Editor’s note: In the wake of the Alabama Accountability Act — the politically controversial decision to provide tax credits to allow parents to remove their children from “failing” public schools to “non-failing” or private schools — here’s a look at a selection of schools which have received high marks for their achievements in teaching despite the challenges of poverty. The column was written before the Accountability Act and spotlights what are called Torchbearers.
By Larry Lee
Torchbearers are schools where a minimum of 80 percent of all students receive free-reduced lunches and meet rigorous standards on the Alabama Reading and Math tests.
Poverty is the number one indicator of academic performance. Poverty means schools must cope with an assortment of difficult issues ranging from a lack of parental engagement in the home to a negative social environment, untreated health issues and many more.
It’s hardly any wonder that reading and math scores for students in poverty are 23 to 33 points lower than non-impoverished students from the third through the eighth grades. However, the 20 Torchbearer schools which were recognized February 19 have scores that in some cases are more than double the state average.
These are schools facing our most difficult challenges, yet still turning out high-performing students.
Given these circumstances it is easy to understand why Governor Robert Bentley, State Superintendent of Education Dr. Tommy Bice, members of the State Board of Education, legislators and many others called them out for their achievements.
As a volunteer in this effort I’ve visited each school taking pictures to be used in a video being done by the Alabama Education Association. It has been quite an experience, because I’ve seen firsthand how hard staff at these schools work and how creative they are in addressing needs.
At one, students do a live “news broadcast” every morning for announcements. The school converted a small space into the “TV studio” and students sit behind a desk with coats on to deliver the news. Another student runs the mini-cam used to broadcast live to each home room.
One school recently had a slumber party for all 4th and 5th grade girls. They spent a Friday night in sleeping bags in the library. They learned about manners, how to dress appropriately and how to properly set a table. While this may seem unusual to some, in a school community where poverty is common, slumber parties are not.
Another school has all of the physically handicapped elementary kids in the entire system. They have three nurses, a classroom designed especially for wheel chairs and at all times during the day some student is receiving a tube feeding.
At another school there is a club for both boys and girls who make good grades, have at least a B in conduct and are selected by their teachers to be members. Boys wear a tie and the girls a “sparkly” top when they meet each week to be mentored by young professionals from the community.
I asked each principal what kind of homes their kids come from. At least 50 percent are from single parent homes (in some cases, much higher). Lots of grandparents are raising the grandchildren. Foster care is common. This is hardly a land of white picket fences.
Each principal will quickly tell you that they are as much social worker as they are educator. Many of their schools have washers and dryers so that they can provide clean clothes for students who need them. Trips to get a child medical care are common.
These schools are in a world many of our citizens seldom realize exists. But it is a world far too common.
For example, Alabama has 371 schools with a minimum of 80 percent poverty. More than 150,000 students attend one of them. By comparison, there are only 56 public schools in the state where 80 percent or more of all students are non-poverty.
This means we have 6.6 times as many high-poverty schools as ones that are low-poverty. It’s not surprising that only three states have a higher percentage of children in poverty than Alabama.
However, Torchbearer schools show that because of dedicated teachers and principals, poverty need not be an eternal shackle for students. And it is right that we pause to say thanks for a job well done.
Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a longtime advocate for public education who frequently writes about education issues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.