Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
— William Butler Yeats
Here is a fact about the Birmingham City Schools: The cohort graduation rate — in other words, the percentage of students who entered high school in the same year and earn diplomas four years later — is 57 percent.
Here is another fact: If every school-age child who resides in the south-to-southeastern area of Birmingham — roughly speaking, from Green Springs to Eastwood, encompassing several neighborhoods, including but not limited to Glen Iris, Five Points South, Highland Park, Forest Park, Redmont, Crestwood and Crestline — was enrolled in the Birmingham City Schools, four new schools would have to be built to accommodate the influx.
These two facts — one extremely sobering, the other cause for deep thought, if not immediate optimism — are closely related. Indeed, they encapsulate both the depths from which our city schools are in need of rescue, and the potential heights to which they might rise, given the presence of a clear vision, strong leadership and adequate support from every segment of the community. As such, they are facts that should be of interest to anyone who wants to see our system of public schools not just survive, but flourish — and who believes not only that such a thing can happen, but that it must happen if we in Birmingham hope to be able to do anything other than celebrate what ultimately are superficial signifiers of our purported progress.
Put another way, if we do not fix the Birmingham City Schools, we are not, in the long term, going to “fix” our city. We can build ten ballparks, hold a hundred community forums, organize a thousand street festivals, and we’ll still be falling short of absolving Birmingham of its greatest sin, the appalling waste of human potential that has resulted from decades of neglect, mismanagement, cynicism, cronyism and — let’s be absolutely honest, shall we? — unapologetic racism that have been permitted to intrude on the process of educating the children who reside within its boundaries.
The wages of this sin are most apparent in the fact that the student population of our city schools is almost exclusively black and substantially poor. Though there are small and scattered signs of change, the basic equation is that any family that can afford or otherwise manage to get their child out of the Birmingham system does so at the earliest opportunity. For parents of all races, the idea of putting their children in the city schools is a default fourth option, behind private school, home schooling, or moving out of Birmingham.
How does this begin to change? That answer goes back to the two facts I shared at the outset. The graduation rate must increase greatly, meaning that putting more human and financial resources into the classroom must be the number one priority of the system. Beyond that, the real challenge is keeping students in the system, while also attracting new students who already live in Birmingham but whose families actively seek out other options. The key to accomplishing this, of course, is by making parents of all races and income levels feel confident that their children will receive a quality education in the Birmingham City Schools.
For a system as battered and beleaguered as Birmingham’s, this sounds like a tall order, if not one that is outright impossible. But it’s not as though there are no models of success on which to build. I was talking about this just last week with one of the city’s most highly respected educators, who made a statement that we don’t hear often enough.
“The best schools in the Birmingham system are among the best schools anywhere in the state,” this person declared. The challenge, they quickly acknowledged, is that the number of such schools — Wilkerson Middle School and the Glen Iris and Avondale elementary schools are the most prominent examples — is discouragingly small, and the problems that confront even the best schools, many of which are related to employment issues, are so deep-rooted.
The only way to begin digging at those roots is through a highly strategic approach. Among the key components of such an approach are providing avenues and incentives for activating and engaging parents in the educational process; hiring, training and supporting strong principals for every school in the system; ensuring adequate training and instituting regular evaluation of teachers and support personnel; identifying key community partners, from corporations to nonprofit organizations to neighborhood and community groups; quantifying both needs and results to a degree that positions the school system to attract major programmatic grants from national foundations; and working closely with city government to enact policies that place schools at the center of efforts to revitalize and/or enhance neighborhoods and promote economic development.
With all of this, the key ingredients remain vision and commitment from Superintendent Craig Witherspoon and the Birmingham Board of Education. With the sweeping changes that came through the recent municipal elections, the board and Witherspoon have the concurrent blessing and curse of high expectations. Individually and collectively, they have the daunting task of communicating the vision of a bright future for the Birmingham City schools to parents and the community at large — of making each and every one of us not only understand the benefits of education, but also believe that a quality education is within the grasp of every child who attends our city’s schools.