Rural Schools Get The Shaft

As reported by Yahoo News:

Thanks to an under-the-radar bookkeeping change at the Department of Education, hundreds of rural schools across the US are set to lose vital funds.

As reported in the New York Times, the department has changed the eligibility criteria for the Rural and Low-Income School Program, which provides funding for school districts in some of the poorest parts of the country.

The change will make it harder for districts to demonstrate their eligibility, meaning hundreds of them will lose tens of thousands of dollars – and in some cases much more.

Nearly a seventh of the US’s public school pupils live in rural school districts, which have long been poor and underfunded. Many depend on the program to fund everything from anti-bullying initiatives to counselling to language lessons for non-English speakers.

To qualify for the program, school districts must prove that at least 20 per cent of their area’s school-age children live in poverty.

Officially, they are required to do so using census data, but because the census often leaves out many people living in rural areas, they have in practice been allowed to cite the percentage of their pupils who qualify for free or subsidised meals.

The department has now abruptly decided that it will only allow districts to use census data, meaning districts will struggle to account for all children in their local areas who would qualify.

A department spokeswoman told the Times that the move is simply a matter of following the law and that Congress can legislate to formally change the criteria, but the move has nonetheless met with condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans.

Even some of those sympathetic to Donald Trump and invested in his re-election are baffled as to why the department would withdraw the money from poor, rural districts, including core parts of the president’s electoral base.

Senators including Susan Collins of Maine are now scrambling to put together a fix that will ensure schools can still access the programme.

The Department of Education is led by Betsy DeVos, who was one of Mr. Trump’s most controversial cabinet appointees at the start of his administration. She has drawn fire both for her lack of experience in schools and her past statements advocating a religious agenda for public education.”

Rural Grant Pays Off For Pisgah High

The Rural School Collaborative works throughout the United States.  One of their projects is awarding small grants to rural schools.  Alabama has been fortunate to receive a number of these grants.  (Editor’s note: I serve on the board of this organization.)

Pisgah High is a recent grant winner.  Teacher Brad Moore received a $1,000 2017-18 Grants in Place award for Eagles Working for Wood Ducks, a project to teach students construction, conservation, chemistry, ecology, and public relations skills. The program is placing wood duck nesting boxes, constructed by the students, on local cattle farm ponds while measuring water conditions. This involves, but is not limited to nest box construction, contacting local landowners about placement of boxes, installing and maintaining boxes, and monitoring water pH conditions and chemical make-up.

(For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of riding thousands and thousands of miles of Alabama back roads as I have, Pisgah is a speck of a community in eastern Jackson County, one of the most scenic counties in the state.  It is just off Highway 71 about midway between Dutton and Rosalie  Eagles is the high school mascot)

Brad Moore explains the project:

Eagles Working for Wood Ducks (EWWD) is a program that is constructing, erecting, monitoring, and maintaining wood duck nesting structures across the Pisgah community. By partnering with local farmers, land owners, and local park committees, we are insuring the increased wildlife viewing opportunities for our entire community. The whistling wings and haunting call of the female wood duck has long been absent from our community. Behavioral Science studies have shown that time spent outdoors lowers stress levels and blood pressure. There is something soothing and relaxing in nature. We hope to give the residents of our community an added incentive to take advantage of the beautiful region where we live.  Wood duck nesting boxes are just one example of the way that we can help conserve our natural resources for future enjoyment.

The Agrisciences classes at Pisgah High School purchased enough 1”x12” western cedar boards to construct 25 wood duck nesting boxes. These boxes are distributed to local land owners, as well as the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources who erects, manages, maintains, and monitors the nesting boxes throughout the year to insure that the nest box is ready to be occupied each spring.

Students learned about construction and wood duck ecology through the EWWD program. A total of 131 students spent time in the shop and classroom, learning about both the necessity and the ease of actually lending a helping hand to animals. Due to the extensive logging of the early 1900’s, many trees which served as nesting sites for wood ducks were cut. Wood duck numbers plummeted.  Wood duck nesting boxes are just one example of how we can help conserve our natural resources.

(Another editor’s note: To me this is education in its purest form.  Engaging young people in something they can relate to.  Giving them a deeper understanding of where their roots are and the things that shaped their ancestors who came before them.  And I guarantee that years from now when these youngsters gather for a class reunion, not a one of them will remember who wrote a textbook they studied in high school and whose software they had on their computer–but every single on of them will remember buildomg boxes for wood ducks.).


UWA Increases Rural Impact

My friends at the University of West Alabama continue to carve their niche as the four-year school that has help for rural areas as a key mission.

Now they have announced plans for offering its first doctoral program in the near future. Pending approval from its accrediting body, UWA will soon offer through its Julia S. Tutwiler College of Education a unique Ed.D. in rural education.

The proposed program will offer two tracks to best meet the needs of educators and professionals. The teaching and learning track is designed for teacher leaders in a variety of settings, instructional coaches, directors, team leaders, and lead teachers. A track for organizational change and leadership is designed for curriculum leaders, instructional leaders in a variety of settings, directors, team leaders, lead teachers, higher education leaders, or leaders of non-profit organizations.

“ACHE’s approval of our Ed.D. in Rural Education is outstanding news for our university,” said UWA President Ken Tucker. “This innovative and unique doctoral program, the only one of its kind in the nation, has the potential of being a national model for other universities in rural environments.”

The University received approval from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education in early December, and the proposed degree program will go before the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges in the summer of 2018. Should SACS approve the proposed degree program, UWA will begin offering the Ed.D. in rural education in the fall of 2018.

UWA’s commitment to rural education has continually grown over recent years, including the establishment of the Black Belt Teaching Corps, partnerships with the National Rural Education Association and the Rural Schools Collaborative, a position as the Alabama Affiliate for Rural Education, and a broad slate of programs and initiatives designed to equip rural educators. The college is a Teacher Quality Partnership grant recipient, awarded $3.3 million for training the region’s best educators.

If anyone can relate to the needs and challenges of rural communities, it’s Ken Tucker.  A native of Linden in Marengo County, he also served as a county commissioner.  If anything will get you to where the rubber meets the road, or should we say where the motor grader meets the ditch, it is being a county commissioner.

I am delighted to see what is taking place on this campus in Livingston and glad to have the chance to help in some ways..

Going Off The Grid

Even old folks need a break  every now and then.  Especially when most of your time is spent being dumbfounded by the insanity surrounding public education these days.

For me, that usually means aiming my 18-year old car down a country road.  A few days ago my longtime friend Jo Bonner sent me an article from the Mobile Press-Register that appeared in 2014.  It was about a section of south Wilcox County known as the Grampian Hills and the love affair Tommy Lawler has long had with its hills and hollows.

Frankly, I’d never heard of them and promised Jo a trip would be forthcoming.  (You can see the Press-Register article here.)  (I also promised i would have lunch at Miss Kitty’s in Camden, which I did.)

A couple of days later I headed southwest out of Montgomery, going west on highway 80 till I took a left on 21 toward Hayneville.  A road I’ve seen many times before.

From Snow Hill to Camden the road is relatively flat with gentle curves weaving in and out of the Black Belt.  But take 265 from the courthouse square in Camden toward Beatrice and in four-fives miles you suddenly are in much deeper cuts and sharper curves.  Not at all unlike hilly sections of northeast Alabama.

These are the Grampian Hills, formed more than 50 million years ago in the Paleocene age.  Back when some really weird-looking critters wandered the land.  (At least that’s what articles I found on Google told me.)

But this afternoon Google was nowhere to be found, nor a GPS since I don’t have one.  Just me and the sun and the old car.  A country boy on a country road.

Not too far past Enon Baptist Church the road began to flatten some, so I turned around and headed back north.  Just past a tower where forest rangers used to climb a lot of steps to spend the day in a small room at the top looking for wisps of smoke I took a dirt road to the left.  Had no clue where it was taking me, nor did I much care.  But figured at some point I would come to a crossroads and would go on from there.

I only saw trees and kudzu.  Eventually I came to a grown up graveyard on the side of the road, evidence that this little patch of earth was once inhabited.  I climbed the bank and looked at the headstone of someone who was born in 1822 and died in 1902.  I wondered what tales he might have told me.  No doubt the same kind my own great-great grandpa in Covington County, born in 1828, could’ve related before he went off to the Civil War and never came home.

At one point I met a dump truck, found a wide spot in the road and waved as he went by.  After seven miles I decided the wise thing was to turn around and retrace my tracks.  (I learned later this road would have taken me to Vrendenburgh in Monroe County.)

Reaching 265 again, I headed north again and stopped at Lawler Timber Company.  Tommy was not there, but his older brother by 18 months, “Big Daddy” was.  We had a long chat and he told me his father had farmed the little patches in this part of the county and that an ancestor from North Carolina caught a musket ball in the leg at Vicksburg and on the way home, decided to stop in Wilcox County.

According to his card, Big Daddy is the “Gettin’ Outdoors” radio network  You can see his website here.  While there, check out the “Unofficial 2017 West Central Alabama River alligator hunt results.”

By now it was time to head home for supper, but before I left, Big Daddy invited me to come back in late fall when foliage is at its peak in the Grampian Hills.  “I’ll give you the whole 12 mile tour,” he said.

I’m looking forward to taking him up on his offer.

Rural School Puts It All In Perspective

I have told you about my involvement with the national Rural Schools Collaborative and their small grant program for rural schools.  Last year we funded nine projects in Alabama and I have now visited seven of them..

(Have 56 applications from Alabama this year, but unfortunately only a handful will be funded due to lack of money.  Grants usually range from $250 to $1000)

One of the grantees last year was hazel green elementary in Madison county.  I visited this school last week. They got $500 to do hearing and vision screening for all kindergarteners at the beginning of school.

Sara McClendon is the person who wrote the grant and made everything happen.  Here is her description of the project.  This really makes one think about what the real world of local education faces.

“The purpose of the grant was to screen every kindergarten student for hearing and vision interferences on the very first day of school and partner with local doctors and agencies to provide support and guidance to our families the minute an issue was identified. The idea came from repeated encounters with struggling students who were not making gains or responding to intervention.

Students might enter kindergarten very low and after quality instruction and failure to respond, they would be referred to the Pupil Support Team (PST) or what we now call the RTI team. Interventions would be developed and implemented and a student still may not respond so they end up being referred for special education testing.

Only then did they receive a full hearing and vision screening at the school. If they failed one or both, the student had lost all that time in class, all that time in intervention because they either could not see the materials or hear the instruction or both. After seeing this happen, I felt this process was backwards and although there are some informal vision screenings that happen throughout the school year, we need to screen all students BEFORE they start school and lose time.

We have 137 kindergarteners, so hearing screenings can be a time consuming process to knock out for each one of them. The $500 grant paid for nurse substitutes to come to our building to help conduct the screenings. My hope, in writing this grant, was to catch a child with an undiagnosed hearing or vision loss before it impacts their formal schooling. We caught nine students on the very first day with either a hearing, vision or combination issues. 

We often have free vision screenings and organizations that come around and they are very beneficial, however, results can take time to get back or only parents see them, not the school and they come screen after the school year has begun and instructional time has already been lost.  Also, as a Title I school, attendance can be an issue for some families and if a child is absent on the day the organization comes, they are not screened and another year could be lost.

My hope was to catch children before they fall and offer support to families as they navigate a potential hearing loss in the state of Alabama which is one of only four or five states in the entire country who do not require insurance companies to cover hearing loss in children. When you compound a hearing loss with the poverty in our area and the fact that insurance will not pay for hearing aids or therapy, our students are at an additional disadvantage.

Sure, there are services set up, but only after one of my twins failed their hearing screen in the NICU after birth, did I realize how difficult getting your child help for a hearing issue was.  And I was a well-informed mother with access to resources and a car with gas in it to drive my child where ever she needed to be for help. We waited over eight months just to get in for an appointment and I have seen families here wait even longer.”

As I see things like this over and over where a small amount of money yields such dividends, I can’t help but think about the constant out pouring of money from the state department of education for consultants.

For the $750,000 contact we just spent for the Montgomery CFO, we could do a screening program at 1,500 schools.  Something ain’t right with this picture.

An Elementary Teacher And Her Vision

Bridgeport is tucked way away in the northeast corner of Alabama.  Just a stone’s throw from Tennessee and much closer to Knoxville than Montgomery.  Amidst the hills and hollows of the Appalachian foothills and almost on the banks of the Tennessee River.

A site so scenic that a New York family began investing in local property about 1887  New industry sprang up, new homes built and the Alabama College of Dental Surgery came to life.  The New Yorkers thought it would become one of the South’s leading cities.

But a nationwide economic panic in 1893 brought a halt to investments and grand dreams quickly vanished.  And though there have been flourishes of economic activity since (a beautiful train depot there will be 100 years old this year), for the most part, Bridgeport settled into the same rhythms that snared rural communities across the south over the last 50+ years. Today it is home to about 2,500 people.

Plus Bridgeport Elementary and Middle schools.  The former with 202 students, the latter with 146.

Lauria Merritt is principal of the elementary school and one of her teachers is Kathy Frizzelle who teaches 3rd-grade math, serves in the library and runs the after school program.  Kathy is a native of Pisgah and still lives there, a 30-mile one way commute from her school. Her route to the classroom is not traditional, yet not that unusual in many rural locations.

As a teenager she thought about becoming a lawyer, but since the real world has a way of sidetracking dreams, after high school she found herself working first in one of the sock mills that used to be as common in DeKalb County as dew on a summer morning.  After that, she worked in Scottsboro for a company making rugs.  Fortunately she learned that this employer would pay her tuition to take classes at Northeast Alabama Community College in Rainsville.  So off she went.

She was able to complete her degree taking courses from Athens State.  She has now been teaching eight years.

Always looking to help her school where resources are in short supply, Kathy applied for a grant last year from the national Rural Schools Collaborative.  She was awarded $1,000 to go towards an outdoor classroom.  This was one of nine awarded in Alabama.

Many of our students don’t have a lot of opportunities to experience some of the things many folks take for granted,” she said.  “We think the outdoor classroom will be a great thing for them.”

Total cost for the classroom is estimated at $1,300.  A local contractor is donating the labor and giving the school materials at cost.  Kathy hopes it will be finished this summer.

This year there have been a total of 56 grant applications from Alabama.  Unfortunately, many will not be able to be funded because of a lack of available money.  However, you can be a part of this effort by going to this web site and following instructions as to how to donate.  All funds from Alabama will be used in state schools.

Editor’s note: This school has no pre-K and the community lost its Head Start program a few years ago.  For many students, life is a struggle.  Kathy told me about one student who lives in a camper.  Kathy’s own story is an inspiration.  Going from a sock mill to a classroom takes determination.  It would only take $56,000 to fund all 56 requests.  Maybe less.  Knowing this, it is impossible not to think about the $750,000 no-bid contract Mike Sentance got for a CFO for Montgomery and the $500,000 he got for Massachusetts consultants to work in Alabama.

It is hard to think we have our priorities right.  But then, I doubt our state superintendent has ever been to Bridgeport or inside a sock mill.