Birmingham, Ala.– The Alabama State Department of Education’s intervention team has left Birmingham City Schools. ALSDE staff are approving local board agendas and monitoring finances from Montgomery. A year and a half after the state first took the reins, the local board is quietly going about its business. As 2014 approaches, there’s a new optimism from the Superintendent’s office down to the trenches. But is it realistic? In this third and final installment, our Alabama reporter Dan Carsen reports on the reality on the ground, and on where informed stakeholders think it’s all headed:
New Birmingham school board president Randall Woodfin summarizes some of the recent troubles the city system has weathered: “We had a perfect storm. State takes over our school system. The state rolls out a new failing list, and we have one-fourth of our schools on the failing list — 11 schools out of 45. You have our school system accreditation put on probation.”
But jump ahead to today, and down to where the real business of a school system happens, and the view is a little different. There’s no way to cover all the scholarships, awards, and successful programs in a 25,000-student school system here, but some bear quick mention. There are the International Baccalaureate programs at Ramsay High, and at Phillips Academy, where seventh-grader Lauren Holman appreciates what she’s getting from her teachers. “This school is awesome,” she says. “They really challenge my brain to do bigger and better things, and normally that’s not what a lot of schools do. And I love to be challenged.”
When Lauren is old enough, she and her peers might experience internships in emergency rooms, hotels, science labs, engineering firms and more through career academies at six of Birmingham’s seven high schools. Jackson-Olin High English teacher Delilah Stitt is excited about the prospects of students gaining skills and using them in Birmingham. “The children are exposed to industry professionals,” says Stitt. “They’re exposed to universities. And they’re exposed to community service.”
And if trends continue, Lauren and her peers are far more likely than previous students to take and pass Advanced Placement exams. Schools in Woodlawn are reorganizing into a comprehensive school and community support system state leaders think will become a model for urban education. Finally, Birmingham has a new dropout-recovery program, and there’s a small change helping kids earn summer- or after-school credits.
“We used to charge for credit recovery,” says Birmingham superintendent Craig Witherspoon. “Students failed a course, and we [would charge them] to make up that course. Well, that was a barrier for some students. So we removed that. Part of restructuring our finances, we’re able to pay for that now.”
Here’s the state’s Craig Pouncey on a related development, clearly defined feeder patterns:
“Prior to this, basically kids were allowed to go to school anywhere they wanted. Not only did it hurt financially because you couldn’t plan, because you never knew how many kids were going to show up on the first day, but you couldn’t lay the foundation academically. Dropouts are not created after the twelfth grade.”
Birmingham and Alabama Teacher of the Year Alison Grizzle has fought in the trenches to lay those foundations. But she watches district leadership, too. Voters in August swept out the anti-Witherspoon “Gang of Five,” and she’s glad:
“I feel like the public said, ‘Doctor Witherspoon, we believe in you. And we are untying your hands.’ Two weeks from now I might be [telling] a different story, but so far, I feel like [the] majority of the board is saying, ‘Let’s stop some of the foolishness and let’s do what’s right by children.’”
Randall Woodfin embodies the new direction. He’s the youngest board member, but he’s cultivated close relationships there and beyond. He also says the new board intends to be boring, which he thinks will help, adding, “I believe that people have been sitting on the sidelines for quite some time. And they want to engage our school system. And they’ve decided to hold their chips, whether it’s financial and/or human capital, because they were not pleased with the leadership direction. And I think we’ve been able to offer some hope, and optimism, that we can move our system out of all of these troubles, get the focus off adults, and focus only on students.”
Area nonprofit and corporate heavy-hitters are getting more involved. And though state-imposed cost-cuts have been deeply painful, the finances are better. The system had 10.7 million in reserves at the end of last fiscal year — more than half the required cushion. Local and state officials think the district will meet the entire goal by the end of this fiscal year, which, not coincidentally, is when many predict Birmingham will be officially released from intervention.
English teacher Delilah Stitt smiles at that prospect, but she says the intervention has helped in a fundamental way. “Often times, things need to happen to make us see ourselves,” she says. “[The takeover] made us become more … more cognizant of what our purpose is.”
But even with all the improvements, Stitt knows real challenges remain. She points out, “We are teaching in an urban district. And urban districts have their own DNA, so to speak.”
“But,” she adds, “we deal with our challenges.”
Those challenges include reducing the number of Birmingham schools deemed “failing” under the controversial Alabama Accountability Act. That gives tax credits to help students in “failing” schools go to private or different public schools. And there’s the looming accreditation probation. But insiders seem confident probation will end after an assessment team arrives in spring.
“I am very optimistic,” says Superintendent Witherspoon. “Some of the very preliminary feedback we got from the accreditation agency is that we’re on our way.”
A lot is riding on that — diplomas worth more than the paper they’re printed on, scholarship availability, and reputation, for just a few examples. But board president Woodfin thinks the big picture is getting brighter: “We now have a chance to get total buy-in from every single stakeholder in this community. And with that, anything we went to get done in our school system, we can.”
So how do things look on the ground? Carver High parent and former PTA president of several schools Jamelle Prewitt puts it simply:
“I see things changing, I do. Things can get better, and will get better.”
No matter what happens, it’s important. The future of the city — its economy, property values, quality of life — is tied to its schools. Observers inside and outside the system say it’s at a critical crossroads, and most think things are looking up. After being knocked down, “up” is the best, and pretty much the only, direction to go.