Is Bureaucracy Killing Our Schools?

Sometimes I wonder if educators read this blog.  But then I post a story like this one and I have my answer.

Suddenly my inbox is swamped as educators from every corner of Alabama chime in to agree with me.  Their frustration with the constant search for a “silver bullet” or “magic pill” to give children is nearly palpable.  There is great distrust of anyone or any missive from a central office or the state department of education.

A principal recently told me that she had gotten 20 emails that day from her central office from people looking for info that they could have looked up for themselves.  I mentioned this to Hope Zeanah, assistant superintendent in Baldwin County and a principal for 16 years.  She told me what she did to slow the requests.  Seems that when she became part of the central office she required that any email sent to a principal also be copied to everyone in the central office, including the superintendent.

Because of this feedback, the volume of emails from central office to principals slowed a lot.

And as all of this goes through my mind, I can’t help but remember that mama went to two-room Chesser school about four miles north of Red Level in Covington County in the late 1920s.  It was on a spit of sandy land her daddy owned about 300 yards from her house.  She walked home for lunch each day.  The school and any sign of it has long vanished, but I could take you to the spot where it stood.

Amazingly, mother could still vividly recall classmates and teachers when she was 90 years old.  From time to time I would coax some tale out of her.

All of which got me to thinking about the history of schools in Alabama.  When did we decide that bureaucrats were smarter than teachers?  According to Shannon Driver, superintendent in Covington County today, a Mr. W. M Snider was elected county superintendent in 1890.  Shannon thinks there must have been a school board at that time  Mr. J. A Keller was appointed superintendent in 1921, so obviously this appointment was made by a school board.

Of course, mother and her classmates were all peas in the same pod.  White, dirt poor. and knew how to pick cotton.  And for some reason, their uneducated parents wanted them to go to school.

As David Mathews says in his book, Why Public Schools?  Whose Public Schools? “In the beginning, control of schools was almost exclusively local; most schools had their own trustees.  Schools were free-standing institutions,  Today, everyone–parents, students, teachers, school board members, would-be reformers, even bureaucrats–.complains about bureaucratic control, which seems to be spreading faster than kudzu.

Few communities today have the same relationship with their schools that they originally had.  State and federal governments now play a much larger role”

In other words. over time communities have stepped back from their schools and allowed them to be gobbled up by bureaucracy.

Of course I know that this world is far different from the one mama grew up in.  That we must prepare young people for a world that in most cases has yet to be born.  But I still believe the real work of education takes place in a classroom with interactions between a caring teacher and an attentive student.  I am not convinced all those who get a paycheck from an education entity remember this as well as they should.


Initiative Overload

A friend recently told me about something that grabbed my attention.  And made a great deal of sense.

She called it “initiative overload.”  Meaning that we bombard educators with first this initiative and then that one.  The poor folks in classrooms and who runs schools can’t catch their breath or really digest something before here comes the next “latest and greatest” something or other.

When Tommy Bice was state superintendent he came up with Vision 2020.  It was well-done and carefully thought through and promoted all over the state.  But then he up and left his job and here came the walking disaster named Mike Sentance to run the show for a year.

Sure enough, he put out his own version of a strategic plan.  However, it was not well-done and was more a wish list than something setting goals and objectives.  And sure enough the man from Massachusetts launched his own road show to let educators across Alabama see what wisdom he had conjured up.

Here is the report national board certified teacher Leslie Hughes of Pell City did after suffering though one of these sessions.  Needless to say, she was not impressed.

Which brings us to the state school board meeting on Nov. 8 when new state superintendent Eric Mackey announced (DRUM ROLL PLEASE) that a new state strategic plan is in the works.

Initiative overload was my immediate reaction upon hearing this news.

If someone changed wives as often as we unfurl state strategic plans, they would be the center of gossip every time three or more people in town gathered.

Enough already.  Can we just give teachers and principals a break?  Can we let them do their jobs working with children?  Besides, anyone with much experience at all will pay scant attention to another fancy report concocted by folks in Montgomery.   I am in schools all the time.  I have yet to have a principal or teacher ask me breathlessly, “When will we get a new strategic plan because I just can’t wait?”

Education occurs in a classroom when a teacher and a student interact.  That is the sole purpose of schools.  Anything that detracts or interferes with that mission is virtually meaningless.

And initiative overload is a distraction.


Montgomery’s Bear Elementary Gets National Recognition

It’s not unusual to hear a teacher refer to a school as “sweet.”  Now I’m not for sure exactly what they mean, but I certainly believe it is a compliment.

So in keeping with this description, I definitely think Bear elementary in Montgomery is a “sweet” school.  Actually, it is more an outstanding school.  Which is why I’m sure it has been recognized as a Nationally Certified Magnet School, the first in Montgomery and only one of 115 in the U.S.

My friend Elizabeth Hill is the longtime principal.  I drop by to see her school often.  She and a great staff do a really super job.  They constantly come up with ideas that make going to school fun and exciting.

Naturally, she is proud of the accomplishment.

“Our staff and our parents are so excited about this,” said Hill. “We have worked for nearly a year to demonstrate that we have met the multiple indicators and the standards that are set forth by the Magnet Schools of America. We are very proud of our school and the work our teachers, support staff and parents do to ensure our children are getting excellent instruction.”

The required standards to earn the certification include how the school promotes diversity, have closed the achievement gap, integrated a theme-based curriculum, and encouraged parent and community involvement. The school has demonstrated they are working to prepare their students for college and career – even at the elementary level.

Editor’s note: let the record show that Ms. Hill is a proud graduate of Auburn University.

Hollywood Comes To Cullman County

Sometimes you are just dumbfounded.  Like when you read this amazing article about what just happened at Parkside school in the east end of Cullman County.

It began when some teachers at the school birthed the notion to redo their rooms as Hogwarts-themed classrooms.  (It will come as no surprise to most readers that I am totally clueless about the world of Harry Potter and all that goes with it.  Never read any of the books and don’t know a Hogwart from a Warthog.  But that doesn’t mean today’s school kids are as sheltered as I am.)  (But I do remember Ozark Ike and the Mickey Mouse club.)

Anyhow, back to the real story.  Seems that the news made it all the way to Hollywood and lo and behold, cast members of the new Fantastic Beasts movie: The Crimes of Grindelwald  showed up at the school Nov. 1.  Cast members including Zoe Kravits, Jude Law, Ezra Miller, Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner were not only there, but they had a check for $25,000 with them.

Please take a moment to click the link to the article above.  You will be just as amazed as I was.  What a fantastic testimony to the dedication of teachers and staff and the lengths they go to so that school is fun and exciting.


Political Races I Will Watch Next Week

Like most folks, I will pay attention to all the political races on the ballot Nov. 6th, but I have more than passing interest in three Senate races and two House races.

Three of them feature young, bright women running for office for the first time.  All are Democrats and seem to fit the mold of “female millennial” we hear so much about these days.   The other two involve wily veteran legislators.

Amy Wasyluka is a mother, cancer survivor and attorney running for Senate District 2 in Huntsville.  Senator Bill Holtzclaw is retiring from this seat.  The Republican nominee is Tom Butler, who served in both the House and Senate as a Democrat before being defeated in 2010.  As to be expected, Butler has greatly outspent Wasyluka.  While she has spent nearly $42,000, he has spent $300,000.  My sources say they expect Butler, who is in his mid-70’s, to win, but do think his young attorney opponent will make a very creditable showing.

In northwest Alabama campaign coffers are wide open as longtime Democrat House member Johnny Mack Morrow is challenging Republican Senator Larry Stuffs who is running for his second term in District 6..  Stutts won his seat by an eyelash in 2014 when he beat Senator Roger Bedford.  Stutts is a physician who has faced criticism about legislation he introduced that appeared to protect his own self-interests.

Money has been no problem for either candidate.  The most recent financial info from the Secretary of State’s office show Morrow has spent $470,000 and Stutts has spent $366,000

The third Senate race I’m watching covers Etowah and Cherokee counties and a tiny slice of DeKalb.  Senate District 10 is being vacated by Senator Phil Williams.  Andrew Jones from Cherokee County is the Republican nominee.  He is being opposed by Craig Ford, a two-term House member from Etowah who is running as an Independent.

Jones is a newcomer to politics and certainly raised eyebrows when he defeated House member Mack Butler in the primary.  Jones is a fine young man from a well-known Cherokee County family.  He has spent $163,000.  However, Ford has significantly outspent him with $379,000 to date.

Being from vote rich Etowah County certainly plays in Ford’s favor, but how much luck will he have getting voters to select an Independent candidate?

House District 46 is primarily that part of Jefferson County known as “over the mountain.”  It’s where Felicia Stewart is challenging incumbent Republican David Faulkner.  She has been competitive with Faulkner on campaign funds.  He has spent $136,000; she has spent $114,000.

But if any candidate in Alabama has outworked and out organized Stewart, I don’t know who they are.  She has spent 18 months on the campaign trail and has motivated a cadre of true believers and volunteers,

Jump all the way down to Fairhope to check in on my final race to watch closely.  Again, a bright, young female attorney, Danielle Mashburn, has her sights on capturing House District 94 which has been held since 2004 by Republican Joe Faust.  Just as in Senate District 2 in Huntsville, this one is a contest of real contrasts.  An old pol getting long in the tooth vs. the energy and hopes of a much younger person.

Faust has spent $91,000 as compared to $38,000 for Mashburn.  Though Baldwin is about the reddest of red when it comes to party affiliation, my contacts say if anyone can defeat a Republican here, Mashburn can.






Voices From The Classroom

My buddy Shannon Odom is principal of Gilmore elementary in Jackson and has been for a number of years.  She and her cohort in crime, Kathy Spidle, principal at Grove Hill elementary, keep Clarke County superintendent Larry Bagley on his toes.

I kid Shannon that her claim to fame is that her daddy was once police chief in Jackson and arrested the Allman Brothers band.  She laughs, which she does often, and admits this is a true story.

Shannon is totally devoted to her students and pours her heart into her job.  This is shown in the following that she recently posted on Facebook:

“On Wednesday, one of my girls was having a rough day, a really rough day. That afternoon, she spent some time with me in my office when she should have been having fun in the gym. After she settled down, we had a long talk about how today was a bad day, but tomorrow was a new day and a chance to do better. I didn’t see her again until the next afternoon as she was headed to the bus. She stopped right in front of me and smiled a snaggle-toothed smile. She crooked her little finger motioning for me to bend down so she could whisper something into my ear.

I bent down. I couldn’t imagine what she had to say. When I got close, she whispered two little words into my ear, “New Day.” I checked with her teacher, and it had indeed been a new day. I don’t always understand why some things just pierce straight to my heart, but that did In the middle of a tough, sad week I got a reminder that tomorrow is a new day. I think I needed the lesson more than she did.”

What a great example of what goes on daily in public schools.

One of the joys to doing what I do are the endless relationships I make with educators and the resulting thoughts they share with me.  Here is an email I just received from a real teacher in a very good real school I know well.

“I didn’t go into teaching for the money but something is wrong with this picture. Alabama teachers just got a 2.5% raise, our first in nearly a decade. My daughter just got another raise. It was 15%. She has been with the company since graduating from UA three years ago and has received nearly 35% in raises during that time. What’s even better than that, she often gets emails, notes, and verbal acknowledgments of appreciation.

I’m thrilled for her but it is depressing as a teacher. This same daughter recently sent me this thought: “A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected.” Our school system could learn something.”

I easily understand her frustration It is real and is eating at the very fiber and fabric of our education system.