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.


What Do You Think About Homework? Christy Hiett Wants To Know.

Christy Hiett is principal of tiny Fruithurst elementary in Cleburne County.   I met her ten years ago when we did the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools.   And though she has since become Dr. Christy Hiett, she is still principal of the school she attended as a child.

Always looking for ways to make her school better, three years ago she became convinced that homework was more a hindrance than a help for her students.

As reported by The Anniston Star:  “In seeking answers, Hiett consulted a wide variety of academic sources that revealed surprising statistics about the need for homework. She also learned that the most academically successful nations do not assign homework at all.

After sharing these results with the superintendent of Cleburne County schools, she was given approval to issue a school-wide ban on homework.

That was in 2016 and now, three years later, the no-homework policy is still in place and meeting with great success. Students must still study for tests, but with none of the usual homework tacked on.

In what Hiett believes is proof that homework has no positive academic impact, the school’s reading, math and English language grades are steadily increasing.

In addition, the no-homework initiative places all children, regardless of income levels, on the same playing field. “Not all children have someone at home that can help them, nor do they have the necessary items to complete the assignments,” Hiett said.

With no homework to do, students are encouraged to bring in pictures of how they spend their afternoons. “They have time for all kinds of after-school activities,” Hiett said. “Karate lessons, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, sports — just to name a few.” She created a space inside the school to display those photographs with the hashtag heading #nomorehomework.

As an added bonus, leisurely reading has become a popular pastime with students. “They are reading more than they ever have in the past,” Hiett said. That is witnessed by the increased volume of books being checked out of the school library.

In Hiett’s opinion, however, the most important after-school activity is playtime.

“I am a big advocate for children having time to genuinely play,” she said. “We have done our children a disservice by taking away play, to the point that kindergarten is now the new first grade, and that is detrimental to a child’s development. I want children to be allowed to just be children.”

The no-homework policy is very popular with parents. “They love it!” Hiett said. “Many parents work until 5 p.m. They barely have time to get home, cook a meal for dinner, get children bathed and put to bed at a decent time. Having homework limits the amount of quality time children get to spend with their family. This quality time is extremely important for a child’s development.”

Hiett has closely monitored the progress of students since the no homework policy was implemented and believes the results speak for themselves.

In year one (2016-17) reading grades increased 4.7 percent, math rose 7.2 percent and English language arts 8.7 percent.  The trend continued in year two (2017-18) with reading up 6.2 percent, math 15.2 percent and English language arts 13.4 percent.  Scores rose again In 2018-19 with a 9.5 percent increase in reading, 10.3 percent in math and 2.2 percent in English language arts.

But like all top-notch educators, Hiett continues to look for input re: homework.  So she put together this survey in order to gain more insight.  Please take a moment, especially if you are a parent of a student, and give her your feedback.



Demopolis Shows What Local Support Is Really All About

One of the truly fascinating examples of community support for a public school system can be found in the unlikely city of Demopolis.  With only an estimated 6,724 residents according to the U.S. Census and 2,300 students in its four schools, Demopolis is squarely in the heart of the Black Belt.  Which immediately calls forth images of impoverished people and underfunded school systems.

But if that is the case in Demopolis, no one told them so.

Because every year, over 250 private donors and businesses in West Alabama give to the Demopolis City Schools Foundation to invest in public education excellence. This year is no exception, and through those generous gifts and investments, the Demopolis City Schools Foundation has awarded classroom grants totaling more than $1.3 million since 1993.

This is an independent nonprofit established to encourage private charitable support of the school system.  It is governed by a 33-member board.

They have just announced $58,273 in new grants.

“These grants exemplify our strategic approach to grant making within the school system and focus on teacher-led ideas. From expanding MakerSpace activities that will encourage creative thinking to extending the LEGO education program, our teachers are building future problems solvers,” says Sarah Chandler Hallmark, president of the foundation.

“We have grants of all sizes that cut across all areas of education–from introducing archery in the Demopolis Middle School PE Department to tubas and euphoniums for their band program, we want each child in our rural system to have the resources necessary to explore his or her interests and ultimately be successful citizens.”

“We had grant requests of over $89,000 this fall and the committee had to make some hard choices about what projects to move forward, says Amanda Barnes, foundation executive director.  Additional grants will be awarded in the spring.

Here are the most recent grants:

Demopolis High School

$8,000 to Stacy Chandler for a set of Chromebooks and a cart for the science department
$680 to Jenn Tate for a potter’s wheel, clay and sculpting tools for the art programs at the middle and high school
$8,709 to Meggin Mayben in support of the A+ Computer Science Coding and Robotics classroom
$8,000 to Jill Tutt for a set of Chromebooks and a cart for the English Department
$3,249 to Lisa Lawrence for books and a Matter and Form 3D Scanner & Printer
$1,671 to Charles Jones for monitors, keyboards, and mice to turn existing Chromebooks into a workstations for drafting and design

Demopolis Middle School

$594 to Jackie Tripp for Apple Pencils to be paired with the iPads the DMS math teachers received through the Fall 2018 Classroom Grant process
$4,094 to Jesse Bell for the purchase of basic archery equipment in order to incorporate archery into the middle school physical education curriculum
$7,600 to Alaric Castleberry to purchase low brass instruments (tubas and euphoniums)
$2,000 to Ginger Godwin for hardcover and eBooks for the library

US Jones Elementary School

$800 to Jannalee Duke for six breakout kits along with access to the Breakout EDU platform
$6,999 to Julie Harrison to introduce Lego Education at USJ and continue the program from second grade (a 2017 Classroom Grant)
$2,000 to Emily Windham for funds to purchase technology equipment for checkout by teachers at the library

Westside Elementary School

$285 to Laurice Thomasson for classroom books to help expand students’ imagination and learning
$1,592 to Kristina Kallhoff to create a MakerSpace environment for students to engage in science, engineering and exploratory learning
$2,000 to Andrea Johnson to purchase chapter books for the Westside Library for higher level readers

Facebook @DemopolisCitySchoolsFoundation

Contact Amanda Barnes:  334-289-2226 (o) 334-314-3631 (c)

Editor’s note:  This foundation is just part of a much bigger narrative about Demopolis.  It is about a community that made a commitment decades ago to its public schools instead of succumbing to the prevailing impulse to fight integration with private schools.  Demopolis today is 56 percent black and 43 percent white.  This is almost identical to the demographics of the school system which is 56 percent black and 43 percent white.  There is one small private school in Demopolis which has 109 students pre-K through 7.

This is in stark contrast to Montgomery, where I live.  While the city is 56 percent black and 37 percent white, the school system is 78 percent black and only 10 percent white.

Montgomery also has an education foundation.  However, unlike their counterpart in Demopolis, they do not give grants to teachers.  Instead, they plan to take over three local schools and convert them to charter schools.  Such a move would be considered heresy in Demopolis.