Report: Federal Government Wasted Millions Of Dollars On Charter Schools That Never Opened

The Network for Public Education has released a new report detailing how millions and millions of dollars have been wasted by the federal government on charter schools.

Longtime Washington Post education reporter Val Strauss has written about the study.  Here are excerpts from her article:

“More than 35 percent of charter schools funded by the federal Charter School Program (CSP) between 2006 and 2014 either never opened or were shut down, costing taxpayers more than half a billion dollars, according to a new report from an advocacy group that reviewed records of nearly 5,000 schools. The state with the most charter schools that never opened was Michigan, home to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The report, titled “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” said that 537 “ghost schools” never opened but received a total of more than $45.5 million in federal start-up funding. That was more than 11 percent of all the schools that received funding from CSP, which began giving grants in 1995.

In Michigan, where the billionaire DeVos has been instrumental over several decades in creating a charter school sector, 72 charters that received CSP money never opened, at a total cost of some $7.7 million from 2006 to 2014. California was second, with 61 schools that failed to open but collectively received $8.36 million.

The report — published by the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group that supports public education and was co-founded by education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch — says the Education Department has failed for years to properly monitor how its charter grant funding is spent. The new findings follow “Asleep at the Wheel,” the network’s March report, which said up to $1 billion was wasted over the life of CSP on charter schools that never opened or opened and then closed. After that report’s release, congressional Democrats voted to cut millions of dollars from the CSP.

The new report found:

The disbursement of more than $1 billion during the program’s first decade — from 1995 to 2005 — was never monitored, and there is no complete public record of which schools received the funds because the Education Department never required states to report where the money went. During that period, California received $191 million, Florida $158.4 million and Michigan $64.6 million.

The overall rate of failed charter projects from 2006 to 2014 was 37 percent, with some states posting a much higher failure rate. In Iowa, for example, 11 charter schools received grants and 10 failed after receiving a total of $3.66 million. The failure rate exceeded 50 percent in a number of states, including Georgia, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland and Virginia. In California, 37 percent failed to open or stay open, after winning nearly $103 million in CSP funding.

Although Congress forbids for-profit operators from directly receiving CSP grants, some of them still were able to benefit. The report says 357 schools in the database were run by for-profit chains, for a total cost of $125 million in federal CSP start-up costs. Most of that money was spent in Michigan and in Florida.

The report — whose lead author is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education and a former award-winning New York principal — reviewed all of the nearly 5,000 schools listed in a 2015 database released by the federal government, the latest such data published by the Education Department. That database covers 2006 to 2014, when CSP awarded a total of $1.79 billion. Of that amount, $505 million — or 28 percent — went to schools that never opened or that closed.”

Go here to find the entire report.

A Senator Speaks. And Shows How Clueless He is.

A few days ago I posted the names and email addresses of the 30 senators who voted last May for an amendment that will replace our elected state school board with an appointed one.  A number of readers wrote senators and asked them why they voted as they did.

Someone in north Alabama got a response from their senator that blew my mind.

Here is what he said:

“If a local community wants an elected school board they can vote no.  If the statewide vote passes and a local community still wants one, they can get a local constitutional amendment and vote for it.”

This guy has absolutely no clue what amendment one is all about.  It has NOTHING to do with local school boards and whether they are elected or appointed.  One is only left to assume he voted for legislation he had neither read or studied.

Amendment one is ONLY about the state school board.  If passed, it will take away the public’s right to vote on state school board members and place control of who is on the board in the hands of the state senate who will confirm anyone appointed to the board.

Our most recent survey on amendment one showed that 65 percent of respondents DO NOT trust the senate to have this responsibility.  This senator’s response is ample evidence of why the public feels this way.

Last week I visited an inner-city school in Birmingham and a rural school in Marengo County.  I had lengthy talks with both principals discussing the challenges they face daily.  One is trying to get funding to build a shower so that children coming from homes without running water can bathe.  They talked about trying to supply backpacks with food for hungry students, about the emotional baggage their students bring to class, about trying to find partners who can help them provide basic needs for kids.

I think it is safe to say that the good senator referred to here has probably never had such conversations, that he is oblivious to what today’s school reality is and that he just blindly does what someone tells him to do when it is time to vote.

And we should turn over control of our schools to folks like this?

 

 

Saving The World One Life At A Time

Officially it was called “Alabama Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Awards Ceremony.”.  A very nice affair held at the Gordon Person Building auditorium Dec. 3.

But unofficially, it was all about bringing recognition to people and organizations from around the state who work with those with disabilities so that they may be gainfully employed and active members of society. These are folks who take to heart the admonition found in the book of Matthew about doing things for the “least of these.”

There were 12 honorees.  Advocate, Large Business Employee, Collaboration, Large Business Employer, Education, Media, Partnership, Small Business Employer, Public Service, Student, Youth Leadership and Small Business Employee.

David Hyche was recognized for his advocacy.  A 30-year veteran of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. he is the father of a blind daughter who wanted to hunt Easter eggs.  Discovering that plastic eggs equipped with sound were quite expensive, Hyche used his knowledge of working with bombs to come up with a much less expensive version.  He then engaged other ATF folks around the country to join the effort and provide plastic eggs for children in their own communities.

Carpenters for Christ are members of the Tallasee First Baptist Church who build handicap ramps to meet needs in their town.  Matt Freeman is a welding instructor for the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy who engages students on various community projects.  William Roberts of Sylacauga is active with the local community garden.  The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex offers a variety of accommodations for those with disabilities.

The Partnership of the Year recognized the collaboration of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, Stringfellow Health Fund, Exchange Bank of Gadsden and the Beautiful Rainbow Café, a program of Gadsden school system.  The café is operated totally by students with disabilities who learn a host of life skills.

The City of Opelika was recognized for their on-gong efforts to comply with ADA requirements.  It was great to see my longtime friend, Mayor Gary Fuller, accept this honor.  Small Business Employee was Renee Maradik, owner of Something sweet Bake Shop in Daphne, while Met South, owned by Don and Cathy Jesse of Hanceville, was Small Business Employer of the Year.

Students Logan Tice, a senior at Oxford High School and Michael White, a student at the Alabama School for the Deaf were honored for their academic and leadership achievements.

And one old gray-haired blogger was honored with the media award.  I was both very surprised and very humbled.

It is individuals and organizations such as these who hold the fabric of our communities and our state together.  They are not seeking fame or fortune.  They just see a need and use their talents to meet it.

We can all take pride in what they do.

 

 

 

Which Senators Voted To Take Away Your Right To Vote

As discussed here many times, on March 3 voters will vote YES or NO on going from an elected state school board to one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate.  A YES vote will mean you lose your right to vote, a NO vote means you will keep it.  Legislation calling for this constitutional amendment was passed in our last regular session last spring.

Republican Del Marsh is senate majority leader.  Since his party holds a supermajority in this body, he has considerable influence.  This is reflected by the fact that the vote in the senate was 30-0.   All but two of the 27 Republican members voted to take away your right to vote  (Jimmy Holley and Tom Whatley did not vote.).  And five of the eight Democrats in the senate voted with Marsh.  (Priscilla Dunn, Malika Sanders-Fortier and Rodger Smitherman did not vote.)

Listed below are these 30 senators, along with the best email address I have for each.

If you do not want to give up your right to vote, write these senators and ask them why they voted for this amendment.

Greg  Albritton—R                               Gerald Allen–R

galbritton@att.net                                ghallen62@yahoo.com

Will Barfoot—R                                    Billy Beasley–D

cwb@barfootschoettker.com               billy.beasley@alsenate.gov

David Burkette—D                              Tom Butler–R

coachburkette@yahoo.com                senbutler@aol.com

Clyde Chambliss—R                           Donnie Chesteen–R

Clyde.chambliss@alsenate.gov          dchesteen@panhandle.rr.com

Linda Coleman-Madison—D               Vivian Figures–D

Linda.coleman@birminghamal.gov     vivianfigures@me.com

Chris Elliott—R                                    Garlan Gudger–R

chris@theelliottcompanies.com           garlangudger@me.com

Sam Givhan—R                                   Andrew Jones–R

sgivhan@wilmerlee.com                      jones.andrew@gmail.com

Steve Livingston—R                           Del Marsh–R

livings@charter.net                             dmarsh@pcchrome.com

Jim McClendon—R                             Tim Melson–R

jlmmcc@windstream.net                     tim.melson@alsenate.gov

Arthur Orr—R                                     Randy Price–R

arthur@arthurorr.com                        randyprice.sd13@gmail.com

Greg Reed—R                                    Dan Roberts–R

greg@preferredmedicalsystems.com       robtel@bellsouth.net

David Sessions—R                            Clay Scofield–R

d.r.sessions@att.net                          clay_scofield@earthlink.net

Bobby Singleton—D                          Shay Shelnutt–R

Bsingle362@gmail.com                    shay.sd17@gmail.com

Larry Stutts—R                                  Jabo Waggoner–R

larrycstutts@aol.com                         waggonerjt@gmail.com

Cam Ward—R                                    Jack Williams–R

cam@camward.com                          jackwilliams55@icloud.com

 

 

 

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?

 

The Earth Can Spin Again. Another Iron Bowl Is In The Books.

It is the day after another football game between Auburn University and the University of Alabama, called the “Iron Bowl” in these parts.  And orange and blue flags are fluttering atop cars in celebration of Auburn’s 48-45 win.

It was a wild one for certain.  Alabama ran a kickoff back for a touchdown.  Auburn ran an intercepted pass 100 yards for a touchdown.  Auburn’s field goal kicker had struggled in recent games, but yesterday was a perfect 4-4 to provide the difference in the game.

Like two prizefighters who simply refuse to be bested, the teams swapped blow after blow.  Ten times the lead in the game changed.  One would score, then the other.  Most football gurus predicted a low-scoring game.  So much for their collective wisdom.

And for the second time in the last seven Auburn vs. Alabama games, coach Nick Saban learned that the final outcome may come down to what happens in just one second.

In 2013, with the score tied and the game headed to overtime, Saban insisted to the officials that there was still one second remaining in the game, just enough time for Alabama to try a long field goal for the win.  The result was the famous (for Auburn fans) KICK SIX.  Bama did try the field goal, but Auburn had defensive back Chris Davis waiting in the end zone to run it back if possible.

And 109 yards later Davis was in the end zone at the other end of the field and Auburn was the victor.

This time Auburn coach Gus Malzahn insisted that there was one second left in the first half, enough time for field goal kicker Anders Carlson to try for three points.  His successful effort made the halftime score 31-27 in favor of Alabama.  This time Saban augured that one second was NOT enough time for such a play.

Finally it came down to Auburn holding a 48-45 lead with two minutes left and Bama facing 4th down near the Auburn end zone.  Saban’s field goal kicker Joseph Bulovas lined up in hopes of tying the game,  But as such things sometimes happen, the kick hit the left upright and bounced harmlessly to the ground.

Auburn needed one more first down to win the game.  Facing 4th and four, Malzahn outmaneuvered Saban with his play calling and a penalty gave Auburn a first down and the win.

Bedlam quickly followed.  My sister and niece in Black Mountain, NC called and sang the Auburn fight song.  A school superintendent in North Dakota sent me an email.  I got a text from Nebraska.

Kendall Leland will go to her 5th grade class in Cape Girardeau, MO tomorrow and tell her friends all about being at the game.  Her father went to Auburn, her grandmother lives in Opelika, and pilgrimages from eastern Missouri to Auburn games are common place for her family.   Her Thanksgiving was a little bit of turkey and a whole lot of Auburn.

Sully Van Sice is also in the 5th grade.  But his trip to school in Fairhope tomorrow will not be as jubilant as Kendall’s.  He cheers for Bama.  But not his grandmother.  At Sully’s insistence, he and grandma had a small wager on the outcome.  For the next month, Sully will have to make up her bed every day.

No doubt thousands of such stories could be told across Alabama today.

All just a part of the annual madness we call the Iron Bowl.

 

 

An Angel On My Shoulder

Long ago I realized that apparently the sound of tires on asphalt is my own special brand of therapy.  How else can I explain all the miles I cover and time in my car?

I graduated from Auburn 53 years ago.  I doubt there have been many of those years when I didn’t drive at least 30,000 miles.  (I just checked my records and have driven 35,000 miles since last November.  And yes, I do have the record.)  At that rate I’ve covered 1.5 million miles in the last half century.

And I have often given thanks that I have never had an accident, that every log truck I’ve ever met stayed on their side of the road, that someone didn’t run a red light and find me in their way.  Surely the good Lord has played a role in my safety.  For which I am certainly grateful.

However, my luck almost ended on a recent Thursday afternoon.

If you get off I-85 at the Tuskegee-Franklin exit about halfway between Montgomery and Auburn and head north, you are on highway 49.  Stay on it long enough and you get to Cheaha Mountain.   But this day I was only going as far as Oskars, a restaurant near Still Waters on Lake Martin, to have lunch with Joe Windle, superintendent of Tallapoosa County schools.

While highway 49 is very serviceable, it has its shares of twists and turns as it heads into Alabama’s Piedmont region.  If you come up from behind on a slow moving vehicle, patience is your friend,  Straight stretches where you can pass someone are few and far between.

It was raining when I headed back towards Montgomery.  Not hard rain, just a slow drizzle.

I was rounding a curve when it happened.  In a microsecond I was off the road on the right side.  Was not speeding, did not slip.  Just somehow I was suddenly staring at a washed out gully and pine tress.  There was no shoulder.  My first thought was “this ain’t gonna end well.”

I jerked the wheel and to my utter amazement made it back to the pavement.  Fortunately, there was not an on-coming vehicle because I was on the wrong side of the road.  Debris I gathered on the underside of the car was dragging the road.  Coming to a place to pull off  I got out and tried to clear some of it away.

I will never understand how I got the car back on the road.  My only thought is that an angel was riding with me and grabbed the steering wheel.

Needless to say, it was a sobering experience.  So much so that a few days later I went back up highway 49 to find the spot.  I still don’t know what kept me out of the gulley and pine trees.

We are now celebrating the Thanksgiving season.  It has special meaning for me this year.

And I hope it does for you as well.  But not for the same reason.

New Orleans Charters Not Measuring Up

After Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans, charter schools were seen as the salvation for a school system plagued with poor performance for decades.  Today all schools in the Crescent City are charters.

However, as Times-Picayune reporter Della Hasselle points out in a recent article, the latest school grades leave much to be desired.  You can read her entire report here.

Following are key excerpts of her lengthy piece.

“The release of the state’s closely watched school performance scores earlier this month offered an overall update on New Orleans schools that seemed benign enough: A slight increase in overall student performance meant another C grade for the district.

But a closer look reveals a startling fact. A whopping 35 of the 72 schools in the all-charter district scored a D or F, meaning nearly half of local public schools were considered failing, or close to it, in the school year ending in 2019. Since then, six of the 35 have closed.

While New Orleans has long been home to struggling schools, the data released this month are concerning. There was an increase of nearly 11% percentage points in the number of schools that received the state’s lowest grades from the 2017-18 school year to 2018-19.

This year also showed the highest percentage of failing schools in the past five years. The closest comparison was in the 2016-17 year, when nearly 41% of the city’s schools, including those then overseen by the Recovery School District, earned D’s or F’s.

“It makes me angry and hurt. Because these are the children of our city,” said Ashana Bigard, a parent of two children in Orleans Parish schools and a longtime critic of the post-Hurricane Katrina education reforms that rebuilt the district as a network of charter schools.

For a look as close to apples-to-apples as possible, comparisons don’t include alternative schools, which cater specifically to struggling students and now are held to different standards, or schools now located in New Orleans but run by the state.

But even conceding bright spots and exceptions, the state of New Orleans public education isn’t rosy — especially since low scores on standardized tests can mean school closures or takeovers by other charter organizations, a controversial byproduct of the district’s all-charter system.

But even as charter advocates and critics haggle over what the data mean, failing grades have again ignited controversy in New Orleans, because they could trigger another round of school closures or takeovers.

In a prepared statement, Lewis, (Henderson Lewis Jr. is school superintendent) who has run the district since 2015, said students particularly need help mastering standardized tests, which account for a large proportion of schools’ scores. Lewis has pushed for more funding to hire the best teachers.

“The K-8 letter grades reflect the decline in test scores we saw this spring. We have work to do,” Lewis said. “Across the district, we are focused on doing a better job implementing high-quality curriculum and on ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention.”

“The good news is nearly three out of four schools received a progress index score of A or B, we saw significant improvement in the graduation rate, and our high schools did a better job preparing students for college and careers,” Lewis said.

But Kathleen Padian, a former deputy superintendent for the district, said she’s wary of letting poor-performing schools stay open too long, and of relying too much on the student growth factor to measure schools’ progress.

“There should be some credit given to schools who are able to grow year to year. But there has to be a limit,” Padian said. “I think it’s shocking … if you have had a school for so many years and you can’t get past a D letter grade.”

While Bigard is also skeptical of how well most charter schools are functioning, she doesn’t think closing them all is necessarily the answer.

“We close their schools, scatter them, and have them (students) up at 5 a.m. in the morning to get them (on the bus) to another failing school,” Bigard said of the district’s students. “Our children need stability.”

Before Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that crippled the Orleans Parish school district, the city’s public schools were notoriously low-performing.

Although it’s difficult to extrapolate citywide trends, there are some patterns in the data.

Schools in both big and little charter organizations got D’s and F’s. Some organizations saw major changes. FirstLine Schools, which got D grades for four of its six schools, and Success Preparatory, which also earned a D, got new leaders. Others absorbed students relocated from elsewhere, and many adopted new curricula.

Four other F-rated schools had already closed by the time the grades came out.

And, while Lewis expressed disappointment that six still-open schools dropped to an F, he said the district had already implemented support to help them improve.

For all her disappointment, it’s an effort Bigard said she appreciated.

“What makes a school failing is children not getting what they need to get up to grade level,” she said. “This is not rocket science. You get those schools the support they need.”

Editor’s note: The situation strongly supports what research has shown for years.  Bascially, there is little difference in performance of  public schools and charters.  Some are exceptional, some are terrible and the majority are somewhere in between.  There is no magic in simply labeling a school as a charter.

 

 

Here Comes Another Iron Bowl

Once a year, the rest of the world is oblivious to most folks in Alabama.  The stock market can crash, a tsunami may wipe some country from the face of the earth, Old Faithful may forget to shoot water out of the ground and Niagara Falls may become a trickle–but none of that matters.

Because this is the week the football teams of Auburn and Alabama play one another in what Auburn Coach Shug Jordan long ago dubbed  the “Iron Bowl”.  For a handful of days, nothing else matters.  Even the pathetic sight of Jeff Sessions groveling at the feet of President Trump.  Every where you look, people will be wearing red and white or orange and blue.

I was a freshman at Auburn University in the fall of 1961 when I saw my first Iron Bowl.  In those days this annual clash took place at Birmingham’s Legion Field.  Bear Bryant was just beginning his 25-year reign as coach of the Crimson tide.  He beat Auburn 19 times, including a stretch of nine straight in the 1970’s.

But Auburn hired Pat Dye, a Bryant disciple, in 1981 and the series became competitive again.  During his career at Auburn, Dye beat Bama seven times and lost six.  However, Dye is remembered as much for getting the annual contest moved from Legion Field to Auburn as for his success against the team from Tuscaloosa.

The first game on Auburn’s campus was in 1989.  I was there.  Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the country.  Auburn won 30-20.  The first game in Tuscaloosa during the modern era was in 2000.  I was there with my son Kevin.  Auburn won 9-0.  It was a beastly day with the temperature in the mid-30s and sleet falling.  (The game was also played in Tuscaloosa in 1895 and 1901.  Auburn won both.)

Since the game left Birmingham and moved to Auburn and Tuscaloosa, it has been played ten times in Tuscaloosa and 14 times in Auburn.  Auburn has won five times in Tuscaloosa and nine times in Auburn.  Tommy Tuberville, who wants to be one of Alabama’s U.S. senators now, was the Auburn coach from 1999 to 2007.  He beat Bama seven out of the nine times he coached against them.

I don’t know how many Auburn vs. Alabama games I have seen in person.  A lot for sure.  I was at Legion Fiend in 1969 when Auburn won 49-26 and late in the game Auburn punter Connie Frederick ran more than 80 yards on a fake punt to score.  I was there in 1972 when Auburn blocked two punts and won 17-16.  I was there in 2013 when Chris Davis ran a field goal attempt 109 yards on the last play of the game for a 34-28 Auburn win.  I watched in disbelief on TV in 2010 when Auburn quarterback Cam Newton engineered a 28-27 win in  Tuscaloosa after falling behind 24-0.

Is this obsession healthy?  I’m sure many people in faraway places would say it is not.  No doubt they probably belittle our devotion to a GAME.  But this is OK as they don’t understand the collective psyche of this state–for good or bad.  Nor do they know much about pot likker, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, dinner on the grounds and all night singings.

So bring on the Iron Bowl.  It is uniquely ours.

 

 

 

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.