“I’m not the best at crossing the street,” Robyn Gulley admitted bashfully, as if she were divulging a long-held secret to someone she just met on the sidewalk. She’s the first one to say it’s an irrational fear. “My friends at school used to make fun of me for it. Nothing serious — they just thought it was funny that I get nervous about it,” Gulley said, looking both ways before she warily crossed the street to the Birmingham Public Library.
Gulley, a graduate of Ramsay High School, is now a freshman at Birmingham-Southern College and despite her trepidation toward literal crossroads, from a metaphorical standpoint, her transition from the Birmingham City School system to a prestigious liberal arts college has been seamless — despite some people’s expectations to the contrary, she explained.
She hates the “common misnomer” about the Birmingham City School system as perpetually failing; forever resigned to the shadow of affluence cast by the school systems on the other side of Red Mountain. “Go into those schools [in the city] and look at those kids and tell them to their face they are ‘failing,’” Gulley said, her voice cracking a bit. “I know these kids want the same things I did, because I used to mentor them when I was in high school. We want to do great things, and we want to move forward, even though things might not look great to the public or someone on the outside.”
She equates the commonly held belief about the Birmingham City School system to her own irrational fear about roads. The reality of the experience is never as bad as the preconceived notions, she said.
As per the Alabama State Department of Education, a public school is designated as “failing” if it tests in the lowest 6 percent of standardized assessments in reading and math. As of 2017, 13 out of 43 Birmingham City Schools made the list of 75 schools throughout the state, down from 18 in 2016.
Something that is lost in those statistics, Gulley believes, are the children. When you take the time to talk to the students, a different story emerges, one that casts a kinder light on the city schools than the state’s raw numbers suggest.
“The issue is more about how the schools are portrayed,” Gulley said. “I read an article about the schools that were failing, and I looked at some of the criteria of a failing school. I was thinking if you go in and you meet those kids, they’re not failing. I think the criteria is something that needs to be really looked at. The leadership, on a state level, should go in and work with the kids before they label [a school] as failing, because not all kids test well. It doesn’t mean they’re not smart. You label them as failing, but what are you doing to help them, really?”
The kids at Green Acres
The marquee in front of Green Acres Middle School reads, “We Are Not a Failing School.” Green Acres is one of the seven schools that was removed from last year’s list.
On a dreary January day, five eighth-graders gathered around a table in the school’s administrative office and picked through the Rice Krispies Treats and Snickers bars in the middle of the table. As Brandon Ward, 14, grabbed another treat and began to unwrap it, he said that he’s in school to become an engineer like his uncle.
“I wasn’t a great student. I came here from Central Park. I made D’s a lot,” he said. “But now I’m mature enough to know I need to make good grades, because I want to be an engineer like my uncle. If that doesn’t work out, I might want to play football, because I’m good at it,” Ward said, cracking a peach-fuzz-adorned smile.
Brandon wants to be the first person in his immediate family to attend college. Both his mother and his grandmother have been largely influential in trying to make sure he accomplishes that goal, he said.
“When my uncle told me a lot about being an engineer, I was in the seventh grade,” Brandon said. “He makes good money and stuff. To help him mature toward that career my grandma stayed on him and made sure he did his homework. Now he’s able to take care of her. Her and my mom stay on me about my homework.” While his fledgling interest in engineering and architecture is in a relatively new development, he’s always admired the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and hopes one day to design something equally iconic.
Brandon’s friend K’nora King also moved from Central Park to Green Acres. An energetic 13-year-old, K’nora said she found the transition to middle school to be somewhat difficult. Her grades slipped and there was a learning curve that she had to work through with the help of her teachers.
“Some of the struggles were just being in a new environment and having to adjust to schedules that I wasn’t familiar with,” K’nora said. “The work wasn’t hard. I just didn’t know how to do it at first. … The teachers helped me through it, which is something I can really appreciate.”
Education has always been important to K’nora. She said her grades have always been good, minus the bumpy start to middle school. “It’s how you find out who you are,” she said about education. “A career is something you like to do everyday, and a job is something you just get paid to do. Plan A, I want to be a social worker. Plan B, I want to be a pharmacist. And plan C, I’m going to be a veterinarian.”
Seated across from K’nora was Noah Ogunmakin, 13, dressed in a blue blazer, a light blue polo with a silver chain around his neck and a green pen tucked behind his ear. Like other middle schoolers, Noah “was struggling to fit in and basically get a mindset of doing my work and staying on task,” he said, shooting a playful look at his friend, Jayona Norris-Howard, at the end of the table. “It was a little bit rough when I first started and my grades went down. But the teachers here and the staff have helped me build myself up.”
Noah wants to pursue a career in music and be able to take care of his family. He sings in church, in afterschool programs, and sometimes at special occasions. “Without an education I wouldn’t know how to manage my music career,” he said. “I want to be able to go to school and get a masters degree or higher. I’d like to attend Montevallo. … That’s definitely my first choice. The University of California Los Angeles is definitely another school I want to apply for.
“What I want to be is someone that people can look up to,” Noah said. “Someone that people can say, ‘Wow, I want to be just like him when I grow up.’ If I can inspire one person a day then I will feel like I’ve made a big change.”
On his first day of middle school, Noah remembered walking in and feeling like an outsider, a sentiment shared by many of his classmates. “I felt like I didn’t belong there. But I was greeted by one of my first friends, Jayona Norris-Howard, and she told me to calm down,” he said, eliciting laughter from around the table. “She taught me how to fit in and basically be me at Green Acres Middle School.”
Jayona, a 13-year-old with long braids, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, where she lived until moving to Alabama with her father when she was in sixth grade. She said that the attention given to her specific needs in the classroom at Green Acres has helped her become a better student.
“I love the way they teach,” Jayona said. “In Nebraska they would just give us assignments and not really explain anything to us. Here, they want to work with us and make sure it gets into our head. They’ll sit by us, and if we don’t get it, they will take the time to make sure we get it. Algebra, English, world history, and physical science — I love it all.”
She and her classmates are looking forward to graduating middle school and hopefully attending Ramsay High School. “When I’m at school I try and look into my future,” Jayona said. “I know if I don’t make it into Ramsay — which, [there’s] a 25 percent chance I won’t — I’m thinking about going to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. I keep trying to zoom into the future and see myself at Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton. When I think about school, I think about if I miss this day, or I get to arguing this day or whatever, people might look back and see that on my record. So that’s always in my mind.”
Tyler Dalzell lovingly nudged the barking dog aside and welcomed a reporter into his home, situated on a hill in historic Roebuck Springs. At 16, Tyler was polite, and spoke fondly of the animals as he introduced them, one by one, before taking a seat on the couch. A large, carpeted cat playhouse was propped against a wall in the corner beside an impressive collection of vinyl records that stretched from floor to ceiling, the length of the room. His father accumulated the records over the years.
“I actually want to train dogs when I get older,” Tyler said, while simultaneously shushing the excited dog, who retreated to the kitchen.
Tyler attended Richard Arrington Middle School before transferring to the Alabama School of Fine Arts to pursue an education catered toward his love of creative writing. “I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always written them in my head,” Tyler said. “When I found out there was a school specifically for people like that, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Coming of age in middle school can present challenges for a lot of adolescents. For Tyler, school in and of itself has been full of hardships to overcome.
“I’ve always kind of been a little bit of an outcast. I’m trans and gay,” Tyler said, whisking a few wayward hairs out of his face. “Even before people knew about that, it sort of put me on the outside of things. I never really had a very big friend group at school. But I’ve always had at least one very close friend.”
Beyond one friend who Tyler confided in, he didn’t talk to anyone else at school about his gender identity, because, “It wasn’t any of their concern,” he said. On January 26, 2015, when same-sex marriage was legalized in Alabama, Tyler remembered being the only person in his class who was overjoyed to hear the news. “No one, besides me, seemed to think this was okay. There was one person who kept saying gay people should go to hell,” he recalled, adding that he quickly turned to social media to join in the revelry.
Tyler was in the gifted and talented classes at Richard Arrington Middle School. He graduated from eighth grade at the top of his class. “I was only barely allowed to wear the boys outfit at my graduation because I had to ask my teacher,” Tyler said. “In the end, because the principal was very nice, and it didn’t hurt I was one of his favorite students, he allowed me to do it. I got a few weird looks for it but other than that it went great.”
Having grown up in the public school system, Tyler characterized his experience as “more discipline, less learning.” Since many of the students in Tyler’s class acted out, “the teachers had to spend more time working with those students [so] that it hindered the learning” for him. At one point, to maintain discipline, teachers rotated into the classroom, as opposed to the students changing rooms. “That was really hard because you get claustrophobic,” he said. “Silent lunches” were another disciplinary action used by the school administration as a way to manage what Tyler described as chronic bad behavior.
At ASFA, Tyler said he found his “people” and has been able to focus more on his writing. Recently, he’s been gravitating toward nonfiction, though, he said, short fiction has always been his “go-to” outlet.
“Opportunities will be lost if you’re not doing your best,” Tyler said when asked about the importance of education. “If you’re doing your best, there will always be an opportunity for you. … Education has opened my mind, especially since I’ve been so interested in reading and writing. You read about all kinds of people, places, and experiences. It forces you to be more open-minded. Things like studying Shakespeare has opened up so many worlds that I didn’t know existed.”
When Robyn Gulley was nine, her mother died. She and her twin sister moved from Houston to Birmingham, with the blessing of their father, in order to live with their aunt. “They thought it was important for us to have a strong female influence in our lives growing up,” Gulley said, now seated at a table in the Birmingham Public Library.
At the start of her freshman year, Gulley began attending Ramsay High School, while her sister enrolled at Jackson-Olin High School because of the career academies offered there. “It was weird being at a different school than my sister,” Gulley said. Still, she is glad she made the decision because her life “definitely wouldn’t have been the same” had she not attended Ramsay. “The people I met there, the teachers, everybody was so genuine and wanted to see me succeed. Even when I didn’t feel like I was capable of doing the work, my teachers lifted me up and told me I could do it.”
Gulley, who described herself as “a pretty chill person,” has always been intensely involved with school. “Maybe I did too much,” she quipped. For starters, she was the SGA president, a member of the drama club, concert choir, and the Future Business Leaders of America. She also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and Patty Cake Daycare. Gulley somehow managed to juggle all those extracurricular activities while enrolled in the International Baccalaureate classes offered at Ramsay.
“I took advantage of being able to network with people and learn from where they have been,” Gulley said. “That played a huge role in me getting ready to go to college.”
Perhaps one of the more impactful moments in her high school education came when Gulley began mentoring a young girl named Giselle. “It’s some of my favorite memories, hanging out with Giselle on Thursdays,” Gulley said. Those mentoring sessions sparked her passion to pursue a career in advocating for human rights. While she’s not sure exactly what that career will be in the end, she knows she wants to be involved with the ongoing struggle for equality. “Mentoring Giselle changed my life.”
The notion that students in Birmingham City Schools are not given enough opportunities to succeed is something that bothers Gulley. One summer, Gulley served as a “connector,” a mentor for younger children for the Birmingham Education Foundation, also known as ED. “We went around Birmingham, Homewood, different places, just asking people what they would do if they could invest in the lives of a Birmingham City School student,” Gulley said.
Some of their answers shocked her. “I remember one lady said the school system is just so unorganized that [she] would never have [her] child there, the students aren’t learning and this, this, and this,” Gulley said. “That’s just not the case. There are a ton of great kids in the Birmingham City Schools. I do know that some kids come from the projects, but I don’t think that makes [it] impossible to accomplish the same goals as [anyone else].”
It’s just as she does when she crosses the street, Gulley said. In order to improve the lives of children in Birmingham City Schools, the administration needs to take it one step at a time. And that starts, in her words, with “stabilizing the leadership.”
For students who do struggle at school, Gulley witnessed teachers going out of their way to make sure they were going to be taken care of. “The teachers I’ve known are really caring, and the students care a lot more about school and what’s going on within the system,” Gulley said. “As students, we see what’s going on. We’re always talking about it and hoping to change the way people see us. I’m hoping that the school system will work toward more stability in the leadership roles. Other than that, I don’t think I’d change a thing.”
Weld’s next monthly installment of its Education in Birmingham series will focus on the impact state legislation has had on the city’s school system.