Improving education: It will take educators, lawmakers and business leaders working together, say panelists
By Marie Leech, AL.com
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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Alabama's public schools graduate too few students and fail to prepare them for college or careers outside of high school, panelists said today at an event hosted by the Birmingham Business Alliance and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The two-day event, Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity, was part of a national tour by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce and the National Chamber Foundation that made a stop in Birmingham Thursday and today.
The event kicked off Thursday with a private screening of the movie "Won't Back Down," about two mothers -- one a teacher -- determined to transform their children's failing school. The movie stars Viola Davis, who starred in The Help, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
But today, it was all business. Business leaders, educators, and early childhood advocates were on panels discussing various topics; such as local school boards and their effect on education; the importance of pre-kindergarten; and workforce development.
Laura Chandler, executive director of the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council, was a panelist discussing how to achieve a ready-to-work and engaged community.
She told of a startling statistic her group had researched in her area, mostly encompassing Mobile and Baldwin Counties.
"We looked at the percentage of those who qualified for entry-level positions vs. how many are actually applying for those positions," she said. "In our region, it was less than 17 percent."
Other just as startling statistics - such as Alabama having a 72 percent graduation rate and Birmingham city schools seeing just 55 percent of their students graduate - were thrown around too. And Phillip Cleveland made no excuses for them.
As the director of career/technical education for the Alabama Department of Education, Cleveland said he knows the state has a long way to go.
"We take ownership of what these people have said," he said. "We have a goal of taking the graduation rate from 72 percent to 90 percent by 2020. We're going to do that because learning is going to become relevant."
The state already has adopted standards and programs that focus more on making sure students are college and career ready when they graduate from high school and less on whether or not they can pass a graduation exam, he said.
Much of the problem with students being ill-prepared for careers or college, not to mention the low graduation rate, can be attributed to a lack of early childhood education, advocates said in an earlier panel.
Liz Huntley, a lawyer, an Auburn trustee, and a board member of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, may have made the best argument for pre-kindergarten by telling her own personal story with it.
Huntley's mother and father were both drug dealers in a small town near Huntsville. She was one of five children -- four of whom had different fathers. When she was 5, her father got arrested and her mother became a heroin addict.
"She ultimately killed herself," Huntley told the audience. Before she did, she split the children up among different family members. Huntley and a sister were sent to live with their grandmother in Clanton - a grandmother who was illiterate and already had a house full.
"At that time, they were integrating the school system," Huntley said. "Chilton County schools allowed black children to come, but not the black teachers."
So the teachers banded together and started a pre-k program for 4- and 5-year olds, she said.
"I learned how to read and I learned how to write," she said. And when it came time for her to enroll in the first grade -- there was no kindergarten at that time - she showed up at the school by herself to enroll. She read signs on the wall telling her where she needed to go, found her name on a list of students and what classrooms they had been assigned to, and went to the classroom to meet her future teacher.
She sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by white parents and students. The teacher approached her and asked how she found her way to classroom alone. Huntley, who went by Elizabeth Humphrey back then, explained that she found her name and the classroom on a list.
"Now she could've labeled me as someone who had no support at home or she could've called DHR, because someone had let a 6-year-old come to the school by herself," Huntley said. "You know what that teacher said to me? 'Elizabeth Humphrey, you're going to be the brightest student I ever had.'"
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for that pre-k classroom."
Alabama is nationally known for having one of the best pre-k programs in the nation, but ranks at the bottom for access to it. Currently, only 6 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in the voluntary pre-k program.
Huntley said the Alabama School Readiness Alliance will ask the state Legislature during the upcoming session to increase funding for pre-k by $12.5 million, allowing the program to be expanded to an additional 120 sites, serving more than 2,000 more students. Currently, pre-k is being funded at $19 million.
That's where corporate sponsors, non-profits and even local school districts can make a difference, she said, instead of relying on state funding to reach the state's 4-year-olds.
Jim Hansen, president of PNC Bank Alabama, who also was on the panel, said his company has made a $350 million, 20-year commitment nationally toward early childhood education. In Alabama, he said, the bank already has spent $700,000 toward this effort.
"When we look at the numbers, we feel like this is the area we can make the biggest difference," he said.
The bottom line, says Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, is that it takes all entities working together to make a difference.
"Today, too few students are completing their K-12 education, and increasingly, students are graduating high school without attaining the skills needed to succeed at a post-secondary institution or the workforce," she said. "Local school districts play a critical role in ensuring that students are adequately prepared to enter the workforce, and the business community must do everything in its power to ensure that these systems are supported."