The Two Worlds Of Education

My choices were clear that Thursday morning.  I could attend the state school board meeting at Montgomery’s Gordon Persons building where the main topic of discussion would be whether or not to finally adopt a new math course of study after many months of study and politically motivated wrangling, or to visit A.. L. Johnson high school in Thomaston and get a first hand look at work being done in the state’s highest poverty school.

I went to Thomaston and joined principal William Martin, superintendent Luke Hallmark, Jan Miller, dean of the college of education at the University of West Alabama and my consultant friend, Mike Robinson of New Jersey.

Johnson has only 175 students in its 12 grades.  The senior class is just 15.  But considering that the census says Thomaston only has 417 citizens, this is not a surprise.  And it is not a community of abundance as state records show 98.78 percent of the students at Johnson are poverty level.

Still, principal Martin, now in his third year, is making progress.  Most notably he is changing the school culture.  Discipline issues have dropped considerably during his tenure.  Students know what is expected of them and are going to class ready to learn.  The school, though built decades ago, is clean and well maintained.

Martin, who went to school here, spoke with pride when he told me that alumni came up with $15,000 to help air condition the gym.  Going from class to class showed engaged students and teachers dedicated to their jobs.  Librarian Katie Poole shows off an updated library with all the pride of a grandmother bragging on her grandkids.  She and a benefactor in New York crossed paths on the internet and the result is lots of new books and furnishings.

Jan Miller and Mike Robinson know far more about the workings of a school than I do.  They were impressed with what they saw.  They were especially impressed with how faculty are digging deep into student data to guide instruction.

Meanwhile, back in Montgomery things unfolded as expected.  (I watched  the video of the meeting when I got back from Thomaston.)

Some 32 people signed up to speak about the proposed math standards.  They fell into two camps.  1) educators and 2) non-educators.  With only one exception, every educator urged that the new math course of study be approved.  (The exception was a high school teacher who felt the state sequence of courses at the high school level should be altered.)

Their over-riding message was, “don’t continue to delay implementation because you are keeping instruction in limbo.”

Those opposed beat the same Common Core drum they have beat endlessly.  Not once did I hear any of the opponents suggest how standards could be improved, or if they did I missed  it.   Nor did any of the opponents offer their credentials as math experts or recount how many years they have in education, etc.

One said that we should go back to “classical” math.  I suppose she was thinking of what I was taught at Theodore high school 60 years that abandoned me when I got to Auburn University.

After all the huffing and puffing, Governor Ivey called for a vote on the resolution to adopt the proposed standards.  This passed 5-3.  The audience broke out in loud applause at this point.

Writing about all of this now, I know I made the right choice in where to go.  Once again I was reminded that running a school is hard work.  I mean really hard work.  I was reminded that every school is blessed with some extremely committed and dedicated teachers.  And that they battle odds that those calling for a NO vote in Montgomery have never faced.  And perhaps don’t even know exist.

Yes, we need guidelines on courses of study and various policy issues which means certain decisions must be rendered in Montgomery.

But at the same time, I will never forget that what happens in places like A. L. Johnson high school in tiny and remote Thomaston is what  education is truly all about.


Saving The World One Life At A Time

Officially it was called “Alabama Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Awards Ceremony.”.  A very nice affair held at the Gordon Person Building auditorium Dec. 3.

But unofficially, it was all about bringing recognition to people and organizations from around the state who work with those with disabilities so that they may be gainfully employed and active members of society. These are folks who take to heart the admonition found in the book of Matthew about doing things for the “least of these.”

There were 12 honorees.  Advocate, Large Business Employee, Collaboration, Large Business Employer, Education, Media, Partnership, Small Business Employer, Public Service, Student, Youth Leadership and Small Business Employee.

David Hyche was recognized for his advocacy.  A 30-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. he is the father of a blind daughter who wanted to hunt Easter eggs.  Discovering that plastic eggs equipped with sound were quite expensive, Hyche used his knowledge of working with bombs to come up with a much less expensive version.  He then engaged other ATF folks around the country to join the effort and provide plastic eggs for children in their own communities.

Carpenters for Christ are members of the Tallasee First Baptist Church who build handicap ramps to meet needs in their town.  Matt Freeman is a welding instructor for the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy who engages students on various community projects.  William Roberts of Sylacauga is active with the local community garden.  The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex offers a variety of accommodations for those with disabilities.

The Partnership of the Year recognized the collaboration of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, Stringfellow Health Fund, Exchange Bank of Gadsden and the Beautiful Rainbow Café, a program of Gadsden school system.  The café is operated totally by students with disabilities who learn a host of life skills.

The City of Opelika was recognized for their on-gong efforts to comply with ADA requirements.  It was great to see my longtime friend, Mayor Gary Fuller, accept this honor.  Small Business Employee was Renee Maradik, owner of Something sweet Bake Shop in Daphne, while Met South, owned by Don and Cathy Jesse of Hanceville, was Small Business Employer of the Year.

Students Logan Tice, a senior at Oxford High School and Michael White, a student at the Alabama School for the Deaf were honored for their academic and leadership achievements.

And one old gray-haired blogger was honored with the media award.  I was both very surprised and very humbled.

It is individuals and organizations such as these who hold the fabric of our communities and our state together.  They are not seeking fame or fortune.  They just see a need and use their talents to meet it.

We can all take pride in what they do.




Something State Lawmakers Will Never Discuss

While it seems some Alabama legislative “leaders” are quick to blame everything from dead possums in the middle of the road to ingrown toenails as the fault of educators, when a site called WallteHub annually ranks states as to which ones are the worst in which to teach, no one in the statehouse ever mentions such info.

WalletHub ranked states depending on how they scored in two categories:

Opportunity and competition,” which includes how competitive salaries were, teacher pensions, and income growth.
Academic and work environment,” which includes the quality of the school system, how many students per teacher, and the rate of turnover.

It comes as little surprise to me that Alabama made the list of “15 worst”.  To be exact, we are ranked at No. 38.  Arizona, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Maine, Tennessee, Colorado and Missouri are considered worst than Alabama.

The best 15 states for teachers are: 1) North Dakota, 2) New Jersey, 3) Pennsylvania, 4) Wyoming, 5) Connecticut, 6) Illinois, 7) Minnesota, 8) Massachusetts, 9) Utah, 10) New York, 11) Delaware, 12) Oregon, 13) Kansas, 14) Kentucky and 15) Washington.

I am not a big fan of rankings for the reason that many things that impact such can not be easily quantified with only numbers.  However, as long as we persist in doing so, it is interesting to check them out.

For instance; last spring Alabama delayed implementation of new math standards because the governor wanted to compare how we teach math in Alabama to how it is taught in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wyoming, Virgina and New Jersey.  Why these states?  Because they had the best 4th grade math scores in the country on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

It is worth noting that of these five states, four of them are ranked by WalletHub as in the 15 best places to teach.  (Virginia was the exception.)

Could it be that there is a correlation between classroom results and Opportunity and competition and Academic and work environment?

Or is expecting lawmakers to link such as simply a bridge too far?


Dealing With Poverty

As those who want to “reform” education go in search of the next shiny object they are convinced will magically ignore the reality of the world we live in and instantly transport all schools and their students to a fantasy world of perfect families and white picket fences, they seldom face the cold, hard fact that poverty is a MAJOR stumbling block to success in the classroom.

Philip Tutor of The Anniston Star graphically reminds us that poverty is real and educators grapple with it each and every day.  Here is his look at the impact  of poverty on schools in Calhoun County:

“On Fridays, Principal Jeanna Chandler’s staff at Wellborn Elementary School hauls out the Rubbermaid totes. Usually there are two, one reserved for car-riding students, another for those who take the bus.

Stuffed inside are bags of food, sometimes as many as a hundred sacks of simple stuff, easily made by young hands. Cans of soup. Jell-O. Cans of spaghetti and meatballs. 

“We’ll have food for them to have over the weekend, things they can prepare themselves,” Chandler said.

 The weekend backpacks at Anniston’s Randolph Park Elementary School are filled with similar fare — boxes of Pop-Tarts, cans of Vienna sausages, containers of mac-and-cheese and soups. 

One hundred and five of Randolph Park’s 321 students get backpacks each Friday. When Thanksgiving break arrives next week, they’ll get two backpacks of food. Over the Christmas holiday, they’ll get even more.

“I don’t think the city recognizes what we are dealing with,” Principal Teresia Hall said. “I don’t think they understand [that student hunger] is a problem in our area.”

I’m as guilty as anyone of lazy thinking about poverty — that it’s mainly a homeless issue, or only in certain parts of the city, or that white Annistonians aren’t often affected. But shame on me, because that’s not the case.

Nearly a third of Anniston residents (29.5 percent) live below the federal poverty line, the U.S. Census Bureau says. And an astonishing number of students in Anniston-area schools are considered “economically disadvantaged” by the Alabama Department of Education — a bureaucratic euphemism for a nimbler definition.

They’re poor.

Wellborn Elementary and Randolph Park aren’t our only schools with student bodies who are overwhelmingly poor. But they illustrate how pervasive poverty is in Calhoun County, regardless of race, ward or city limit.

Randolph Park’s student population was overwhelmingly black (97.2 percent) in the 2018-19 school year, according to the most recent state DOE data. Wellborn Elementary’s student population was overwhelmingly white, 85.6 percent. And four-fifths of each school’s students were poor — 80.22 percent for Wellborn Elementary, 80.33 percent for Randolph Park.

Anniston City Schools’ systemwide measure of poor students was nearly 72 percent, but poverty doesn’t adhere to city boundaries. All of Calhoun County Schools’ campuses in Wellborn had high rates of “economically disadvantaged” students. Saks Elementary’s percentage of poor students — 85.44 — soared above Wellborn Elementary’s and Randolph Park’s. Nearly 60 percent of Ohatchee Elementary’s students last year were poor. 

There are others, still.

Neither Oxford High nor Jacksonville High topped 50 percent. Only 33.72 percent of students at White Plains High were poor. Plotted on a map, our schools mimic the pockets of our low-income neighborhoods. But the difference is that instead of measuring poverty by property values and median household incomes, it’s marked by children sent home from school with cans of soup and Pop-Tarts so they won’t go hungry over the weekend.

And it’s not just food. “As principal here [at Wellborn Elementary],” Chandler said, “our goal is to take out the barriers that keep kids from learning.” Then she lists a few barriers.

If students are cold in the winter, her staff gets them coats. If they need shoes, Chandler’s team finds them a pair. If their glasses are broken — or if they don’t have any — teachers find a solution for that, too. Some of her students’ families may not have hot water at home for showers or power for heat. Outside help from churches and community agencies, from Family Links, from Center of Hope, from churches, is a godsend.

There’s a truth over at Randolph Park. “Everybody can’t do this job,” Hall said. She’s taught in the district for 19 years. “This is a hard job. You have to have a heart that you know what [the students] are going through. You have to break through that barrier. They may be in poverty, there may be a single parent, there may be a grandparent raising that child, but we have to teach them.”

At Wellborn Elementary, “the ones that are here, they know the challenges of teaching at a high-poverty school,” Chandler said. “They have to want to be here. It is not an easy job.”

None of these comparisons indict anyone. Blame isn’t the point. If anything, they’re a fascinating look at the roles educators play in the lives of Calhoun County’s low-income students, roles that go far beyond lesson plans and test scores. It’s inspiring. 

Grateful we should be for the mobilized army of volunteers and agencies already helping these students. They’re godsends, remember. But if you ever doubt how deep poverty’s roots have grown in Calhoun County, visit these schools. See the totes and backpacks of food. There’s your proof.”

Editor’s note:  Senator Del Marsh represents Calhoun County.  He is the sponsor of the Alabama Accountability Act that has diverted $155 million from public schools to give scholarships to private schools, the sponsor of the charter school law of 2015 and the sponsor of legislation to take away the right of the public to vote on state school board members.  He should visit principal Jeanna Chandler at Wellborn elementary and principal Teresia Hall at Randolph Park elementary and ask them how his legislation is helping them.

Where Are The Naysayers When It Is Good News?

When NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) scores recently were unkind to Alabama, the naysayers were quick to crawl out from under their rocks and scream about the sky falling.  A perfect example is this rubbish from the Alabama Policy Institute that tried to convince us that even though Mississippi only has six charter schools in the entire state, “school choice” is the sole reason for their improvement in NAEP scores.

But when the latest report on school report cards contained substantial good news, the naysayers were strangely quiet.

In the 2017-18 school year, we got school grades for 1,303 K-12 schools.  Of these, 201 got an A and only 39 got an F.  So, 15.4 percent of all state schools were A-rated, compared to 2.9 percent being F-rated.

Compare this to the 2018-19 grades when 1,315 wee graded.  This time 269 (20.4 percent) got an A and only 24 (1.8 percent) scored F.

Last year we had 15 school systems that were rated as A, this jumped to 25 systems this year.

So any way you cut it, on the A-F grading system, Alabama schools made significant improvement.

Of course, when your agenda is political and not education, you keep your mouth shut when the narrative does not support your position.  Which is just another way of saying that you show your true colors.

And never forget that the same folks pushing negative news, while ignoring good news, are the same ones who want us to go from an elected state school board to an appointed one.

Ella Bell, State School Board Member, Has Passed Away

After battling ill health for many months, we received word this morning, Nov. 3, that longtime state school board member Ella Bell , has died.

Bell was elected to the state board in Nov. 2000 and served since taking office in Jan. 2001.  She represented district 5, the largest geographic district in the state, stretching from Macon and Pike counties all the way to downtown Mobile.

Bell graduated from Tuskegee University in 1969 and got a Masters in education from Alabama State in 1974.  She worked at the Dropout Prevention Center at Alabama State University.

A Democrat, Ella was seldom at a loss for words and when she took a stand, she did not budge.  She was a friend of mine and called from time to time to discuss education issues.  These discussions were sometimes colorful and I always knew just where she stood when I hung up the phone.

She was planning to seek office again in 2020.

And since qualifying ends at 5 pm. on Nov. 8, there will no doubt be a scramble over the next few days of candidates hoping to succeed her.  Governor Ivey will also appoint someone to fill the remainder of Bell’s term which runs until Jan. 2021.