Time For Education To Get Its Act Together

It’s no secret that the last few years have been a challenge for Alabama public education.  Certainly we have had legislation passed that has not been helpful.

The best such examples are a bill passed in 2012 requiring that all schools receive a letter grade of A-F and a bill passed in 2013 that allows money to be diverted from the Education Trust Fund to give scholarships to private schools.  This is the Alabama Accountability Act.

The A-F report card grades were made public recently.

Educators from one end of the state to the other have denounced this bill.  Four local school boards passed resolutions of “no confidence” in the legislation.

survey of superintendents shows they think the report cards are basically worthless and of no value. The Alabama Accountability Act also requires that we label “failing. schools.”  Each January we release a list of what are supposed to be the bottom six percent of all schools for this list.  This year there are 75 such schools.

In the last five years AAA has diverted $116 million dollars from the trust fund..

Look at it this way.

There are 396,711 elementary students in Alabama. In five years we have diverted $294 from ETF for each one of these students..  This is  $7,000 per classroom.  How many elementary teachers could have used $7,000?

But here is the good news.  This is an election year and there will be a lot of turnover in both the House and Senate.  Because so many legislators are retiring, by my count, this time next year we will have at least 26 new House members and 11 new senators.  That is 25 percent of the House and 30 percent of the Senate.  That is HUGE.

So this is a tremendous opportunity for education to make new friends and we need to start now.

There are 50 Republicans and 38 Democrats running for vacant House seats.  Twenty Republicans, 15 Democrats and one Independent are running for the 11 open Senate seats.

Educators and the groups representing them should be all over these candidates, explaining the details of both A-F report cards and the Alabama Accountability Act.  We don’t need to wait until people are elected to try to educate them.  We need to do it NOW.  Education should be holding meetings with candidates for these open seats all over Alabama.

This means local school boards, the Council for Leaders of  Alabama Schools (CLAS), superintendent groups, retired educators, the Alabama Education Association, PTAs and just folks concerned about our schools.  Find out what House and Senate seats are open in your area, find out who the various candidates are, then invite them to attend a meeting to discuss education.  Hand out fact sheets about A-F and AAA.  Ask them to support repealing both of these bills.

As a layperson, I have been frustrated time after time at the reluctance of educators to tell their story.  As we see, being REACTIVE has not worked well in the recent past.  IT IS TIME TO BE PROACTIVE.

I will be glad to help any way I can.






Give each of them a fact sheet on these issues—as well as others you are interested in.  Then ask them where they stand.  Will they work to repeal the A-F report card law?  Will they work to repeal the Alabama Accountability Act?


Make this a community wide meeting.  Have it in the early evening after school is out so teachers and parents can attend.


Let Ryan Hollingsworth and Keith Davis explain why they think A-F report cards are worthless.


Each of you poured your heart and soul into our public schools for many years.  You gave the best years of your life to our young people.


Yet today we have people who seem intent on tearing down everything you worked to build.


It is time for education to be PROACTIVE instead of REACTIVE.  We have got to tell our story and make friends before they ever set foot in the statehouse.


I think what I have just suggested is a good start at doing this.



Grant Time For Black Belt Teachers

Each year the national organization, Rural Schools Collaborative runs a small grant program for rural teachers.  (I serve on their board.)  And it’s time for teachers to make application.

We have awarded 15 grants in the last few years.  While they are usually not larger than $1,000, I have visited a number of the recipients and been quite impressed with how they used their funding.  Projects have ranged from outdoor gardens to archeological digs to community histories.

RSC has forged a close relationship with the good folks at the University of West Alabama and their Black Belt Teacher Corps effort and this year grants will be restricted to teachers primarily in the Black Belt region.

The following counties are eligible: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox.

Recipients will be expected to attend one day of the University of West Alabama’s Digging into Rural Traditions Conference Sept. 17-18.  RSC will work with school systems on substitute teacher fees in needed.

For more info on this program and directions as to how to apply, go here.

Rural Schools Collaborative Funds Alabama Projects

The Rural Schools Collaborative, a national organization, has funded small grants for rural schools in Alabama for several years.  (I am pleased to serve on their board.)  Eight state projects were funded in the most recent grant cycle.

Two of the efforts were a physics project at Haleyville city schools and a “makers” project at Cherokee elementary in Guntersville.  Michael McCandless is the teacher involved in the Haleyville grant, while Teresa Zimmer is in Guntersville.

Michael McCandless’  project involves physics students studying optics, light reflection and refraction and making use of their recently learned principles of light to construct a parabolic reflector solar heater and cooker. The goal of the project is to demonstrate how alternative sources of energy can be used to cook food, heat water, and heat indoor living areas.

Michael provided the following update: “The progress has been slow, but we have a working model built. We ran into a few problems that will require us to remove our reflective surface from the parabolic reflector and try again with a better, more suitable material. Our inexperience with applying this kind of adhesive left us with a less than perfect reflector, and we are not generating the type of energy we’d hoped for. I remain undaunted, however, and this year’s students are up for any challenge I present. After relining the parabola, we will do the math necessary to locate the focal point of the reflected sunlight and construct some sort of device to collect the energy. We’re still in the design phase on this. We have a ways to go, but it is going and the students are taking great interest.”

Teresa Zimmer’s Making Makers, Growing Givers project is providing opportunities for 3rd-5th grade gifted students to become “makers,” allowing them to learn by doing and become designers, innovators and entrepreneurs of the future.

Teresa shared this report: “We have just begun the basics of our project ,and my students are learning the details of hand sewing and machine sewing for their goal of making stuffed animals to give to local children support groups. Once they have mastered those skills, they will combine their previous knowledge of circuitry to add eyes to their animals that light up. This has already been a wonderful learning experience for my students, as they are learning life skills of cooperation, acceptance, and giving back to their community”

Other Alabama grants went to Livingston junior high in Sumter County for a Makerspace/STEM lab, to Madison Cross Road in Madison County for Gardens to Grown, to  Pisgah high school in Jackson County for Eagles Working for Wood Ducks, to Wedowee elementary in Randolph County for Wildlife Tracks Station, to Westside elementary in Demopolis for Lights, Camera, Teach and to Westside for The Sprouting Minds Project.

While I have seen only one of these projects, I have seen a number in past years.  They have all been impressive and in systems where resources are often scare, teachers have been delighted to receive these grants.

Grants were  made possible with support from the Parker Griffith Family Foundation, Jefferson County Federation of Teachers, the University of West  Alabama Black Belt Teacher Crops and Susan McKim, Sandra Thomaston and Randall  Williams.

Rural Schools Collaborative has been instrumental in helping the University of West Alabama get the Black Belt Teacher Corps up and running.



Survey Sheds Light On School Safety Issue

Polling data released by the Network for Public Education (NPE) shows that an overwhelming proportion of parents, teachers and students are opposed to teachers carrying guns in schools, and believe that gun control, including the banning of assault weapons, is the better solution.

Respondents also expressed overwhelming support for additional funding for support programs and school security.

NPE received over 8000 responses to its online survey available from February 25 through February 28. The survey was sent to NPE’s 330,000 supporters, and was also disseminated through social media. Only parents, teachers, and students between the ages of 14-25 were asked to respond.

Commenting on survey results, NPE Executive Director, Carol Burris, said:

“Prior to the Parkland shooting, NPE had never polled its members on issues of gun control. Although we assumed that our supporters, who are public education advocates, would favor additional funding for support services, we were surprised by their overwhelming support for gun control.” 

Key results from the survey include:

·      Only 8 percent of respondents want teachers to carry guns in school.

·      More than 9 of 10 (94 percent) support a ban on assault weapons, defined as semi-automatic weapons.

·      Nearly every respondent (99 percent) wants increased funding for violence prevention services, including counselors and threat reporting services.

·      98 percent support tougher gun ownership regulations.

·      93 percent support increased funding for security, with the caveat that security needs would be determined by the school community.

When asked to identify the top three ways to prevent gun violence in schools, respondents identified banning assault weapons, tougher gun control and increased funding for support services.

NPE President, Diane Ravitch, commented: “The most effective way to protect our children and their teachers is to block the sale of assault weapons, as Congress did from 1994-2002, with the support of President Ronald Reagan. Military weapons do not belong in the hands of civilians.” Ms. Ravitch, an education historian, was the Assistant Secretary of Education during the administration of George H. W. Bush.

The Network for Public Education (NPE) was founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. Its mission is to protect, preserve, promote, and strengthen public schools for both current and future generations of students. We share information and research on vital issues that concern the future of public education. For more information, please visit: networkforpubliceducation.org

Editor’s note: I was a member of the initial board of the Network for Public Education.

Politics Rears Its Head After Parkland Tragedy

It’s easy to tell this is an election year in Alabama by the way some politicians are trying to capitalize on another school shooting.  Right on cue, Rep. Will Ainsworth of Guntersville, who is running for Lt. Governor, is touting a bill to allow trained, certified teachers to carry weapons on a school campus.

Ainsworth claims that educators in his district asked for such legislation.

However, 24 hours ago I sent an email to every school superintendent in the state,  plus nearly 200 principals, asking what they thought about arming teachers.

Response was large and immediate and the message was starkly different from the one Ainsworth claims he has heard.  While some went into great detail, the majority just simply said “No.”

From a superintendent: “I can not help but ask, what’s next? Are we going to ask teachers to confront someone in body armor with an AK-47 with only a hand gun. Even law enforcement is not asked to do this. I suppose the next step is to authorize by legislative action teachers to sling AKs over their shoulder while teaching. Maybe we can let them teach in body armor to even the odds. If teachers wanted to be police officers or join the military, they would have done that.  What is going to happen when a teacher is killed in an exchange of gunfire or they shoot by accident an innocent student caught in the crossfire

“Maybe the legislature should do something that will make a difference. Let’s try funding for school resource officers instead of asking teachers to do this.  Remember, they are trying to get kids ready for the TEST in an effort to make sure their school is not tagged with some label.  I expect they will not do this because it will cost money and besides, teachers can do it.”

From an administrator: “If we have to even consider whether or not teachers should be armed, we have a serious problem that will not be solved by having more guns in schools.  Understand this clearly–many of the perpetrators of these shooting have been current or recent students. If we talk about arming teachers, we are talking about asking teachers to shoot students.”

A rural superintendent:  “I have a small, country K6 school with 12 certified employees and seven classified employees–all females.  I’m not saying that none of them would want to receive this responsibility, but I can’t say that I could readily identify one or two right now as “that person” that would want this responsibility.”

A superintendent:  “I have many friends in law enforcement who indicate to me that the last thing we need in a ‘frantic’ situation are teachers with high adrenalin and guns.  And we are trusting all teachers to keep their guns secured properly?  Hey, some teachers struggle to keep their lesson plans up-to-date and to lock he classroom door before leaving at night.”

A principal:  “I asked a group of students about this.  One hit it on the head by saying, ‘Teachers are by nature loving and nurturing.  How are they going to be able to pull the trigger if the shooter happens to be one of their kids?'”

A superintendent: “If we want to arm schools, let’s arm them with enough counselors to deal with mental health issues; let’s arm them with enough nurses to handle all the medical and psychological issues we have; let’s arm our schools with enough resource officers to deal with security and prevention; let’s have our facilities upgraded to the point that they are safe of every student with proper doors and locking mechanisms.”

A principal:  “No.  We are educators–not the SWAT team.”

A superintendent:  Can you imagine breaking up a fight while trying to protect your sidearm from being grabbed.  Jumping into action in the middle of your history lesson to take out a shooter.  Seems some folks watched way too much Miami Vice in their younger days.”

This afternoon I sat in a principal’s office and we talked about how educators are expected to solve all of society’s ills.

But hey, all that really matters these days are headlines for someone running for office it seems.



Live From Dadeville Elementary

Head east from Montgomery on I-85, go north on highway 49 at the Tuskegee/Franklin exit, take a right in Dadeville and pass the cemetery and you’re at Dadeville elementary where principal Chris Dark watches over 641 kindergarten through sixth grade students.

It was raining hard when I turned off I-85 this Wednesday morning.  In about two miles I crossed some railroad tracks and then a block building that used to be home to Buddy’s Lounge, a genuine honky-tonk where me and a friend listened to Billy Joe Royal one night.  Then across highway 14, by Reeltown high school and the entrance to Still Waters.

Superintendent Joe Windle had invited me to visit this school.  And I have to say, they rolled out the red carpet for me.  Two very mannerly sixth graders, Kahlia Wilson and Hunter Smith, were ready and waiting with an itinerary and off we went to see classrooms.  They made sure we stayed on schedule.

When you have visited as many schools as I have, it becomes easy to quickly get a sense of what kind of school you are in.  Is it clean and welcoming?  Are people smiling?  Is there an air of expectations?  Are people going about their jobs with a sense of purpose, rather than simply marking time?.  Do people act professionally?  Are students engaged when you enter their room?

Call it the “IT” factor if you will.  For sure not all schools give off this vibe.  Dadeville elementary does.

One thing that got my attention was how many teachers are either from Dadeville or Tallapoosa County.  Some have been at this school for 30+ years.  This is a big deal because it gives a school much-needed stability.  And adults can relate to their students and the homes they come from.

It was apparent the faculty is proud of their school and their classrooms.  I met one young lady who is about to graduate from Auburn University and will teach afterwards.  She was doing an internship at Dadeville elementary.  The fact that a good number of her fellow classmates ask for an internship at this school says a lot.

My last stop, and definitely the highlight of my visit, was the studio where some talented sixth-graders do their own version of the morning news.

They are under the guidance of coach Chris Tolbert who wears many hats at DES, including overseeing Alabama’s only system wide program where special need students have PE every day.

This day the crew consisted  of Takevious Heard, Luke Hanks and Ivey Graham.  The teleprompter was loaded with questions about my background and some well-aimed questions.  The anchors were Addison Spates and Alana Tolbert.  So I sat between them and off we rolled.  And if you wish to see how big time broadcasting works in Dadeville, you can see it here.  I encourage you to take a look.  Certainly not to see me, but to be impressed by these young folks and the quality of their work.

I loved it.  And have to say that young Miss Alana Tolbert has a super personality and a flair for asking questions.

Last week the state department of education released school report cards.  Dadeville elementary had a 70, which means by the measures used on the score card, they barely made a C.

And I headed back to Montgomery totally convinced that it is impossible to slap one simple letter grade on a school and do its students, faculty, administrators and support folks any semblance of fairness..

If those who contrived this measure would take the time to go to Dadeville I am positive Alana Tolbert would quickly set them straight.