And Then There Was One

My involvement with public education began in 2008 when Owen Sweatt, Gerald Carter and I set out to study ten high-performing rural elementary schools around the state.  Since all were high-poverty, we wanted to find out why they were doing so well academically in the face of so many challenges.

We drove 10,000 miles to visit schools, attend PTA meetings, fall festivals, native American days, etc.  It was fascinating and probably the most heart-warming project I ever tackled.  We learned a LOT and hardly a day goes by that I don’t recall something we found out and some of the insights we came across.

The result was the publication of Lessons Learned From Rural Schools, a 40-page review of our journeySome 10,000 copies were printed.  I only have three left.  The project was underwritten by a grant from the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The best experience for me was making lasting friends with these ten principals.  I’ve often told others that the schools were tucked away in mostly out-of-the-way places.  And that is no exaggeration. How many of these places have you heard of?  Calcedeaver, Huxford, Lockhart, Gilbertown, Pine Hill, Marion, Fruithurst, Arley, Phil Campbell and Dutton..

I thought principal Aimee Rainey was showing me a storage room on my first visit to Calcedever in the north end of Mobile County.  Nope.  It was two classes in an ancient portable.  Fortunately, they now have a new school.  When I went to W. S. Harlan in Lockhart, principal Brent Zessin took me in the media center and showed me where  he made his first goal playing basketball in what was once the gym.

F.  S.  Ervin was across the tracks in Pine Hill in the west end of Wilcox County.  It was always spotless and principal Richard Bryant told me how when he was named to head the school, he sent the janitor home and got some trustees from the county jail to paint and clean up.

With the recent announcement that Phil Campbell principal Jackie Ergle is retiring after 44 years in education, only one of the ten still remains in place.  She is Dr. Christy Hiett at Fruithurst Elementary.  She grew up in this community, went to grade school there, got a degree at Auburn University and came home years ago.

John Kirby left Dutton to go to the Jackson County central office where he is today.  Amy Hiller left Meek in Arley in Winston County and today is principal at Gulf Shores elementary,  Buddy Dial retired the following year from being principal at Albert Turner, in Marion.. (This school is now closed.)  Richard Bryant retired from F.  S. Ervin.  Jacqui James was principal at Southern Choctaw in Gilbertown.  Today she works for the Cooperative Extension Service in Choctaw County.

Aimee Rainey went from south Alabama to become a principal in Florence several years ago.  Donna Silcox retired as principal at Huxford in Escambia County and started practicing law in nearby Uriah.  (She already had her law degree before retiring.)  She won the Democratic nomination for District Judge in Monroe County on June 5 and hopes to be elected in the November general election.  Brent Zessin retired from Alabama and now teaches and coaches in the Florida panhandle.

What a great group of special people.  I will always treasure their friendships.

Some wonder why I am passionate about public schools and why I have a quick tongue when educators are under fire.  You’ve just met ten reasons.


The Reality We REFUSE To Accept

Loving lists and rankings as we do, recently ran two articles showing the Alabama high schools with the best and worst ACT scores.  See them here and here.

Did we learn anything we don’t already know?  Nope.  Once again we have a stark reminder that if you have good students who come from  homes that value education and invest in their children, you get great school performance.  It’s the lesson University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban has taught for years.  He’s built the nation’s top college football program by consistently recruiting the best players in the country to his football team.

In the last 10 years, one national recruiting service says Saban had the No. One class seven out of ten years.

But the public, politicians and even some in the education community WILL NOT FACE REALITY.  So the mayor of Montgomery says if we will just replace the local school board and bring in charter schools, everything will magically get better.  Senate pro tem Del Marsh says if we will take money from public schools to give vouchers to private schools, our problems will go away.  Even interim state superintendent Ed Richardson compared scores at Montgomery’s LAMP magnet high school to those at Lee high school to try to make a point by comparing apples and oranges.

The second highest ACT scores in Alabama came from Mountain Brook High school.  They averaged 27.3.  Why?  As much as anything because 85 percent of the residents of Mountain Brook have either an undergraduate or graduate degree from college.  On the other end of the spectrum, only ten high schools have a lower ACT average than Vigor in Mobile’s Prichard community.  But only ten percent of Prichard citizens have one or more college degrees.

The best measure of understanding both school and student performance is poverty, more specifically, the percent of students who get free/reduced school lunches.  Of the 1,051 students at Mountain Brook high, NONE get free/reduced lunches.  Of the 622 Vigor students, 463 get free/reduced lunch.

When you run the numbers on the 20 top ACT high schools in comparison to the bottom, you see that the collective free-reduced rate for the top schools is 17.8 percent, compared to 73.1 percent at the other end of the spectrum.  But we continue to ignore this 55 point gap and act like one size should fit all.

It’s ridiculous.

And speaking of ridiculous, let’s look at our old friends the Alabama Accountability Act and A-F school report cards in relation to the ranking of schools by ACT scores.  Again, we find the info they churn out is totally worthless.

AAA requires that each year we declare the bottom six percent of all schools in the state are “failing.”  Common sense then says that the 20 high schools with the worst ACT scores should all be failing.  But what does AAA have to do with common sense?  Of the bottom five,  AAA says that only ONE of them is failing.

What about the A-F school report cards that claim we have 103 F schools in Alabama?  Surely all the bottom 20 high schools must be an F.  Well, not exactly,  Only five of them are.  On the other hand, all of the 20 top high schools must get an A.  Again, not exactly.  Only six of them got an A when scores were handed out last February.  And according to A-F, Grissom high in Huntsville, which is only outranked by five schools in the state, is ranked a C.

As David Mathews points out in Is There A Public For Public Schools? we will only make significant education progress in some places when we understand that community building and education go hand-in-hand.

That is the real lesson of looking at rankings of ACT scores.  Unfortunately, those who cry the loudest for education change don’t make the effort to understand what numbers tell us.




The End Of An Era. Martha Peek Retires.

Ten years ago I plunged into the world of K-12 public education.  It’s been a remarkable journey.  I’ve met amazing people who have become dear friends.

None more so that Marha Peek, who retires the end of June as superintendent of the Mobile County school system, the largest in the state with nearly 54,000 students.  Her own journey in education began in 1972 when she got her first job teaching elementary school at Alba in Bayou La Batre, her hometown.  Her interest in working with children came naturally.  Her grandmother taught on Dauphin Island in 1908, taking a schooner to the island.

And Alma Bryant high school is named after a great aunt.  (Peek is hopeful that a cousin now at the University of Mobile will be the next in her family to work with the local system.)

Peek always has a smile in her voice and one on her face and can disarm most critics.  But don’t be deceived, she does not suffer fools wisely, especially those who don’t consider children first and foremost.

She was named superintendent in 2012.  And even this was in many regards testimony to how she approached her entire career.  Never flashy, just dependable and hard-working.  She was deputy superintendent in 2011 when Roy Nichols retired.  She did not apply for the top job.  The board did one national search and could not agree on a candidate.  They tried again, with the same results.  Then they realized the most qualified candidate was already on staff and they named Peek superintendent.

Editor’s note: no doubt my affection for Martha is impacted by the fact that she grew up a few miles from our little farm in south Mobile County and if my figuring is correct, I was in the eighth grade at Alba when she was in the first grade there.  Plus she worked as assistant principal with my good friend and high school classmate, Tina Nelson, at South Brookley elementary many years ago.  A few months ago the three of us got together and I laughed for nearly two hours as they told tall tales.)

Even today, it is apparent that Peek’s passion for working with children is as strong as ever. Her eyes sparkle and her tone intensifies as she calls students by name and recounts their stories of struggle and success.  She talks about how the world has changed since she was a brand-new teacher in 1972.   “Kids today are dealing with so many social and emotional issues now,” she says.  “And though too many don’t understand it, education is so much more than just drilling to take another test.”

She recalls when the public viewed teachers with respect, almost even reverence.  “That is no longer true and stress on teachers has never been greater,” she says.  “For some reason, people don’t seem to understand the importance of education these days.  And every dad gummed politician thinks they have all the answers for education.”

A good friend has always referred to Martha Peek as E. F. Hutton, telling me that “when she talks, I listen.”  I certainly agree.  She made her mark on thousands and thousands of lives.

A lot of folks will miss her when she goes home.  I’m just glad I have her cell number.



When Good People Do Good Things

The Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, a non-profit organization working to strengthen public education, is sending 109 educators from Texas to attend weeklong summer institutes at the Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

With this new cohort, Raise Your Hand Texas will have paid for more than 1,200 educators to attend training at Harvard though the Raising School Leaders program, an initiative designed to develop stronger school leaders who will enhance the quality of education in the state. Raise Your Hand covers all expenses for the attendees including tuition, travel, hotel and other discretionary costs – investing on average about $9,200 per attendee, for a total of about $1 million in sponsorships for 2018, and more than $9 million since the program’s inception.

Attendees, including individual teachers and principals, as well as campus teams, will participate in one of four weeklong workshops on leadership development, coaching, or school turnaround led by Harvard faculty and other national and international experts. Each program is designed to inspire, challenge, and empower school leaders to bring lasting impact to their campuses and communities.

“Great teachers, along with strong school and district leaders, represent the most significant influencers of academic achievement and supportive culture,” said Cody Huie, Vice President of Programs at Raise Your Hand Texas. “Our alumni often report that their Harvard experience is the best professional development they have ever experienced, and that they return to their campuses energized, inspired, and empowered to make meaningful change that benefits all students.”

Each institute lasts five to seven days, between June 11 and July 14, 2016. After Harvard, participants will be sponsored to attend the organization’s annual leadership symposium and receive continuous support and professional development as part of the program’s statewide network of school leaders.

It is impossible not to contrast this effort to what is going on in Montgomery right now where a group of more than 100 individuals and businesses have just spent $77,000 to denigrate the public school system.

Obviously some folks in Texas understand things that some in Montgomery do not.

Teacher Stress Is Very Real

A few weeks ago I spoke to an elementary principal about the issues she faces.  She told me that one is teacher absenteeism.  When I asked her why,she quickly told me, “Stress.”  At 4 p.m. today, (Friday May 25) I’m talking to the principal of one of the best elementary schools in the state.

Their students’ last day of school was yesterday.  She told me it was the hardest year she’s ever had as a principal.  That the teachers were totally wiped out and when they got together to celebrate another year completed, it was a much more somber atmosphere than it should have been.

These conversations popped into my mind when I came across the following article from a group known as Child Trends, an organization that has been around for years providing data resources for policymakers, foundations and the general public.

“As education stakeholders consider improvements to school climate, school safety, and student well-being, many have turned their attention to the role of schools in promoting mental health. While most of this attention focuses on students’ mental health needs, it is also essential to explore ways of supporting teachers and school staff who often experience high levels of stress.

Relative to professionals in other sectors, educators experience significantly more stress and suffer more often from mental health problems. In fact, 61 percent of educators reported that their work is “always” or “often” stressful. Failing to address the mental health needs of teachers (concurrent with our focus on student stress and trauma) may affect their ability to address critical needs among students. Teacher wellness has been linked not only to teachers’ physical health, but also to stability in schools and to teaching effectiveness and student achievement. Moreover, teachers’ emotions and stress levels have been found to influence those of students and other teachers. In Child Trends’ preliminary research on creating healthy school environments, students, educators, and policymakers all mentioned teacher wellness as an important factor in the overall health of a school.

Research points to several key sources of stress that can undermine teacher wellness: high-stakes job demands, limited resources and professional autonomy, and negative school climate. Heightened attention to student test scores in recent years has placed teachers under increased scrutiny, as their professional success is measured in large part by student performance on standardized exams. They must also navigate challenging student behavior and complex parent and family needs. Teachers are often expected to drive student success for a diverse set of learners and intervene across a range of challenging situations with limited materials, assistance, and control over school and classroom decisions. In fact, teachers are less likely than any other professional group to report feeling that their opinions matter at work.

Existing research suggests that the availability of supports and resources to address students’ needs may affect teacher wellness; preliminary findings from Child Trends research indicate that unmet student needs may be a potentially critical source of teacher stress. When a student experiences trauma at home or lacks sufficient resources to thrive in the classroom, her teacher is often the first to notice that something is wrong and to respond. In the absence of sufficient student support services at the school, or systems that link students with needed services in the community, the teacher may feel helpless to meet the needs of that student. Alternatively, the teacher may become the student’s primary support system. Both scenarios are emotionally taxing for the teacher.

While elements of the school environment and structure seem to cause considerable stress for teachers, the mechanisms commonly suggested to reduce teacher stress tend to focus on the teacher’s responsibility for self-care. Self-care practices such as meditation, exercise, or participation in a support group are inexpensive and straightforward to implement, and certainly have the potential to alleviate symptoms of stress. However, these practices do not address the root causes of teacher stress and may divert attention from the systemic stressors that exist in schools today. Instead, we should address these sources of stress and embrace a holistic approach to teacher wellness. Promoting teacher wellness requires attention to physical and mental health, professional development and support, and resources needed to be effective in the classroom, among other things.

Any profession is bound to have its stresses, and teaching is no different. But when we accept that an unhealthy level of stress is inherent to teaching, and place the burden of stress reduction on the individual teacher, we limit our ability to improve overall school wellness. We can better shape healthy schools for teachers and students by addressing the underlying causes of chronic stress and cultivating environments that promote teacher wellness. Ultimately, such attention could lead to healthier, more supportive school communities and more positive outcomes for students. When teacher wellness becomes a norm, so too will student success.”

Teacher stress is real–and seldom mentioned in all the talk about helping schools improve.

Good News From Washington County

As the Tombigbee river meanders through west Alabama it eventually becomes the eastern border of Washington County.  In fact, this is where its waters join those of the Alabama river before heading to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  The county is both big and old.  With more than 1,000 square miles, it is larger than Rhode Island.  And it was created in 1800, well before Alabama became a state in 1819.

The first territorial capital of Alabama was in Washington County at St. Stephens. And like so many of our rural counties, it is shrinking and has less than 18,000 citizens.  The cotton fields that once flourished here have long given way to pine trees.

Only 2,682 students are spread among seven schools, five of them high schools.  In 1995-96 there were 3,783 students.

However, this rural slice of southwest Alabama keeps on chugging.  And as David Wofford, Career & Technical Education Director for the  school system explains, there are success stories.

“It is that time of year again for Washington County schools. The K-12 world is busy preparing for graduation ceremonies and going away parties. All the hard work of students and teachers is about to pay off, as graduates move to another phase of their lives..

Two years ago, the school system made changes to the local career and technical education programs. This year, students, teachers and businesses have reaped the benefits of those changes.

After surveying students’ interests and local needs, system officials converted the business program to health science. This change contributed to students securing certified nursing assistant internships with home health care services, and 16 seniors were pinned as CNAs. Five internships were also awarded.

Changes were also made in the system’s industrial maintenance classes. A partnership with Coastal Alabama Community College resulted in the first dual enrollment pipefitting program in the state of Alabama. Six seniors were awarded scholarships with local community colleges.

All 17 graduating students from the pipefitting program were offered positions at Ingalls Shipbuilding. Additionally, eight students have been hired on full time or as summer interns at AM/NS Calvert. Safety courses were also provided for all CTE students, courtesy of AM/NS Calvert.

Although there is much left to do, Washington County schools are on the way to improving the lives of students and providing them with viable study and career options.”

We save the world one life at a time.  Dedicated professionals such as those in Washington County make it happen.  Truth is, when you are tucked away in places like Leroy, Fruitdale, Millry, McIntosh and Chatom chances are you are both out-of-sight and out-of-mind.. However, this does not diminish your work.

And recent graduates of these tech programs are testimony to such.