“Where we continue to fail urban students as a country,” says Victoria Hollis, “is that we have yet to redefine what K-12 education needs to look like in today’s world. We have an opportunity to do that in Birmingham on our own. The idea that it’s solely the responsibility of the schools is part of what’s held us back.”
Bam! It’s very tempting at this point simply to stop typing and let that quote stand as my column for this week. Certainly, there is nothing I can add to the eloquent simplicity and directness of that statement by Hollis, program manager for the Birmingham Education Foundation, the nonprofit that provides financial and programmatic support for the Birmingham City Schools in the areas of student achievement, parental involvement, school leadership and community engagement.
Tempted I am, but stopping now would amount to a disservice to both the reader and to the need to highlight two critical components of efforts to improve the Birmingham City Schools, the nonprofit and corporate entities that step up to stand in the funding and resource gap for the long-beleaguered system. As happened a few weeks back with the “Transportation” installment of Weld’s series on poverty in Birmingham, I find that my limitations as a writer precluded me from squeezing everything I wanted even into the generous space allotted for the latest installment, which looks at education.
Onward, then, beginning with another comment from Hollis. Discussing the Education Foundation’s focus on the “career academies” in place at six of the city’s seven high schools — designed to help students learn about and begin exploring potential careers, each academy offers specialized instruction in a particular field (the areas of concentration are urban education, architecture, construction design, engineering, health sciences, business and finance, and hospitality and tourism — Hollis becomes animated when talking about the idea of opening the world up to students whose potential otherwise might remain untapped.
“Success begins to happen when you get kids to start thinking in terms of their potential,” Hollis says. “We’re showing them the scope of possibilities that can be open to them, and I’ve had students tell me that they had no idea that some of those possibilities even existed. You see them becoming able to visualize their future selves more concretely and developing, maybe for the first time, a sense that this is their world, too.”
The career academies are the kind of innovative program that really can play a major role in turning around the Birmingham school system. Beyond the benefits to the students who participate, they are on track to become a vital means of addressing workforce development needs in Birmingham and throughout the surrounding region — and, not incidentally, another arrow in the quiver for alleviating poverty. All of those are reasons behind the involvement of Birmingham’s largest bank holding company in the Academy of Business and Finance at Woodlawn High School.
“We believe that when the community succeeds, we succeed,” says Carol Clarke, a vice president of Regions Bank who manages the Regions Financial Education Institute. “Investing in career readiness and financial education are key initiatives for us. Purely from a corporate perspective, it makes sense in terms of talent acquisition and customer development, but our interest goes far beyond that. Giving a child a sense of what they want to do for a career gets them more engaged in the educational process in general. It helps instill the idea that, ‘I’m not just here in school, biding my time, I’m working on my future.’ I don’t think you can overstate the value of that.”
Regions’ support of the business and finance academy also ties neatly into the ongoing revitalization of Woodlawn. That’s part of what Clarke calls “a holistic approach” that includes business, commercial and residential development and the long-term “overhaul” of the school feeder pattern to attract students from Crestwood and other areas zoned for Woodlawn whose residents now tend to opt for private schools.
In the three years of Weld’s existence (parenthetically, next week’s edition of our newspaper will mark the three-year anniversary of our first issue), I have written often in this space of the importance of civic engagement in general, and of the particular need for people and organizations willing to take on the “heavy lifting” of citizenship. If we are going to see Birmingham ascend to the heights so many want to see it reach, we have some formidable problems to solve — those related to and stemming from poverty foremost among them.
If we are going to solve those problems, we are going to have to be relentless in our attention to them, both in the present and over the long term. There is no shortcut to the kind of transformational change I’m talking about here, and I find it highly encouraging to see more and more people and organizations demonstrating a willingness to roll up their sleeves and get it done.
“This is not easy work,” Victoria Hollis says. “But there are very few things worth doing that are easy. It’s all about small victories that add up to larger ones. It’s about seeing the students in the Birmingham City Schools as individuals, not as some abstract problem that views education in terms of ‘better’ and ‘lesser.’ If we continue to think in those terms, we’re limiting prospects for our students and limiting ourselves as a community.”
To which I can only add, once again: Bam!