An idea the Mountain Brook Board of Education might want to consider

Mountain Brook Board of Education
Mountain Brook Board of Education

By David Sher

Birmingham is unique in that a significant portion of its most educated and wealthy individuals live in one single adjacent suburb.

One would think that with so many respected top corporate executives, physicians, and professionals, Mountain Brook would take great pride in setting an example not only for our Birmingham region, but for the rest of our country.

The Mountain Brook Board of Education should consider making one meaningful decision that would be good for the school system, its employees, and students.

Earlier this month the Alabama Political Reporter wrote, “In the early 1940s, before the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was inherently unequal, many of these executives and power players saw the writing on the wall. In 1942, the city of Mountain Brook was incorporated as an almost entirely white, affluent enclave, safely nestled ‘over the mountain’ and away from the grit, grime and racial integration of the city whose economy supported their paychecks.

To leave the industrial and impoverished city of Birmingham and cross over Red Mountain into Mountain Brook was to enter an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ world of disparate wealth and privilege. Long, winding, mountain roads protected residents’ million-dollar mansions from the public eye, and from the political strife of Birmingham. There, steel executives and other Birmingham power elites sequestered their families from the upheaval of the civil rights movement that they nevertheless influenced through money and politics behind the scenes.”

Remarkably in the 80 years since the establishment of Mountain Brook, not much has changed.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau  .4% of Mountain Brook’s population is Black or African American.

A series of unfortunate Mountain Brook incidents

In May 2020, a video was featured on Snapchat of some Mountain Brook students painting a Nazi swastika on another student’s back.

Then in January, 2022, a Mountain Brook High School history teacher invited his class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while performing the Nazi salute.

After the Snapchat incident, the Mountain Brook School Board formed a diversity committee to hopefully head off future incidents. The committee then signed an agreement with the Anti-Defamation League to train teachers and staff on how to address diversity.

There was even a discussion of the possibility of allowing children of Mountain Brook school employees who live outside the district boundaries to attend its schools—a concept that has been embraced by every other school district in Jefferson County, including the other over-the-mountain school systems–but not Mountain Brook.

This makes it easier for teachers whose children attend a different school system and opens up a world of opportunity for employees doing essential work at the schools.

Since then the Mountain Brook Board

  • Disbanded the diversity committee
  • Terminated its contract with ADL
  • Has  gone quiet on allowing children of school employees to attend its schools

It’s just a matter of time

The above gives the appearance that Mountain Brook is defaulting to its past.

It’s just a matter of time before the next embarrassing incident.

The time to be proactive is now when things are quiet—not after another outrageous event.

Mountain Brook’s next step should be to allow children of school employees to attend its schools.

According to Dana Thompson Dorsey, a professor at the University of South Florida, in an article in Birmingham Watch, “There is no way that we should be educating students to live in a world that looks like Mountain Brook when that’s not what the rest of the world looks like.

Research compiled by the Century Foundation shows that all students, regardless of their race or background, perform better in racially and economically diverse schools. They tend to have higher test scores and better social-emotional skills.

This is not about diluting the success of the children and their experiences in Mountain Brook. This is going to make Mountain Brook better.”

I recently heard a thought provoking speech by Dr. Ray Watts, President of UAB.

“UAB’s diversity,” he said, “is among the very highest of any tier one research university in America and we’re proud of that. We want our students to be around others who might seem different, but really aren’t. We are all much alike than different.

“This year,” he said, “we have 1,400 international students. That is not an accident. 80% or so of our students are from Alabama. Many of them have never been out of the country. How can they understand the culture on the other side of the world if they don’t have any interactions with them?

We can’t send them all around the world, but we can bring the world to them. So it gives them that experience so they understand others. Diversity matters.”

If UAB thinks it’s worth the effort to recruit students from around the world, it’s likely worth the effort for Mountain Brook schools to welcome a few students from across town.

Editor’s note: You might be interested in reading Mountain Brook could quell critics–benefit its children, parents, and community.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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38 thoughts on “An idea the Mountain Brook Board of Education might want to consider”

  1. David: This is so well presented. Including the observations of Professor Dorsey and Dr. Watts is important.

    Let’s see if you have touched a “third rail” by suggesting that racial and economic diversity in the Mountain Brook schools would actually be beneficial for Mountain Brook students.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation.

    1. You people are full of it. Sounds like the same old jealousy and envy I’ve heard for 60+ years. Society is made up of the same types of individuals in all beliefs, religions, politics, and colors. This is all plain silly! Of course, Nazi emblems are not acceptable as that millions were killed under that movement who did not deserve their horrendous treatment just as jihad is also unacceptable because of killing of innocents and mistreatment of women. History should not be rewritten or glossed over just as school systems not taking government monies have the right to determine who can and cannot attend the schools. Sometimes parental sacrifices must be made for whatever reason. I know that I made many sacrifices when it came to work where my children were concerned and was glad to do so. No one is entitled to anything that cannot be offered to all as far as education is concerned. Equity must be maintained and it begins with cost and what parents are willing to sacrifice monetarily for their children’s education.

  2. I continue to follow your thought provoking articles and read with interest, though no longer in Birmingham, that will always be my home town. Kudos to you for helping to address these issues and the though provoking commentary you provide!

    1. The majority of Mountain Brook voters will choose to keep things “as is” in the schools and social clubs.
      Country clubs are built on exclusivity. They are well run and many belong to both clubs.
      Mountain Brook has two very exclusive country clubs with golf courses. I’m sure they are 99% white.
      People of color are not excluded from moving to Mountain Brook and enjoying the city schools which are excellent. The homes are very expensive which is a barrier.
      If a “new” person in town applies to one of the country clubs, they may have a long wait. Most memberships are passed down in families. People have to be invited to join and pass through a time period of waiting and have to have several “Recs” from current members. Close friends and family get priority. It can take years.
      I can remember when there was no Mountain Brook High School and the public school available was a county school Shades Valley.
      In those days, it was common to send youngsters off to Boarding Schools like Indian Springs School or Darlington School. I attended both. The general idea was to get a better education than a public school.
      I’m told that Mountain Brook has the highest education level and highest household income in the state. I’m sure they are proud of that fact.
      It’s very doubtful that Mountain Brook or Vestavia
      will become more inclusive.
      Why would they want to change?
      Somebody in their families started with little and worked they way up. Birmingham is not an “old money” area. Many families had little as of 1900.
      Birmingham grew fast and earned the name of Magic City. Fortunes were made in the time period of 1890-1930.. Most started out with very little.
      A few of the very wealthy families remained in the city limits of Birmingham such as the Woodwards and Ingalls. A few made money in Birmingham and ventured out like T. C. Thompson who moved to Siluria, Al. In 1910 To build his own mill village and farm with a large textile mill. Thompson High School is named after him. The area is now known as Alabaster. ( my home town).
      Birmingham and it’s surrounding cities have been very slow to change. I’m betting it remains that way.

      1. That’s all fine and true, but there are swastikas that keep showing their ugly hands in Mtn Brook schools. Check the boys’ locker rooms. It was a true shame that Mountain Brook reneged on the diversity training offered by the Anti-Defamation League. It’s too “woke” for most Mtn Brook residents and it’s a shame that they don’t want their children to be more sensitive to others that aren’t exactly like them.

        1. AMEN! The SMALLER but louder group of Trump loving dingdongs that were complaining about masks in the schools during Covid ….are the SAME (smaller, but louder) group that pressured the Anti-Defamation League out of Mountain Brook. It is so shameful that they caved in. How do we get the thinking majority to be as loud? And thank you for speaking up.

  3. Ah…the poor little rich enclave of Mountain Brook, hiding behind its ivy-covered brick enclosures and five-acre manicured lawns (maintained by individuals not allowed to live in the city limits).

    As a former “Brookie” whose children suffered five years of painful social exclusion until we moved, I am reminded of the old British sit-coms that still run non-stop on Public Television. Everyone is White; there are almost no Asians, East Asians, Africans, West Indians, Latino, or anyone who isn’t Anglo/Saxon, Scandinavian, Scots, or Irish.

    So sad that these self-imposed exiles from today’s social reality still struggle to get by on their own. But I think they’re going to make it, as they have since their little noveau riche community was created in 1929. Robert Jemison Jr. didn’t build city walls or moats, but they are still there; one just can’t see them.

    1. Did you and your family remain in the Birmingham area? Were your children happier after your move, I certainly hope so. I can’t imagine the pain a child must feel in being excluded in such an elitist environment as Mountain Brook.

  4. No, it *is* pretty embarrassing for Mountain Brook.

    In the end, it may not move the needle much in terms of diversity, but even a small increase would be beneficial.

    Further, hiring–and, more importantly, retaining–the best educators should be a top priority for all Mountain Brook citizens, with or without school-aged children and regardless of their position on diversity in the district.

    Allowing our teachers to bring their children to the district (a nearly universally-offered employee benefit) is a common-sense step forward on both fronts.

    Mountain Brook Schools leadership has already offered informal support for this change, but continue to slow-walk progress and dilute discussion with hypothetical challenges. Further delay will be to the detriment of our educators and to the potential of our students; I’d encourage everyone here to help communicate this to our policy makers.

  5. I wish you had al your facts correct . I guess that is not necessary when it is an opinion piece.

      1. You really do not know everything about the situations you reported here. Unfortunately you have not done your research

        1. Laura, thanks for taking the time and effort to respond here and on FB. I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot I don’t know. I welcome your thoughts as to what I got wrong. I’m just making a plea for Mtn. Brook Schools to do what every other school system in Jefferson County has done–allow their employee’s children to attend its schools. What is your thought on this?

  6. I was born and raised in Birmingham (City). Many of my school chums lived “over-the-mountain” but attended city of
    Birmingham schools. We were all together. Where we lived or what Church we attended or the size of our homes did not seem to matter, as we were too busy to hate….all together trying to learn a little bit more about life!Those fond memories continued throughout my life….as a Realtor….or at the YMCA ….JCC….YMBC.. I heard this on my yellow, plastic dial radio one morning before school: “each in your own words and each in your own way…let us bow our heads and pray”. I pray for opening the walls that separate us……we will all do better TOGETHER! I have lived it.

  7. I have a few comments about this. I live in Mt. Brook and I work for the City of Birmingham at the Birmingham Public Library. Your opinion is so narrow minded. Not all in Mt. Brook live behind roses covered gates and have long winding driveways. I live in a townhouse very close to Irondale. Have you even been through Mt. Brook really driven through? There are far less houses the way you describe. There are many lovely homes that are not gated mansions. I work hard for my kids to get a good education by attending MB schools. My daughter who had some special needs received so much attention to help her and now both my kids are in college. Not everyone in MB lives the live of luxury and so offensive to imply that. Many of us work hard, may live paycheck to paycheck. How dare you generalize the folks that live in Mt. Brook. Do you judge those that have large homes in Forest Park, Highland Lakes or really any other area of Birmingham. I know some wealthy intelligent people that live on Cliff Road. And for you to bring up incidents that could have or have happened anywhere as an only Mt. Brook deal? That is so hypocritical. So nice to try to demonish an are so many call home. Not all live and do things you mention. Most of Mt. Brook are not over the top affluent rich people. I am not nor ever have been. My kids work whenever they can to help with college expenses. I cannot stand it when people are so judgmental and have no idea how many of us live. Oh by the way…where do you live?

    1. I think his opinion is more about diversity than wealth—racial diversity, that is. Allowing school employees’ children to attend MB Schools could at least move the needle on their lack of diversity.

    2. I appreciate your perspective here and in some ways relate to your experience–my wife and I have also chosen to live in Mountain Brook, despite the financial challenge, primarily for our young daughters, one of which benefits from the additional services you reference at her school.

      But, as relative newcomers to the area, we’ve found that even the very smallest lovely homes are usually half a million dollars or more and often bought quickly with cash–unattainable for most, including ourselves, as middle-aged adults with very good salaried positions. And so our family of 4 rents a lovely 800 SF house because we want to be here, but it’s not a priority I expect many people in similar positions will make when weighing their options. And even for those of us who are making it work, it’s not a great long term solution.

      I can’t speak for the author, but despite any implications he may have made, I believe the focus of the article to be about a real issue: current socioeconomic conditions in Mountain Brook will increasingly hinder the district’s ability to hire and retain great teachers with the current policy. And further, that a change would benefit our community in even greater ways.

    3. Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to give your insight. My intent was certainly not to attack folks who live in Mountain Brook. That would be attacking myself. I was in the last 8th grade graduating class at Crestline Elementary & the first graduating class at Mountain Brook Junior High. My two children graduated from Mountain Brook High School. Most of my best friends live in Mountain Brook and much of the volunteerism and philanthropy come from Mountain Brook families. However, when my children went off to college, they never had the experience of interacting in their schools with anyone from a different economic status. I currently live in Vestavia Hills and I discovered that Vestavia Schools allow children of their employees to attend its schools. This is true of every school system in Jefferson County except Mountain Brook. I talked with superintendents and school board members from other over-the-mountain school districts and everyone of them told me what a great benefit it was for their teachers and their students. If you disagree, please feel free to respond. I certainly meant no harm.

  8. I fail to understand why the Mountain Brook School system is being torched. For all the people who point out no diversity and lack of being able to hire highly qualified personnel for the school system in future years, why send your kids to their school system? If you are worried so much about diversity, there are lots of poor white kids in Cullman, Blount , Marshall and every other AlabamaCounty. Lot of poor Hispanic kids too! You want real diversity in Mountain Brook School System….why not take some buses from the border cities? NYC is , as well as DC. This would solve the deversity issue for MBSS.

  9. I fully agree with David Sher re allowing employees of the Mountain Brook schools to enroll their children in these schools. Surely Mountain Brook can afford it. The students would benefit from acquainting themselves with classmates of other races and income levels. They would also be better prepared for colleges and our larger society that offers some, if not enough, opportunity for Blacks, Hispanics, and poorer White people.

  10. I was in the first class to go all the way through MB High School when it opened. I hated it and was jealous of my friend down the street whose dad got her into Shades Valley HS. She later moved to California. I happily live in Birmingham now, between the RR tracks even, in No. Crestwood. Been here since 92 and have not been broken in nor held up even once. *Knock on wood*…😉

  11. Allow me to make two points here. First, haven’t you buried the lede regarding diversity in metro Birmingham? It’s not really the absence of Black, Hispanic, or other minorities in Mountain Brook schools. It’s the Census statistic you cite: “.4% of Mountain Brook’s population is Black or African American.” This statistic leads inexorably back to the issue that Comeback Town repeatedly focuses on—the area’s proliferation of municipalities and school systems. While the merger of cities and schools is an impossible pipe dream, there is a partial but admittedly highly controversial solution to the lack of population diversity in the “Tiny Kingdom,” as well as other OTM cities such as Vestavia Hills (where we resided for 27 years). That’s opening up strategies and policies to allow for more affordable housing. That would include allowing and even encouraging the development of the dreaded multi family apartments and other rental properties. My second point more directly addresses the issue of MB’s policy of not allowing the children of school system employees to attend its schools. Have you researched whether that policy, as it is allowed in other systems, actually makes a measurable difference in diversity among the students—especially more Black students? Doesn’t this policy simply allow increased enrollment by the children of white teachers who live outside the city where they are employed? And is whatever small ethnic diversity it creates limited to lower grade levels? As the students reach middle or high school, aren’t they likely to return to the schools where their neighborhood friends attend? I think the appeal of sports and extracurricular opportunities might lure them back to their own community’s schools. In any event, this column has failed to document with statistics whether the policy it espouses actually achieves greater ethnic diversity among the students.

  12. A couple of questions… Has there been loss of highly qualified teachers to other systems specifically due to this issue? Why are people relying on a city school system to expose their children to the greater world?

    There are many ways to expose one’s children to social, economic, religious and cultural diversity – along with the obvious racial diversity, other than the one suggested above. Including one’s church, extracurricular selections, travel, volunteering, and scouting. Often when these selections are made by MB parents, they reinforce the issue… sometimes on purpose, but frequently because it’s just easier. It’s easier to carpool to scouts if everyone joins the same troop, plays the same sport, etc. It takes more effort to self-diversify, but if it really matters to you, it’s certainly possible. That’s just one side.

    For the child who would attend a school bc of where their parent works, their world would be reversed. Having to travel to all of their events, both school related and social, birthday parties, study group, school projects, etc. and what about their current neighborhood friends? Would they now be seen as an outlier there as well? It seems beyond a little distasteful that in order to expose MB kids to the “wider world”, there’s a suggestion that we use the children of coveted employees to make this happen.

    On the surface I understand the intention may be well founded, but at best it’s a quick fix, a lazy solution. Wouldn’t it be preferable to pay the exceptional teachers enough to actually move to MB? And wouldn’t it have been nice if MB had thought of this, and other long-term issues when they declined prior annexation opportunities to grow the city?

    1. R. Holman, thanks for your thoughtful response. All good points. The one point folks might consider is that all school systems in Jefferson County except Mountain Brook allow the children of school employees to attend their schools. I’ve talked to school superintendents and board members and they were unanimously positive about it. Knowing Mtn. Brook’s reputation for exclusivity, how does that make Mountain Brook look? https://comebacktown.com/2020/11/11/mountain-brook-could-quell-critics-benefit-its-children-parents-and-community/. I welcome your feedback.

    2. One–yes, teacher retention is a real issue in the school system. And seems reasonable to assume it could become worse now that home prices and interest rates have risen dramatically.

      Two–I think the discourse around the policy has conflated what really should be separate discussions, with both sides leveraging potential outcomes for or against the other. Is it distasteful to use the children of coveted employees for added diversity? Probably so. Does that mean MBS shouldn’t offer the option to employees, for them to use or not at their personal discretion? No, of course not.

      It should be viewed as a standard employee benefit, as it is in other districts, rather than a “solution” to a separate problem. Even if a potential side effect could be beneficial in other ways.

      Completely agree with you on paying teachers more, but why not do both?

      1. I realize retention may be an issue – but is that specifically due to the issue of children of employees not being allowed? Or are there other reasons?
        And re “doing both”. I don’t know that the schools can absorb an additional population increase. MB is effectively landlocked – school expansion is expensive (beyond what was just completed/with increased taxes) and is virtually impossible without effecting teacher student ratio, etc. Which then would begin to impact quality of education and services our schools offer. But increasing salaries etc might make an impact and might enable some of those families to move to MB. It also might encourage some of our existing residents to teach within our own schools.
        Finally yes – there are two different issues involved here. I find the “exposure to “others” excuse that some have mentioned as a reason to look at having employees enroll their children to be deeply distasteful.

        1. I’m sure there are a number of factors at work, but anecdotally, I know of a few excellent teachers who are either anticipating leaving when their children reach school age or are considering leaving (with their kids) now for better housing options, including some who were raised in Mountain Brook Schools themselves.

          It’s a fair point on enrollment increase–and one that I’ve heard has been cited by administration–but with some back-of-the-envelope math, I personally don’t think the argument holds up. Still, there’s no reason debate has to be so hypothetical–MBS should conduct a study, assess feasibility, and articulate a position, regardless of side. Kicking the can down the road year after year while the community just argues in comment sections and online forums is inexcusable.

  13. What year did the students at Mountain Brook and Fairfield work together on the play, “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I thought that was a big step forward. What happened after that?

  14. David, I understand that the following statement is true, but it’s taken out of context and is extremely misleading. “Then in January, 2022, a Mountain Brook High School history teacher invited his class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while performing the Nazi salute.” I don’t know the details, but I know some Mountain Brook students who do. That teacher was exonerated after the context was explained.

  15. Mountain Brook (98), Vestavia Hills (96), Trussville (95), Homewood (93), and Hoover (93) are the “A” schools in the metro area. I for one commend the educational leadership in these cities. Children there are receiving superior educations. Mr. Sher, as a MB resident I don’t find fault in allowing children of staff to attend MB schools. My issue with your position paper is that there are much more pressing concerns facing our metro school systems. There are other systems the state grades from C to F. Rather than fault MB, would your focus not be better served on evaluating why children must attend inferior schools.

    1. R. Smith, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Trussville, Homewood, and Hoover provide an excellent education for its children, but only Mountain Brook does not allow children of it school system employees to attend its schools. I totally agree the educational experience could be improved for some other Jefferson County schools. My intent was not to find fault with MB. I’m a champion of MB Schools. I was in the last graduating class at Crestline Elementary and the first graduating class at MB Junior High. Both of my children graduated from Mountain Brook Schools. We must provide the best education possible for students in all our school systems. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

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