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Monday, January 14, 2008

Leaders to study Mobile, Ala., schools

Looking to bring success to Columbia
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Columbia business, civic and education leaders will visit Alabama’s Gulf Coast this week in search of ideas to help chronically underachieving students do better in school.

The trip to Mobile, Ala., underwritten by the Columbia City Council and the Richland 1 school board, is unprecedented. The two independently elected bodies historically have had separate agendas.

“This is unique,” said Kathy Garrick, chairwoman of Richland 1’s education foundation. “It means the city and our business community are willing to take ownership of young people and their future.”

What’s at stake is whether Columbia as a whole its community, business, school and government leaders will commit to a plan to improve Richland 1 schools.

An estimated 80 people will get a whirlwind, 1½-day tour of a school system that attracted national attention for improving the academic performance of its poor and minority students.

The Columbia group will hear about Mobile’s leaders, including a brash former superintendent who linked a strong school system to a reliable local economy that supports good-paying jobs.

“We know we have made a tremendous amount of progress,” Mobile Mayor Sam Jones said. “We have a 2.3 percent unemployment rate. Our biggest challenge is work force development. We have more jobs than we have people available.”

Mobile took drastic steps to improve its schools, making wholesale changes in faculties at failing schools and offering bonus pay to attract quality educators and reward them for good results.

“I decided we were going to run (the school system) like a business,” said former superintendent Harold Dodge, now a teacher at the University of South Alabama.

Some Mobile schools with commendable academic reputations took funding cuts so more money could be spent at low-performing schools.

“We don’t have all the answers,” said Carolyn Akers, director of the influential Mobile Area Education Foundation. “But we feel good about some of the successes we’ve had, and we’re glad to share what we’ve learned.”

Mobile leaders point to the foundation as the catalyst that inspired business people, elected officials and parents to support the strategies to “transform” low-performing schools. The organization has 12 employees and a $2.3 million annual budget. It awards grants and assists schools in developing special curriculums that address student needs and academic shortcomings.

Akers visited Columbia last year to meet with Mayor Bob Coble and others worried about Richland 1. Five of Richland 1’s schools are on a state Education Department watch list because large numbers of students persistently fail standardized tests.

“This is going to be the most important thing we do as a community,” Coble said. “There is nothing more important for our children, or economic development, than the success of (Richland) school district 1.”

Howard Duvall, director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, called the Mobile trip “a very good trend.”
“We’ve been working with cities to make them understand that what happens in the school district has a big impact on quality of life in the community.”

“Without a quality school system,” Duvall said, “you’re not going to have the quality of life that makes you competitive in the knowledge economy we have.”

Wendy Brawley, Richland 1’s board chairwoman, said Mobile is worth studying because the school system targets students who need extra attention.

“They have experience in the real challenges with the achievement gap for minority students,” Brawley said.
The Rev. Charles Epps of Haskell Heights Progressive Baptist Church likes the idea of investigating what other communities are doing to solve school problems.

“If they have developed a system to close that gap, I sure would like to look at it,” said Epps, who hopes to make the trip to Mobile.

Brawley said she is encouraged that “the business community has figured out that if we are serious about improving our schools, it means improving the communities children come from so they can have a chance” to do well.

Brawley and Coble got the city’s Chamber of Commerce to support the Mobile trip, a strategy Columbia banker Nate Barber applauds.

“I’m glad to see the chamber is playing a role,” Barber said. “It’s probably one of the few entities that is seen as neutral enough to make a difference. It has respect.”

Wade Perry, an official with the Alabama Education Association, a powerful teachers’ union, said the Mobile strategy has produced mixed results so far.

“It’s worked in some places, and not in others,” Perry said.
Perry said the union resisted restaffing low-performing schools, but the public backed the plan. Nevertheless, filling some vacancies in schools that offer the financial incentives has proven to be a challenge, Perry said.

“I don’t think you can isolate the faculty turnover as being the reason for success,” he said. “You had hundreds of thousands of dollars in new personnel and resources pumped into these schools to help them make progress.”

Ordering all teachers at a poor-performing school to resign and then hiring back only those the administration believes can produce better test results is a dramatic action that Brawley said would require a lot of thought.

“I don’t know that is necessarily the best way to go,” she said. “It would be just adding more stress for a stressed-out teaching staff.”

Brawley said she believes principals have enough authority to make staffing changes to reach school and district goals.
“We’ve got to find ways of engaging our entire community,” Brawley said. “We are realizing in our governing bodies that we can’t do this by ourselves.”

Coble agrees.
“What I’m hoping we’ll learn is how to show people the way to get involved in making schools better,” he said.
Garrick, the Richland 1 parent-activist, cautioned that “this (trip) isn’t an effort to save Richland 1. It’s the start of a coalition to boost the city and the schools together.”

“I’m very hopeful,” she said. “It needs to be a partnership.”
Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.

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