New School Reports Are Out. Now What?

Report cards for 1,300 Alabama schools are now out.  Their release brought the usual amount of fluttering about from educators and politicians.  In brief, general improvement was seen across the landscape with more districts earning A’s and B’s than previously.

Trish Crain, who covers education for did her usual good job of looking at this topic from stem to stern.  You can see her reporting here, here and here.

And what we learn again is something we’ve known for years.  Poverty levels and demographic makeup of schools, nine times out of ten, or maybe ninety-nine out of one hundred, set the DNA of a school.  While it may not be politically correct to discuss such matters, or just turn away from reality, a deep look at the info provided by these report cards reveals the starkness of what we face in many parts of this state.

After all, the report cards are just a tool.  Unless we work hard to find out what they tell us, they are worth very little.  Too often we get so caught up a process that we fail to see the larger picture.  What would you think if your doctor ordered some X-fays, and then did not look at them?  Or if he had blood work done for you, and did not look at the results?

There are 15 school systems (out of 137) that earned a system wide A.  On average, they are 70.1 percent white, 14.8 percent black, 5.7 percent Hispanic and 5.1 percent Asian.  The average free-reduced lunch rate is 23.4 percent.

By comparison, numbers for all 722,212 public school students are: 54.1 percent white, 32.4 percent black, 8.4 percent Hispanic and 1.4 percent Asian.  The average free-reduced lunch rate is 49.9 percent.

There are ten systems that received a D grade.  (None got an F.)  Collectively they are 10.1 percent white, 79.6 percent black, 8.2 percent Hispanic and less than one percent Asian.  Poverty rate is 64.9 percent

Yep.  The differences on each end of this spectrum are stark..  But wait, it’s when we go inside some of these numbers that we begin to find nuggets that may give us insight and guidance.  For example, there are 190 A schools listed.  But of these, 31 have a poverty rate greater than the state average.  And 10 of these are 60 percent or greater.

Steele is in the north end of St. Clair County, on U.S. 11 that was once the main route  from Birmingham to Gadsden.  It’s the home of Steele Junior High, a K-7 school with only 174 students.  The free-reduced lunch rate is 72.4 percent meaning that it has the highest poverty rate of any A school in Alabama.  Someone must be doing something right at this school and in this community.  I don’t know what, but I plan to take a look.

Another nugget.  Of the 190 A schools. there are only two that are majority black.  One is Jeter Primary and the other is Morris Avenue Intermediate.  Both are in Opelika and both have a 60 percent poverty rate.  Again, they may have stories to tell.

There are 27 A schools in C districts.  They are sprawled from Lookout Mountain to Mobile.  How are they meeting challenges other schools in their district can’t seem to overcome?

We love to look for bright, shiny objects in education.  Let’s have a new strategic plan, let’s give out vouchers, what about converting some schools to charters?  Why not convene an “education summit” and bring in high-paid consultants who have written lots of books?

Or better yet, let’s take the road map these school report cards have given us, be honest about our challenges and shortcomings and don’t insist that one size fits all.  We obviously have some home-grown experts.  You know like teachers and principals,

Ten years ago Buddy Dial was principal of Albert Turner, Sr. elementary school in Marion.  This was one of the schools we studied for Lessons Learned From Rural Schools.  After 40 years in education, Buddy retired the following year.  He is a native of the Black Belt and knows it and its people like the back of his hand.

He called me yesterday and we talked about education.  He told me, “It really is a lot simpler than folks think.”

I don’t disagree.


Sully’s Science Project

Let’s begin the New Year on a light-hearted note and what better way to do that than checking in with our fourth grade buddy Sully, down in Baldwin County.

Couple things you need to know about Sully, like most young boys, he is not big into taking a shower and for certain does not see the benefit of a shower after going swimming.

So when I happened upon some advice about bathing, I immediately thought of Sully and sent the following tidbit to his grandmother.

The American Academy of Dermatology gives parents advice about how often to bathe their tots, based on how dirty and smelly they get. If they’re not too dirty from playing, the recommendation is a bath at least once or twice a week for kids between the ages of six and 11. Their little developing immune systems need some dirt (organisms like bacteria and small doses of viruses and infections) in order to grow up strong.

But once we hit age 12, the official bathing guidance stops. The AAD seems to assume that just about everyone is trying to wash away those awkward teenage smells, and that most people have a daily shower routine by the time they’ve reached puberty.

The truth is that we probably don’t have to shower that much. 

The immediate response from Baldwin County was ain’t no way I share this with Sully.  He might never get in the shower.

Then grandma informed me of a science project Sully conjured up and conducted.  He wondered if your shoes smelled worse if you wore them without socks or with socks.

I have no clue just how precise his “research” may have been.  Were the socks always cleaned to the same standards.  Was a new pair of shoes used for every repetition of the protocol?  Who was the official “smeller-in-charge”?  Had they been certified by the American Society of Smellers?  (Sometimes known as ASS.)  Did he wash his feet before each test?

The conclusion of the research was that socks do indeed reduce the smell in your shoes.  But for some reason, I doubt that Sully really cared all that much about his science project.

As some folks some times say, WE NEED TO KEEP IT REAL.  And Sully understands that for sure.

2018 In The Rearview Mirror

With Christmas over and the New Year almost upon us, thought I would take a moment to look back at the year that just was.  :Like them all, it had highs and lows and left memories both good and bad.

In digging through records, I find that I drove more than 11,000 miles to make speeches, visit schools, attend board meetings and do other things involving education.  Rambled from one end of the state to the other, as well as to some other states.  Made 14 speeches, wrote more than 200 blog posts that were “hit” more than 112,000 times on this blog.  I am indeed grateful for each and every one who drops by to read them.

It was the year that for some unknown reason I ran for a seat on the Montgomery county school board.  This became a far different adventure than I imagined it would be and I am still dismayed at things I experienced.  I lost.  Big time.

Then in ironies of ironies, I was appointed to serve three months on this very board.  That too was interesting and mostly fortified my notions about a lot of things that take place in K 12 education.  And made me understand even better that the gap between the classroom and the central office is VERY WIDE.  And I don’t consider that a good thing.

It was the year my dear friend, Martha Peek, retired as superintendent of Mobile County schools and 46 years of experience walked out the door.  She is definitely at the top of the heap in my book and has forgotten more about the reality of teaching children than most of today’s so-called “leaders” will ever know.  As us country folks sometimes say, “He just got above his raising.”  Martha didn’t.

I met countless teachers and principals who face tremendous challenges every day and plow ahead with amazing resolve.  Unfortunately, they live in a world that is far removed from the one imagined by so many who are making education policy.

Definitely one of the highlights was being at the University of West Alabama the night of May third when the first 13 graduates of the Black Belt Teacher Corps honored me with a special presentation.  As I wrote about the event, I was ALMOST at a loss for words.

I will always consider this recognition a great honor.  And being able to play a small role in the birth of this program will always be special.

UWA President Ken Tucker and Dean of Education Jan Miller are good and dedicated people who strongly believe actions speak louder than words.  The Black Belt region is lucky to have them.

I often tell a group of teachers that I honestly believe they are doing the Good Lord’s work because of their willingness to work with children.  I say that with all sincerity and was glad that I made new friends with many of them in 2018.  And I look forward to meeting others in 2019.


A $10,000 Smile

Members of the Morgan County Education Association gathered recently for some holiday season fun and fellowship.  There was laughter, hugs, food, best wishes for a grand season and even a speech by an old fat guy.  (No. not Santa.)

Three guests, Tammy Slappey, June Landrum and John Edington of Alabama Credit Union, were there as well.  They are part of the “Secret Meals” program run by members of the credit union.  This is an effort to provide food for indigent children in the area,  Since educators know first hand how hunger can impact learning, many local school system employees use monthly payroll deductions to support Secret Meals.

So Slappey, Landrum and Edington knew they were at the holiday gathering for a special reason.  To get a check from MCEA.  But they didn’t know for how much.

Needless to say, they were shocked when MCEA president, Rona Blevins, counselor at Danville Neel elementary, gave them a check for $10,000.

Their smiles lit the room as this was far more than they expected.

According to the Food Bank of North Alabama, nearly one in four children across the Tennessee Valley region are “food insecure.”  It costs
$160 to provide food for one child for each weekend of the year.  So that $10,000 check is a big boost for Secret Meals.

There were no TV cameras there to record this event, nor a newspaper reporter.  It was just another quiet example of real people doing real things to make this world better.  The folks in Washington D.C. could learn something from the good people of Morgan County.


A Real Note From A Real Teacher

We’ve mentioned the web site DonorsChoose a number of times.  This is where teachers describe a project they are trying to fund, the things they need and how much it will all cost.  I highly recommend you taking a look at it.  You can search by state and by city and see what teachers in your area need.  I have helped with a number of these.

I just came across a write up by an Alabama teacher that especially caught my eye.  I do not know this teacher, but I know the very rural, south Alabama system she works in well.  Like many such systems, there are not many students and even less money for extras.

The teacher’s note struck me for its sincerity and for the fact that the supplies she needs are so basic.

I cut and paste some of what she wrote.

“My students need supplies in the resource room to help complete activities to broaden their receptive language, expressive language, articulation skills, and social interaction with peers and teachers.

I am the Speech Language Pathologist for sixty four amazing and wonderful children. I serve students in four schools, the Headstart, and the Child Count students (primarily preschool). I have eight self contained special needs (non – verbal, very limited speech, ID, ASD, and other syndromes) , fifteen related service students (SLD, ASD, and ID), and forty three primary students (apraxia, phonological processing errors, articulation -severe to mild, stuttering (fluency), and language delayed.

All of my speech students deserve a way to communicate and provide a “voice” that is understandable by most, when their words fail them.
I am seeking basic classroom supplies to provide the opportunity to use another form of communication. It has been my experience that children can draw to express things, when their words won’t come to them. It provides opportunities for children to express themselves more effectively. Drawings can have pictures of words with the targeted sounds which allow “carryover” practice. It allows a child the opportunity to practice conversational exchanges even if only answering yes and no questions. It will allow the student an opportunity to relay a story from their day at school. It is another form of communication.

These items will enable my students to have supplies readily available in the resource room to enhance language, articulation, fluency, and overall communication. Art projects enable them to employ their auditory processing skills by following directions to complete a project. They help build a better understanding of basic “direction” words and phrases by application. Most of my students learn better with hands-on activities. It provides the opportunity to enhance and broaden their vocabulary receptively and expressively. It provides opportunities for my to children to practice asking questions and making statements that are grammatically correct. Often non-verbal children and limited speech children can and do draw. Drawing allows communication to be enhanced.

These basic items will provide a wealth of opportunity to discover new experiences and ways to communicate with others.
The young ones will benefit from the large crayons to color their pictures and designs. It will enable them to work on colors, shapes, lines, and numbers with applied knowledge. The triangle crayons will allow the special needs students to work on their “pincer” grasp while coloring like their peers. The markers and index cards allow them the opportunity to make flashcards on the language and/or articulation skills to promote “carryover” outside of the Speech Resource Room. Art projects made from the construction paper will allow the students to know the sense of accomplishment in creating items, which will enhances their self-esteem. It also provides opportunity for the students to extend “carryover” of the communication skills; when they take their projects home. We all have drawn something at one time or another to enhance and clarify understanding of the topic being discussed. These basics are the foundation to begin working on their language, fluency (stuttering), and articulation skills to improve basic communication.”

And what are the “basic” supplies she needs.  Such things as index cards, colored paper, Crayolas, scissors, ballpoint pens, glue sticks, shipping tape and construction paper.  The kind of things most of us have stuck in cabinets and closets.

Total cost: $509.87

No electronics.  No robots to be programed.  No 3-D printers to hum and whir.  No software.  Just paper and things to mark with and clue to hold it all together.

This is the real world of education today in many, many places.  A very different world than the folks at the Alabama Policy Institute claim has all the resources they need.

A Lesson In Manipulating Numbers

Just 12 months ago Ed Richardson was the interim state superintendent and since the state had intervened in the Montgomery County system, he was also the “czar” of this system.  He constantly painted an extremely bleak future for MPS.  One of his favorite things to do was make a big deal out of the fact that enrollment in the system dropped from 29,903 in school year 2016-17 to 29,124 in 2017-18.

A decrease of 779 students.  To hear him tell it, the only reason for this decline was the dismal governance of the MPS school board and the quality of education being offered.  (And even though enrollment declined in more than one-half of the state’s 137 systems in the same period, this was never mentioned.)

Numbers are now available for the current year of 2018-19.  And to no one’s surprise, enrollment continues to drop.  Statewide we lost 4,712 students from last year to this year.  Of our 137 school systems, 93 have fewer students now than a year ago.

Montgomery is the center of what is locally called the “river region.”  There are nine systems in this area.  Montgomery, Macon, Elmore, Bullock, Crenshaw, Lowndes and Autauga counties and Pike Road and Tallassee city systems.

Of these, eight have lost students in the last 12 months.  Only Pike Road has seen an upturn in student population.  Enrollment in the region is 760 less than in 2017-18.

Does this mean eight of the nine systems have weak school boards, poor governance and teachers who can’t teach?

Is the sauce that’s good for the goose also good for the gander?  Or do we sometimes yield to the temptation to make numbers fit our narrative?

Just asking.