A Truth About Schools Too Many Refuse To Accept

Krista Johnson, who covers education for The Montgomery Advertiser, did a recent story about the funding of schools in the Montgomery County public school system.

She looked at funding for the 2018-2019 school year.  The system includes both magnet nd traditional schools.  None of the magnets qualify for Title 1 Federal funding  because they do not meet the guidelines of at least 40 percent of students considered poverty.

And tucked away in the article was this sentence, “Nixon Elementary–where 83% of students were considered economically disadvantaged–received the largest level of federal funding, at $3,698 per student, compared to $507 per student at Forest Avenue Academic Magnet.”

Later, the article points out that at Forest Avenue, the PTA consistently touts a 100% participation rate among families and teachers.

A few years ago I asked the then principal at Nixon how many PTA members they had.  “One,” was her reply.


I have written article after article on this topic.  About how we too often throw money at classrooms in high-poverty schools and expect teachers to solve all their problems  I have said over and over that we don’t have “falling” schools, instead, we have “failing school communities.”

I even did an article about E. D. Nixon after it was picked for a pilot community school effort in Montgomery.

Unfortunately, Mike Sentance was picked to be the state school superintendent in 2016, he soon declared that the state would assume control of the Montgomery County system and the Nixon pilot program would be halted.  (Thank goodness it only took about one year for the state school board to figure out what a disaster Sentance was and they parted ways.)

There is no mystery involved in knowing how this all works.  We’ve known it for decades.  They mystery is trying to figure out why we will not do the things we know must be done.




When It Comes To Public Education, Alabama GOP shows Its True Colors

We recently had a post referring to progress being made by the Alabama Education Association to restock their political action committee’s coffers.  We borrowed liberally from an article written for AL.com by Republican Cameron Smith in which he mentioned that the state GOP once warned GOP legislators about taking campaign contributions from AEA.

John Wahl is chair of the state Republican party.  He spoke to Yellowhammer News about AEA a few days ago.  A couple of his comments are very revealing.

“[I]t’s funny you bring that up because at one point in the past, there was actually a resolution passed by the state party, I believe, that was saying Republican candidates should not take money from the AEA because of their influence and the concern they would have over direct policy,” he stated. “So, of course, that’s a concern.”

There you go.  The GOP is concerned that educators might have influence when it comes to setting education policy.  What a novel idea.  Does that apply to legislation dealing with hospitals for instance.  Does the GOP think that hospital administrators should not have input in to policy concerning hospitals?  Or realtors when las impacting real estate are proposed?

I’m guessing they do not apply such standards to other professional groups.

“[T]here were jokes about how the AEA controlled the state and had a vast amount of control over policy and what would happen with the Governor’s office, the state legislature,” he (Wahl) explained. “So much of that has gotten better since Republicans have taken control.” 

Things have gotten better for public schools since the GOP took over the legislature in 2010?  Wow, why can’t I find an educator who agrees with this?

Under this GOP control, we now have the Alabama Accountability Act that has diverted $148 million from the Education Trust Fund so we can give scholarships to kids to go to private schools–even though three studies by the University of Alabama have shown the scholarship students perform no better than their public school counterparts.  We now have the A-F school report cards that no one pays attention to–except a handful of politicians who use the grades to beat up on public schools.

We now have legislation allowing charter schools.  Some of which have done well, while the charter for one in Washington County was revoked by the state after tremendous opposition from the local community.

And we have the Alabama Literacy Act which says that third graders can be retained in that grade if they don’t reach certain reading proficiencies–even though exhaustive research on this topic tells us retention does not work.  (And I have not yet found just one Alabama educator who agrees with this legislation, while I have found many who say it will require teachers to complete a great deal of additional paperwork.).

I do not know John Wahl.  But I feel confident in saying that he knows as much about what is good for public schools as the legislators he thinks should not listen to professional educators.

Never Too Late

Editor’s note: Grace Lee McClure Smith always wanted to graduate from high school.  Finally, at age 94, she got her chance as detailed in this article from Al.com:

“It’s never too late to receive your high school diploma, as one Alabama woman proved on Wednesday when she graduated from a Madison County high school at the age of 94.

Grace Lee McClure Smith was finally able to turn her tassel nearly 80 years after she left Hazel Green High School so her husband could fight in World War II.

“I am so grateful. Thank you so much. It’s better late than never, isn’t it,” Smith told WAAY.

 According to the outlet, Smith received her diploma in a room full of her loved ones, including her 26 great-grandchildren.

Her granddaughter, Erin Wilson said that while Smith never regretted doing anything in her life, getting her diploma was always something that was very important to her.

After Smith left high school, she went on to work as a Madison County School system bus driver for 30 years and even drove Wilson to and from school.

According to Wilson, she always emphasized how important learning was.

“She always encouraged me to go to school, make sure I finish school and now she encourages my girls,” Wilson said.”

The Love Of One Teacher

Editor’s note:  The following is an article from The Washington Post about the dedication of a teacher in Pennsylvania to one of her students.  It is a remarkable demonstration of a teacher’s devotion to her profession, a profession that is too often not given the credit it deserves.

“It’s 3:30 p.m., and though Barbara Heim’s first-grade class is dismissed for the day, she is not done teaching. One student still awaits.  Since September, nearly every day after school, Heim, 59, has visited that student: Harrison Conner, who is battling cancer. After a full day of teaching, Heim drives to Harrison’s home for an hour-long, one-on-one lesson — which she does on her own time.

“I wanted to do it,” said Heim, who has taught at Conneaut Valley Elementary School in Conneautville, Pa., for 35 years. “I’ve loved teaching since I was a little girl, and it just extended my day of teaching. There was no burden.”
Plus, she explained, “I knew he wanted to learn.”

Barbara Heim, 59, with her student, Harrison Conner, who was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2020. Since the start of the school year, Heim has gone to Harrison’s house to teach him for an hour every day after school. (Courtesy of Barbara Heim)
Harrison, 8, was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2020.

Heim was one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right with her then-first grade student. “At recess, he would get really tired and have to sit down,” she said, adding that he started to appear pale whenever he was active. Heim notified the school’s principal and nurse about her concerns, and they contacted Harrison’s parents.

That was just before Christmas break. On the first day back at school in early January, Harrison was not there. One of her students immediately approached the teacher’s desk and said, “Mrs. Heim, Harrison went on a helicopter to the hospital last night.”
By the end of the day, Heim learned that Harrison was diagnosed with leukemia.  “I was totally gutted,” she said.

The news hit especially hard, since her mother had passed away from leukemia in 2015.

“No child should ever have to go through this horrible disease,” Heim said.
Upon hearing about the diagnosis, Heim reached out to Harrison’s parents and offered her support. Then, she and her students mobilized to bring Harrison as much joy as possible during a scary and difficult time.
“We as a class banded together and started writing him and making cards for him,” Heim said.

They delivered treats, sent notes and organized regular Zoom check-ins to make sure Harrison continued to feel included in the class.

“It was amazing. The kids were all yelling, ‘Hey Harrison,’ and telling him little things like ‘I lost my tooth,’ ” Heim said. “You know, things that are important to 6-year-olds.”

But sometimes, Harrison felt too weak to join the video call. His chemotherapy treatments were mentally and physically draining, and eventually, “He lost his ability to walk; he lost all his strength,” said Harrison’s mother, Suzanne Conner.

Despite the challenges, Harrison has been “so brave and so amazing, and just rolls with the punches,” Conner, 37, continued.
She just graduated from college. She said her Uber passenger made it possible.

As a parent of a child with cancer, though, “you are taking it day by day, sometimes hour by hour. It was really touch and go,” Conner said. In rare moments of calm, “all of the emotion hits you like a Mack truck.”
It’s a feeling Heim is familiar with. Although her mother’s illness was terminal and more acute than Harrison’s, “I knew all too well what they were going through.”

For the remainder of the year, Harrison was unable to participate in school, even as classes shifted to remote-only in the pandemic. While Harrison was absent, Heim regularly checked in with the family, including during the summer.
“Mrs. Heim has been a constant pillar,” Conner said. In addition to supporting her son, “she has been this shoulder to cry on; this ear that I could vent to. And she understands because she watched her family go through it.”

In many ways, Heim said, “I believe that I was meant to be his teacher, especially considering what I experienced with my mother.” But in Harrison’s case, there was more hope: “He could survive this,” she added.

Indeed, Harrison’s condition steadily improved over the summer months, and that’s when an idea arose: homebound learning.

Harrison was still receiving treatment and wasn’t ready to go back to school — which, as of September, was running in-person classes — and Heim worried he might slip too far behind if he missed another year.

Adam Jardina, the principal of Conneaut Valley Elementary School — located in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania — asked Heim what she thought about teaching Harrison the second-grade curriculum from home, and she was immediately on board.
“She didn’t even hesitate,” Jardina said.

While they also considered facilitating remote lessons with Harrison, “the pandemic showed us that face-to-face instruction beats remote or online instruction any day of the week,” Jardina said. “Especially in a case like this, where his parents are so exhausted from all the traveling and everything else.”

He consulted with the Conners and let them know the option was available to them, as long as they were comfortable, and Harrison’s doctor deemed it safe.  “We kept the door open, and said, ‘Whatever you need, we got you,’ ” Jardina said.

Although Conner and her husband had pandemic-related safety concerns, “I felt like it was the right thing to do, all things considered,” she said, adding that they implemented a strict coronavirus protocol whenever Heim would visit.  “It was fantastic to see him,” Heim said. “We had a lot of laughter going on. It was just like what we would have in the classroom, really.”
During their sessions, both Harrison and Heim were masked and separated by a plexiglass divider. They’d sit across from one another at the family’s dining room table, as Heim went over the lesson of the day, which typically included a combination of reading, writing, science, math and social studies.

Whenever Heim visited Harrison for a lesson, a strict coronavirus protocol was in place. Heim wore a mask and used a plexiglass divider to separate them.  Beyond hauling books and lesson plans to Harrison’s home, Heim never showed up without one of her student’s favorite snacks, and occasionally, a small present for him.

“She is simply amazing,” Conner said of Heim.  Heim quickly caught Harrison up on all of the curriculum he missed when he was too sick to learn.  While “it’s not perfect every day,” and sometimes Harrison’s energy is low, Heim said, “he is an excellent student. He loves to learn.”

As of last week, Harrison’s home room second-grade teacher, Debbie Piper, has started taking over the one-on-one lessons, as Heim is retiring at the end of the school year and wanted to ensure there is another teacher with whom Harrison feels comfortable, should he continue with homebound learning next year.

Since Heim is retiring this year, Debbie Piper, Harrison’s second-grade home room teacher, has transitioned to take over the daily tutoring sessions.

Harrison’s cancer is now in remission, and while he still has another year of maintenance treatment, the goal is to get him back in the classroom — at least part-time — by the fall. The staff at the school are all working together with his parents to devise a plan going forward.

“It’s truly been a team effort,” said Heim, who said she regularly leaned on other teachers at the school to help her manage her first-grade class.  When it came to Harrison, Heim shouldered most of the load.

“She certainly went above and beyond, especially with it being her last year and during a pandemic,” Jardina said. “After teaching first-graders all day, she found the energy at the end of a long day to go out and see him.”
She did it, Jardina believes, “out of her love for Harrison.”

The love is mutual, Conner said. In fact, “she’s Aunt B now.”  “Through this entire journey, she’s been so much more than a teacher,” she said. “The support she has given our family far exceeds anything I ever expected.”

Kudos To These Teachers

Each year the state department of education selects a Teacher of the Year.  Nearly 140 educators in 77 school systems were nominated for the 2021-20 year.  These have now been narrowed to one elementary and one middle or high school teacher for each of the eight school board districts.

The winner will be named in August.  Here are the 16 finalists:

Julie Neidhardt, Hutches Elementary, Mobile County system

Krista Marcum, Gulf Shores High, Gulf Shores system

Sherlita Gilchrist, Phenix City Virtual Learning  Academy, Phenix City system

Kimberly Johnson, Auburn Junior High, Auburn city system

Allison Phelps, Shades Cahaba Elementary, Homewood city system

Pamela McClendon, Riverchase Career Connection Center, Hoover city system

Sabrina Wright, Sun Valley Elementary, Birmingham city system

Leah Hughes, Hillcrest High, Tuscaloosa County system

Catherine Jackson, Banks School, Pike County system

Lilian Zekeri, Tuskegee Institute Middle, Macon County system

Megan Kreitlein, Eden Elementary, Pell City system

Mashell Wehn, Arab High, Arab city system

Rachel Graves, Weeden Elementary, Florence city system

Jeff Schrupp, Hewitt-Trussville High, Trussville city system

Candilyn Holt, Elkmont school, Limestone County system

Kierstan Bell, Hampton Cove Middle, Huntsville city system

Congratulations to each of these, as well as to all who were nominated.  Without doubt, most of these teachers they have just gone through the most challenging time of their career.  They deserve far more appreciation from the people of this state than they will ever receive.

Why Rural Teacher Corps Are A National Imperative

Editor’s note: Finding capable teachers is a challenge for all school systems, especially rural systems.  Which is why efforts to “grow your own” makes so much sense.  The program at the University of West Alabama is doing a great job with their Black Belt Teacher Corps.  This effort, and others around the nation, are gaining attention, as pointed out in this article.  I was pleased to play a small role in helping get the UWA effort up and running.

A sustainable American future depends on a thriving rural landscape. Unfortunately, our diverse rural regions are experiencing unprecedented challenges. These include the erosion of social capital, a brain drain of talented young people, and the impact of globalization. Exacerbating these issues is a growing rural teacher shortage, a thorny problem that may be complicated by a wave of Covid 19-related teacher retirements.

Dr. Allen Pratt, executive director for the National Rural Education Association, believes the rural teacher shortage is undermining rural schools. Pratt said, “The search for highly effective teachers is an ongoing quest for small, rural school districts across the nation. It is one of the greatest challenges facing rural district superintendents and their boards of education.”

The rural teacher shortage is the result of a confluence of factors. Urban to rural discrepancies in teacher pay, higher education access challenges, and the perceived lack of social amenities in small towns have resulted in unfilled teaching vacancies and shrinking pools of candidates.

There is no panacea for alleviating the rural teacher shortage, but the rural teacher corps concept —an intentional effort to produce teacher-leaders — squarely tackles issues related to rebuilding social capital, fighting rural bright flight, and, of course, preparing and placing outstanding rural teachers.  Rural teacher corps-like efforts have been adopted by a growing number of institutions as a viable alternative to the status quo.

Intentional efforts that recruit, prepare, and place teacher-leaders in underserved rural communities should utilize the most prevalent form of infrastructure available in rural locales — public schools. As corporatization, consolidation, and budget cuts have reduced the number of rural small businesses, healthcare facilities, and social service programs, public schools are often the only remaining vestige of rural “institutional infrastructure.” Therefore, a rural teacher corps program not only prepares qualified instructors, but they also provide vehicles for attracting young professionals to rural places in need of the energy, ideas, and creativity that young people bring (i.e. social capital).

Our public schools are a national imperative, and advocacy organizations need to work hand in hand with colleges and universities to prepare future teachers who possess skillsets that strengthen the bonds between school and community. Rural America desperately needs teachers who:

Have a strong sense of place, mission, and rural identity;
Have a more comprehensive understanding of rurality and how that relates to economics, climate change, and social justice;
Are savvy communicators, networkers, and users of new media;
Practice collaboration throughout the school, community, and nation.
Are perceived as community leaders and catalysts for change.
Rural teacher corps programs are tailored to meet the needs of a respective region, but they share some common attributes:

Developing networks of positive role models to encourage people to become rural teachers early on;
Reframing the rural narrative — the positive aspects of the rural experience;
Promoting initiatives to recruit mid-career professionals who may be tied to a given
Seeking opportunities to formulate programs that include scholarship incentives for
future teachers to commit to rural teaching placements;
Speaking to the community roles of educators — creating a more mission-
driven dialogue.

Several excellent rural teacher corps models have been developed and launched over the last few years. Although some programs are still in early implementation, some regional efforts have seen promising outcomes.

The Ozarks Teacher Corps is funded by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, where a $1.8 million endowment funds scholarships and administrative support. The program has rural school placement and retention rates of more than 90%, with 3/4 of the program’s graduates still teaching in their “original school” after three years. Nearly 100 “rurally-prepared” teachers now teach in more than 40 rural Ozarks school districts.

The University of West Alabama’s (UWA) Black Belt Teacher Corps is based out of Livingston, Ala. The program is state-funded and has grown from an annual budget of $250,000 to $500,000 in only its fourth year. UWA has also developed a future teacher academy in cooperation with rural school districts, where they begin working with students at the high school level.

The Eastern Illinois University Rural Teacher Corps (EIU) is a comprehensive effort with multiple funders. Completing its third year, the EIU Rural Teacher Corps includes more than 30 students, and there is an active planning council made up of area school leaders. EIU has launched a robust social marketing effort.

Take Action
Even modest investments can drive significant change in rural areas. Here’s how you can help:

Donors can support the Rural Schools Collaborative, or RSC can connect donors to rural-based, under-resourced colleges that could utilize rural teacher corps planning grants.
Rural school advocacy is of the utmost importance, and we encourage folks to learn more about the National Rural Education Association.
The Rural Teacher Corps Network consists of 15 diverse teacher corps programs. These efforts are grateful for support.