Can Birmingham City Schools save Birmingham?

Children togetherBy David Sher

How can the City of Birmingham grow population and prosper when parents feel compelled to flee the city when their children reach school age?

I have a question for parents with school age children who live/work in the Birmingham area.

What if you had the opportunity to live in an affordable home close to your job; and that you could send your children to a public school that not only provides a good education, but guarantees them a full college scholarship to any two or four-year public college in Alabama, as long as they were accepted?

Sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it?

I recently overheard a conversation between a young couple who have preschool children and live in the City of Birmingham.

They were panicked because their oldest child is getting close to school age and they are unwilling to send their children to Birmingham City Schools.

They complained it is near impossible to find affordable housing in municipalities reasonably close to Birmingham with good public schools.

They are evaluating a move to Shelby County to a city like Wilsonville, Helena, or Chelsea.

It seems kind of zany that the City of Birmingham covers a land area of 150 square miles, some of which could be developed at a reasonable cost, and yet, this family feels compelled to move 20 or 30 miles away.

Recently I attended a presentation by Dr. Mark Sullivan, the Superintendent of Birmingham City Schools (BCS), and was quite impressed.

Dr. Sullivan reminded us that the Birmingham City School District is the only public school system in the State that offers the Birmingham Promise.

Birmingham City Schools offer full college scholarships to all high school graduates

The Birmingham Promise guarantees high school graduates of Birmingham City Schools a full college scholarship to any two or four-year public college in Alabama, as long as they are accepted for admission.

College scholarships are offered to all families no matter their economic status.

Students are required to apply for all available scholarships and Birmingham Promise makes up the difference.

According to the Birmingham Promise website, “The program is funded by a combination of private and public donations, and it is designed to make college accessible to all BCS students, regardless of their financial background.

“To be eligible for the Birmingham Promise, students must:

  • Graduate from a BCS high school
  • Enroll in a two- or four-year public college in Alabama within one year of graduating from high school
  • Maintain a full-time course load and a minimum GPA of 2.0

“…All Birmingham Promise scholars are guaranteed to have their tuition covered.

“The Birmingham Promise program has been a huge success since its launch in 2020.”

According to the Birmingham Times, “Since its creation in 2020, Birmingham Promise has provided $5.5 million in tuition assistance to 1,000 graduates of Birmingham City Schools.”

Also, the Birmingham Promise Internship Program “offers opportunity for seniors in Birmingham City Schools to work in local businesses, develop job skills and get paid.

“Seniors in Birmingham City Schools who have at least a 2.0 grade point average are eligible to apply for internships. Previous participants have successfully completed internships at banks, law firms, utilities, media outlets, healthcare institutions, nonprofits, colleges, construction firms, sports organizations, food vendors, tech firms, public relations firms and many other local businesses.”

Dr. Sullivan explained that Birmingham City Schools are well-funded and offer a variety of programs for students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), and gifted and talented students.

The burning question becomes if Birmingham City Schools have all these offerings, why aren’t many parents willing to send their children there?

Are parents avoiding Birmingham City Schools because of race?

Race is not the problem.

The young couple I overheard wishing to escape Birmingham schools is African-American.

In the 1960s and ‘70s there were 60,000- 70,000 students enrolled in Birmingham Schools.

Today Dr. Sullivan says there are about 20,000 students.

According to the Alabama Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama most of the decline in the past 20 years has been in the number of black students.

This is not just white flight—it’s black flight.

Bad news for families wishing to move to Shelby County

There’s bad news for the young couple considering a move to Shelby County.

According to the Birmingham Lede, typical homes in Wilsonville are $323,452; Helena, $346,441; and Chelsea, $325,477–having appreciated 40-50% in the past five years.

And if this family chooses to move to Shelby County’s Indian Springs Village then their home would likely cost more than a home in Vestavia Hills who has the 2nd most expensive homes in Jefferson County–behind Mountain Brook.

It’s clear that Birmingham City Schools have issues: poor test scores—and fear of crime are just a couple.

If only BCS could find a way to restore its reputation, then more parents would choose Birmingham City Schools and then Birmingham and Jefferson County could have a greater opportunity to grow and prosper.

Can Birmingham City Schools save Birmingham?

We can hope.

You might enjoy this article about a Ramsay High student who earned a double degree and was hired by one of the world’s top-four financial services and accounting firms.

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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14 thoughts on “Can Birmingham City Schools save Birmingham?”

  1. David
    Yes we can save the the Birmingham City Schools.
    They do have many programs that are delivering results. Dr Mark Sullivan is a gem. Crime and poverty doesn’t define academic outcomes for all! Why not invite him to write an article about what can we as ordinary citizens to to help advance the BCS. If these parents Black and White want to flee the city let them go .

  2. You have — not untypically — hit the nail on the head. I’ve had so many neighbors who loved living in the City, whose children had gotten to school age, and who sorrowfully moved out of the City to the suburbs. The ones who stayed could afford private school.
    So we’re cycling aspirational and educated families in and out of town. In the meantime, a shocking percentage of our single-family houses is being snapped up by corporations for short-term rental use, so the neighborhoods start to lose their neighborliness over time, and school populations decline.
    In the meantime, good for Dr. Sullivan. I’ll make it my business to find out more about him.

  3. I am NOT against corporate real estate development but this practice of purchasing single family homes in the city is suspect!
    We must engage these corporate owners to get engaged with the Birmingham City Schools but they tend to sit on the sidelines and or operate in the shadows of inner city neighborhood development.

  4. Just to be realistic, many of these parents either may not know about the Birmingham Promise or they simply may not care about it, seeing as we’re talking about entering their 5 year-olds into kindergarten. That is easily another 12 years down the road: 12 years of potentially subpar education for the “promise” of a full scholarship to college. Would you as a parent realistically do that, not knowing if the program will still exist in 12 years or even if your child even wants to go to college or even gets accepted into a university (with Birmingham Public School’s education)? It is a bitter pill to swallow; I do not like it either but come on.

  5. Unfortunately it’s a long way—ten years or more—from worrying about your child starting kindergarten or first grade to worrying about your child’s acceptance and tuition for college. When we moved to Birmingham in 1987 we were childless but planned to start a family in the near future. My wife had grown up in Forest Park, having attended Avondale Elementary, Brooke Hill girls school, and finally John Carroll HS. So of course we considered buying a house in that area and paying for private school. We opted for Vestavia Hills instead, despite knowing very little about that city. Our children matriculated in VH schools from K-12. But think about what I just revealed. The only part of Birmingham we considered living in was Forest Park and only if we could afford private schools. What does that say about the City’s school system more than 30 years ago? And what does that say about the mentality of more well-to-do (though in our case not wealthy by any means) parents (mostly white) who only think in terms of Forest Park and Highland Park (and today to a slightly lesser degree Southside, Avondale, and Crestwood) as acceptable neighborhoods. Then and today those neighborhoods comprise only a small portion of the entire City of Birmingham. They need to guard against becoming narrowly indifferent to the vast, mostly Black, mostly poor parts of the city. Here’s where the schools can help. If the Birmingham Promise wishes to truly make a difference, it should consider a similar acceptance and tuition support program for at least high school students, if not middle school as well. Could not a small trial program be created for academically gifted BCS middle and high school students to attend tuition free ASFA, Advent, Waldorf, or even Altamont? Or could the entire system implement a school choice program for parents such as here in Nashville? It would allow them to at least apply (basically a lottery) for their kids to attend a stronger public school outside the zone they’re assigned to. Buying a house in a high quality suburban system in the metro Birmingham area was an easy solution for us. It isn’t for the large majority of parents who live in the City of Birmingham. Please reply if I’m missing the mark here about current school options for Birmingham families. Much may have changed in recent years.

  6. Can Birmingham City Schools save Birmingham? The real question is: Can school choice save Birmingham?

    This is National School Choice Week. Not as many families would flee the City of Birmingham if they knew they had an alternative to the Birmingham school system. Expanding school choice to include charter schools, secular private schools, and even neighboring public school systems would accomplish this.

    Any public, charter, or private school that accepts vouchers must not take sides on religious issues. This is to protect the religious freedom of taxpayers.

  7. I get it! I attended BCS for 12 years (1938-50) , BSC and UA. Today, I am still thankful for the dedication and support and promise from my teachers at Birmingham’s City Schools! But, times have changed! I was raised on Birmingham’s Southside near a low-cost housing project. Our doors were never locked. I share your optimism and applaud the Birmingham Promise. But, in my view, today’s families need more…they need what I had… modest, clean, comfortable and safe neighborhoods and schools. Unless Birmingham’s terrible reputation for gun violence, murder and the like is not more effectively addressed ….our good citizens and promising students will
    continue to seek safe refuge elsewhere.

  8. Shifting slightly but staying within the focus on education in Birmingham. Has ComebackTown published a column on the plight of Birmingham-Southern College? The Wall Street Journal has an article on BSC at present on its website. I don’t have a subscription, so I can’t get behind its paywall. A ComebackTown column could focus especially on the impact BSC’s closure would have on the city’s overall image and economic development.

    But stick with me here. If—heaven forbid—BSC should close, might a bold visionary with deep pockets—say one of the country’s more than 700 billionaires—restore the campus as a boarding school for academically gifted middle and high school students. Perhaps 25% of the student body could be reserved for Birmingham students, with 50% overall reserved for Alabama students. Such an 8-12 school would likely be free of the fixed costs that higher ed institutions have. Our billionaire would not necessarily have ties to the college, the city, or even the state. Just enough wealth to endow a less-expensive secondary school. The BSC campus would also provide the security that any parent would expect, especially in that part of Birmingham. BSC is arguably the state’s most distinguished liberal arts college. It should be preserved as such. The State should pony up. But hard choices may have to be made if that doesn’t happen, so I wanted to throw out this boarding school idea. In the meantime, a ComebackTown column on the college is long overdue unless I’ve missed it.

  9. I thought this additional information might be helpful: Students who attend 9-12 get full funding; 11-12 get partial funding. Students who attend k-8 and come back for 11-12 also get full.

  10. Mr. Sher, you worked for years in Birmingham but chose to live in a suburb for your children to attend non Birmingham City Schools. Why? If you could go back would you make the same decision for your family? If your children wish to live in the Birmingham area would you recommend your own grandchildren attend BCS?

  11. Monopolies tend to deliver inferior goods and services at high prices, and government monopolies are not exceptions to the rule. We need education vouchers to introduce competition.

    By the way, we claim to be a free country but our children have to go to the school dictated by the government unless we have enough money to buy their way out of the system.

    1. All I can say to this last one is Humph! Prior to the end of World War II, the U.S. Government provided the finest buildings and the best educations in the public sphere. After that, when everything was turned over to the private sector, things were different.

      As to the public schools, we (the people) were most fortunate to have them as long as we did, notably those of us who couldn’t have afforded — or even wanted– a private education. Public schools in wealthy communities are still excellent, and we have local schools to prove it. Vouchers and charters are just ways to further undermine the public system. If people don’t like public things and public life, then that undermining is the goal. And who, after all, pays for the vouchers?

      Agreed that monopolies can be thieves, but the Government is not a monopoly. Or, it’s our monopoly, intended to benefit all of us. It doesn’t dictate, it provides. Ideally.

  12. For a more historical context (and merely for educational purposes and not meant to derail discussion), public schools were administered at largely the state government level until the passage of the ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] in 1965. This allowed for direct federal funding of academic programs, weakening state administrations while allowing for the introduction of curricula and initiatives/practices that never existed prior to the act. It actually affected low-income schools more severely, as they were in most desperate need of federal funds. New textbooks were distributed, academic content was simplified to “standardize” the curriculum at the national level, testing standards were also gradually lessened to reflect the new changes. Sex education and drug education [D.A.R.E.] were added to the curriculum. Guidance counselors, psychologists, and in-school clinics were also added to schools. The mid-sixties was a watershed moment for many aspects of society, not simply education. “I graduated in 197x/198x/199x and my schools were okay”. Yes, it takes time for initiatives like these to spread to ALL schools, as schools in more affluent districts with a higher tax base were better capable of resisting federal funding, but, as goes the gradual economic decline, there goes the infrastructure and its institutions. There is a lot to discuss but I’ll stop it here. I do not participate in “left vs right” contests so I’m not making a point for any political orientation (as far as I’m concerned, they’re all largely corrupt and morally bankrupt).

  13. I actually think school quality issues are a bigger issue than even crime for Bham proper. It’s not going to be solved by just promising a financial incentive at the end. All that says is that the education itself isn’t important, just the mark of completing the process.

    Part of the issue is that the structure of the US education system is fundamentally flawed. It sets a group of similar aged peers underneath a singular authority teacher. This dynamic not only doesn’t match the real world where people at various levels of expertise and authority come together to work of things (where possibly no one has “the answer” to start with), but also runs an increased risk of “tainting the batch” since having everyone at the same level peer-wise lessens exposure to more “experienced” peers who can take action when they see younger ones starting to go a bad way that they have seen others take in the past. It even goes beyond that, since it “others” older and younger grades and hinders communication skills outside of one’s own age group.

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