Ella Bell, State School Board Member, Has Passed Away

After battling ill health for many months, we received word this morning, Nov. 3, that longtime state school board member Ella Bell , has died.

Bell was elected to the state board in Nov. 2000 and served since taking office in Jan. 2001.  She represented district 5, the largest geographic district in the state, stretching from Macon and Pike counties all the way to downtown Mobile.

Bell graduated from Tuskegee University in 1969 and got a Masters in education from Alabama State in 1974.  She worked at the Dropout Prevention Center at Alabama State University.

A Democrat, Ella was seldom at a loss for words and when she took a stand, she did not budge.  She was a friend of mine and called from time to time to discuss education issues.  These discussions were sometimes colorful and I always knew just where she stood when I hung up the phone.

She was planning to seek office again in 2020.

And since qualifying ends at 5 pm. on Nov. 8, there will no doubt be a scramble over the next few days of candidates hoping to succeed her.  Governor Ivey will also appoint someone to fill the remainder of Bell’s term which runs until Jan. 2021.

 

What Do You Think About Homework? Christy Hiett Wants To Know.

Christy Hiett is principal of tiny Fruithurst elementary in Cleburne County.   I met her ten years ago when we did the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools.   And though she has since become Dr. Christy Hiett, she is still principal of the school she attended as a child.

Always looking for ways to make her school better, three years ago she became convinced that homework was more a hindrance than a help for her students.

As reported by The Anniston Star:  “In seeking answers, Hiett consulted a wide variety of academic sources that revealed surprising statistics about the need for homework. She also learned that the most academically successful nations do not assign homework at all.

After sharing these results with the superintendent of Cleburne County schools, she was given approval to issue a school-wide ban on homework.

That was in 2016 and now, three years later, the no-homework policy is still in place and meeting with great success. Students must still study for tests, but with none of the usual homework tacked on.

In what Hiett believes is proof that homework has no positive academic impact, the school’s reading, math and English language grades are steadily increasing.

In addition, the no-homework initiative places all children, regardless of income levels, on the same playing field. “Not all children have someone at home that can help them, nor do they have the necessary items to complete the assignments,” Hiett said.

With no homework to do, students are encouraged to bring in pictures of how they spend their afternoons. “They have time for all kinds of after-school activities,” Hiett said. “Karate lessons, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, sports — just to name a few.” She created a space inside the school to display those photographs with the hashtag heading #nomorehomework.

As an added bonus, leisurely reading has become a popular pastime with students. “They are reading more than they ever have in the past,” Hiett said. That is witnessed by the increased volume of books being checked out of the school library.

In Hiett’s opinion, however, the most important after-school activity is playtime.

“I am a big advocate for children having time to genuinely play,” she said. “We have done our children a disservice by taking away play, to the point that kindergarten is now the new first grade, and that is detrimental to a child’s development. I want children to be allowed to just be children.”

The no-homework policy is very popular with parents. “They love it!” Hiett said. “Many parents work until 5 p.m. They barely have time to get home, cook a meal for dinner, get children bathed and put to bed at a decent time. Having homework limits the amount of quality time children get to spend with their family. This quality time is extremely important for a child’s development.”

Hiett has closely monitored the progress of students since the no homework policy was implemented and believes the results speak for themselves.

In year one (2016-17) reading grades increased 4.7 percent, math rose 7.2 percent and English language arts 8.7 percent.  The trend continued in year two (2017-18) with reading up 6.2 percent, math 15.2 percent and English language arts 13.4 percent.  Scores rose again In 2018-19 with a 9.5 percent increase in reading, 10.3 percent in math and 2.2 percent in English language arts.

But like all top-notch educators, Hiett continues to look for input re: homework.  So she put together this survey in order to gain more insight.  Please take a moment, especially if you are a parent of a student, and give her your feedback.

 

 

Demopolis Shows What Local Support Is Really All About

One of the truly fascinating examples of community support for a public school system can be found in the unlikely city of Demopolis.  With only an estimated 6,724 residents according to the U.S. Census and 2,300 students in its four schools, Demopolis is squarely in the heart of the Black Belt.  Which immediately calls forth images of impoverished people and underfunded school systems.

But if that is the case in Demopolis, no one told them so.

Because every year, over 250 private donors and businesses in West Alabama give to the Demopolis City Schools Foundation to invest in public education excellence. This year is no exception, and through those generous gifts and investments, the Demopolis City Schools Foundation has awarded classroom grants totaling more than $1.3 million since 1993.

This is an independent nonprofit established to encourage private charitable support of the school system.  It is governed by a 33-member board.

They have just announced $58,273 in new grants.

“These grants exemplify our strategic approach to grant making within the school system and focus on teacher-led ideas. From expanding MakerSpace activities that will encourage creative thinking to extending the LEGO education program, our teachers are building future problems solvers,” says Sarah Chandler Hallmark, president of the foundation.

“We have grants of all sizes that cut across all areas of education–from introducing archery in the Demopolis Middle School PE Department to tubas and euphoniums for their band program, we want each child in our rural system to have the resources necessary to explore his or her interests and ultimately be successful citizens.”

“We had grant requests of over $89,000 this fall and the committee had to make some hard choices about what projects to move forward, says Amanda Barnes, foundation executive director.  Additional grants will be awarded in the spring.

Here are the most recent grants:

Demopolis High School

$8,000 to Stacy Chandler for a set of Chromebooks and a cart for the science department
$680 to Jenn Tate for a potter’s wheel, clay and sculpting tools for the art programs at the middle and high school
$8,709 to Meggin Mayben in support of the A+ Computer Science Coding and Robotics classroom
$8,000 to Jill Tutt for a set of Chromebooks and a cart for the English Department
$3,249 to Lisa Lawrence for books and a Matter and Form 3D Scanner & Printer
$1,671 to Charles Jones for monitors, keyboards, and mice to turn existing Chromebooks into a workstations for drafting and design

Demopolis Middle School

$594 to Jackie Tripp for Apple Pencils to be paired with the iPads the DMS math teachers received through the Fall 2018 Classroom Grant process
$4,094 to Jesse Bell for the purchase of basic archery equipment in order to incorporate archery into the middle school physical education curriculum
$7,600 to Alaric Castleberry to purchase low brass instruments (tubas and euphoniums)
$2,000 to Ginger Godwin for hardcover and eBooks for the library

US Jones Elementary School

$800 to Jannalee Duke for six breakout kits along with access to the Breakout EDU platform
$6,999 to Julie Harrison to introduce Lego Education at USJ and continue the program from second grade (a 2017 Classroom Grant)
$2,000 to Emily Windham for funds to purchase technology equipment for checkout by teachers at the library

Westside Elementary School

$285 to Laurice Thomasson for classroom books to help expand students’ imagination and learning
$1,592 to Kristina Kallhoff to create a MakerSpace environment for students to engage in science, engineering and exploratory learning
$2,000 to Andrea Johnson to purchase chapter books for the Westside Library for higher level readers

Facebook @DemopolisCitySchoolsFoundation

Contact Amanda Barnes:  334-289-2226 (o) 334-314-3631 (c)  director@demopolis.org

Editor’s note:  This foundation is just part of a much bigger narrative about Demopolis.  It is about a community that made a commitment decades ago to its public schools instead of succumbing to the prevailing impulse to fight integration with private schools.  Demopolis today is 56 percent black and 43 percent white.  This is almost identical to the demographics of the school system which is 56 percent black and 43 percent white.  There is one small private school in Demopolis which has 109 students pre-K through 7.

This is in stark contrast to Montgomery, where I live.  While the city is 56 percent black and 37 percent white, the school system is 78 percent black and only 10 percent white.

Montgomery also has an education foundation.  However, unlike their counterpart in Demopolis, they do not give grants to teachers.  Instead, they plan to take over three local schools and convert them to charter schools.  Such a move would be considered heresy in Demopolis.

 

With Brelinda Sullen, It’s All About Love

At more than six feet tall, Brelinda Sullen is an imposing figure.  But then she was an All-American basketball player at Tuskegee University.  And no doubt her stature has helped her get the attention of students in her long career in education.

But more than anything else, she feels strongly that love is a huge part of education.  It’s this belief, and a track record of success at first Notasulga high school and now Booker T. Washington high school in Macon County, that has made her the subject of a documentary film, Loves Goes Public.

Booker T. Washington is a school in Tuskegee with about 500 students, more than 60 percent are considered poverty.  Sullen has worked hard to lower the drop out rate and reduce teen pregnancy.  Every student has her cell number.  She is totally about improving the climate and culture of the school.

The movie has a private screening on Nov. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at AMC Classic Tiger 13 at Opelika’s Tiger Town.  It will also be shown the weekend of Nov. 8 at this theatre.

Go here to see the movie trailer.

For additional information about the private screening, contact Katherine Smith at 334-740-2020.

1,300+ Posts And Counting

I waded off into the blogosphere in the spring of 2015.  That was now more than 1,300 posts ago and at an average of about 500 words per post, more than 600,000 words.

Or, since Google tells me that the average book is 100,000 words, six books ago.  No wonder I feel plum tuckered out at times.

Since I am totally out of my realm when it comes to today’s technology (as attested to by my old flip phone), I would never have made it without the help of Deb Geiger of Spanish Fort, who calls her business Content Fresh.  All I can do is put words on my computer screen.  She’s the one who manages the site, sets up the occasional survey, posts pictures from time to time and answers my questions.  (If any one reading this is looking for help she might provide, drop me a note and I’ll be glad to put you in touch with her.  larrylee133@gmail.com)

It’s been quite a ride, both literally and figuratively.  My old car has covered thousands and thousands of miles from one end of Alabama to the other going to meetings, visiting schools and classrooms, sitting in on school board meetings, making presentations, etc.  I’ve made some wonderful friends and every day realize that education in this state would be far better off if we paide more attention to teachers and principals and a lot less attention to politicians and folks with big titles and big egos.

It has definitely been a journey filled with frustration, which no doubt comes across often in some posts.  I am constantly baffled at the unwillingness of those who envision themselves as “leaders” to stand up and be counted when public schools are under attack.  I’ve learned that just because someone says, “I’m doing it for the kids,” does not mean it is true.  Way too many decisions are made that are guided more by self-preservation than anything more altruistic.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the faithfulness of hundreds of folks who come to this site every day.  The fact that I get more than 200,000 views annually blows me away.  Granted, that does not mean that 200,000 different people visit, still I am overwhelmed.

And because I am who I am, I did some homework before writing this.  The single most read post was this one, posted on August 11, 2016, the day Mike Sentance was chosen as state superintendent.  It got 30,000 views.  It was the first of many I wrote about him.  His selection was the most illogical thing I’ve ever seen a group of adults do and this episode is still not over because former state school board member  Mary Scott Hunter still awaits going to court about her role in what transpired.

Number two on the “hit” parade belongs to this one.  Published on November 2, 2016, it got more than 12,000 views.  This was when Governor Robert Bentley earned the total disdain of every educator in the state by declaring that “education sucks.”

While probably at least 90 percent of what I write about deals with our public schools, from time to time I stray and write about Auburn football, the passing of a favorite entertainer such as B. B. King, Etta James and Billy Joe Royal and memories that pop into my mind.  (Which I consider to be OK since it is my blog, I am my own boss and I pay my own bills.)

How much longer will I keep on keeping on?  That is something I ponder all the time as I think about hitting the road to explore places I’ve never seen or visit long time friends without feeling an obligation to fill another empty page.  But for now, I guess I will keep on writing and hope that you will keep on reading.  However, I have promised myself to take more time for myself.

Of course, I am always looking for good stories.  In spite of what some want us to believe, our schools are full of them.  If you know of one, don’t hesitate to share it with me.  larrylee133@gmail.com

And again, from the bottom of my heart, thanks for stopping by.

 

 

 

An Evening In Troy Is A Lesson For All

On a recent Monday night about 100 people gathered in Troy for a community discussion about their public school system.  Billed as a discussion of “cradle to career,” the meeting was coordinated by the David Mathews Center for Civic Life in Montevallo.

The crowd was broken into discussion groups, eight to the table.  They talked about topics such as: what are Troy’s greatest education assets, what are its challenges, what would you like to change, what would you like to preserve, etc.

My table had three parents and a grandfather who moved to town to be near his two grandchildren, two long-time teachers and a Troy University student serving as recorder.

It was all very interesting.  But I heard nothing I haven’t heard over and over in communities across the state.

Lack of parental support.  Teachers having to be surrogate mamas and daddies.  The impact of poverty.  The need for more after school programs.  Lack of transportation for many families.  Not enough sense of community both inside and outside of schools.  The need for more volunteers.  The increasing mental health issues schools are not equipped to handle.  The need for more community partnerships.

Never once did anyone say they needed a charter school.  No one talked about A-F grades for schools.   No one mentioned the Alabama Accountability Act and scholarships for children to go to private schools.  No discussion as to whether the state school board should be elected or appointed.  Not a soul said we need a new statewide strategic plan for education.

Jan Baxter Lee is now in her 27th year in an elementary classroom.  I have asked dozens of longtime teachers what has changed over their career.  So I did the same with Jan.  And got the same answer I have before.  “Lack of respect for teachers from both students and parents,” she said.  “When I first started teaching, I could call a parent about an issue with their child and they took action.  Today, whatever issue the student is having is the fault of the teacher.”

As I headed north on highway 231 after the meeting I reflected on the evening which once again highlighted the divide between what politicians, and many education bureaucrats, think we need to do to make our schools better and what the real world thinks.

Too many want to build a better mouse trap.  Yet, they don’t even know where the dad-gummed mice are.