Birmingham: the next Homewood?

Homewood City Hall
Homewood City Hall

The City of Birmingham could be the next Homewood.

Homewood is one of the most livable and popular cities in Alabama.

Young folks are flocking into Homewood.

Young folks also are flocking into Birmingham.

But Birmingham has a problem…

I recently was invited to speak to a local civic club on how we might build a robust Birmingham.

I was stunned to walk into a room jammed with young folks excitedly engaged in conversation.  The room was electric!

Let me describe the folks in the room:

  • Primarily white
  • All males
  • All under the age of 30
  • All upper middle class

These young men joined this club to expand their business connections, socialize, and to support a non-profit with a mission to make a difference in children’s’ lives.

These men are our future leaders.  They are establishing careers and starting new families.

I was invigorated just being in the same room.

I began by asking a question.

“How many of you live in the City of Birmingham?”

I always ask who lives in Birmingham knowing that very few hands will be raised.

But I was wrong.

To my astonishment, almost everyone in the room lived within the city limits of Birmingham.

I was dumbfounded! This has never happened to me before.

But then someone in the audience shouted out, “Ask how many will remain in the city when their children reach school age?”

Silence…

The question dramatically changed the tone in the room.

He was right.  These future leaders would soon abandon the city.

Think about that for a moment.

Young folks actually choose to start their careers and families in Birmingham, but we make it impossible for them to stay.

What does this have to do with Homewood?

  • Homewood is thriving
  • Homewood is diverse
  • Homewood has an excellent school system

Homewood is thriving:  When my wife and I bought a home in Vestavia Hills, our first choice was Homewood.  But the cost per square foot of house in Homewood was more than we wanted to pay. The demand for homes in Homewood is intense.

Homewood is diverse:  Drive around the neighborhoods of Homewood. Yes, there are plenty of whites, but you also see large numbers of African-American and Latinos—even a fair number of Asians.  There are upscale neighborhoods and others that are not as upscale.

Homewood has an excellent school system:  The Birmingham Business Journal recently ranked Homewood City Schools as the 4th top performing school system in Jefferson County after Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

Homewood Schools are highly rated—even with its diverse population.

Approximately 27% of Homewood students are on free or reduced lunch, yet Homewood students have a 94% graduation rate; 91% meet or exceed state proficiency standards in mathematics; 95% in reading.

If Birmingham had a comparable school system, the City of Birmingham would be unstoppable.

Millennials are choosing Birmingham to start their careers, but they soon move to Homewood, Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook, Trussville, or Hoover for better schools.

Birmingham schools are on a march to nowhere

Birmingham City Schools have had 10 school superintendents in 18 years.  No school system can survive with such rampant turnover.

In contrast, Bill Cleveland has been the superintendent of Homewood Schools for nine years and is a graduate of Homewood High School.

What kind of school board would allow this turnover? 

Birmingham School Board members are elected from nine separate districts.  No board member is elected city-wide.  So it’s in the best interest of each school board member to please his or her constituents rather than to make decisions that may benefit the school system as a whole.

The result is what you might expect.

No superintendent can survive with nine board members pulling and pushing from different directions.

I asked one of the few non-Birmingham residents at the meeting where he lived. He said he lived in Birmingham until he had to make a school decision and then he and his family moved to Homewood.  He chose Homewood for its schools system, but he really liked the diversity.

Many young parents today–contrary to past generations–seek diversity–but that diversity must be paired with excellent schools.

Come on Birmingham, with good schools you could be more like Homewood.

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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8 thoughts on “Birmingham: the next Homewood?”

  1. When you and others realize that Birmingham schools are almost totally a product of the population in the city and the parents of the students of the schools, then Birmingham schools can begin to improve. The schools are not bad or good because they are located in some arbitrary geographic location. They are bad or good because of the parents and the school leadership.

    So let’s hypothetically transport the population of Vestavia into Birmingham – suddenly the parents of the school children have dramatically improved. Suddenly the school leadership changes because of the voter demographic – educated people who care and understand what it takes to make a place livable. So now Birmingham has good schools. It is that simple.

    What you, Mr. Sher, and all of your columnists who espouse great things about Birmingham while living in suburbs, fail to comprehend is that you are directly responsible for the state of Birmingham schools. If you lived in the city, the schools would not be that way. Voter turnout in Birmingham elections is pathetic. It would literally only take about 20,000 additional residents to vote in the city of Birmingham and almost the whole city government could change. Vestavia, Homewood, Alabaster all have more population than that.

    For anyone who wants to make the argument that this stance is classist or insensitive to those in Birmingham, you are wrong. In society, there have always been and always will be differences in levels of intelligence, wealth, and ability to reach higher levels on the hierarchy of needs. It is simply a fact. So there will always be people who vote for corrupt politicians, who keep their kids from school, who do not understand the value of an education, and so on. All of you suburbanites choosing to live in the suburbs and choosing to concentrate those who do not understand the value of an education and those who have little hope of reaching higher echelons of humanity in the urban core, are 100% to blame for the state of Birmingham. How many bodies does Birmingham city hall touch that are not elected or that affect the whole region – Airport Authority, BJCTA, BWWB, Bham Zoo, the list goes on – organizations that are inept and corrupt precisely because Vestavia residents choose to live outside the city of Birmingham and refuse to vote the corrupt politicians out of Birmingham city hall. But, what can you expect from people who have allowed the disgraceful, vile Jabo Waggoner to rule over them with an iron racist fist for 40 years?

    The city limits are simply arbitrary boundaries. When you choose to live outside the boundary of the city of Birmingham, you are choosing to allow Birmingham to suffer. It doesn’t matter how many events you see at the civic center, how many times you donate to the Jimmy Hale Mission, how many times you ramble about some sort of epiphany you had about the greatness of Birmingham, if you do not live in the city, you are expressly causing its demise. When you choose to exercise your right to vote and you remove the corrupt politicians from office then you are improving the city. THEN YOU ARE IMPROVING THE WHOLE REGION.

    1. I agree with your statement of the problem – in part. Yes, if there were an influx of white, middle class voters that would drastically impact citywide elections. But Birmingham is a microcosm of the region and suffers from the same compartmentalism that plagues the region. The way the city operates, it is not one unified city. It is a collection of 99 neighborhoods each with their own identity, priority, leadership, agenda… Much like the school board is fractured the whole city is fractured. What do Forest Park and Wahouma have in common? If suburban residents were to do as you suggest, they would only make the white neighborhoods whiter and further solidify the disparities that plague the city.

      I feel your frustration. We lived within the city limits, sent our children to the neighborhood [sic] school and fought to make improvements. To what end? The school system, as a whole, is worse off than when our oldest started six years ago. Oh yes, there are great schools in the system, but the school leadership has failed. And the City leadership has failed. So we, too, have moved to Homewood.

      1. I fully agree with you about the neighborhoods. 99 is way too many. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the Citizens Advisory Board and the neighborhood system.

  2. Furthermore Mr. Sher, if you gave a damn about Birmingham, you would grill Jabo Waggoner and David Faulkner about why they care so much about a city they do not live in nor have district representation in?

    1. Can’t we have a civil discussion without attacking people? That does not accomplish anything productive. The bottom line is that the Birmingham school system (i grew up at Lakeview school (building still there on Clairmont) and South Highland school (building gone now, 5 points)) is a real mess and it is holding everyone and everything back in a lot of ways. It will continue to hold us back (yes, i am a resident of Birmingham) until it is fixed.

  3. Those “good” schools are mediocre at best. And the only mediocre schools are those where the parents have the desire and ability to overcome some of the deficiencies of a government monopoly over education.

    Start forcing everyone to buy their groceries at a neighborhood government-run grocery store, and you’ll get the same results. The only mediocre stores will be those where the customers have the desire and ability to overcome some of the deficiencies of a government monopoly.

    Try vouchers!

  4. While I understand and appreciate the point you are trying to make here, I think it is entirely unfair the compare Birmingham City Schools to Homewood City Schools. You point out that Homewood has 27% of students that qualify for free or reduced lunch but Birmingham has 82% of students on free or reduced lunch. With such a huge disparity the school districts can hardly be compared. The sheer population of students makes BCS (24,500) much more challenging than Homewood (4,000). And while Homewood has a good deal of diversity 60% of them are white while in Birmingham only 1% are white (this seems low but data was from NCTQ.org). All of these factors matter when determining a school district’s success. It’s a comparison that doesn’t make sense.

    Birmingham City Schools need to improve. I am actually a BCS teacher so I am painfully aware of the shortcomings of our schools. The lack of consistency in district leadership is certainly one of the things to blame. Your point would be better taken if you left out the comparison between Birmingham and Homewood. Two completely different school systems and cannot be accurately compared.

    Finally I wanted to point out the bigger problem. Are people leaving Birmingham because the schools are bad or are the schools bad because people are leaving? In the end both are probably true but that makes it hard to solve the problem.

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