In A Room Full Of Miracles

Each year the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) hosts a luncheon for what they call “Schools of Distinction” from throughout the state.  CLAS has been around for 30+ years serving as an umbrella for a number of groups such as elementary, middle school and high school principals and providing an array of professional development opportunities.  They have 4,000 members.

They divide the state according to the eight state school board districts and go through an extensive evaluation process to select usually four final schools per district.  These schools are then recognized at a luncheon.  They have been kind enough to invite me to attend these events.  (There was not one last year due to the pandemic.)

So May 3 I was right there amongst them–no teeth and all.  (I tried to keep my mouth shut as much as possible, which ain’t easy for me. Luckily the meal included mashed potatoes and a slice of pie that did not need chewing.)

Everyone at my table was from Tuscaloosa.  (I never once mentioned Auburn or War Eagle.)

Each of the 31 schools being recognized were given a few minutes to highlight why they were recognized.  For a lay person like me, it was a great reminder of the amazing work that goes on in our public schools.  Of the dedicated teachers and special education personnel and supportive principals who give so very much each day for the young folks in their classrooms.

These people are passionate about what they do.  And this passion carries over into their classrooms and schools.  Because of this, miracles happen.  A light goes on in the mind of a second grader and suddenly a math problem becomes much clearer or a phrase in a book takes on new meaning.

I am in awe of teachers.  Of their patience, devotion, dedication and love. There are easier ways to make a living.  But thank God, this is the career they have chosen.

Here are the schools recognized this year:

Chickasaw Elementary, Clark-Shaw Magnet Middle, E. R. Dickson Elementary, Nora Mae Hutchens Elementary, Jerry Lee Faine Elementary, Lakewood Elementary, Lakewood Primary, Webb Elementary, Berry Middle, Chelsea High, Millbrook Middle, Sycamore Elementary, Hillcrest High, Northridge Middle, Southview Elementary, University Place Elementary, Gilliard Elementary, Prattville Primary, R. B. Hudson STEAM Academy, Williamson High and Middle Grades Preparatory Academy, KDS DAR Elementary, Ohatchee High, Sparkman Elementary, Haleyville Center of Technology, Harland Elementary, Kilby Laboratory , Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Elementary, Collins Intermediate, James Clements High, Mae Jemison Hill and Mill Creek Elementary.

Congratulations to each of these and thank you for the miracles you create.

Fewer Students Need Remedial Work

Editor’s note:  The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, housed at Samford University in Birmingham, does some great research, especially concerning our public schools  They have just released a report showing that the percent of high school grads needing remedial course when they enter college continues to decline.

This is certainly good news, particularly since students must pay tuition for remedial classes–but get no college credit for them.  Translation, the fewer remedial classes a students has to take, the less expensive their education.

Here is the PARCA news release about the report:

“The number and percentage of Alabama public high school graduates assigned to remedial courses upon entering college continued to decline in 2019, one measure of academic progress for K-12 schools and Alabama’s public higher education system.

Remedial classes are non-credit college courses covering material students should have learned in high school. Alabama’s Community College System (ACCS) has recently developed alternatives to those courses, and the decline is attributable to those schools. According to ACCS, not only are fewer students being placed in remedial courses, but also passage rates in introductory courses have risen. Meanwhile, the number of students assigned to remedial courses at four-year colleges has increased modestly.

The data comes from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the state higher education coordinating board. ACHE works with K-12 and colleges to follow the progression of Alabama high school graduates into Alabama public colleges.

The data provides feedback to high schools about how prepared their graduates are and can give colleges insight for improving student success. Use the tabs in the visualization to explore the data. Compare the performance of graduates from your local high school or system.

This remediation data is the final dataset that looks back on students who graduated in the Spring of 2019.” 

A Coach Speaks Out

Editor’s note: Mark Rose is the head football coach at Russell County High school.  He has been a head coach for 23 years and has won 175 games.  He is greatly concerned about the decision to allow high school football teams to play during the pandemic.  One of his coaching staff was hospitalized with the virus and on a ventilator.  Here is the article he wrote about this situation for The Opelika-Auburn News:

“Alabama high school coaches, players, and their families are the guinea pigs of the nation.

I played college football at Auburn for Pat Dye on three SEC championship teams that were known for toughness. I have concerns for the safety of high school football players, the coaches, personnel and their families. I have expressed my concerns regarding their safety to my former teammates, and they share my concerns.

My concerns have nothing to do with toughness. We are dealing with a deadly virus. Recently, a 33-year-old coach very close to me ended up in the ICU fighting for his life because of the virus. I know of other area coaches and parents who have been stricken by the virus.
 
Sending out players to the field with zero testing policies then sending them home to vulnerable parents and grandparents is unconscionable. Every NCAA program that cannot test every athlete, coach and any other personnel in the “inner bubble” has been shut down. Lack of testing – due to expense or other reasons – is the reason why the vast majority of colleges, including two Power 5 conferences, have canceled fall football or moved football to the spring.
 
Testing is very important because the notion of social distancing in a contact sport such as football is absurd.
 
I want to make this clear: this is not an indictment on our fellow high school coaches. So many agree but are threatened with their jobs or the right to feed their families even when we have offered non-contact plans to continue to develop our players and provide them 7-on-7s and combine film for a path to recruitment. The leadership at our state association says there is no penalty for not playing, but in reality coaches’ jobs could be threatened if the star player does not play because he might live in a household with those more vulnerable to the virus. All of the kids want to play, but our job is to protect them.
 
I believe that that the NFL and the NCAA have a chance to play. Both have mandatory testing policies in place. In Alabama, the policy has been to wait until someone gets real sick, then we go tell their parents to have them tested.

Football has been my life from the age of 7 to my 30th year in coaching at the age of 54. This policy, or lack thereof, is reckless, dangerous and could cost lives. It is well-documented that this disease disproportionately affects minorities. Many of the minority players come from multi-generational homes. I am forced to exclude players that have been sick or have vulnerable family members.
 
I will not remain silent when it is my responsibility to protect my coaches, players, personnel and their families.”
 

 

Federal Court Rebuffs Betsy Devos

Editor’s note:  If there has ever been a less competent and less qualified U.S. Secretary of Education than Betsy DeVos, I can’t find out who they were.  President Trump’s appointment of DeVos has been decried by public school advocates from day one.  Time after time she has favored private schools over public schools and seems to have gone out of her way to help them.  One of the latest examples was her decision to divert more Covid-19 relief funding to private schools than Congress intended.

Fortunately, as reported here by longtime education writer for The Washington Post, Valarie Strauss, a Federal judge has just ruled against DeVos.  Here is her article:

“A federal judge in Washington state temporarily blocked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from enforcing a controversial rule that directs states to give private schools a bigger share of federal coronavirus aid than Congress had intended.

In a lawsuit filed by the state, U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein on Friday issued a preliminary injunction and castigated the Education Department over the July 1 regulation about the distribution of federal funds. The money, about $13.5 billion, was included for K-12 schools in Congress’s March $2 trillion-aid package — known as the Cares Act — to mitigate economic damage from the pandemic.
Rothstein slammed the Education Department for arguing that states would not suffer irreparable damage if forced to implement the rule and said there was cause to put a preliminary injunction on the rule while the broader issues are worked out.

“The department claim that the state faces only an economic injury, which ordinarily does not qualify as irreparable harm, is remarkably callous, and blind to the realities of this extraordinary pandemic and the very purpose of the Cares Act: to provide emergency relief where it is most needed,” Rothstein wrote.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment about the decision.

U.S. legislators from both parties said that most of the funding was intended to be distributed to public and private elementary and secondary schools using a formula based on how many poor children they serve that had long been used for distributing federal aid.

But in April, DeVos said she wanted money sent to private schools based on the total number of students in the school — not how many students from low-income families attended. That would have sent hundreds of millions of dollars more to private schools than Congress had intended.

Critics blasted the plan, saying DeVos was pushing her agenda to privatize the public education system and build up alternatives to public schools.  When the rule went into effect on July 1, it had been modified from DeVos’s original plan. It limited the aid going to private schools, saying school districts charged with distributing Cares Act funding could base the amount for private schools on the number of poor students enrolled.

But public schools could then use Cares Act funding only to help poor students — a directive that opponents said was not a real alternative for school districts. The Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice for the 76 largest urban public school districts in the country, said in an amicus brief that the rule would divert hundreds of millions of dollars “of desperately needed funds” from public schools serving at-risk students.

Private schools also were eligible to receive loans — which could be forgiven — through another part of the Cares Act, the Paycheck Protection Program, which public districts could not tap.  Private schools, including some with endowments worth millions of dollars, obtained PPP funds.

For example, Sidwell Friends School, where former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had sent their daughters, won $5 million in PPP funding, which was intended to help small businesses and low-wage workers during the pandemic. Sidwell has a $52 million endowment but says it is restricted in how it can be used.

The Washington lawsuit was not the only one filed against the Education Department’s new rule. Eight states, including DeVos’s home state of Michigan, as well as the District of Columbia and four school districts sued the education secretary in July.

At a hearing held virtually last week before U.S. District Judge James Donato in San Francisco, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Neil Giovanatti called DeVos a “Reverse Robin Hood” who was trying to take from the poor and give to the rich. The lawsuit says DeVos does not have the authority to dictate how the Cares Act money should be distributed.”

A Teacher Remembers Her Very First Day In Class

Editor’s note:  Once again our friend Wendy Lang of Decatur, a former teacher and now Alabama Education Association uniserv director, shares her thoughts with us.  This time she recalls many years ago when she began teaching kindergarten in a rural school.  As usual, she will bring a smile to your face and no doubt cause many of our educator readers to recall their own similar stories.

“I remember my first day of teaching kindergarten.  My college degree did not at all prepare me for the classroom.  With no class limits, I had 32 five year olds who had never been away from home and their parents cried like they were leaving them with an axe murderer.  What could happen?  After all, this was kindergarten.

I thought I was prepared by having three months of lesson plans ready, but they completed all three months by 8:15.  And the day went downhill from there.  Having nothing to do and being absolutely clueless, I ushered them to the playground and no sooner had we walked out the door, I had a runner.  I chased him over a mile down the county road to his granddaddy’s chicken house, slung him over my shoulder and walked back to the playground where I noticed I had left 31 students unattended.  I decided we needed to go back in the classroom and lock the door and pray for divine guidance.

Soon thereafter, I had a knock at the door.  Our principal asked if I would be taking them to the lunchroom any time soon.  Not only were we late for lunch, but I had failed to send in a lunch count.  Apparently I thought “feed them and they will come and come whenever you’re ready!.”  Lunch took about 2 1/2 hours because it takes time to do the necessary things for a successful kindergarten lunch: 32 squirts of ketchup, opening 32 milk cartons and saying 4911 times “Don’t eat the cookie.  It’s dessert.  It comes last!”  By the way, they were five.  They gobbled that cookie down first!  

By the time we returned to the classroom (that had once been a storage closet), I was give out.  Spotting the stack of red and blue rest mats, I had the bright idea that we should have nap time.  I was the only one that went to sleep and I woke up with a new and different hairdo.  My stylist had been replaced by 32 children with brand new rounded tip safety scissors.

By this time I will be the first to admit, I was ready to go home.  I asked for those who rode the bus to raise their hands.  Thirty two hands went up in the air.  I asked who would be picked up b a parent.  Again, 32 hands went up.  I asked who didn’t know how they were getting home and they all raised their hands once again.  My bright idea was to take them out and if their parents were there, I would hand them over.  If they weren’t there I would load them on the only bus in front of the school.  Following my plan of action, once they were all handed off, I got in my car and went home.  

The first phone call was from the bus driver who informed me that they were one of about 11 buses that served the school and that from my classroom, only two rode the bus I had placed 19 students on and left.  But out of the goodness of her heart, she made sure they got home safe and sound.  I was also told that I better not ever let that happen again.

The next phone call was from the principal.  He asked if I would be returning the next day and I asked him if I could let him know by morning.

Once my oldest started kindergarten I leaned first hand that the tears had nothing to do with my thoughts about the teacher, but it had everything to do with my precious first born leaving the nest.  And the nano second given for dropping kindergarteners off in the classroom wasn’t enough time to make his teacher aware of everything I needed her to know.

My boys are grown men now, but regardless of their age, we will always worry wherever they go and as a forever parent we will always have something to say and advice to give on how they should be treated.

Other parents have advice for teachers this new school year.  John Brandon was my sixth grade teacher.  He is a parent and a grandparent.  He loves his grandson and offers this sage advice; “Teach each child like you normally would.  Call if you need to,”  Reta Waldrop wants teachers to be reminded that children are behind in their studies,  Have patience and know that prayers are sent up for you daily.  

Jan Byrd advises that everyone watch Beyond the Blackboard on Amazon and then be more thankful than ever to work in your school system.  She also offers best wishes and blessings to all who touch our students lives this school year.

Angelia Foust would advise that teachers pray, imagine and sanitize.  Becky Howard offers that there’s always a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D….

Pat Woller advises that everyone must learn to adjust to our new normal whatever that might be.  Wimbreth Howard and Douglas Ann Livingston advise  prayer and Kyla Jo Gray adds Lysol to the list.

John Griffith’s first response would be “Tag….you’re it!”  But he states that seriously, his advice to teachers and to parents would be that “grace and understanding extended by either side will go a long way.”

 

Is Anyone Minding The Store?

Obviously these are not normal times at the state department of education as all hands are on deck grappling all the unknows of re-opening schools in the middle on a pandemic.  Virtual learning is front and center in this effort as a number of systems have said their first nine weeks of school will be conducted on-line and many parents have chosen have their children take remote classes in systems that will be in class.

To this end, the state gave a $12.4 million contract to an out-of-state company to provide pre-recorded lessons.  My sources say these will be most beneficial to small systems where resources are limited.

However, investigative reporter Josh Moon with the Alabama Political Reporter has learned there are many questions and concerns about the company–SchoolsPLP–and its product.

Here is what he reported on July 27:

“The Alabama State Department of Education is defending its selection of an Arizona company to supply the state with a “digital curriculum” for remote learning in Alabama’s public schools after several parents and schools’ officials raised questions about the company’s apparent false claims of accreditation and its limited history.

The company, SchoolsPLP, formed two years ago and with an address that appears to be a rented mailbox at a UPS store in Phoenix, was awarded a $12.458 million contract by the state earlier this month to fulfill the task of providing a “digital curriculum” option for schools.

Following the announcement of that contract, several parents began digging into SchoolsPLP’s background and operating system in their process of determining whether to send their children to physical schools or accept the safer online learning options. What they found was troubling.

SchoolsPLP removed two accreditation agency logos after questions.

 

“It was very concerning,” said Eileen Zeanah, whose son is entering the 10th grade in Vestavia Hills. “The more I dug into this company, the less information I was able to find. And what I was able to find turned out to be wrong.”

Zeanah and several other parents and school officials contacted Cognia to inquire about SchoolsPLP’s accreditation. They were told in writing by Cognia representatives that the company did not have accreditation. Shortly thereafter, the Cognia and AdvancEd logos disappeared from the SchoolsPLP website.

Additionally, a check of approved providers on the California A-G website shows that SchoolsPLP is not listed. And the NCAA has suggested in the past that courses through SchoolsPLP might not meet certification standards.

In response, ALSDE said the issues with accreditation are mostly irrelevant, because SchoolsPLP was not hired to provide the state with a virtual school platform. Instead, it filled the request to provide a “digital curriculum.”

Essentially, SchoolsPLP is providing Alabama with a set of digital textbooks that can be used by teachers to facilitate their course lessons.

“ALSDE did not contract with SchoolsPLP for a true ‘virtual school’ which typically includes the vendor providing teachers, special education services, etc.,” a response from the state department said. “Since ALSDE contracted for digital curriculum resources only, accreditation is not relevant.  For example, textbook companies do not seek accreditation, which is reserved for institutions that provide full delivery of education.

“The ALSDE/SchoolsPLP contract is more akin to what ALSDE has purchased in the past for students in grades 9-12 as part of the ACCESS program. ACCESS offers a full program model with ACCESS teachers and a separate ‘franchise model’ where schools utilize the curriculum only for delivery by its own teachers.”

Still, the issues with accreditation for SchoolsPLP were troubling for some, because they seem to indicate an attempt at deception. The response from ALSDE said it believed SchoolsPLP included the accreditation claims because it worked with school systems that were accredited by Cognia and others.

However, that is not a normal practice and is generally frowned upon.

“Everyone involved in education and the purchase of accredited materials and programs understands that the use of accreditation agency logos is done only when those agencies expressly provide accreditation,” said a source with several decades in public education administration. “Those accreditations are important, and they are sought after, because they indicate to parents and others that the services and materials being provided have been deemed by an impartial entity to meet accepted educational standards.”

Regardless, though, the issues with accreditation should not affect Alabama students who participate in online classes through SchoolsPLP, since the accreditation for those courses would be through school districts.

Similarly, ALSDE said concerns about NCAA eligibility issues are not valid, because the approved core courses taught by Alabama schools would still be approved if taught through the SchoolsPLP platform. ALSDE provided APR a link to an NCAA webpage addressing that specific concern.

The was, however, one prominent concern remaining: The inability to integrate SchoolsPLP’s platform into Alabama’s management system, Schoology. Under the RFP sent out to companies vying for the project, integration into Schoology was a requirement. But the ALSDE statement acknowledged that is impossible, and that they have instead instructed systems that wish to use SchoolsPLP to download a new management system.

“Instructions for this were sent out Friday morning,” the statement said.”

Editor’s note:  I talked to one of my most trusted sources in one of the state’s largest school systems.  She called this a “$12 million mistake” and explained that the state’s explanation about accreditation makes no sense.  Her system will not use this system.