One by one they marched into the Anniston Board of Education meeting, silent and tall, six statues in heavy equipment.
The Anniston High School students, decked out last week in firefighter gear, stood before the board for introductions, all part of the Anniston Fire Department’s Fire Science Program that helps students at local schools train for a possible career.
That’s public education in today’s Alabama.
Off to our west, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin is trying to fulfill the Birmingham Promise — an eye-opening project that harkens to Anniston’s past and guarantees college scholarship money to any in-state public university or paid job opportunities to every graduating student in Birmingham City Schools.
Every graduating student, Woodfin says.
That’s also education in today’s Alabama.
Anniston and Birmingham aren’t similar apples, but they’re close enough — in demographic characteristics and challenges — to bind them in a discussion about boosting public education in Alabama’s lower-income areas.
Anniston’s schools offer unmitigated proof that single solutions don’t exist. By itself, throwing money at schools isn’t the answer. Neither are administration shakeups nor academic overhauls if that’s all that’s done. Sweeping improvements in school performances require a complete toolbox, with leadership and academic expectations at the top.
Without one, the other will fail.
Woodfin’s Birmingham Promise is steeped in classic liberalism but acknowledges the fact that many Birmingham students lack either the financial means for college or the skills to begin a career after graduation. Something has to give. And the future of Birmingham’s center rests on the school system’s ability to help graduates become adults who contribute to the greater good, and their own good, instead of drain from it.
In essence, that’s what the Anniston City Schools Foundation tried with its Next Start program. You may remember it. From 1998 to 2007, $500,000 in Next Start scholarships was awarded to 480 eligible Anniston High School seniors to attend Jacksonville State University or Gadsden State Community College. The money came from the City Council.
An April 2007 opinion from Alabama Attorney General Troy King ruled the scholarships were an illegal use of city money. Three years later, an amendment that would have allowed Anniston to resume its scholarship efforts failed because Calhoun County voters outside of Anniston overwhelmingly didn’t want Anniston to pay for AHS seniors to go to college.
The defeat of that Anniston-specific amendment — it lost by only 422 votes even though Anniston voters supported it — remains a stain on this county’s recent past.
I’m doubtful the Birmingham Promise will work long-term because it relies on the one item — money — everyone wants and few are willing to contribute in bulk. Woodfin’s goal sounds similar to NASA’s impossible challenge in the 1960s to put a man on the moon: A $35 million endowment that will empower graduates for perpetuity, a legacy of academics, job opportunities and earning potential.
And, yes, there are caveats.
Birmingham Promise does not guarantee unlimited scholarship money. It gives “last funds” — the tuition money still needed after a student has received all other scholarships or grant monies available from other sources.
Plus, Woodfin has embedded a clause to keep families from gaming the system: Students who attend Birmingham schools for 12 years will get the full amount available to them; students who attend less than that — those who transfer in — will get a prorated amount based on their years in the system. Birmingham Promise will also help juniors and seniors get $15-an-hour summer jobs with local employers, with the city paying half of the salary. (That, unlike paying for the scholarships, is legal.)
And, the scholarship money? It’s being raised, he says, from a variety of civic partners and private donations. My skepticism oozes from that challenge.
I’ll grant you that Anniston isn’t a prime candidate for its version of Woodfin’s project, an Anniston Promise, though the need is just as great. The truth hurts. Anniston’s list of civic partners and private donors is comically thin when compared to Birmingham’s. Size indeed matters.
The comparison works, though, because AFD’s Fire Science Program and Woodfin’s Birmingham Promise recognize that cookie-cutter approaches to public education don’t work. Young people are wildly different, their goals and dreams and abilities and family situations. And, for what it’s worth, Apple CEO Tim Cook — an Auburn University graduate — says about half of that company’s hires last year don’t have four-year degrees, according to The New Yorker.
Public education that expects all students to succeed from the same model — a 21st-century version of the Three R’s — is an antiquated system that fails students who don’t fit the template.
The goal of public education in Alabama must be to educate and train and empower students, whether they’re decked out in firefighter gear or hoping to earn scholarships paid for by civic donors. The results should be the same: opportunities and, hopefully, successes.