University Of West Alabama Works Hard For Rural Areas

Editor’s noteOne of the truly fun things I’ve done in the last few years is come to know the good folks at the University of West Alabama.  They are passionate about helping rural communities and their schools.  The following article details some of their work.

Growing up in a rural farming community, Dr. Jodie Winship understood that education was important but, for many, not possible due to poverty, commitments to family farming businesses and a host of other reasons.

The first in her family to graduate from both high school and college, Winship is now Chair of Teaching and Learning and Chair of Instructional Leadership and Support at the University of West Alabama, striving to drive much-needed changes in rural education. She’s also part of a dream team of rural education experts leading UWA’s new online Doctorate in Rural Education degree program, launched in August 2018.

Winship’s team includes Dr. Jan G. Miller, Dean of UWA’s College of Education, Dr. Reenay Rogers; Associate Dean of the College of Education and Director of Assessment and Evaluation; and Dr. B.J. Kimbrough, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. All have expertise and experience in rural education.

The group created the doctoral program to help rural educators, administrators and community leaders address issues specific to rural education. Those include inequitable funding processes, a lack of real-life connections to classroom learning and insufficient research into the needs of rural schools.

We’re experts at rural, so why not create a program that supports rural education and helps fill that research gap,” Winship says.

Offered entirely online, the program is completely full. And doctoral candidates vary from principals and curriculum developers to superintendents, but nearly 100 percent of applicants represent rural areas throughout the southeastern U.S.

This is very much an applied program where you identify problems, and you solve them through the research process,” Miller explains. “We wanted our assignments and our courses to apply to day-to-day work and help identify problems and issues in rural education.”

Take, for example, an Alabama school district with the highest population of English Language Learners (ELL) in the state. The district enrolled a team of school leaders in UWA’s online rural education doctoral program. As part of their dissertation, they are researching solutions to the financial and curricular challenges of teaching ELL learners in a rural setting. These schools need professional development and materials for teachers and students, which, of course, requires funding.

They’ve looked at the accountability model in the state of Alabama, and they are proposing a new funding structure to the state where each ELL student would get 1.4 percent of the money versus just 1 percent per student because these students need additional help and assistance,” Miller explains.

One Ed.D. student created a consortium of school districts focused solely on solutions for ELL students. Another doctoral candidate from a rural, low-income district created a food pantry so students in need could take food home to their families.

Others are looking at topics like STEM education, teacher shortages, Career Technical Education and student achievement, through a rural lens and not trying to apply previous research done in urban areas to rural problems,” notes Dr. Rogers.

In addition to solving problems, the UWA rural education doctoral program strives to help create connections between students’ experiences in their rural communities and what they learn in the classroom. They do this through place-based learning—where educators use local geography and connections to create authentic and meaningful learning experiences for students.

Miller teaches a course called Place-Based Education and Service Learning. “What we’re finding is, in a rural area, teaching about where you live and utilizing the resources that you stand under each and every day is the best way to teach,” she explains. “If you’re going to talk about the rainforest and the rain, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about the rainforest in countries far away. Let’s talk about the rain here, how we have to have rain and how we survive.”

Winship feels that place-based learning is key to engaging some rural students. “In our rural schools, we’ve got kids from families that are generational farmers. They ask, ‘Why do I have to do all this math? Why do I have to do all this history stuff? I’m going to be a farmer; I don’t need that.’ With place-based learning, we can help them understand they need to learn these concepts to be smart farmers. Good crops don’t come by chance. You can farm smart. You can take your product and distribute it smarter, or you can market it smarter.”

She further explains that students can learn about budgeting, weather conditions, and even how to protect the ecosystem through hands-on, authentic learning experiences. They can see how these things directly affect the environment and the quality of life for communities.

Kimbrough says most educators enter the UWA doctoral program unaware of place-based education. During Miller’s course, students create a professional development session focused on place-based education for faculty and teachers at their home schools. After, many schools are so excited about the concept that they start implementing place-based units in their teaching right away.

As the program takes on its fourth cohort of students this January, it averages 25 to 30 new doctoral students each semester, with a total of 130 students currently enrolled. And interest remains steady after a rigorous admission process that accepts about 50 percent of applicants.

Despite its short existence, UWA’s online Doctorate in Rural Education program is expanding. The program began with two tracks: one for rural teachers and one for rural community and education leaders. In January, they added two additional tracks based on students’ needs: one focused on counseling and the other on higher education administration in rural communities.

Rogers says the program is meeting expectations even in its initial stages. “Everything we’re doing is rooted in helping students find solutions to the problems in rural schools, and it’s amazing how many of our students come back and say, ‘I wouldn’t have done this otherwise. Thank you for making me do this.’ That’s very uplifting.”

National Campaign Features West Alabama Teacher

In an effort to focus attention on the opportunities in rural schools across the country, the Rural Schools Collaborative has launched its “I Am a Rural Teacher” campaign.  And the first teacher to be featured is Haley Richardson, a native of Pickens County, a graduate of the first cohort of Black Belt Teacher Corps from the University of West Alabama and a second-year teacher at University Charter School in Livingston.

Go here to see Haley’s story.

Here are excerpts that caught my eye.

“Teaching is very different than I thought it would be, a lot people think ‘Oh it’s just an 8 to 3 job, when you go home you’re done,’ but teaching can be very tiring. It’s a non-stop job. You’re working all day, every day, and even by the time you leave here you’re still constantly working at home, whether it’s grading papers, coming up with ideas for the next day, or thinking about your students at home, and what can you do to make their experience at school better than it was today.”

But these challenges make the job meaningful too. Haley wants all her students to see her as someone who cares about them beyond the classroom. “If they don’t get anything else from me, I want them to know that I love them.”

For Haley, teaching is a great way to make an impact on her community. She believes being a rural teacher means “embracing where you live and inspiring your students to know that just because you come from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, or you don’t have always have to up and leave to find better, because bigger is not always better.”

Now, she works hard to create those deep connections with her students. “If a student tells me at school ‘Ms. Richardson I’m playing a game tonight,’ I’m going to make sure that I go see them. That matters to me because I know it matters to them. I could have a thousand things to do,” she laughs. “And when they look up and see me during the game, that feels good cause I know I made their night by just showing up. Just showing up and being there, it really means a lot to the parents too.”

“There’s a phrase, ‘Take what you have to make what you need.’ So in a rural town we may not have much, but what we do have, we use it to make what we need, and in turn we make successful students. You take what you have to make what you need and you in turn go out and be successful and you bring it back to your community.”

I know Haley who is truly an outstanding your lady.  Several years ago I was invited to a reception for all the members of the first Black Belt Teacher Corps cohort.  I sat beside Haley’s mother.  What I remember most is that Haley spoke and mentioned that because of the Black Belt Teacher Corps scholarship she received, she was finishing college with no student debt.  That brought a huge smile to her mother’s face and a quiet “Amen.”



Sully Strikes Again

Once again we return to Baldwin County to check on our young friend, Sully, the fifth-grade grandson of assistant superintendent Hope Zenah.

Sully has his eye set on a video game and has been diligently trying to find ways to earn money to buy the game.  So grandmother told him that she would pay him $25 to wash her car and clean the inside as well.

He jumped at the chance and two hours later came running for grandmother to proudly show her his handiwork.

He could not have been prouder, Hope told me.  “And he should have been because he did a great job.”

Except.  For. One. Thing.

The brush he used to clean the car had a long handle and stiff bristles.  Something more along the order of what you would use to sweep a sidewalk, not wash fenders.  The result was lots and lots of scratches.

Hope did not have the heart to show Sully what happened.  Nor would I.

So off she went to the nearest car detail shop and for $75 got it waxed and buffed with nary a scratch showing.

God bless him.  We all need Sully “moments” to brighten our days.


Governor Fills Ella Bell’s School Board Seat

Governor Ivey has appointed retired Alabama State University dean Dr. Tonea Stewart to fill the remainder of the term of the late Ella Bell on the state board of education.  The appointment is immediate and Stewart will attend her first SBOE meeting Jan. 9.

Bell’s term ends in January 2021, IF voters turn down the March 3 vote on amendment one.  This is the amendment calling for a switch from an elected to an appointed state board.  If approved, the terms of all current board members would end and they would be replaced by members appointed by the governor.

Stewart served as the dean and a professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at ASU.  In addition to her work at the university level, Stewart is a professional actress with appearances in numerous films, television shows and stage productions.

Governor, You Need To Do Some More Homework

Overall, I think Governor Kay Ivey has done a good job regarding education.  She has been a strong proponent of early childhood education, she shows up at state school board meetings to serve as chair (something few other governors have bothered to do), she hired a smart, earnest young man, Nick Moore, to serve as her education liaison person, and best of all in my opinion, she replaced Mac Buttram as chair of the charter school commission.

However, she recently sat down for an interview with Montgomery’s WSFA TV station and said some things that cause me concern.  You can see the interview here.

For one thing, she shows that, like too many politicians, she has fallen under the spell of “data rapture” by referring to Alabama’s 4th grade NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores.  But she fails to provide any context and by not doing so, is misrepresenting what NAEP is all about.

As we have stated time and time again, NAEP is simply a small sampling of students in each state to look at trends.  The results of one year ARE NOT intended to be a measurement on which to hang your hat.

Diane Ravitch is not only a former assistant secretary of education for the U.S., she also served on the governing board for NAEP.   Which says to me that she has a much better understanding of NAEP than anyone in Alabama.

I asked her to tell me about this measurement.  “NAEP achievement levels have always been controversial,” she said.  “Scholarly panels have declared them ‘fatally flawed’ because they are subjective, not objective.”

Then she added something all politicians should understand, but few do..

“The thing to remember about ALL standardized tests is that they are highly correlated with family income and education.  Kids from affluent, educated families tend to get high scores.  Kids without those advantages get low scores.  A test doesn’t measure the quality of education   as much as it measures the quality of the conditions in which children grow up and measure their opportunity to learn.”

The governor referred to our 4th grade math scores as “rock bottom.”

But she gives no credit to Alabama educators for the progress we’ve made since 1992 when state scores were first published..  Since Massachusetts has historically been at the top of the heap with NAEP scores, everyone wants to compare Alabama to them.

When you do, you find that Alabama has actually made greater progress over this period than Massachusetts has.  So we are actually running at a faster pace than our neighbors in New England.  In fact, Massachusetts’ 2019 4th grade math scores are the same as they were in 2005.

And it is foolhardy to ever compare education in Alabama to Massachusetts.  For one thing, people in the Bay State spend considerably more per pupil than Alabama does.  For another, the percent of adults with a college degree in Massachusetts is nearly double that of Alabama.  This is a HUGE advantage because it means there is far more local support for education, i,e. taxes for schools, than here.

The governor also put in a plug for a yes vote on amendment one that will change us from an elected state school  board to an appointed one.  Her reasoning?  Voters don’t know who their state school board member is.

So I guess this means we should also have an appointed state supreme court, an appointed public service commission, an appointed court of civil appeals and an appointed court of criminal appeals because the members of these bodies are no more well known that school board members.  In fact, I doubt many members of the general public can tell you who is the lt. governor, the state treasurer, secretary of state, state auditor or commissioner of agriculture and industries.

As I said, I like the governor.

But her argument for approving amendment one is extremely weak.

Recounting 2019. The Most Read Post Of The Past Year.

Editor’s note:  It comes as no surprise to me that a post about the Washington County charter school situation received the most views.  Almost 5,200 to be exact.  If there has even been a total bungling of how law should be interpreted and enforced and how bureaucrats should act, Washington County is the poster child.  And 18 months after the state charter commission approved this school, in spite of national reviewers saying not to, there is still no school, and very few answers.  The situation remains as muddled as ever, the charter commission does not seem to care if deadlines are unmet and the state superintendent of education refuses to get involved and do what is right.

The Rape Of Washington County

If you are looking for peace and quiet and not many neighbors, my advice is to head for Washington County, AL.  The first county north of Mobile County and bordered on one side by Mississippi and the Tombigbee River on the other, the last census showed only17,629 population.  For a county that covers 1,080 square miles, that is a density of 16.3 people per each one of them.  By comparison, density in Jefferson county is 592.

So it meets all of anyone’s definitions of “rural.”  And like most rural counties, its public school system is a major part of community life.  The Washington County school system has seven schools in five communities.  Communities that are remote from one another.  Chatom is the county seat.  From Chatom to Fruitdale is 14 miles, to Millry is 13 miles, to Leroy is 21 miles and to McIntosh is 26 miles.  These are where schools are located.  It’s easy to understand why 59 buses travel 3,200 miles a day ferrying students.

And I can testify from personal experience that there is not much except lots of pine trees, a few houses and some small churches between any of these sites.  Like the majority of rural school systems, Washington County is losing enrollment.  Twenty years ago there were 3,798 students.  Over the next ten years this decreased by six percent.  But in the last ten years, the decline was 24 percent.  During the last decade McIntosh high school dropped from 344 to 272.  That is 43 percent.

All of which leads to this question: why does Washington County need a charter school?

It’s a question on the minds of many local residents, the majority of whom don’t think they do.

Yet, because folks on the Alabama Charter School Commission apparently failed to do their homework and realistically consider the impact of a charter on a declining system, Woodland Prep has been approved to open this coming school year.

At best, it is a very questionable decision and one that leaves lots of people in Washington County wondering who is setting the rules and who are abiding by them.

For example, the charter law passed in 2015 says the charter commission should “take into consideration the quality of school options existing in the affected community.”  Washington County got a B on the state’s latest A-F report card.  The same score as Shelby and Baldwin counties, two of the top systems in Alabama.  (Of the state’s 67 county systems, only ONE received an A.)

So this is not a failing system, nor a C system or a D system.  It has an excellent career tech program with the only pipe-fitting program in Alabama.  They offer health science, building science, welding and  pre-engineering/drafting.  They also have dual enrollment courses with Coastal Alabama Community College.  Enrollment  has grown from 112 in 2013-14 to 192 last fall.

The law also says the commission should “require significant and objective evidence of interest for the public charter school from the community the public chart school wishes to serve.”   However, such support is almost non-extent.

Harold Crouch is in his sixth-term as mayor of Chatom.  He told me that not a single parent has told him they plan to send their child to the charter.  “I am opposed to the charter, my council is also and I don’t know a single public official in the county who supports it,” says the mayor.

Crouch also thinks those involved with the charter school have been overly secretive about what they want to do.  He  met with the charter board one time.  They wanted the city to give them a prime piece of property for the school site.  He told them they would have to make a proposal to the city council.  They refused to do so.

“This is not in the best interest of the county,” he adds.  “Our resources are too critical now.  We are struggling to do the things we need to do now.  Bringing in another school and taking money from the system we have makes no sense.”

The school system’s annual budget is $27.3 million.  Because a charter gets money intended for the local system, at 260 students (which is what their application says enrollment will be the first year), this would be a hit to the system of at least $1.5 million or more.

The charter commission held three public meetings around the county seeking input.  One was in Chatom at the library.  According to Betty Brackin, who runs the Federal programs division of the county school system, about 50 people showed up.  The only ones who spoke in favor of the charter were some of its board members, the wife of a board member and the mother of one..  But more than 25 people spoke against it.

Staff of the commission set up a video camera to record the meeting and said that this video would be shared with commission members.  However, today the staff says such video does not exist.

On a recent trip to Chatom I decided to gauge public interest myself.  What better place to do this than Jakes, a longtime meat and three restaurant on the edge of town?  I ran into Sheriff Richard Stringer and a table of local citizens.  While the sheriff said he was trying to remain neutral, he did say that he didn’t think the charter would be successful.  His thoughts were echoed by everyone at the table.

Why all the intrigue about a school?

For one thing, in small places most everyone knows everyone else.  (The city of Troy has more population than Washington County.)  And lots of questions get asked.

Plus the fact that Soner Tarim was brought in from Texas to operate the school has set tongues to wagging.  Tarim operates Unity School Services and locals wonder why in the world is a Muslim from Sugar Land, TX telling people in Washington County how to run a school.  Tarim is a very controversial figure, having been associated with the Harmony charter schools in Teas that have been linked to the Gulen school movement.

(Tarim is also working with LEAD Academy charter in Montgomery.  Josh Moon with Alabama Political Reporter has written about this relationship.)

For sure, Tarim must be a helluva salesman.  According to the management agreement between the charter and Unity School Services, they will get 15 percent of all gross revenue (Federal, state and local,) in the 2019-20 school year.  If Woodland Prep were to have 260 students in the first year as they told the charter school commission, Tarim’s company would get about $360,000.

Locals also question the charter commission approval process.  The Woodland Prep application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  This is the organization Alabama has used since 2016.  During that time they have been paid $113,000.  NACSA did not give the application a positive report.  The application was reviewed on Education Program Design & Capacity, Operations Plan & Capacity and Financial Plan & Capacity.  NACSA said they only Partially Meets the Standard for each and the first sentence of their summary says: The Woodland Preparatory proposal does not meet the standard for approval.

(It is noteworthy that the charter commission no longer uses NACSA to evaluate applications, even thought they have done more than 500 in the last decade.  Instead, they are now using the Auburn Center for Evaluation which apparently has little to no experience evaluating charter applications.  My emails to the director of this center get no response.)

Yet in its infinite wisdom, the commission voted 7-2 to approve the application.

A number of people from Washington County showed up for this meeting.  They were told how to behave by commission staff.  They had also sent a number of postcards to commission members asking them to not approve.  The chairman of the commission chastised them for doing so.

Right now the good folks of Washington County feel helpless.  The charter law says the commission “is established as an independent state entity.”   No one seems to know exactly what this means.  And state school board members tell me they have no authority over them.

However, something seems funky about this.  As you read the law closely, time after time they refer to “the department” meaning the state department of education and their involvement with the commission.  For example, the law says: “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizer established under this act.”

Since the commission is an authorizer, my interpretation is that the department DOES have jurisdiction.  In fact, the law says the department can notify the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate about its concerns of how the charter commission is functioning.

People in Washington County don’t think it is functioning as it should.  They are waiting for the state school board and the state superintendent to step up to the plate and work on their behalf.

Alabama code section 16 is entirely about public education.  Here is what section 16-3-11 says: “shall seek in every way to direct and develop public sentiment in support of public education.”

It is about time some folks in Montgomery read the damn code and do what they are supposed to and stop folks from raping places like Washington County.