The Black Belt has always been a study in contradictions. Both bewitched and bewitching. It was always the land that set the table for both wealth and grinding poverty.
When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, the scramble for new lands to grow cotton was on. The Black Belt lay waiting.
Of the ten most populous counties in Alabama in 1850, five were in the Black Belt. Greene county had more citizens than any other county in the state. (Today it is the smallest county.) These five counties had 18 percent of the state’s population in 1850. Today they have two percent.
From the beginning, this region has had two cultures. One white and one black. The whites owned the land, the blacks were slaves who worked the cotton fields. And probably nothing better illustrates this division than public schools. There are six school systems in Lowndes, Dallas, Wilcox, Perry and Sumter counties. Of their 12,022 students, 92.6 percent are black and 72 percent get free lunches.
It has been this way since desegregation, two generations ago. There is little point to arguing if this is right or wrong. It’s just important that we face reality.
Which brings us to a fascinating effort taking place on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston known as the University Charter School where nearly 300 students from pre-K through eighth grade have just begun a new school year. The racial breakdown is about 55 percent black and 45 percent white. Many of these students have never been in a class with someone of the opposite race.
The design of the course of study is unique in that it includes both traditional and non-traditional approaches to education.
In elementary school the morning is dedicated to traditional instruction with an hour each of reading, writing, and mathematics. The second half of the day for elementary includes recess, place-based education (PBE) and an hour of specials/elective courses. For middle school, their entire day rotates back and forth through traditional courses (math, reading, writing, and science) and non-traditional, custom courses called STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, math) and PBE. They start their day with an hour of specials/elective courses and then rotate through the rest of their courses in 45-minute blocks.
All students have a daily 60-minute block of PBE. Teachers plan lessons/units based on the interests of their students. For example, students are interested in the history of the Livingston area. Based on this, teachers have been working a project where the students find local people to interview to create a compilation (a documentary in elementary and individual oral history accounts in middle school) of the history of Livingston and what the area has to offer to visitors as told by the public figures and long-time residents in the town.
As this project progresses, teachers will work on other necessary skills with literacy (writing from the voice of a journalist), career exploration (doing research on the job titles and responsibilities of the community figures chosen to be interviewed), interpersonal and intrapersonal skills (eye contact, greetings, formality, dressing for interviews, best practices for interviewing), and other related topics. As this project nears completion, the same process repeats where teachers start surveying student’s’ current interest to build a unit that brings in multiple skills and content to complete through project-based learning.
The goal, since this PBE time is the same for all students in all grade levels, is to have students sign up for their favorite PBE topic so that students of various grades can work together instead of keeping them contained by their birthday.
I recently visited a fifth-grade class where two days a week the course is taught by a college instructor with a background in theatre/drama, and three days by teachers with backgrounds in coding, computer science, and mechanical engineering. Students study aspects of theatre and learn to code robots with the other teachers. Coding will reenact some of the plays, movies, and texts they study.
One example is studying The Wizard of Oz. One instructor teaches costuming, lighting, stage design, etc. while other teachers (the ones with engineering and computer science backgrounds) continue to work on coding and programming to have the robots reenact parts of the performance. Such as the scene where the characters circle around the start of The Yellow Brick Road and then continue down its path. The students will have to use precise mathematical calculations to successfully program the robot to maneuver correctly
A key component of the school is parental engagement. A Parent Academy meets monthly with the purpose of educating parents on instructional and operational life at UCS. Parents have learned about plans for handing out iPads to each student, the security to keep students safe, how parents have access to the content students access on their iPads and how they can access this at home.
Being associated with UWA is significant because a number of university professors can work as adjuncts in the charter school.
All in all, it is quite a venture. Not only because they are breaking the mold of how most schools approach education, but equally as much as to its impact on the local community and any success it may have in breaking long-held perceptions.
Editor’s note: Few things in education are more controversial than charter schools. Their original intent was to be places of innovation and partners with more traditional public schools. However, it didn’t take long for this concept to become bastardized and dollars replaced good intentions. I have written many pieces about charter shortcomings.
But I have long maintained that each potential charter should be examined carefully on a case by case basis, not simply turned over to some group with little real experience in education whose first step is engaging some management group.
Because I know the people so well at UWA and their motives, resources and experience and because I understand the unique cultural challenges of the Black Belt, I fully support this effort and will watch them closely.
Will Pinkston has been on the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education since being elected in 2012. He is not a fan of charter schools as he explains in this article in the Nashville Tennessean.
According to Pinkston:
“It was just a matter of time before the wheels came off Nashville’s charter school industry. This year, it’s finally happening.
“Advocates for charters — publicly funded private schools — have long argued they’re the best approach for improving K-12 public education. But national research shows, and now a series of new local developments reinforces, that charters are just a collective ruse pushed by special interests trying to privatize our school system.
The latest example is RePublic Schools. In March a federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit brought by Nashville parents who complained their families are being subjected to illegal hardball recruiting tactics by the charter chain.
RePublic allegedly sent text messages to thousands of parents. As it turns out, RePublic harvested student and family contact information from a Metro Nashville Public Schools database, then turned over the personal information to an out-of-state vendor that generated the texts.
On March 7 WSMV-TV reported that California-based Rocketship isn’t providing legally required services to students with disabilities and English language learners. A report by the Tennessee Department of Education even found that Rocketship is forcing homeless students to scrape together money to pay for uniforms.
Despite failing to serve its current students, Rocketship routinely makes end-runs around the local school board to seek state approval of more charters. That’s because Rocketship’s growth isn’t driven by what’s best for kids but rather by its real-estate deals with Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, a for-profit investment fund co-managed by tennis star Andre Agassi.
In other words, contrary to popular myth, charters do not deliver equal educational services at equal or less value than traditional schools.
Many people predicted this day would come. We just weren’t sure when.”
This is quite a different story than I recently heard at a public meeting in Montgomery when we were told that the solution to our woes is to convert five public schools to charters.
There was a public hearing at Montgomery’s Lanier High school April 5 to discuss the plans of the Montgomery Education Foundation to turn five local schools into charter schools.
After a presentation by the education foundation about what the plan encompasses and breakout sessions where people could get questions answered, the session was opened for public comments. Of the 15-20 people who spoke, NOT A SINGLE SOUL spoke in favor of the idea of converting Lanier high school, Bellingrath middle and Nixon, Floyd and Davis elementary to charters.
And if more who were there were like me, they left with far more questions than answers.
For instance, why were the principals of the elementary schools involved not consulted prior to this meeting? That seems just common courtesy. But I went by two schools the afternoon of the meeting and principals told me they had no clue what was going on.
Yet, under this plan each of these schools will basically be “confiscated” and run by an education management organization. All staff will have to reapply for their jobs. There are no assurances that anyone will be asked to stay. They can be replaced by non-certified teachers.
So here is a principal like Dana Williams at Nixon who has put 60+ hours a week into this school for the past three years and no one tells her what is going on. That is just plain wrong. I nave never met a principal who doesn’t think every child in their school is their baby. Working with children is not their job, it is their calling. They deserve more respect.
We were told that the school year would go from 178 to 190 days. That teachers would get an extra ten days of professional development and that each staff would see an influx of special ed and other support staff.
And it would all be done on the same amount of money now spent per pupil that all MPS schools get. You have to suspend common sense to buy into that notion.
One thing we were not told is that research shows that there is much more turnover in teachers in charters as compared to public schools. Look at this info from Texas.
The article states, “Teachers quit Texas charter schools at nearly three times the rate of traditional public school districts, according to state data. Dozens of individual schools lost well over half their teachers in the latest year.” It goes on to report a study from the Texas Center for Education Research showing turnover rate for charters at 43 percent, compared to 16 percent at traditional public schools.
At one charter chain of seven schools, the average teacher was 25 years old and average pay statewide for charter teachers was 79 percent that of public school teachers.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about education knows that constant teacher turnover is not good for a school or its students.
I recently wrote that distrust is damaging Montgomery public schools. Unfortunately the meeting at Lanier was just another example of what I wrote about.
Rather than having a public meeting to tell folks what some group had already decided to do with their schools, why not a meeting to ask the public what they want from their schools and how can we be a part of making that happen?
Charter schools are a lightening rod. They have been researched endlessly. For every report someone can dredge up that they are good, I can find one that says they are not. It makes no sense to roll a grenade into the middle of a situation that is already a mess. We need consensus, not more chaos.
there are plenty of ways for the education foundation to help this school system. Go to Huntsville and look at the health clinics and dental clinic located on the grounds of high-poverty schools. Montgomery needs the same things. Go to Cincinnati and look at the 50 community-centered schools where they are striving to meet the needs of the whole child and having success. Go to Jefferson County, AL where their education foundation is supporting teacher mentoring programs and career tech academies.
Go to Fort Worth and visit with my friend, Baptist minister Charlie Johnson and learn about Texas Pastors for Children that now has a coalition of 1,000 churches partnering with local schools. Charlie grew up in Monroe County, AL and would love to come work with ministers in Montgomery.
Montgomery schools need all hands on deck, especially right now. The Montgomery Education Foundation can be a very positive force and should be. They should be part of the solution–not part of the problem.
Two things of interest to Alabama education happened on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016
The one that got all the attention was the first meeting of the legislative committee put together by Senators Gerald Dial and Quinton Ross trying to figure out how the selection of a new state superintendent that year ran off the tracks.
The second was the routine execution of a contract between the state and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Then superintendent Mike Sentence signed the contract for $41,000. It was to be paid for 100 percent from state funds and run until Sept. 20, 2018.
The last paragraph on the paperwork begins, “Why Contract Necessary AND why this Service cannot be performed by Merit Employee. It then explains: “This is the inaugural year of implementation of the Charter Schools law. The State of Alabama has numerous legal obligations under the Act, including the requirement to review charter applications for legal compliance and best practices pursuant to state and administrative rules. NACSA is specifically referenced in the Alabama Administrative Code, recognized as sole-source provider of these services.”
So as of Nov. 3, 2016 the state department of education is paying NACSA thousands of dollars to review charter school applications and pass judgment on them. After all, they are the experts so why not?
Except, as we have learned in the last few days, the state charter school commission ignored the recommendations of NACSA in approving an application for LEAD Academy in Montgomery at their Feb. 12, 2018 meeting. See here and here.
Why? No one is saying.
After all, the NACSA report, which is posted on the department of education’s web site, is very clear that there are way too many shortcomings in the application to get their blessing. So taxpayers are paying for reports that are not being used. Who is minding the store? Anyone?
Charlotte Meadows, a former Montgomery County school board member, is heading the effort for LEAD Academy. Originally she had plans to purchase a building in downtown Montgomery from the chamber of commerce to house the school. However, it was announced this week that this deal fell through.
However, state interim superintendent Ed Richardson has announced that under the authority granted him by the state taking over the Montgomery school system, he plans to close four schools. One of these is Dozier elementary which sits on a prime piece of property in the eastern part of town. The system spent several million dollars a few years ago in an extensive renovation of this school.
Charlotte Meadows has already visited this school to take pictures and look around.
A group headed by former Montgomery County school board president Charlotte Meadows wants to establish a charter school in the Capital City. Good for them.
Called LEAD Academy, the application to move forward was approved by the state charter school commission on Feb. 12, 2018 with five of 11 members voting to approve. However, information that calls the process into question has come to light.
Josh Moon, with The Alabama Political Reporter, reports on this as part of a larger article about the Montgomery school situation in general. You can find it here.
The state employs the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to carefully review charter applications and give them a report on how to proceed. They made a report about the LEAD application dated Jan. 29, 2018. It is posted on the Alabama Department of Education website.
Here is the link to the report. (You may have to cut and paste.)
Surprisingly the report clearly DOES NOT recommend approval of the LEAD application.
The first sentence under Summary Analysis says: “The LEAD Education Foundation’s proposal does not meet the standard for approval.” The report further states that applications must fully meet standards in three areas which are: Education Program and Design, Operations Plan & Capacity and Financial Plan & Capacity.
However, NACSA states that LEAD only “Partially Meets the Standard” in all three areas and raises concerns about several areas of operation. For instance, the report points out that the LEAD board has only four members, none of whom “have the critical experience of leading, teaching, of working in a K-12 school setting.”
Finances are also an issue as the report states: “a number of line items in the proposed budget do not appear reasonable and the proposed loan form American Charter Development raises concerns about cost and conflict of interest. The budget contains a number of questionable assumptions and may not be sound.”
In light of this information, seems to me that Alabama taxpayers deserve some answers. After all, records show that the state has paid NACSA a total of $68,758 in three payments since Feb. 24, 2017.
No. 1—Why did the state charter school commission ignore this report?
No. 2—Common sense tells us that someone brought pressure on commission members to approve the application in spite of the report. Who was this?
No. 3—One of the commission members is a former Montgomery school system principal who was terminated. He voted yes. Wasn’t this a direct conflict of interest?
All we have heard since the state passed legislation allowing charter schools is how open and transparent everything will be and we will have ample checks and balances to make sure business is conducted properly.
But when you pay $68,758 to someone and then ignore their recommendations, you have to wonder what is going on.
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.