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Elizabeth Fleming, executive director of the Schools Foundation, introduces superintendents Christie Finley, Matt Massey and Robby Parker at the State of the Schools breakfast Feb. 13. (Record Photo/Kendyl Hollingsworth)

Local superintendents discuss achievements, needs at annual State of the Schools

HUNTSVILLE — Superintendents of the Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County school systems discussed their strengths, challenges and needs at their annual State of the Schools address Feb. 13 at the Jackson Center.

All superintendents agreed that though their districts continue to make great strides and receive recognition for their progress and success, one of their greatest needs is additional funding to meet the growing needs of their students and teachers.

In addition to a lack of sufficient funding, the superintendents each noted the mental health crisis they are seeing in each of their districts. Because of this increased demand for mental health help, schools are facing a shortage of counselors and therapists to help students.

The superintendents were asked six questions at the meeting, and each were given an opportunity to address the question and explain how it applies in their own districts. The topics are noted below in the order they were addressed.

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS

Having just recently received all A’s on their state report card, as well as seeing all 11 schools rank high in their respective categories, Madison City Superintendent Robby Parker said “every school, no matter where you go, is a great school.” He said the size of Madison makes this possible.

In addition, Parker said MCS is “extremely diverse,” and he commended the board of education and previous superintendents for their courage in making decisions that contribute to each school’s success.

With about 19,000 students in 27 schools—18 of which have been named National Blue Ribbon Schools—Madison County Superintendent Matt Massey acknowledged that although the student body comes from a diversity of backgrounds, several children in his district are disadvantaged. However, they are able to become exposed to high-power careers in school and draw inspiration from that. In addition, the county district administered more than 3,000 AP exams last year, which yielded more than 1,100 qualifying scores. “We’re excited to lead the state in that,” he added.

Huntsville City Superintendent Christie Finley said Huntsville City Schools are also diverse in several ways. As a former teacher, she noted that superintendents and other school leaders lead by action, but it’s the students and teachers who determine a school’s or a district’s success.

“Really, we’re all in this together because each of our school systems are diverse, and Huntsville is very diverse,” Finley said. “…Our schools are actually built to accommodate that.” This includes everything from Greenpower racing to career academies to PTAs, as well as the new School Safety Task Force and Desegregation Advisory Committee. In addition, she said Huntsville “has something for everyone.”

STRENGTHS AND CHALLENGES

Both Parker and Massey noted their AP classes and culture as one aspect of their districts that gives them a great sense of pride.

“I’m very proud of our AP success and that it’s pretty saturated in all of our schools, and it’s really changed the culture of our schools,” Massey said.

Thanks to this culture, Massey said 600 high school students have already completed internships.

In addition to offering 31 AP classes at both Bob Jones and James Clemens high schools—28 more than 14 years ago—Parker said Madison City students are also doing well with various internships and world languages.

“One initiative that I presented to the board, and the board has supported it, is that we want every child that walks out of Madison City Schools to be fluent in a second language—100 percent by 2021,” Parker said. He added that they want to see second language exposure start in pre-K.

MCS also offers advanced math courses from grades 5-12 and hopes to extend that down to third grade in the near future.

Finley said she is proud of the Huntsville City teachers and what they do as “change-makers” in their classrooms, and despite some schools struggling, she added that she is proud of the schools who have raised their report card grades.

“Thirty-two out of 37 schools either increased or maintained on the school state report card, but in addition to that, we had 12 schools the year before that received an F,” Finley said. “We have four left, and I am proud of growth (that has occurred).”

In terms of challenges, Parker said MCS’ biggest issue currently is figuring out how to continue their success in the midst of city growth and development. Stemming from that, the school system faces the challenge of rezoning in the near future.

Both Finley and Massey noted finances and the mental health crisis as two of their greatest challenges. Massey recognized schools’ growing role as mental health care providers, and Finley said she has seen a diversity of mental health needs among students in her district, even seeing these kinds of issues in students as young as 4 years old in the pre-K programs.

“Students have diverse needs,” Finley said. “The challenges with mental health—they’re so much more complex than we can imagine … what our students face daily, whether it be mental health or the environment they have at home—that all comes to our schools.” Mental health also has a large impact on students’ academic performance.

With this, Finley said she would like to see more funding for mental health to provide students with the help they may not have access to outside of school.

“That’s another thing that’s costly, and we don’t necessarily have the funding for it,” Massey added.

MEASURING FOR SUCCESS

Though all three superintendents recognized the importance of standards and metrics for success, they agreed that measuring the true success of a student is extremely difficult when their success may lay outside of a more traditional path. Parker said five-year data after graduation does not tell the whole story.

“Every kid at all three of our (school systems) are geniuses—every one of them—in something,” Parker later said. “… They may not be going to be a doctor or a lawyer—that’s fine—but they’re going to be great at something.”

Massey also said county schools are increasing opportunities for students to earn different credentials before they enter the workforce.

Finley said state report cards are helpful in measuring success, but since the data is only based on the previous school year, it does not account for changes and improvements made in the months since the last school year ended. Finley said the district was able to develop what they call the “future indicators of success,” which helped them to address the accountability measures. Using the state formula, they figured out their grades a few months ahead of time, which helped them to address students’ needs and help identify goals for each school to tackle.

“It’s the teachers who make it happen because they know what their students need,” Finley said. “We have to be mindful and provide them the data measures early on and not wait until December or January. We need to make sure we’re focusing on the future, and that’s what we’re doing in Huntsville.”

Massey said that while the current metrics help school systems stay accountable and transparent, they are far from perfect. He said it is written in the state law that the bottom 7 percent of schools receive an ‘F,’ and those kids can then transfer out of that failing school. Attendance is also a major portion of schools’ grades, which is difficult when there is a flu outbreak or other similar situation.

In addition, Massey and Parker both noted that the vast majority of the state report card grades are determined from one standardized test taken on one day of the year.

“We take one test a year, and either you’re a success or a failure on that one test,” Parker said. “We do have to have metrics, and we do have to have standards … but it’s so subjective.”

FUNDING

Massey noted that their funding generally comes from the state, and federal funding is greatly dependent on the number of low-income students in the district. Since school systems do not receive enough funding from the state, Massey said the burden falls to each county to make up the difference.

In addition, the Alabama Accountability Act has cost public school systems “millions” since it passed in 2013, according to Massey. The AAA allows Alabama taxpayers to donate money to fund scholarships for low-income students to use at other schools, often private schools. Massey said the intent was to help students at failing schools go to different non-failing schools. Only a portion of these recipients, however, come from failing schools.

Rather than expand the money tied to the AAA, Massey said he would like to see it be put toward technology to give students greater capability to access the resources they need to succeed.

Massey added that sales tax also provides a much-needed boost to school funding, though sales tax that comes from online purchases can actually cause public school systems to miss out on a portion of that, depending on where it comes from.

“For us, it is the lack of local funding that we have is (why) we can’t go hire extra teachers to offer a foreign language for everybody,” Massey said. “We get our state-earned units, and that’s basically what a school has to kind of work with. It’s hard to meet the demands of workforce development.”

Both Finley and Parker noted that since funding is based on the previous school year, they often find that their current needs are not met. This puts Madison in a difficult position given the massive growth the city is experiencing. Parker noted that at least 550 students have joined the school system since the 2017-2018 school year ended last May. That number is enough to fill an entire elementary school on its own.

In Huntsville’s case, Finley said this presents staffing challenges and makes it difficult to keep class sizes small. In addition, Finley said she would like to see additional funding from the state to increase school safety and school nurses, as well as to meet other needs like school renovations, additions, transportation and innovation technology.

“Also, we want to retain our teachers,” Finley said. “Over the last four years, we have had a cycle where we’ve hired 30 percent new teachers in the district. That has to stop. We have to ensure that we are paying comparative salaries.”

WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT AND PREPAREDNESS

All three superintendents agreed that workforce preparedness and development is a major area of focus in their school systems, especially since North Alabama has become a major hub for business, engineering and technology.

To accomplish this in Huntsville City Schools, Finley said HCS plans to keep growing their career academy. They also strive to help students see the connections between different subjects and understand how the material is relevant to their lives and their future careers.

“We need to make sure, as parents and as community, that we’re talking to students about the relevance of what they learn every day,” Finley added. “As we move forward, we have to make sure that what we teach is relevant to what they’ll be doing.”

In addition, both Finley and Massey noted the importance of partnerships with area colleges and businesses.

“We have a great partnership with our two-year schools,” Massey said. “We are offering more dual enrollment opportunities in the career tech fields … We want to expand our co-op program that we have.”

Parker said that while approximately 88 percent of MCS graduates choose to go to college, the 12 percent that choose a different path is a significant number.

“One of the goals that the board and I have worked on is we want to do a better job with not blue collar jobs—it’s a different world today—but with ‘new collar’ jobs,” Parker said. He described “new collar” jobs as occupations like welding and other jobs that incorporate new technologies.

PARTING THOUGHTS

Both Massey and Finley commended their school boards and other district employees for the work they continue to do and noted the importance of working as a team, both within the districts and with community partners, to better their school systems.

“We’re all diverse, but yet we’re all one because we have one mission and one goal, and that’s to make sure every student is successful and ready to go on to the next level,” Finley said.

In addition, Finley and Parker emphasized the importance of working to help students develop and achieve these personal goals.

“The ones before us have done a great job to create this, and now it’s our time,” Parker said. “What are we going to do? … Every one of us has got to continue what we’re doing because every child—every one of them, and it doesn’t matter who they are—is fearfully and wonderfully made, and they are our responsibility.”

In addition to the superintendents’ comments, one high-achieving student from each school district also discussed their personal successes and future plans while explaining how their school districts have helped them reach great heights.

From Huntsville City Schools, New Century Technology High School senior Regina Harris said being a student-athlete has kept her busy and helped her develop a strong work ethic to keep up the pace. She plans to focus on pre-medical studies in college and has interned at HudsonAlpha.

“Being in Huntsville City Schools has prepared me to do all of this,” she said. Harris has taken several AP and honors courses, and as a student at NCTHS, she said the teachers help her to truly learn the material and not just try to pass an exam. She is also working to earn her biotechnology assistant and pharmacy tech certifications in the coming months.

Elijah Luna, a senior from Sparkman High School representing Madison County Schools, is an amateur blacksmith and astronomer who hopes to enter the space industry after studying at UAH. “I believe Sparkman High School has really prepared me in my pursuits in hopefully going into the space industry,” he said. Like Harris, Luna has also taken several AP courses to challenge himself. “Without those classes, I don’t think I would be where I am today.” He also participates in band, Key Club, Science Olympiad and InSPIRESS.

Bob Jones High School senior Elizabeth Kasprzak said being part of the Madison City school system has helped her through the vast opportunities they offer students. As a student in the engineering and health science academies, Kasprzak said that she hopes to go into biomedical engineering. She recently interviewed with Harvard and is also eyeing the Illinois Institute of Technology as the place to launch her postsecondary studies.

Kasprzak is a member of various honor societies and service clubs. In addition, she serves as the state officer for Alabama in HOSA Future Health Professionals, vice president of Bob Jones ambassadors, team captain for track and field and the first female driver in Greenpower Patriot Racing.

“These leadership experiences showed me that leadership is a process, not a position,” she said. “It’s not about your title … it’s all about helping people grow around you, and because of Bob Jones I was able to see that for myself.” Kasprzak added that with Madison City Schools’ support, she has learned to reach for success beyond her comfort zone and keep challenging herself in rigorous courses.

Huntsville, Madison and Madison County schools are supported financially and otherwise by the Schools Foundation. For more information, visit theschoolsfoundation.org.

For students and adults looking for career paths and opportunities in North Alabama, visit asmartplace.com.

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