For years I have preached the idea that teachers and principals, by themselves, can not turn around failing schools. The challenges their students face go way beyond the classroom. Too many expect teachers to solve all of society’s ills. It is a foolish idea and shows how clueless those who expect such to happen really are.
(For a great example, listen to the 11 candidates running for mayor of Montgomery. All of them talk about our education woes. But they all expect educators alone to have the cure. One is even running ads saying he will give teachers a raise. I am still scratching my head on how he will do this.)
For years, Paul Reville of Massachusetts was one who expected schools to make all of society work. Reville was Massachusetts secretary of education for five years. He played a key role in the Bay State’s Education Reform Act of 1993, the same one Mike Sentance, Alabama’s one year mistake as state superintendent, claimed he concocted. Today Reville is director of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Last year Reville spoke at an education equity summit in Massachusetts and shocked the crowd when he admitted, “We failed.” He went on to say, “The question is what do we do now? We’re lacking vision and leadership.”
Truer words were never spoken. For proof, just look at some of the education policy the Alabama legislature has cranked out and listen at the sound of silence when Alabama teachers and students desperately need a VOICE to speak for them.
Below is an article written by Reville that recently appeared in the Washington Post. He hits the nail on the head.
“Sometimes it seems like education reformers, present company included, spend much of their time discussing the obvious — that good teaching matters, that learning to read by grade 3 is important, that early childhood learning is very valuable. But we also can be accused of ignoring or sidestepping the obvious, like the fact that a healthy child is a better learner, that poverty usually constitutes a serious impediment to learning, and that what children do during the 80 percent of waking hours they are not in school can mean the difference between thriving and failing.
Let’s focus on just one area: health.
Any teacher of disadvantaged children will have lots of stories about health care issues, from toothaches to anxiety, to the need for eye glasses, to the challenges of asthma that get in the way of students being able to concentrate and learn at high levels. Some schools tackle these problems head-on by setting up a health care clinic or developing a partnership with a neighborhood health center, but others simply don’t have the resources and time to address these fundamental impediments to learning.
In other words, we don’t have a system that guarantees children’s health and well-being. Our approach is hit or miss — unless you’re from a privileged family, and then you can count on getting wraparound health care, mental health services, and regular dental care. Is it any wonder then, that children from these families routinely learn at higher levels, on average, than children who lack adequate access to health care?
Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab is dedicated to working with communities in building systems of support and opportunity that put disadvantaged children on a level playing field with their more affluent peers. Our theory of action is that only by working toward equity of systemic services, supports, and opportunities can we break America’s iron-law correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement and life outcomes. We believe that a “schools only” approach to achieving equity is a proven failure and that school reform, narrowly conceived, is destined to continue falling short.
Some communities are hard at work at the business of building more robust child development systems by, for example, linking health care supports with education to address the health issues that impede their students from coming to school ready to learn. Through the Partnership for Resilience, practitioners from medicine and education are working together in impressive ways to provide quality health care supports for students in the Southland communities near Chicago, and their work is making a difference.
In one participating district, the partnership created school-based access to vision and dental care for students. Among students participating in vision screenings, 60 percent needed and received eye glasses, and among students identified as needing restorative dental care, 85 percent completed the necessary treatment. That district has seen behavior referrals decrease by 72 percent, detentions by 87 percent, suspensions by 79 percent and expulsions by 100 percent. Students also experienced English and math gains across all grades (K-8) during this time.
In California’s Alameda County, the Oakland Unified School District began to implement a community school approach in 2012, which includes health and wellness, expanded learning opportunities, and family engagement. A Stanford report found that students in Oakland’s community schools are more likely to participate in out-of-school time programs, which in turn has a positive impact on school attendance. The Alameda County Center for Healthy Schools and Communities, which has invested in over 23 school-based health centers, has found that the clinics improved students’ access to health care and was associated with improved behavioral health and perceived positive effects on students’ academic outcomes.
We need to take a holistic approach to eliminating the barriers preventing children from coming to school and being attentive when they get there; food security, health, mental health, social support, housing stability, and a sense of safety all contribute to or limit a child’s ability to thrive.
But schools can’t solve these problems by themselves. Communities must step forward to create systems of opportunity and support in which teachers, upon identifying a nonschool problem in the life of a child, can pick up a telephone and connect with someone in the community who can actually do something about the issue.
We need more “connective tissue” between our schools and our family-serving organizations, so family support is not so fragmented, disarrayed, and difficult to access. Service silos don’t work.
What we really need is a new social compact between our communities and our families, one that guarantees all children — and all means all — can expect to receive the supports and opportunities they need to go to school each-and-every-day fully ready to learn.
More than half of U.S. students are now economically disadvantaged, many of them living in deep poverty. At the same time, students of color are now a majority of the children in U.S. public schools. These students are disproportionately afflicted by challenges outside of school and to date, we haven’t been very successful in educating high proportions of these students to proficiency.
It is vital to bear in mind that their success will determine our success as a country, an economy, and a democracy.”
1,546 miles. Six states. Five nights. And tired.
Plus, south Alabama is still hot and humid, just like it was when I left on Aug. 16.
Was great to visit family. Daughter Kim and son-in-law Tod came from Maryland to my sister’s in Black Mountain, NC. Brother Stephen flew in from Medellin, Columbia, which he says is a mile high and temperature is basically the same year-round. In the low 80’s in the day and 60’s at night. He has no air-conditioning. When I asked what seasons they have, he simply told me “wet” and “dry.” Which basically means every day is like yesterday.
I will stick to spring, summer, fall and winter. I mean, how do you know when it’s football season?
Black Mountain is about 25 miles east of Ashville. Was in the 60’s early every morning. When that happens down here, we say, “fall is in the air.”
A side trip to Coalwood, WV. The boyhood home of Homer Hickam, who wrote the book, Rocket Boys, more than 20 years ago. (This will be a post for another day.)
But as I knew it would be, Alabama and our public education trials and tribulations were never far from mind. So lots of phone calls from the road to check on things.
My brother-in-law is Anthony. My only niece, his daughter, has a boy who just turned two. He is a cheery child, always laughing and smiling. He too is Anthony. So throughout my stay, there were constant questions of “where is little Anthony”?
With that in mind, I leave you with this.
My family is very small. Only me, my sister and my brother. Sister has one daughter and one grandchild. I have a son and daughter and no grandchildren. My brother has never married. So we don’t need much space to have a “family reunion.”
Neither do we have many chances to see one another. Especially since my brother lives in Medellin, the capital of Antioquia Province in Columbia and, until a couple of months ago. my daughter and her husband lived in Germany.
But we will have a chance to gather for a couple of days nest week at my sister’s in Black Mountain, NC. (Son Kevin, in Mobile, will not be able to come.) And here’s hoping that the weather will be just a tad cooler than south Alabama in August. (My computer says right now at 4:30 CDT on Thursday, August 15, it is 82 degrees in Black Mountain as compared to 99 degrees in Montgomery.).
No wonder my sister and brother-in-law like it there.
So I will let someone else be concerned about Alabama politicians who know more about schools than teachers who work in them and former members of our charter commission who swallowed Soner Tarim’s bait about Woodland Prep hook, line and sinker for a few days. I’m heading for higher and cooler ground.
While many states have had charter schools for 20 years or longer, Alabama did not pass a charter law until 2015 and only two were in operation in the 2018-19 school year.
Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter law in 1991. California followed in 1992. Pennsylvania got a charter law in 1997.
However, many states are now starting to look at how charters have performed, how they have impacted traditional public schools and how laws should be changed to get more accountability.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is one of the voices calling for change. Here are recent comments he made on charter schools, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday pledged to overhaul Pennsylvania’s charter-school policy to increase accountability for the schools, which have long been a source of controversy.
At a news conference at a school in Allentown, Wolf said he would direct the state Department of Education to change regulations for charters, including tightening ethics standards, charging fees for services provided by the state, and allowing school districts to limit enrollment at charters that don’t provide a “high-quality” education.
Wolf also said he would push to revise Pennsylvania’s charter law, which he called “one of the most fiscally irresponsible laws in the nation.”
“I want to create a level playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools,” Wolf said, and “increase the accountability and quality of the charter-school system.”
It’s the latest effort in Pennsylvania to reshape the charter-school movement, which has grown even as the divisions over it have deepened. More than 143,000 students attended Pennsylvania charter schools last year, up from 79,000 students nearly a decade earlier.
Describing charter schools as increasingly costly to school districts, and in some cases poorly performing, Wolf said the current system “isn’t good for anyone.”
“We have been talking about charter-school reform since I became governor,” Wolf said. “And my actions today are the result of the fact that we haven’t really done anything. So I’m going to do something, and hopefully this will be the start of a conversation.”
Joyce Wilkerson, president of the Philadelphia school board, on Tuesday commended the governor for “stepping up to the plate on this critical issue,” saying state charter law “is outdated and repeatedly ranked as one of the worst in the country.”
“Quite frankly, I find it encouraging,” Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie), who chairs the House Education Committee, said Tuesday. “I agree it’s long overdue.”
Sonney said he planned to introduce cyber charter reform legislation, though he did not know whether House leadership would support it.
In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne (R., Lehigh) called for a special session on charter-school funding, saying the issue had “reached a crisis point.”
Pennsylvania’s charter-school funding formula, passed into law in 1997, was “the best available platform at that time,” Browne said in a statement. “However, now it has created an irreconcilable financial conflict between charter and traditional schools which mandates both in-depth review and responsible legislative and executive action to address.”
Under the charter law, school districts fund charter schools based on enrollment. Charter schools have become one of the biggest expenses for school districts, along with pension contributions and special education services.
Charter schools have a large presence in cities like Philadelphia, where about one-third, or 70,000 of the city’s 200,000 public school students attend charters.
The issue isn’t limited to brick-and-mortar charters in urban areas. Districts across the state pay for students to attend cyber charter schools — and at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters. Pennsylvania has one of the country’s largest cyber-charter school sectors, and researchers have repeatedly flagged the schools’ poor performance on tests.
Wolf on Tuesday cited a June report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which described the performance of the state’s cyber charters as “overwhelmingly negative.”
When the election of March 3, 2020 rolls around, the proponents of switching from an elected to an appointed school board will play their Common Core card.
Why? Because the legislation calling for a vote on a constitutional amendment to change how we pick our state school board has one sentence tucked away on page 5 that says the new board should adopt:
“Course of study standards that ensure nationwide consistency and the seamless transfer of students from within and outside of the state, in lieu of common core.”
Given all the misinformation about common core we have heard for years, no doubt some of those advocating to take over the state board see this as a “secret weapon” to encourage a YES vote.
But before voters fall for this gimmick, they should listen to what one Alabamian wrote about our standards in 2014.
“Over the past weeks and months, I have found myself caught up in numerous conversations with family, friends, and colleagues regarding an increasingly controversial issue. The issue is Common Core. And the arguments I consistently hear against it are the same: The standards are a backdoor attempt by Washington to usurp local control of education and institute a national K–12 curriculum.
If this were the case, I would join the opponents of Common Core instead of debating them. For if the federal government is ever allowed to dictate the substance of our children’s education, it is only a matter of time before the cultural values of our children will be reprogrammed by Washington bureaucrats.
But, thankfully, this is not the case. Put simply, Common Core does not allow the federal government to prescribe what our children learn. Much of the resistance to the program stems from this single misperception, which is itself rooted in a deep distrust of the president. But President Obama isn’t driving the standards, nor did he create them. The states are propelling Common Core. Currently, all but five states have fully implemented the standards. Moreover, the standards began gaining momentum long before Barack Obama was elected president.
The standards now known as Common Core were initiated and developed by governors and other state leaders eager to raise educational standards in a way that was state-led, rather than being a Washington solution. That’s why it is deeply encouraging that so many states are asserting ownership of the standards by adapting them to their needs.
There is simply no evidence that national education standards will lead to a national curriculum, or that they will stifle the ability of states to teach subject areas that matter to parents residing there. To the contrary, many of those who know the standards thoroughly, including the state superintendent of education in Alabama, insist that educators today retain full control in the development, selection, and implementation of the curricula used in our schools.
Common Core establishes uniform standards — standards that must be met regardless of the curriculum a state decides to adopt. The standards demand accountability. They give the things that really matter — reading, writing, and arithmetic — priority over subject matter that does little or nothing to prepare kids for college and the workforce. And ultimately, the Common Core standards will make American students more competitive with their international peers.
All of these goals are worthy, and they deserve the support of both Republicans and Democrats.”
Former Governor Bob Riley wrote these words in 2014. A dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican, hardly a wild-eyed liberal with an Obama sticker on his bumper like all supporters of the Alabama College & Career Ready standards are supposed to be.
Don’t believe me? Go here and see for yourself.
So when Senator Del Marsh cranks up his snake oil show in hopes of hand picking the state school board and taking away the right of Alabama citizens to vote, it is a pretty safe bet that he will never mention what Governor Riley said about these standards.
Senate majority leader Del Marsh wants to control public education in Alabama. Yep, the same guy who has shown us repeatedly that he is clueless about how schools really work, what their challenges are and how best to address them, now wants to hand pick the members of the state school board.
On March 3, 2020 voters in Alabama will say YES or NO to a constitutional amendment to do away with the elected state board of education and replace it with one where the governor appoints nine board members who must then be confirmed by the state senate. The senate Marsh rules with an iron fist. Never doubt that under this proposal no one would serve on the state school board without Marsh’s approval.
Based on his track record since becoming majority leader in 2011, this is a scary thought.
Look at his nominees to serve on the state charter commission. He had two slots to fill. One for a vacancy created when Chad Fincher resigned last March. (The charter law passed in 2015 and sponsored by Marsh says that vacancies should be filled within 60 days. Marsh ignored this.)
Officials with nominations to the charter board must submit two names for each seat to the state school board. This board makes the final selection.
Marsh nominated former House of Representatives member, Jamie Ison of Mobile. His other recommendation for the same position was Hunter Oswalt of Mobile, who had been nominated twice before but not selected. Her resume’ says she worked for charter schools in Houston and Atlanta and had a relationship with Teach for America. No doubt she is a fine young lady, but with this kind of background, how objective could she be? And her nomination by Marsh says he was trying to stack the deck.
Jamie Ison was chosen by the state school board to fill this position.
The majority leader submitted two names for his other slot. One was incumbent Henry Nelson of Birmingham who has been on the commission since it was created. Marsh’s other recommendation was Steve Sipel of Birmingham. A businessman, Sipel was the founding board chair for Legacy Prep charter in Birmingham. This screams of conflict of interest since charters must be reauthorized every five years by the charter commission. Again, a questionable selection by Marsh
Nelson was picked to retain his seat.
And we want to let Del Marsh tell us who will oversee all of public education in Alabama? Can we expect him to look for people who really are objective and have some understanding of the challenges our public schools face or people already beholding to his agenda–which has been anything but healthy and reasonable for public schools?
Since rising to power in 2011, Marsh’s signature legislation is no doubt the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013. The bill that went to conference committee as one thing–and came out as something entirely different? The bill that no one in education knew about because Marsh said, “They might be against it.”
The bill that has sucked money out of every public school classroom in the state to the tune of $145 million at last count. The bill that promised to help poor kids stuck in struggling schools by their zip code, though six years later such students are damn near impossible to find, especially in the Black Belt.
This is the same senator who earlier this year wanted to do away with the Alabama College & Career Ready standards–after supporting them since their inception. (When a principal in Calhoun County, which Marsh represents, asked him what standards he objected to he admitted he had no idea what the standards were.)
And he should hand pick state school board members?
Marsh is the most powerful legislator in the state. He is at the top of the fund-raising food chain. Political action committees curry his favor with donations, lots and lots of donations. In the election cycle that ran from October 2017 to the end of 2018, Marsh raised $893,000. Alabama realtors gave $50,000, retailers gave $45,000, automobile dealers gave $47,500, Poarch Band of Creek Indians chipped in $30,000; the medical association gave $30,000.
Who among these groups that fuel Marsh’s political machine know anything about public schools? Who among them when they see him favoring someone to be on the school board whose credentials are as suspect as some he nominated to be on the charter commission will challenge him?
Del Marsh is a smart man and a helluva politician. He is in a position to do things for our schools that would be meaningful and have lasting impact. But for reasons I don’t understand, as his track record shows, he choses a different path.
So long as he insists on doing so, he does not need to hand pick state school board members.
The state charter commission held their organizational meeting on August 27, 2015. At best, one can only conclude that they have conducted business since then in a very haphazard manner.
For instance, a close examination of commission minutes (some of which are posted on-line and some of which are not) shows the only election for chair and vice-chair was at the first meeting in 2015. However, their bylaws clearly state that terms of both are for one year. Which means there should be an election each year.
Ed Richardson was picked as chair at the first meeting. Thomas Rains and Gloria Batts were picked as co-vice-chairs. But when Richardson became interim state school superintendent in 2017 minutes say that Mac Buttram moved from vice-chair to chair But when was he elected vice-chair? The minutes don’t say.
Minutes from April 25, 2017 say the commission would elect officers at the May 2017 meeting. But if an election was held in May 2017, the minutes say nothing about it.
The only mention of another election came at the September 22, 2017 meeting when Mac Buttram called for a motion to elect a vice-chair since he had moved to chair. Henry Nelson of Birmingham was elected.
Complying with by-laws is basic behavior for any organization. Let’s hope the five new charter commission members just selected will insist on doing so.
And speaking of minutes, ones for the commission are simply not thorough enough for the public to understand what is really going on For example, the minutes of February 4, 2019 say Mac Buttram introduced David Marshall as a new commissioner. Who did he replace? The minutes don’t say.
I am secretary of the board for the national Rural Schools Collaborative. Minutes are not distributed to the board without me first reviewing them for accuracy and for making sure they reflect what happened at a particular board meeting. The charter commission is a public body. They should be held to a higher standard than they have exhibited in the last four years.
They should also post their agenda publicly at least one week prior to a meeting. This has not been the case. In fact, the agenda is not available to the public until they show up for a commission meeting.
When Woodland Prep was given a one-year extension on June 7, board member Henry Nelson asked why no one from Washington County attended the meeting.
It was because they did not know discussion of an extension was on the agenda. Had they known, they would have been there. But it is 175 miles from Chatom to Montgomery and you don’t hop in your car and make that drive unless you have a good reason.
This is a 10-member commission. Five new members were chosen August 8. Two others have been selected since the first of the year. In other words, there is a new sheriff in town. Let’s hope he demands this commission show more accountability and act professionally..
The state school board voted today (August 8) on six openings for the 10-member state charter school commission. They picked five new members. Two “incumbents,” Tommy Ledbetter of Madison County and Melissa McInnis of Montgomery, were replaced. Only “incumbent” Henry Nelson of Birmingham retained his seat.
New members picked were: Paul Morin of Birmingham, Jamie Ison of Mobile, Syndey Rains of Mobile, Kimberly Terry of Morgan County and Marla Green of Montgomery.
The fact that Governor Ivey chose to not offer chairman Mac Buttram for reappointment is also quite significant.
Couple these five with Allison Haygood of Boaz, who went on the commission in May, and the dynamics of the group shift appreciably.
There is little doubt that the fiasco over Woodland Prep in Washington County played a HUGE role in all of this. As we have recounted over and over, the commission made bad decision after bad decision, beginning in May of 2018, when they ignored the recommendation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that Woodland Prep not be given the go ahead to their decision of June 7, 2019 to grant Woodland Prep a one-year extension on opening.
And though Washington County is very remote and very rural, news of what has gone on there has spread far and wide across Alabama. Former state representative Elaine Beech of Chatom recently told me that she can’t go anywhere in the state without someone mentioning Woodland Prep to her.
The people of Washington County have been relentless in telling their story and providing documentation that info the charter commission was given by Woodland Prep supporters was not reliable. Every educator in the state owes these good folks their gratitude.
And it is fair to say that there will be a substantial effort in the regular legislative session of 2020 to revisit the present charter law and make much-needed changes.
We were told when this law was passed in 2015 that it was the strongest charter law in the nation. However, as we have seen since, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The bylaws of the charter school commission say right up front that their mission is “to authorize high-quality public charter schools.” The vote by the state school board today says loudly that they don’t believe this has been being done.
I made my first visit to Washington County concerning the Woodland Prep charter last April. From the get-go, something did not seem right.
What in the world is a guy from Texas doing in tiny Chatom, Al wanting to open a charter school in an area where school age children are drying up and blowing away?
And why is it that every time his name pops up about Washington county, it is news in Turkey?
Why is a company out of Springville, Utah spending $90,000 to buy12 acres in the middle of nowhere that is valued at $19,000 on the tax rolls to build a $6 million school.
It is all as unreasonable as David Bronner, the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama announcing he will build a 36-hole golf complex halfway between Millry and Chatom.
The economics make no sense whatsoever. And never doubt that this is ALL ABOUT economics. Soner Tarim did not become a millionaire living in a 6 bedroom house in Sugarland, Tx because he is driven by a desire to help kids in places like Washington County..
Tarim is a conman–a damn good one. He is also controversial and connected to the Gulen charter school movement. Some in Turkey consider him a terrorist and a threat to the ruling party in Turkey.
(In june he told the Texas school board that he can not go back to Turkey. but he did not tell them that if he does, he will be arrested.)
He opened his first charter in Houston in 2000. Built this into a chain of more than 50 schools called Harmony. There have long been concerns about how all the money generated by Harmony was being spent.
American Charter Development, the folks buying the land and building the school, also has a questionable background. One linked to Chinese investors and EB-5 visas. (Tarim’s wife is Chinese)
Tarim and Harmony parted ways in 2017. No one seems to know why. But one has to suspect that it was not an amiable breakup. You don’t walk away from being CEO of a multi million dollar company without something amiss.
So when Tarim tried to get back in the charter business in Texas in June, the folks who know him well, the Texas state school board, told him NO.
So why does this guy show up in Chatom, Al?
Because charters are brand new to this state where no one knows who he is and he can easily pull the wool over people’s eyes. And lo and behold, he finds the chair of our state charter commission, Mac Buttram, who has already enjoyed the perks of a trip to Turkey sponsored by a Gulen friendly group, eager to help him.
(Buttram told the charter commission on June 7 that he had been to Turkey. He also said that he had questioned Tarim about any connection to Gulen which he denied. Surprise, surprise.)
Unbelievably, our charter commission has been complacent throughout this whole episode.. When the national reviewer the state had used since 2015 said Woodland Prep should not be approved, they were ignored by the charter commission.
(In June Tarim told the Texas board that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers don’t know what they are doing. Yet in the last 10 years they have reviewed 500 applications. Tarim also said that folks in Alabama did not know what they were doing until he showed them how to grade the application that he says he prepared.)
The charter commission DID NOT do their due diligence. i am told that the commission made ONE phone call to Texas to vet Tarim.
They allowed themselves to be lead around by the nose. They should be embarrassed. It is very hard to believe they have taken their jobs seriously.
The mess in Washington County WAS NEVER about education. It has always been much, much bigger than this.
This Thursday, August 8, the state school board will vote on who fills six of the 10 positions on the charter commission. They can take a HUGE step in the right direction with well-chosen votes. There are no “incumbents” for three of these seats.
The clear cut choices for these are Paul Morin of Birmingham, who serves as the state’s after-school programs coordinator for Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act; Sydney Rains of Mobile, executive director of the Southwest Alabama Partnership for Training and Employment and Jamie Ison of Mobile, a former member of the House of Representatives..
As to the three slots where incumbents are being re-nominated, the decision is more difficult. (For each open seat, even one with an “incumbent”, two names go to the state school board where they choose one. So the three members being re-nominated each has an alternative nominee.) I have not been able to get much info on the alternatives so a judgment as to how well they might do is difficult.
However, we already know the “incumbents” have totally botched the Woodland Prep situation and because of this, my gut says don’t keep them around to cause the kind of harm to another community they have caused in Washington County. Maybe their “challengers” won’t be any better but it is hard to believe they could be any worse.
I say roll the dice and put six brand new people on the state charter school commission. And then as soon as they take office, take them all to Washington County so they can get a first hand look at the consequences of uninformed decisions.
In the last eight days I have driven from Montgomery to Chatom and back three times. Whether I go down I-65 to Evergreen, cut across on U.S. 84 to Grove Hill and head south on U.S. 43, or take the more scenic route through Hayneville, Camden and Pine Hill to Thomasville to pick up U.S. 43, its a drive through a sparsely populated section of the state.
Each of the counties I have gone through is shrinking. School enrollment in the six counties I’ve passed through have lost 3,365 students in their public schools in the last decade.
And as surely as the sun comes up in the east each morning, this trend will continue. Not just in Alabama, but all across rural America.
With this comes the stark reality of school consolidation, one of the most difficult decisions any local school board faces. People get angry, really, really angry. Emotions run high and long time friends find themselves opposing one another.
This is what lurks in the minds of folks in Washington County. There will come a time when they will lose a school. They know this. But they will postpone such action just as long as they can. Which is really at the heart of the Washington County battle against a charter school. Because if Woodland Prep becomes a reality it will take the place of a community school. So why cut the heart out of a community just so Soner Tarim can make a buck?
What is the impact of a school closing? Below is how Christopher Chavis, who went to school at South Robeson High in Robeson, NC. describes the recent decision to shut down his alma mater.
“A few weeks ago, the Robeson County, North Carolina Board of Education voted to close South Robeson High School, my alma mater. The school currently serves Rowland, an old rail town with a population of approximately 1,000 people, and the outlying rural areas.
In Robeson County, people identify with their local communities, an allegiance often fortified by high school attendance. Losing the high school means losing a part of the community’s identity, an irreparable tear in the social fabric that may never heal. It also means creating perpetual outsiders of the students who will be siphoned off to other local schools, away from their community and their lifelong friends.
For me, closing the high school symbolizes the county giving up on the community where I grew up. I learned so many lessons in the halls of South Robeson High School. As president of the school’s Beta Club and the Native American Student Association, I learned about leadership, the value of public service, and what it means to give back to your community. These lessons were amplified by the fact that I was actually serving my own community, a lesson that will be lost on the students who would have to attend schools in other communities.
I also learned about disparities in access to educational opportunities, even within the same school district. My high school did not have AP classes or a plethora of extracurricular activities; funding did not allow for any of that. I hoped that one day the school board would allocate more staff and money to my home community so students could reach their full potential. Now, that may never happen, a fact that fills me with profound sadness.
In making their decision, the school board cited a decline in attendance. The board also cited a $2 million budget shortfall that needed to be closed “immediately.” The population data support this decision. According to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, since the 2010 Census, the population has declined in the schools’ service areas. The residents tend to be older than the rest of the county, a trend with troubling implications for the number of children entering the local schools. On paper, it might make sense to close these schools and focus on the parts of the county that are growing, especially considering the dire state of the finances of the public schools of Robeson County.
Robeson County is not alone in facing these tough decisions. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were 2,700 fewer rural schools in the 2015-2016 school year than existed just a decade prior.
When a rural school closes, it affects the entire community. In fact, according to a study by the Urban Institute, the impacts of a school closure are most acutely felt in rural communities, which often lack the wraparound services needed to compensate for the hole in the community a school closure creates.
However, what works on paper may have troubling implications in reality. At a community meeting on July 8th, students, parents, and community members voiced their concerns to the school board. The Town Clerk for Rowland noted that closing the high school would kill the town. Already an impoverished town that has never recovered from the decline of its initial industry, the railroad, it would lose one potential draw to both businesses and residents – easy access to a high school. Without the ability to attract new businesses and residents, the town’s economic woes would continue to grow. That also represents a bit of a paradox. In order to grow, you need resources. To grow, you need resources..
This is especially true in public education, which is usually funded by local property taxes. If residents leave and property values decline because of lack of economic development (or even access to a high school), the remaining local schools are going to suffer. Shutting down the high school would almost certainly exacerbate the current issues that the town is facing.
For a moment, the story appeared to have a happy ending. The day after the public hearing, the Robeson County Board of Education voted to reopen South Robeson High School for the coming year. However, there was a huge caveat. The high school would also house students from Rowland Middle School, meaning grades 6-12 would have to attend school in a facility designed for only four grade levels.
But even this measure of good news turned out to be fleeting. On July 19, the board reversed itself and voted to close South Robeson High School after all.
I doubt Christopher Chavis has ever been to Washington County. But none the less, he has seen its future. But then, I only know of one member of the state charter commission has ever been there. And he ignored what he learned.
But this group approved Woodland Prep–and drove a stake into the heart of some community they have never seen.