On March 1st I attended a TEDxBirmingham event at the Alys Stephens Center. Fifteen speakers gave passionate speeches with the common theme to rediscover the magic of Birmingham. Quite frankly, it was an event I will never forget.
One of the speakers, Victoria Hollis, who’s the Program Manager at the Birmingham Education Foundation (ED), urged the audience to take ownership of Birmingham Schools. She gave the analogy of a small child falling down on the playground. She said even though the child wasn’t yours, you would still rush over and pick the child up. At the completion of her talk, the audience gave her an enthusiastic standing ovation.
A friend, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder and implored me to go home and write a blog for ComebackTown about Victoria and her talk.
This is that blog. But it’s not the blog my friend thought I would write.
Victoria’s speech was moving. She was right on target–emphasizing that we don’t know when our lives will intersect with the children of Birmingham and that we will never have a great Birmingham without great local schools. The audience obviously agreed. Another speaker mentioned helping Birmingham schools and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.
Birmingham schools have been on a downward spiral since the 1960’s. When my wife first started teaching in the Birmingham School System in 1967, there were more than 70,000 students enrolled. When she retired last year, there were less than 25,000. (I hope she had nothing to do with that drop)
It appears most of us want to help inner city children–as long as it doesn’t impact our own children.
So it’s fair to say that Birmingham schools will only succeed if the education provided is equal or better than the surrounding school systems. If people are serious about helping our inner city children, then they should invite those children into their school systems. (There are twelve school systems in Jefferson County) Or they should send their children to Birmingham schools and then fight like hell to make them better.
All of us know this is totally unrealistic. No one who can afford it so is going to take the chance of sacrificing their childrens’ education and their future.
For those of you who are regular ComebackTown readers, you know our primary objective is to begin a conversation on how to fix our segmented/dysfunctional government. Competing cities like Nashville, Charlotte, and Jacksonville successfully combined their county and city governments and they have left us far behind.
Many folks in our community won’t consider that option because they ‘think’ the schools would have to be combined. That is absolutely not true. Indianapolis unified their county and city and left the schools in place.
So how do we make Birmingham schools equal to or better than surrounding schools?
We could follow the lead of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Kalamazoo is very similar to Birmingham and their schools at one time were struggling just like Birmingham. But now Kalamazoo offers free college tuition to their high school graduates. And as you might expect, they have turned their school system around—even causing competing school systems to be better. It would be easy to say we can’t afford anything like that here, but take a moment to read how Kalamazoo did it in this fascinating New York Times Article.
Or we could borrow an idea from Republican Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee who recently proposed that all Tennessee high school graduates receive two years of free community college or technical school. We could consider the same for Birmingham.
We in Birmingham will have to do something audacious to transform our schools. Throwing a few bucks at the problem or visiting the schools is nice, but it ultimately won’t save Birmingham and Birmingham schools.
Victoria, we are all rooting for you. We appreciate your passion and your enthusiasm. You are an angel. But if we are to reach our true potential, we will have to do something courageous and bold.
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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Collection Agency. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).