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.