After thousands of miles and visits with countless teachers. principals and superintendents. After sitting in school board meetings from one end of Alabama to the other (including some when I was a member of the Montgomery school board) and seeing it all from the perspective of a non-educator (meaning I was not tainted by too much education mumble jumble), I have come to some steadfast beliefs.
The most important link in the education chain is the principal
Life in the classroom is a reflection of life outside the classroom
Teachers and principals are the real education experts
We don’t have failing schools, we have failing school communities
A student spends only 12 percent of the hours in their year in a classroom and 88 percent outside the classroom–but we spend most of our resources on the 12 and not enough on the 88 and wonder why so little changes
Climate and culture are hugely important to schools, but often ignored
Teachers can not solve all of society’s ills
The higher up the education bureaucracy someone is, the less they contribute to real classroom success.
Excellent schools are happy and joyful places for children.
So with these I mind, here are things Montgomery could do.
Embrace the concept of community-centered schools. These are schools who recognize that in most high-poverty schools there is a great need for medical services, including dental and eye care, including mental health. Cincinnati has a wonderful such program that has been in place many years. I have driven to Cincinnati five times to look at it.
Several years ago I worked with the Truman Pierce Institute at Auburn and we had four people from Cincinnati do a workshop in Montgomery. While more than 75 people showed up from across south Alabama, no one from MPS was there. However, several years ago pilot programs for community-centered schools were started at E.D. Nixon and Davis elementary. Grant money was secured to get the programs going.
But when the state intervened in the Montgomery system, state superintendent Mike Sentance shut down these programs.
There are bits and pieces of such programs across the state. Huntsville schools have had on-site medical and dental facilities for a number of years. The New Hope community in Madison County began he Care Center years ago. This grew out of concern from four churches. This has now grown to 16 churches. In addition to working with local schools, they provide services to the community at large.
Embrace the faith community. While many local churches work with schools, we need more. They can be wonderful assets for schools by providing tutors, supplies, volunteers, etc. They are also able to spread the message of how schools are performing and what special needs they have. Charlie Johnson of Ft. Worth, TX started Pastors for Texas Children several years ago. Today there are more than 2,000 Texas churches that have partnered with local schools.
Charlie is a Baptist minister who grew up in Monroeville, AL. Similar groups are now growing in six other states. He would love to do work in Alabama, and especially Montgomery.
Develop great principals. While you may have a handful of good teachers in a weak school, you will not have a strong school with a weak principal. You cannot provide too much professional development for principals. But it has to be meaningful. Not just another meeting scheduled for the same day each month whether it is needed or not.
One of Mike Sentances’s greatest blunders was giving a 10 percent raise to principals of more than 20 of the lowest performing schools in Montgomery. You do not reward mediocrity when you are trying to build excellence.
Some places have had great success with principal mentoring programs where “apprentice” principals work alongside top-notch principals for up to one school year.
Community resource personnel should be placed in high need schools. They are not educators, but people whose job is to develop community partnerships and generally relieve principals from wearing too many hats. Principals should be instructional leaders, not errand boys and social workers. Many principals are overly burdened with non-academic duties and chores.
Eliminate as much paperwork as possible. For reasons I don’t understand, education bureaucrats are addicted to paperwork. We should have every person who works in a central office examine every piece of paper they send to principals to be filled out and returned to determine what is life-threatening and what isn’t. A Montgomery principal told me recently that she had received 27 emails that day alone from central office staff wanting something, most of which they could have gotten themselves.
That is ridiculous.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea for some central office staff to spend time in classrooms so they could be reminded what school is all about.
Let’s go to school. We should encourage as many of our elected and civic leaders as possible to spend at least four hours as a classroom aide in a high-poverty classroom. The mayor, city commissioners, county commissions, chamber of commerce board members, civic club leaders, etc. need first-hand knowledge of what teachers face every day. This would be a great initiative for the education foundation to begin.
I spent an entire day in a classroom at George Hall elementary in Mobile several years ago. It was eye-opening. We have far too many people trying to direct education policy who have no clue about what is going on in our schools.
Advocacy. MPS board members should be constant advocates for our school system. Wherever two or more are gathered, a school board member should be there as well. During my brief time on the MPS board I attended numerous school events and was the only board member there.
Any board member who does not have time to take on this role should resign.
This is just a start on things that would benefit MPS-or most any other school system in the state. And the Montgomery Education Foundation could play a major role in many of these efforts. But they have to climb down from their Ivory Tower and get their hands dirty in some schools, just like teachers do.
Montgomery is a divided community. We should be building bridges–not burning them. The MEF charter application says this project has four board members. All are white. Yet, they will direct education in three schools that are majority black. That is a step in the wrong direction.