Will it take a horrific disaster to fix Birmingham schools?

Mark Martin
Dr. Mark Martin

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a more prosperous Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is  Mark Martin.  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

“Birmingham is on the rise,” but our schools are in steady decline.

We led the nation through a historic civil rights movement, yet, each day as the 8 o’clock bell rings, we deny our most marginalized children a quality education.

To sleep better at night, we hastily funnel money into schools so broken that few with a choice would willingly send their children to.

We are all to blame

Avoid the temptation to narrowly view these contradictions as a criticism of our schools, teachers, or administrators, but instead see them as an indictment of the surrounding metro community, of the private, non-profit, philanthropic, and faith-based communities and public bodies that are complicit in perpetuating a status quo of failure.

How else do you explain the fact that 50% of the city’s middle schools and 6 of the 7 high schools are once again on the state’s failing schools list?

Keep in mind that this list is fairly arbitrary, simply representing the state’s bottom 6% of schools. Many of the schools that avoided this list, representing the seventh percentile of schools and above, aren’t much better off.

We’re quick to create trifling headlines and headaches pitting Common Core Curriculum against Alabama College and Career Ready Standards (when the two are 90+% aligned) and engage in other pointless partisan bickering in light of what should be fairly obvious: With most city students averaging a 13 on their ACT and the University of Alabama’s freshman class now averaging a 28, much of what we spend our energy fighting or defending in our schools has little chance of meaningfully altering outcomes for the kids that need us the most.

Yet this painful predicament in which we place Birmingham’s future leaders is rarely honestly confronted by Birmingham’s current leaders in the business and political spheres.

So I ask: What does it take to ignite transformative change and do we collectively have the will to go there?

And are there lessons to learn by looking beyond Birmingham?

Katrina and New Orleans schools

Take the story of a former New Orleans high school standout named Bridget Green. Ms. Green, a studious and athletic “ideal student,” was named Fortier High School’s valedictorian in 2003, earning straight A’s in college-level prep classes such as Algebra II.

Unfortunately, when graduation time rolled around, the valedictorian gave no speech, because she had yet to pass the state’s basic skills high school exit exam (after 5 attempts) and scored an 11 on the ACT, placing her in the bottom 1% nationwide.

The most tragic aspect of Bridget’s story is that it led to no meaningful change at Fortier or any other New Orleans school.

Instead, it took a Category 5 hurricane named Katrina, the worst natural and man-made disaster in our nation’s history, to reveal the deep-seeded inequities and systemic failures of the schools and surrounding community.

That same storm that brought unimaginable pain and devastation also delivered conviction AND a collective will that we must do better by those described as “the least of these.”

While much work remains, New Orleans was the nation’s only majority African-American city whose students scored in the top ten in academic growth from 2009-2015.

Though the process of implementing systemic change across New Orleans’ schools is still rightly debated, the results simply cannot be.

Black and brown kids in New Orleans have a much brighter future today than in decades past.

New Orleans did not get there due to minor adjustments, but instead by a thoughtful and systematic dismantling and overhaul of the schools as they once existed.

Leaders humbly looked beyond the status quo systems and practices they’d embraced far too long to see what was working elsewhere.

New Orleans then invited non-profit organizations to begin opening new and different public schools, attracting new and different talent to come alongside local educators to improve inputs AND outcomes for kids.

This birthed a choice system whereby families are empowered to select schools that are the best fit for their kids, regardless of the arbitrary school zone in which they reside.

Imagine a system where the poorest among us would be offered the richest of educational experiences. It’s possible.

There were also transparent and firm lines of accountability. The state of Louisiana didn’t just threaten sanctions or take over schools solely because of financial concerns.

Rather, they declared that schools that don’t meet a minimum bar of student outcomes would be handed off to a different organization that would.

They removed the local district’s monopoly on K-12 education, and it resulted in markedly improved results for nearly all of New Orleans’ students.

But these new, non-profit public charter schools were no silver bullet. While many soared to new heights, several well-resourced, politically-backed schools were shuttered.

Results mattered, and some schools did not produce outcomes for kids despite tremendous efforts. Mistakes were made.

“In order to improve learning outcomes, we must extend kids’ learning time,” we believed. This resulted in regular work weeks of 60+ hours for educators already pressed to the limits of their mental capacity from the emotional exhaustion of working with students traumatized by storms and poverty.

We called on teachers to be superheroes, wearing multiple hats – from educator to nurse, after-school tutor to shuttle driver home – burning out many talented and passionate staff along the way. The work was not sustainable.

In order to correct the past injustices of sending far too many black and brown kids to “work with their hands” rather than learn critical academic concepts, we declared that all kids must go to a four-year university.

We told them that not only is a college degree achievable, but it is expected, because you’re bright enough AND we love you enough to ensure that it happens.

But we did not make true on that promise to all of our kids. We failed to grasp that success has more to do with leading children to realize their passions and a subsequent path, and less with having them realize ours.

We didn’t see how rapidly the world was changing and how many great jobs required concrete technical skills, often not taught at universities, to go along with the knowledge they were acquiring. Even with these new and different schools, we tried and failed to force all kids into the same cap and gown.

Our fates are tied together

So while there are plenty of lessons to learn by looking at New Orleans, I’ve learned even more since leaving. The best part is, most of these lessons aren’t just relevant for low-income or minority students, but for all God’s children.

If a quality education is indeed preparation for successful employment post-graduation (high school or post-secondary), then we must encourage employers to take a much more substantive role in developing their future talent pipelines.

Employers should hire and develop youth through paid internships and apprenticeships to convey and develop the skills and habits they care most to see in their future workforce, such as collaboration, problem-solving, and creative/critical thinking.

Additionally, work exposure opens the door to industry-expert mentoring (social capital) and paid wages (financial capital) which, when combined, often lead to successful outcomes.

We must take the great burden and privilege of educating our youth off of the weary shoulders of teachers and share the load with the greater community.

But to do this, we must first realize and acknowledge that all of our fates are tied together.

Regardless of your shade of skin, educational pedigree, or which side of the mountain you lay your head at night, we will rise and fall as one.

We must embrace our community’s collective ability to create change.

Only then can we navigate our most challenging contradiction of all: How the last become first?

Dr. Mark W. C. Martin returned home to Alabama after 14 years away to launch Build UP, the nation’s first early-college workforce development program to comprehensively address poverty and urban blight. He most recently graduated Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership program where he worked with Jobs For the Future and the Alabama State Department of Education on education-to-career transitions and workforce readiness.

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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 how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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3 thoughts on “Will it take a horrific disaster to fix Birmingham schools?”

  1. might be the best article ever authored and published in comeback town! congratulations! now let’s hope that bhm rewsidents and leaders DO something to improve education without a disaster! good luck in your new endeavor!

  2. It sounds like Dr. Martin wants to split Birmingham City Schools into many different pieces and parts, thus creating more administration, facilities, debt. This idea seems contrarian to Mr. Sher’s goal of uniting local/regional government operations.

    I lived 10 years within the Birmingham city limits. I left once it became obvious that Birmingham City Schools would never be able to provide the academic or extra curricular opportunities in a safe environment to my children. I’m a suburbanite now and my children love the extra curricular opportunities they have and I love the academic preparedness they are getting each and every day.

    I don’t know what the answer is to the problems with BCS but until we are willing to address the root causes the problem will be persistent.

    Parents left BCS and then JCS because they wanted to have more say over the decisions/decision makers of the schools in which their children attended. Some of this was during “White Flight” but it continued and continues decades after the 1954 landmark supreme court decision. Make no mistake that differences in race and income level still play a role for some parents when deciding where to raise a family. We have Gardendale recently trying to break off from the JCS and reasons were the same as always…more control over the decisions/decision makers of the school their kids attend.

    Address the root causes openly and honestly. Once that happens I think it is possible that the flight could reverse.

    The goal should be that any student in a Birmingham City School would have the same opportunities in a safe environment as suburban kids.

  3. Monopolies deliver substandard goods and services at exorbitant prices. Government monopolies are no exception. Try vouchers! They worked after World War II with the GI Bill and they would work with our children.

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