Report cards for 1,300 Alabama schools are now out.  Their release brought the usual amount of fluttering about from educators and politicians.  In brief, general improvement was seen across the landscape with more districts earning A’s and B’s than previously.

Trish Crain, who covers education for did her usual good job of looking at this topic from stem to stern.  You can see her reporting here, here and here.

And what we learn again is something we’ve known for years.  Poverty levels and demographic makeup of schools, nine times out of ten, or maybe ninety-nine out of one hundred, set the DNA of a school.  While it may not be politically correct to discuss such matters, or just turn away from reality, a deep look at the info provided by these report cards reveals the starkness of what we face in many parts of this state.

After all, the report cards are just a tool.  Unless we work hard to find out what they tell us, they are worth very little.  Too often we get so caught up a process that we fail to see the larger picture.  What would you think if your doctor ordered some X-fays, and then did not look at them?  Or if he had blood work done for you, and did not look at the results?

There are 15 school systems (out of 137) that earned a system wide A.  On average, they are 70.1 percent white, 14.8 percent black, 5.7 percent Hispanic and 5.1 percent Asian.  The average free-reduced lunch rate is 23.4 percent.

By comparison, numbers for all 722,212 public school students are: 54.1 percent white, 32.4 percent black, 8.4 percent Hispanic and 1.4 percent Asian.  The average free-reduced lunch rate is 49.9 percent.

There are ten systems that received a D grade.  (None got an F.)  Collectively they are 10.1 percent white, 79.6 percent black, 8.2 percent Hispanic and less than one percent Asian.  Poverty rate is 64.9 percent

Yep.  The differences on each end of this spectrum are stark..  But wait, it’s when we go inside some of these numbers that we begin to find nuggets that may give us insight and guidance.  For example, there are 190 A schools listed.  But of these, 31 have a poverty rate greater than the state average.  And 10 of these are 60 percent or greater.

Steele is in the north end of St. Clair County, on U.S. 11 that was once the main route  from Birmingham to Gadsden.  It’s the home of Steele Junior High, a K-7 school with only 174 students.  The free-reduced lunch rate is 72.4 percent meaning that it has the highest poverty rate of any A school in Alabama.  Someone must be doing something right at this school and in this community.  I don’t know what, but I plan to take a look.

Another nugget.  Of the 190 A schools. there are only two that are majority black.  One is Jeter Primary and the other is Morris Avenue Intermediate.  Both are in Opelika and both have a 60 percent poverty rate.  Again, they may have stories to tell.

There are 27 A schools in C districts.  They are sprawled from Lookout Mountain to Mobile.  How are they meeting challenges other schools in their district can’t seem to overcome?

We love to look for bright, shiny objects in education.  Let’s have a new strategic plan, let’s give out vouchers, what about converting some schools to charters?  Why not convene an “education summit” and bring in high-paid consultants who have written lots of books?

Or better yet, let’s take the road map these school report cards have given us, be honest about our challenges and shortcomings and don’t insist that one size fits all.  We obviously have some home-grown experts.  You know like teachers and principals,

Ten years ago Buddy Dial was principal of Albert Turner, Sr. elementary school in Marion.  This was one of the schools we studied for Lessons Learned From Rural Schools.  After 40 years in education, Buddy retired the following year.  He is a native of the Black Belt and knows it and its people like the back of his hand.

He called me yesterday and we talked about education.  He told me, “It really is a lot simpler than folks think.”

I don’t disagree.