There are certain non-negotiable education truths.  One being THERE ARE NO FAILNG SCHOOLS–ONLY FAILING COMMUNITIES.

Unfortunately, few, if any, politicians understand this, and not many educators either.

This was clear the morning of Dec. 20  when the state school superintendent and the Montgomery mayor held a press conference to announce that they support a plan by the Montgomery Education Foundation to convert four existing MPS schools to charters.  It was lights, cameras and action–and damn little reality.

The plan is that the education foundation will take control of Lanier high, Bellingrath middle and Davis and E. D. Nixon elementary schools, hire a management company, keep all existing students and magically turn water into wine.

Could it happen?  Perhaps.  Is it likely to happen?  No.

Because no one understands the non-negotiable truth I just mentioned.

Lanier high is 70.0 percent free-reduced lunch; Bellingrath is 84.5; Davis is 84.6 and E. D. Nixon is 81.2.  Numbers such as these have been proven over and over again to be a huge obstacle to school performance.  Not that kids in poverty can not learn, but because they live in an environment that is not conducive to educational achievement,.  FAILING COMMUNITIES.

Just look at this:  Bear elementary magnet in Montgomery has 528 students and their PTA has 800 members.  E. D. Nixon has 489 students and ONE parent is a member of their PTA.  FAILING COMMUNITIES.

There are 29 schools in the Black Belt counties of Bullock, Dallas, Greene, Lowndes and Wilcox counties.  The poverty rate at Bellingrath middle is HIGHER than all but two of these 29.  So the Montgomery Education Foundation, with the backing of the mayor and state school chief, is going to switch Black Belt schools to charters?

Or consider this.  Each year the Alabama Accountability Act requires the state to put out a list of “failing”: schools.   Nine schools have been on this list all six years it has been compiled.  They are in Bullock, Greene, Mobile, Montgomery, Wilcox counties and Selma and Tuscaloosa.  Collectively they have a poverty rate of 72.6 percent.  By comparison, the four Montgomery schools to be converted have a poverty rate of 78.1 perfect.

We increasingly hear about “wrap around” services for schools these days.  This means it is important to pay attention to needs outside the classroom in high poverty schools.  Things such as mental health, dental and medical care, working with families, etc.  (Which means the announcement this week that four MPS schools will soon have health care facilities is much more worthy of recognition than converting schools to charters.)

Ironically, both Davis and Nixon were selected as pilot schools for wrap around services a few years ago.  When the state intervened and took control of the Montgomery system, they eliminated support for these programs.

While I was on the MPS board one question I asked was, “What does the Montgomery Education Foundation do?”  No one on the board could tell me.  I have also asked a number of MPS principals if the foundation has ever helped their school.  I’ve yet to find one who said “Yes.”

There are many, many things this group could do to be a partner with MPS.  For instance, it was just announced that 164 teachers in Alabama have become national board certified.  This means they have undergone a very rigorous multi-year professional development program that will boost their effectiveness.  There is only ONE teacher from Montgomery on this list.  (There are FOUR from two Pell City elementary schools.)

Why couldn’t MEF begin a program to help more teachers gain this certification?

There are dozens of MPS teachers seeking help for their classrooms.  You can find them on www.donorschoose.com.  I have helped a number of them.  Why not MEF?

There is a lot of work ahead to get ready for this new grand experiment to put four charters in place.  There will be a tremendous amount of paperwork for MPS staff.  A staff that is already overburdened with trying to keep accreditation current and working through the state intervention.

For the sake of our students, I hope it works.  But when I read an article like this one that details a Federal study showing that only 18 percent of all education innovation programs succeed, it is hard to be hopeful.  My concern is also tempered by a lot of visits in high poverty schools and lots of conversations with principals and teachers who work with these challenges.