inches of snow during the night.  And not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.

Nothing is moving and  I’ve yet to see the youngsters across the street venture out to make snowballs.  Which, of course means there is no school across most of the Heart of Dixie today.

And thanks to our friends at AL.com, you can go here and listen to some really funny messages from around the country about school closings.  I don’t think you will discover any hidden talents, but you have to give all of these folks an A for creativity and willingness to make light of themselves.

Enjoy the day.  Be extra careful.

When The Light Comes On

Editor’s note:  My friend Wendy Lang is a former teacher who lives in Decatur.  She works for the Alabama Education Association as a uniserv district director and is a weekly columnist for the Decatur Daily.  Here are some reflections from her.

Educators often have a thankless job.  With rising healthcare premiums, lack of adequate compensation, legislation upon more legislation heaped on by those who know nothing of how a classroom really works, unending classroom mandates, tests upon tests and even worse, the make it or break it test scores, the occupation is not seen as the profession it once was.  Ask anyone in education (or those that got out of education, for that matter) and they will tell you two things; first, it’s not a job, it’s a calling and primarily, they just want to teach.  The mounds of paperwork and meetings and lack of appreciation have taken their toll.  But for those who doubt that the light at the end of the tunnel exists, I know for a fact that it does.

Today I attended the Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast at Ingall’s Harbor pavilion in Decatur.  This annual event sponsored by the Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association was full to capacity for this, their 25th year. In all honesty, the last thing I wanted to do was get up at the crack of dawn on my off day, but I did and I came home with much more than I could ever have imagined.

Years ago, I fell back into a teaching career because I had two children to raise and a degree that was collecting dust.  It was a perfect fit, or so I thought, until I was placed in fifth grade.  It was a daunting task at best and try as I might, between the testing and the paperwork and the crowd control, I never knew if anyone was really “getting it.”  The math was above my head and enticing preteens to read was a struggle.  But I never stopped trying.  Neither did Stacey Staten.

Stacey lived for recess.  He could shoot basketball and run off the immense amount of energy he had for ten minutes every day.  His mother, Latrise Jackson, made sure that he got his homework and passed the tests; but I never really knew if he “got” it.  Fifth grade is a difficult age and grade for parents, students and teachers.  Even if they do the work, do they understand the importance of what they are doing?  Do they know that in the course of life that it counts for something?  Does the eye rolling over assignments ever stop?

Today I walked in the pavilion looking for coffee.  Instead, I saw Stacey and his mother.  We hugged and loved on each other and I was thrilled to see him there.  I asked him about his future plans, and he grinned, dropped his head and stated as a matter of fact that he still just wanted to play ball.  I was not surprised.  After all, he is a star player at Decatur High School and his coach, Sam Brown, has referred to him as a “lockdown defender.”  Last week, he led his team to defeat Austin High School in the city rivalry by scoring 16 points.  This also won him the title of the Decatur Daily’s Player of the Week.  He’s not just good; he’s amazing.

The DMDA began 25 years ago to promote education as the primary means for minority development.  That first year, they awarded one $500 scholarship.  Today, they awarded over $31,000 in scholarship monies to deserving disadvantaged students for their education.  It is estimated that by the spring, approximately $50,000 in scholarship monies will be provided to area students in a joint, unified effort between the Association and community partners.

As students approached the stage, Stacey took his place in line to receive one of more than 50 scholarships given..  That’s when I knew….he might want to play ball, but he gets it; he gets every single bit of it.  He knows what opens doors and ball courts; an education.  And somehow, someway, he got the math, too.  And I saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

This Time Montgomery Mayor Gets It Right

A few days ago we took Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange to task for his plan to turn to charter schools to solve Montgomery’s education woes.  In our opinion, he is ignoring deep-rooted issues and is hoping for a “quick fix” instead.

But earlier this past week, he came out forcefully for the Montgomery community to get involved with the public school system  and to especially pay attention to the elections for county school board.  Five of the seven seats are to be filled.

In this case, we believe he is on target.

Time after time we have stated that “education is everyone’s business.”  This means not only politicians, but the faith-based community, the business community, non-profits, civic clubs, the chamber of commerce, etc.  There is no better window to the soul of a community than   its school system.  What is more important than taking pride in how we are educating our young people?  What is more important than developing a new crop of citizens to be the best they can be?

Mayor Strange also announced a website, EducateMGM.com to educate the public on this year’s election and to provide info to those who might be interested in seeking a school board seat.

However, I do wish the mayor and others would stop throwing out the red herring about how many students the Montgomery school system lost in the last year.  Some would want us to believe Montgomery was alone in declining enrollment.  This is hardly the case at all.  In fact, the state lost 3,250 students from 2016-17 to 2017-18.   There are 136 school systems in Alabama, 85 lost students.

The decline is especially apparent in central Alabama where Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Bullock, Crenshaw, Butler, Lowndes and Dallas counties and Selma all saw enrollment fall.  The only systems in the region to gain over these 12 months were Pike and Troy city which gained 60 together.

Other notable declines happened in Jefferson, Lee, Madison and Mobile counties (which fell 1,328) as well as Birmingham and even Mountain Brook.

Hopefully the mayor will continue to encourage community support for our public schools.  Hopefully he will lead by example by making a concerted effort to spend more time in schools observing students and talking to educators.  Hopefully he will come to understand that too many of the challenges children face today that impact learning are outside the education environment.

UWA Increases Rural Impact

My friends at the University of West Alabama continue to carve their niche as the four-year school that has help for rural areas as a key mission.

Now they have announced plans for offering its first doctoral program in the near future. Pending approval from its accrediting body, UWA will soon offer through its Julia S. Tutwiler College of Education a unique Ed.D. in rural education.

The proposed program will offer two tracks to best meet the needs of educators and professionals. The teaching and learning track is designed for teacher leaders in a variety of settings, instructional coaches, directors, team leaders, and lead teachers. A track for organizational change and leadership is designed for curriculum leaders, instructional leaders in a variety of settings, directors, team leaders, lead teachers, higher education leaders, or leaders of non-profit organizations.

“ACHE’s approval of our Ed.D. in Rural Education is outstanding news for our university,” said UWA President Ken Tucker. “This innovative and unique doctoral program, the only one of its kind in the nation, has the potential of being a national model for other universities in rural environments.”

The University received approval from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education in early December, and the proposed degree program will go before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges in the summer of 2018. Should SACS approve the proposed degree program, UWA will begin offering the Ed.D. in rural education in the fall of 2018.

UWA’s commitment to rural education has continually grown over recent years, including the establishment of the Black Belt Teaching Corps, partnerships with the National Rural Education Association and the Rural Schools Collaborative, a position as the Alabama Affiliate for Rural Education, and a broad slate of programs and initiatives designed to equip rural educators. The college is a Teacher Quality Partnership grant recipient, awarded $3.3 million for training the region’s best educators.

If anyone can relate to the needs and challenges of rural communities, it’s Ken Tucker.  A native of Linden in Marengo County, he also served as a county commissioner.  If anything will get you to where the rubber meets the road, or should we say where the motor grader meets the ditch, it is being a county commissioner.

I am delighted to see what is taking place on this campus in Livingston and glad to have the chance to help in some ways..

Courtney Wilburn, Middle School Principal Of The Year

Courtney Wilburn, who is in her seventh year as principal of White Plains Middle in Calhoun County, has been named middle school principal of the year by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS).

Under her direction, White Plains Middle has become noted for innovation.  For instance, the school works hard to narrow the achievement gap between general education students and those with special needs.  So they have developed classes where both the regular teacher and the special education teacher work in tandem.  Teachers must get special certification to co-teach.  And While Plains Middle is the only school in Alabama with four of these classes.

Wilburn is also pleased with the school’s progress in using standards-based grading.  With this approach, students are graded on exactly how well they understand the content of their subjects.  This helps students know just what their strengths and weaknesses are and also lets parents know how best to help their children.

Think of it this way.  The coach says overall the athlete is a B grade football player.  But specifically they are told that while they can catch a football very well, they need to learn how to block much better.

White Plains Middle began going in this direction five years ago and Wilburn says, “It has changed the way we do school.”

Wilburn’s success has not gone unnoticed.  She trains all principals in the system on how to effectively use data to guide instruction.  She is also mentoring three new principals in Calhoun County.

Speaking of “gaps,” every time I learn of someone like Courtney Wilburn and the work they are doing with our children, I am reminded of just how wide the “reality gap” is between what is actually happening and what some politicians and ed reformers want us to think is happening in classrooms.

Our tip of the hat to Courtney Wilburn.

 

Survey Shows Weak Support For Charters, Vouchers

If you are an education “junkie” chances are you are familiar with Education Week, one of the top sources for info about all facets of education.

Here is a great example.  Titled U.S. Education in 2017 in 10 Charts, this article uses graphs to get the message across since numbers can sometimes explain an issue better that words.

The topic that grabbed my attention is Many Educators Are Skeptical of School Choice, Including Conservatives.  A national survey by the publication released in December indicated that classroom teachers, principals and superintendents are highly skeptical of vouchers, charter schools and tax-credit scholarships.  These include many who voted for Donald Trump.

Response by 1,007 people to the question: Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools, publicly funded schools that are not managed by the local school board? showed 45 percent opposed.  And 26 percent somewhat opposed.  On the other hand, only 7 percent said they were totally supportive.

Interestingly enough, 65 percent of Trump voters oppose charter schools.  However, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, is a wholehearted charter support.  But then all survey respondents were educators and DeVos is not.

Some 1,002 responded to the question: Do you support or oppose government funding to help pay for students’ tuition at private schools?

Of these, 58 percent are completely opposed and 19 percent are somewhat opposed.  Only 8 percent completely support.  As to Trump voters, 70 percent oppose.

So why do we have private school vouchers through the Alabama Accountability Act and the mayor of Montgomery pushing charters schools?  Because none of those supporting such measures are educators.

Here Comes Terri Collins–Again

Bless her heart, here comes Representative Terri Collins, chair of the house education policy committee, with a bill to change how the state board of education operates.  Here is the AL.com article describing what Collins has in mind.

In 2012 the legislature passed the School Board Governance Improvement Act that requires all local school board members be trained by the Alabama Association of School Boards.  Collins wants to amend the 2012 bill so that members of the state board are included in training.

While this seems reasonable at first glance, thinking that the training a local school board member of a system with 2,000 students needs is comparable to a board member of a system with 730,000 students is hardly apples to apples.  I have probably attended more state board and local board meetings than Collins has.  One thing that always strikes me is how totally different the items being discussed by each one are from what the other deals with.

So basically this is little more than window dressing.

Presently there are eight elected members of the state board.  The governor is a voting board member by virtue of their office.  The Collins’ bill makes no changes to this alignment.  However, it does add two teachers and two high school students as non-voting members of the board.  The teachers would be the two most recent Alabama Teachers of the Year, while the students would be selected by the Boys State and Girls State programs.

I don’t understand how adding four non-voting members to this body makes it more efficient or better.  And one can’t help but be struck by the irony of this suggestion in light of Collins’ own record of ignoring input from educators.  She is the sponsor of the much-maligned A-F school report card legislation.  A committee of some of the state’s top educators worked with Collins for two years to develop an equitable formula to be used to grade schools.  Finally, realizing that she could not be pleased, the committee gave up.

Another provision of the bill calls forth similar irony.  The bill states: “That each member of a local board of education shall actively promote public support for the school system and each member of the state board or a local board of education shall actively promote a sound statewide system of public education, and shall endorse ideas, initiative, and program that are designed to improve the quality of public education for all students.”

Given her track record of supporting the Alabama Accountability Act, A-F report cards, charter schools, school choice, etc., it’s unlikely you can find a single public school educator in the state who thinks Collins is on their side.   And for someone like this to call for support of public schools in legislation is just more window dressing.

The final eye-opener in the Collins’ bill is the requirement that the state superintendent will employ someone to act as a liaison between the superintendent and the state board.

Do what?

The state board appoints the superintendent, but Collins thinks they should not have direct access to the person they employ?

I spent several years as executive director of the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning & Development Commission in Dothan.  There were 35 board members, most of them local elected officials.  And I can only imagine the hornet’s nest I would have stirred by suggesting that I needed to hire someone to interact with them on my behalf.  That if they needed me, they would need to go through this person.

That would have been as dumb of an idea as the one Rep. Collins proposes.

 

 

Montgomery Finally Gets Some Good News

After 12 months of limbo, the Montgomery County school board has gotten court-authorized approval to hire an interim superintendent within 30 days and a permanent superintendent by May 30.

The system went under state intervention in January 2017 and has not had a superintendent since Margaret Allen retired last summer.  Former state superintendent Mike Sentence gave Reggie Eggleston the duties of the superintendent after Allen stepped down..

The Alabama Education Association filed suit last September, essentially on the grounds that Sentance over-stepped his authority and failed to adhere to applicable law in his intervention efforts. The suit resulted in a mediation agreement accepted by the Montgomery board on Jan. 5, 2018.

Under the agreement, the intervention remains in place.  However, the state must present a written intervention plan by Jan. 26.  Among other things this plan must detail the role of both the board and system employees in day-to-day administration.  Once an interim is in place, Eggleston will continue to have an office in the Montgomery central office, but will only be the “point person” for the state intervention and not involved in operational decisions.

The agreement was welcome news to all but one member of the Montgomery board.  Former teacher Lesa Keith did not vote to accept it.

I spoke to several board members, all of whom are pleased with this step.  “At least we may finally know who is on first,” one said.  “The last year has been a nightmare with too many cooks in the kitchen and power taken away from the people elected to run the school system.”

Under the agreement, the Montgomery mayor “shall be permitted to offer advice and input into the selection of the interim and permanent superintendent.”

Several board members have questioned this since they view Mayor Todd Strange as more an adversary than an ally of the public school system.  Just this week, Strange announced that he wants to convert a number of existing schools to charter schools.

Indications are that the board will move quickly to put an interim superintendent in place.

 

Montgomery Mayor Just Doesn’t Get It

According to the Montgomery Advertiser Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange now has a vision of a series of charter schools being the salvation of education in the capital city.  (Before he goes too far down this trail he would be smart to check in with Washington DC and New Orleans where charters are the flavor of the day, but no one holds them up as systems to emulate.)

Like most politicians, the mayor is governed by how often elections roll around.  Real school improvement doesn’t operate by the same calendar.

Honest-to-goodness improvements in educational outcomes are because of heavy lifting.  Extremely heavy lifting.  We’re talking about changing cultures in communities.  About all hands on deck.  Churches, civics clubs, businesses, government  bodies.

Here’s the deal.  There are X number of students to educate in Montgomery.  There is X amount of dollars to do it with.  Both are finite.  A five-gallon bucket only holds five gallons.

Right now there are three school systems in Montgomery.  One is a network of more than 40 private schools.  One is a network of ten magnet schools within the Montgomery County school system.  The third is the remainder of all the more traditional schools.

Now the mayor wants to split the pie into even smaller pieces by imposing a fourth system.  A system that does not bring a new source of funding since charters get their money from public school funding.  (And remember that charter schools have their own boards that are not accountable to a public entity.)

Last fall the Miners of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) football team lost all 12 games they played.  Now is there a single soul in Montgomery who thinks if this team put on the uniforms of the University of Alabama they would suddenly stop losing games?

Yet we obviously have some who want us to believe that if we take a child out of one school and put them in another and call it a charter  school that child magically morphs into another person.

The mayor would do well to read this article by Karin Chenoweth, about “turnaround” schools and how they do it.  Better yet, he should get a copy of her new book, How Schools Succeed.  He could read about the work principal Debbie Bolden did at Gillard elementary in Mobile and is now doing in Atmore at Escambia County middle. 

Here’s what Chenoweth says:

“If I had to put into one sentence what the key lesson they (schools) hold is, it would be that they focus on improving the knowledge and skill of the adults in schools and give them the time and space to collaborate about what kids need to learn and how to teach it.

Educating all children, no matter what their background, is complex and difficult work.

But it can be done, and if we are serious about trying to do so, we might want to stop thinking that no one knows what they’re doing.”

Like too many these days, Mayor Strange wants to believe that schools and teachers are responsible for solving all the world’s problems.  Nothing could be more wrong.

He would be well served to spend quality time in some classrooms, shadowing some principals, in the teacher’s lounge.  Take a long, hard look at the real world of Montgomery education and the challenges faced each day before coming up with your next vision.  After all, the mayor was a big supporter of state superintendent Michael Sentance taking over these schools.  How did that work out?

As Karin Chenoweth says, “Educating all children, no matter what their background, is complex and difficult work.”

That reality can not be masked with ribbons and bows and fancy new labels.