“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. … This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that in 1963 while being held in the Birmingham City Jail for protesting without a proper permit, a tactic used in the days of Jim Crow to quell any demonstrations by opponents of segregation. Hundreds of African American children were arrested and charged with similar violations by the police force under the command of then-Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor.
When he wasn’t instructing the police to use high-pressure hoses and attack dogs on protesters, children included, Connor was also in charge of making nominations to Birmingham’s Board of Education — which governed both black and white schools — from 1936 to 1963 (with the exception of four years between terms in 1952 to 1956), years that would leave Birmingham’s “garment of destiny” in tatters for years to come.
More than 50 years later, as Weld embarks on a yearlong, 12-part series exploring Birmingham’s educational system, King’s indelible observations on inequality and the ways in which mankind is tied to its own collective shortcomings seem like a fitting place to begin the conversation about a school system plagued with widespread poverty among its students and derelict institutions born out of segregation in vital need of repair or razing.
What affects the Birmingham City School system affects the entire city indirectly, by way of corporate recruitment, poverty levels, crime rates, and overall prosperity.
In a recent study published by EdBuild, a national education nonprofit, the report’s authors note the widening gap in educational equalities between inner city schools and their neighboring school districts.
“We’ve created and maintained a system of schools segregated by class and bolstered by arbitrary borders that, in effect, serve as the new status quo for separate but unequal,” the report reads. “Increasingly, the story of American school districts is a tale of two cities, one well-off and one poor — one with the funds necessary to provide its children ample educational opportunities and one without adequate resources to help its children catch up.”
For instance, roughly 49 percent of students in Birmingham City Schools live at or below the poverty line, according the most recent census data. Compare that to Vestavia and Mountain Brook, both of whom boast 6 percent poverty levels for students, just a few miles away. While poverty in urban school systems is not a problem isolated to Birmingham, it’s perhaps one of the biggest impediments to student achievement, according to Dr. Larry Contri, the interim superintendent who took over after the board voted to fire Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan in September.
“As far as fighting poverty, we’re making a concentrated effort to provide wrap-around services to our children because we realize when a child struggles in school there are a number of factors that we have to address. Because that does have a huge impact on academic achievement,” Contri said softly. As someone who has been employed by the school system since 1967, Contri said he’s seen firsthand how education and poverty are closely tied, often spanning over generations.
“Many of our kids’ parents have never finished school,” Contri said. “It’s such a common thing to have kids come up to me and say, ‘I’m the first person, Dr. Contri, in my family to finish high school and I’m going to go to a four-year college.’” Despite the flurry of upheavals within the administration, Contri is excited about the future of education in Birmingham.
To better understand the progress being made, it’s important to note the elements that have hindered Birmingham City Schools for the better part of a century.
“A big, necessary bureaucracy”
In Birmingham, many of the problems faced by the schools can be traced back to having a segregated school system, one that required a complete overhaul in order to be in compliance with federal laws after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation on a federal level. However, vestiges of segregation continued into the 1960s in Birmingham, explained Bob Corley, who served on the Birmingham Board of Education (BOE) from 1987 to 1997 and is now a history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“One of the things I think Birmingham is still grappling with is the fact it was a dual school system,” Corley said. “The fact that you had white schools and black schools and you had separate administrations. You had this infrastructure that was much smaller and had less resources than the white schools but it still functioned as a separate entity still controlled by the same school board.”
During this time, both the schools and administrations were experiencing a period of consolidation. From a brick and mortar perspective, there were too many schools in the district, many of them a few blocks away from one another, servicing the same population because of the prior segregation.
“In Ensley you had Jackson Olin and Ensley High School, which are about five blocks from each other,” Corley said. “You had Hayes [High School] and Woodlawn [High School] less than two miles from each other. That’s not a rational way to operate for a single school system. You got too many schools too close to each other because they were built for a different reason than just trying to service students.
“In the 1950s you saw a huge influx of baby boomer students, so the system was stretched to its limits of trying to provide more schools for blacks and whites. Then comes desegregation and somehow you have to unify all this. Immediately the first thing they had to realize, and something still seen, is that you have too many schools and they’re located in the wrong place.”
Along with the consolidation of schools, which is still an ongoing struggle for the school system that has seen its population decline from nearly 70,000 in the 1970s to just over 24,000 today, there were troubles associated with merging both black and white administrations into a single governing body.
Corley referred to the merger and subsequent school governance as a “a big, necessary bureaucracy” that has always been driven by political forces not necessarily in the best interests of the students, even before the BOE became an elected body 12 years ago.
When Corley was appointed to the five-member BOE in 1987, Birmingham’s first black superintendent, Walter Harris, was leaving office. By the time he arrived on the board, another contract had been awarded to John Cantelow, who was also black, and would be the beginning of what he and others have characterized as a “revolving door” of Birmingham superintendents.
Since Corley’s second term expired in 1997, there there have been nine Birmingham superintendents. “A considerable amount of power accumulated at the central office after the merger that is still present today,” Corley said. “Having to constantly replace the superintendent creates general instability. It creates a sense of, ‘What are we here for if we can’t keep a leader in that role for some time?’ Change in Birmingham requires sustained effort. The kinds of reforms necessary require resources to be allocated and strategic thinking and a steady hand.”
One of the most common criticisms leveled toward Mayor William Bell’s administration is that his office has not paid much attention to education in Birmingham. Bell scoffs at this notion. Having grown up in Birmingham’s public housing in the 1960s, he said he is well aware of the relationship between poverty and education.
If a third grader cannot read at a third-grade level, Bell said, that is a big indicator as to whether or not that child will complete their schooling. In order to combat this, Bell said he has tried to place an emphasis on reading initiatives within the schools, though, he admitted the mayor’s office has little room for unilateral decision-making in Birmingham’s educational system.
“This past year we tried to initiate a reading program through the school system in which we were recommending $1 million be put into the program,” Bell said. “That was not supported by the council. I’m disappointed by that, but at the same time we’re not going to let that stop us from moving forward.”
The immediate need to stabilize the superintendent’s office is something that Bell said is on the forefront of his mind. “The fact is, mayors have little to no control over the school board,” Bell said. About seven years ago, Bell, who was in the process of running for mayor, indicated his willingness to allow the state legislature to cede superintendent-appointment power to the mayor’s office. “That was roundly criticized by the legislators and the media,” Bell said. “But yet the administration is held accountable if anything goes wrong with the school system, even though we have little to no authority to make decisions regarding the school system.”
While he is quick to label the BOE as a “politically motivated” body, Randall Woodfin, a school board member who announced his candidacy for mayor in August, undoubtedly got his start in politics by serving as the board’s president. Woodfin, 35, is also an assistant city attorney. During his campaign announcement, and in the time since, Woodfin made it clear that a major part of his platform would be improving education in Birmingham.
“We have to champion education. That’s bigger than K-12, that’s bigger than 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.m and it’s bigger than August to May,” he said.
Woodfin was pointed in his characterization of the current administration’s involvement with the school system. “It’s nonexistent,” Woodfin said. “There is a $425 million [city] budget and the school system has to beg for $1.8 million. The city of Huntsville gives its schools $20 million. Tuscaloosa gives over $20 million. Some of these suburban school systems get a couple million. None of these cities have as big a budget as we do. Education is not a priority for this mayor’s administration, period. Everybody knows that.”
Woodfin frequently refers to the behavior exhibited by both members of the BOE and the school administration as an “adult-driven culture” that often puts politics in front of student achievement. “I’ve had an up-close view of Birmingham City Schools’ most rooted problem. One of them being it’s a very adult-driven culture. It tends to center around principals and brick-and-mortar issues. We’ve gone from principals’ contracts not being renewed by a superintendent and this whole political process starts, championing for this adult’s job. A superintendent [who] makes a recommendation is hijacked politically because they want to keep a person in that position, ignoring the facts like student achievements and the bottom line.
“The structure of the school board is just too political,” Woodfin said. Birmingham is the only city in the state with nine school board members who are elected by city council district, a structure Woodfin believes inherently gives people the impression that their position is more political as opposed to board service. “A lot of people want to play politics with their vote about principals and brick and mortar issues,” he said.
Goodbye “Dr. G”
This “political pettiness” Woodfin described spilled into the public eye when the BOE suddenly voted to terminate Castlin-Gacutan’s contract “without cause” on September 22, 2016. As a result, the school system must pay out her remaining contract of $404,000 over the next two years.
Several months prior to her ouster, on May 10, 2016, Castlin-Gacutan had brought a personnel recommendation before the board to replace Mario Lumzy as the principal of Inglenook Elementary, an action that falls under the contractual responsibilities of the superintendent as prescribed by the board statute.
The action failed, with votes against it coming from Sandra Brown, Sherman Collins, April Williams, and Daayge Hendricks (who represents the district which includes Inglenook), with one abstention from Cheri Gardner. All of those who voted to keep the current Inglenook principal, plus Gardner, would later vote to terminate Castlin-Gacutan’s contract. The issue persisted for another month, exposing the political divides on the board.
At the time, Board President Wardine Alexander, took issue with two change orders for the new BCS operations center in the Wells Fargo building, a purchase the board had approved in 2012, three years before Gacutan’s administration, but which had just come to the attention of the board as well as $73,000 fee for professional services.
“We’ve been very consistent in our requests,” Alexander said to Castlin-Gacutan at the meeting. “We’re bringing items that in a business setting, if you operated your home, you would not expect to spend money before it’s approved or before it’s in your pocket. … So please, with all due diligence, try and minimize this.”
By September, the board voted 6-3 to oust Castlin-Gacutan after just one year on the job, citing “fiscal irresponsibility,” but never presented evidence that would have allowed the contract to be terminated without a payout. Woodfin, one of the dissenting members, called the action “morally wrong.”
Speaking on Monday over the phone, Alexander did not answer any questions about the previous administration but rather said there are still many hurdles to overcome and that she looks forward to working with the next administration in achieving some of those goals.
“One of our biggest challenges is that we operate in an urban school district,” Alexander said. “Just as with most cities around the country, we deal with local funding issues and competing priorities among our families.”
Unlike Woodfin, Alexander painted a more positive picture of the mayor’s involvement with the school system, saying she has been “encouraged” by both Bell’s and the city council’s willingness to open a dialogue about the schools. “I am encouraged by the upcoming meeting with the city council and the mayor to discuss upcoming legislation that they could push through in the next legislative session,” Alexander said.
As BCS’s longest-serving employee, Contri said his goal, as with any superintendent, is to be focused on raising the academic standards of the school system.
“We want all of our kids, when they graduate, to be college and career ready,” Contri said. One of the biggest impediments of success in the school system, Contri said, is the lack of state funding. “[That] you never get enough money from the state is a big issue. Also, having an in-depth understanding of public schooling and the value of that, especially for our kids.”
When Contri started in 1967, there weren’t nearly as many districts within the Birmingham City School system as there are today. “You’ve got positives and negatives” associated with that, Contri said. “We had 80,000 plus kids and probably 90 school buildings. Now, in 2017, we’re down to 24,000 students. But the most powerful thing we see today is the parent education program as it continues to grow and encourage parents and business people get involved with the schools and start to improve some of those reading and math scores.”
In 2016, of the 10 schools that Contri oversaw as director of school assignments, four scored five points or more lower on the ACT Aspire reading test. However, Phillips Academy, Ramsay, Princeton, EPIC, and Putnam all scored well above the BCS average of 19. It’s these gaps that need addressing, as explained by both Woodfin and Contri.
Superintendent search, again
Contri has yet to make an announcement as to whether or not he will be seeking the permanent position as superintendent, but according to Woodfin, the search for a superintendent will begin this month. He hopes that the next administration can overcome the political pitfalls that have bedevilled the school system in the past.
“I hope we can attract a viable pool of people who want to lead our school system forward,” Woodfin said. “I think it would be extremely premature to discuss [a permanent position for Contri]. Let’s be real with the people, if we’re going to have a genuine, open, fair, process. I think people are tired of political façades. Playing politics with this search would be one of the worst decisions this board could make.”
While this particular installment of Weld’s ongoing education series touched on some of the shortcomings of the school system, there is plenty to celebrate, according to Contri, Woodfin, and Bell.
That optimistic sentiment is shared by Corley, who has seen firsthand the perpetual promise of the school system. Despite his hope for the future, Corley summed up what he sees as the biggest impediment to progress with this observation: “The bottom line, that is the interest of the children, and you may have heard this from Dr. Contri, about how they only care about the children, it’s just a mantra that’s repeated so often that it’s lost its meaning.
“What you have got to do is have well-thought-out, well-constructed policies that have that as the goal. A lot of times the needs of the bureaucracy, from the central office to the board members, overrides everything that gets to the needs of the children.”
Weld’s next monthly installment of its Education in Birmingham series will focus on the students and what it’s like to actually attend some of Birmingham’s schools.