Yesterday I spent nearly two hours at Progress Rail in Albertville as they celebrated their second year of a mentoring program for third, fourth and fifth graders in Marshall County schools.  It was a fun time.  Most of the fun came from just watching the smiles on the faces of these youngsters as they shared thoughts with their mentors, who also had plenty to smile about.

Today, I cranked up my computer at 10:00 a.m. to watch a state school board work session.  It ended at 4:30 p.m. with about a 45 minute lunch break.

All the while I kept thinking back to that room of about 60 young people and trying to figure out how what I was watching on my computer connected to them.  Sure, some things did in some ways, such as talk about the outcome of the Education Trust Fund just passed by the most recent session of the legislature.  But two hours devoted to another statewide strategic plan or a discussion of how the recent snafu over high school grad rates happened or standards for in-service centers all seemed a million miles away from rural Asbury elementary where principal Jean Wilks and her staff do all they can improve young lives.

Yes, I’m old and cynical.  (Though I was once young and cynical.)  Which means I tend to quickly dismiss things that may seem quite grand in some esoteric, pie-in-the-sky way.

But bottom line.  Isn’t it supposed to be all about the kids.  About how people at the state department of education can aid and support people like Jean Wilks and her teachers meet the challenges they face each day?

A few days ago I was at Hazel Green elementary in Madison County where staff member Sara McClendon told me they used a $500 grant from the Rural Schools Collaborative to make sure 137 kindergarten kids got hearing and vision tests on the first day of school.  But in nearly five hours of discussion in Montgomery today no one ever mentioned anything as simple and inexpensive as this that pays such immediate dividends.

Instead, we heard about a week long conference for some Montgomery educators this summer we will pay a Massachusetts consulting firm $210,000 to put on.  We heard about organizational charts and who belongs in each box.  We heard about hiring more consultants to come up with more reports.  We heard about international strategies and National Assessment of Educational Progress scores and lunches at Montgomery’s Capital City Club.

(And if my Auburn math is correct, we could get all 55,500 kindergarten kids in Alabama a hearing and vision screening for less than we will spend this summer on consultants from Massachusetts.)

Sure strategic plans make some feel all warm and fuzzy.  I’ve certainly been involved with my share of them.  But long ago I decided that the chief benefactor of most strategic plans are the mills that make the paper they are printed on.

But my guess is that all those youngsters at Asbury benefit far more from their one-hour weekly reading sessions provided  by the wonderful employees of Progress Rail than they ever will a strategic plan crafted in Montgomery.

And if we insist on have such a plan, I suggest we do one showing how we can replicate what Progress Rail is doing all over the state.