Hoover Board of Education Meeting – May 13, 2013

I don’t usually write about local meetings, I know. But this school stuff is personal for me, and my visit to my local school board meeting reopened old wounds, reminding me of the important battles I have lost throughout years of advocacy and how difficult it is for members of the school community to affect meaningful change in a school system.

And how important it is to not give up trying.

Hoover City is my local school system. It is to this system of schools that my property value and community’s culture are inextricably intertwined.

My school system has an excellent reputation in the state of Alabama and beyond. It is not my intent to bash my local school system in writing this. Test score data is only one indicator of student achievement. But when this system broke off from the county schools in 1988, the talk was of being the best school system academically in the state. Evidence suggests that goal has become too elusive.

You know how I encourage y’all to take the test data and start a conversation with your school leaders? Well, that’s what I did in 2004. Back then, we used the Stanford Achievement Test, 10th edition (SAT-10) to measure student achievement on an annual basis. (We no longer use the SAT-10. Now we use only the state-developed, state-course-of-study-aligned ARMT+.)

Sure, I know that a great school is more than the sum total of better-than-average test scores. I also know that measures of student achievement, albeit imperfect, are necessary when we spend nearly $8 billion of the public’s money on public education in Alabama. Yes, we need better measures of student achievement. But for a long time now, test scores are the only objective measures we have had.

Back then, in 2004, I was alarmed at how low our school’s SAT-10 test scores were, not just from “I thought they would be higher” prideful view, but how low they were compared to other elementary schools in the system. I reached out to the principal, who tried hard to blame the kids and tell me that test scores really didn’t matter. I reached out to parent leaders at our school district PTO council, who laughed it off and said it didn’t matter, that our scores were low because of a “demographic shift”. I was told by the superintendent to only be concerned with my children’s scores, that they, the professionals, the experts, would handle other people’s children.

Those answers didn’t sit well with me. I did my best to call attention to the decline in test scores, holding neighborhood meetings to spread the news, seeking support for after-school tutoring programs from school and district officials (we didn’t have any money, I was told). With the principal’s permission, I helped develop a parent-staffed in-school tutoring program for students on both ends of the achievement spectrum, to give our teachers additional help on a twice-weekly basis.  I begged for summer school programs and aides and learned how to read school district budgets in my search for any small amount of funding that could be sent our way.

See, this was the elementary school I had attended from first through seventh grade, and I refused to allow school and district leaders to ignore the increasing academic needs of the children zoned to attend my neighborhood school.

The district’s answer to declining test scores was to rezone children in apartment-based homes, spreading them out, blaming the transient nature of apartment-based families for the low test scores that besieged our formerly pristine school system achievement record.

I fought alongside our teachers for resources for struggling students. To improve student achievement. And I know now that I lost that battle. So did too many children.

I recognized early on that what people think is happening in their local schools and what actually is happening can be two very different realities. Most folks felt like their children were getting an excellent education at our elementary school. I was rebuffed by many parents for pointing out our low achievement on standardized tests.

As the years passed, I found that too many of the children who were in our elementary school in 2004 were surpassed academically when student populations combined with the two other elementary schools at the middle school level. They were further surpassed when the two middle schools combined at Hoover High School. I didn’t see our elementary school’s faces in the Honor Society tappings nor the excellent-score-on-the-tests celebrations nor the Award Ceremonies.

So did those test scores actually tell us something after all?

Nearly a decade later, my neighborhood elementary school’s overall achievement on standardized tests has continued to trail those of other elementary schools in my system, and still it appears that no effective plan is in place to positively impact student achievement. Our neighborhood elementary school has the highest percentage population of children in poverty (as measured by free and reduced lunch qualifications) in our system, 49.3%. And because of that there is still the tendency to blame the children and their families for not caring about their children’s education, though that tired refrain has been disproven time and again.

It is because of these battles that I encourage parents and families to seek the details about their school districts, not just by looking at test scores, but by learning how to read a school district budget, how to read financial statements and check registers, and learning what you should expect from a school board member, among other things. We parents and families have to be informed so that we can engage.

Public education is a public pursuit, and that includes all of the public, not just the experts in the education profession.

So, back to the meeting. After a couple of blows in the past couple of weeks, and little community reaction, I decided to take my own advice and take test data from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) to share with my local school board members to re-start that old conversation from 2004.

I compiled this packet of information, taking just a representative sample of the schools that appeared to suffer the greatest decline from then till now. The meeting was packed, standing-room-only. I cynically wondered which coach was about to be fired, because that was about the only reason I ever saw parents and families pack a school board meeting anymore.

As I approached the podium, ten years of effort flashed through my mind, and I wondered why I was there, addressing our five-member, City-Council-appointed board, when their efforts over the past ten years resulted in no improvement in student achievement.

Why would anything be different now?

I began my remarks by asking for their help…that we must refocus our efforts on student achievement because too many of our children are not even scoring at state levels. Boom. Deja vu all over again.

The President of the board acknowledged my concerns; the Vice President acknowledged my concerns. Boom. Deja vu all over again.

I made two requests: (1) please ask PARCA to dissect and analyze their academic and financial data as they have for other school systems across the state (check out Dothan’s progress…very impressive) and (2) please attend an Alabama Association of School Board (AASB) training being held this Saturday entitled “Governing for Higher Student Achievement”, sponsored by the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Birmingham Education Foundation.

While I was received warmly, the board did not respond to the two requests. I stepped away from the podium feeling defeated, unconvinced that any plan will be put in place to focus on improving student achievement, even though two new Central Office academic-officer administrators had just been hired moments before I stepped up to speak.

What was best about last night’s meeting was what happened next. I learned why the school board meeting was packed, standing-room-only, with citizens. It had nothing to do with anybody’s job being on the line.

These dozens of citizens, from another of Hoover’s elementary schools, are deeply concerned about the level of student achievement at their neighborhood school. This is an organized group, with a spokesperson and everything!

They expressed worry over too many families moving their children to private schools and too many children from the more-transient apartment communities placing too much of a load on their teachers and their classrooms. They asked for a plan…specifically what would school leaders do to improve student achievement…because they needed to make plans, too (presumably whether or not to re-enroll their children in Hoover schools).

Here they were…just when I had given up hope that the citizens in my community would ever express concern over student achievement again! In the crowd of parents, I even saw an old school-warrior friend of mine who had conducted her own battles with school leaders through the years. This was her neighborhood back on the front lines.

And then, in all of the excitement, it struck me: why are we still having the same discussion that first began more than ten years ago? Seeing the agony and concern on these parents’ faces took me back to the days when I was a young mother and had to make the tough decisions about whether my youngest child would be able to reach his potential in my neighborhood elementary school.

My heart breaks for these parents, these families who so badly want to be a part of a great public school system. They believe in the idea of neighborhood schools and recognize their impact on their surrounding communities. And sadly, they are getting the tired assurances that the experts have it all under control and change is coming….just hang on.  Trust us, they say. Boom. Deja vu all over again.

Even in the face of these deja vu moments, though, their endeavor is a beacon of hope. Hope of parent and family engagement in the care and keeping of our school system. My sincere thanks to those parents and community members for that glimmer of hope.

In a late-night phone call with a friend after the meeting, I was asked my thoughts on the following questions: is it that school leaders don’t want to do anything to improve student achievement? Or is it that school leaders don’t know what to do to improve student achievement?

I didn’t have an answer.

As I put this post together, I remembered this quote from Ron Edmunds, posted as the last slide in State Superintendent Dr. Bice’s Plan 2020 presentation and often recited by Bice:

“We can whenever we choose successfully teach all children whose schooling is of importance to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

So how do we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far?

Any and all thoughts are appreciated. Please post here or on the facebook page.

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