This story begins last spring at Birmingham’s McElwain Elementary School. Devlin Fritz was wrapping up his sixth-grade year at McElwain’s temporary magnet program. He was looking forward to the next few years at Phillips, which was undergoing renovations. But his mother was looking for more.
“My mom wants a safe school and a good school that teaches good academics.”
For Devlin, that School is not in Birmingham, but in Hoover, at Bumpus Middle. Devlin wasn’t happy about the transition.
“I would like to go to Phillips because I know people there, but I guess I”ll just have to start all over again like I did in kindergarten.”
Phillips is a former high school that reopened this year as a K through 8. It has a new name: Phillips Academy, where the middle school will be a magnet school — students are admitted based on grades and recommendation letters. That brings the total number of magnet programs in Birmingham to five, up from four last year. The city system has been grappling for decades with how to keep students from leaving. In the last five years enrollment for the district has decreased from 36,000 to about 29,000. Officials have looked to magnet schools as one way to reverse the trend.
“For so long, the focus of the system had been on students, but the gifted student had been one segment that had been largely overlooked.”
That’s Otis Dismuke, who works for the system as facilitator for the parent involvement program.
“That’s who we hear from most are parents who have kids in the schools who would like to keep them here, and who are gifted, and express the fact that there are not that many options for them, and that really we concentrate more on the marginal and below average students, those students who are keeping up trouble.”
Amos Cruz’s sixth-grade son was inducted last May into the National Junior Honor Society. He’ll attend Phillips where, Cruz hopes, he won’t follow in his brothers’ footsteps.
“My older children went through regular middle school and to be honest with you, we lost them to the streets. Because they had no encouragement. And children are in the school 8 to 10 hours a day, and they’re pressured by gangs. They’re pressured by other peer pressure, and it’s a matter of survival instead of learning. And that’s the problem with our city schools now, our children are just there to survive 8 hours a day.”
At the same time that overall enrollment declines, Birmingham’s magnet schools turn away hundreds of students every year for lack of space. Still, some argue that magnet programs are no magic bullet. Quite the opposite: they create a disparity within the system.
“With only a handful of magnet schools, you’re sort of drawing off the kids who cause the least problems, bringing them into the magnet schools and leaving the regular public schools with even more problems.”
Jonathan Kozol taught inner city Boston, and most recently wrote The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America
“In a sense it’s a triage solution, very much like medical triage, where the children of the most savvy parents can all cluster. It becomes a little island of relative privilege in what is otherwise a disaster zone.”
Superintendent Stan Mims says students aren’t leaving because of weak curriculums or poor teaching.
“That has nothign to do with the loss of enrollment.”
He says the city’s unstable housing is to blame.
“When you hear people like Bruno’s closing down, they’re talking about people are moving from the housing in their areas. It has nothing to do with teacher quality.”
Plenty of people agree that Birmingham’s dire housing situation has a negative impact on schools. But many others say it isn’t that simple – that school quality plays plays a major role in whether people decide to stay or go. To that end, one partnership the school district has forged with the University of Alabama at Birmingham focuses on improving just that. UAB in 2005 launched the TRUST initiative in 14 city schools. The program is guided by the National Urban Alliance, and it trains teachers how to best teach inner city children. Eric Cooper is president and founder of the National Urban Alliance. He says the program can ultimately level the playing field for Birmingham students.
“If you have kids who are dependent on the school for learning because of their challenges in their families, then the teacher has to take responsibility. When that teacher is high skilled, highly qualified and highly effective, with the right kind of interventions, those kids can achieve as much as those kids in families who have all the resources in the world for them to succeed.”
This summer, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham unveiled plans to create a coalition of community and business leaders to work towards reversing the system’s struggles. “Yes We Can, Birmingham” is modeled after a similar program that showed success in Mobile, the state’s largest school district. It addresses everything from volunteerism in schools to greater financial accountability.
In Mobile, 83 out of 100 schools in the 2005 school year made Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal government’s standard for improvement. That’s up from just 27 four years prior. And last year, more than 1,500 businesses volunteered or gave money to schools, contributions estimated at $2.1 million. At a recent meeting announcing the program’s launch in Birmingham, officials were optimistic that the same progress can be made here.
But whether any initiative can restore confidence in the school system will depend on a more elusive benchmark: image. School board member Phyllis Wyne.
“It has a lot to do with it because people believe what they perceive and we haven’t done a good job of making the perception better. There are some people who will never change their perception of us.”
Several public housing projects recently completed renovations. The school district and the city housing authority expect those displaced families to return to Birmingham schools. But UAB School of Education Dean Michael Froning says that as long as better housing opportunities exist outside the city limits, school officials will continue to struggle.
“The immediate outer ring around the city is developing tremendous housing opportunities. At the inner city, inner core of the cities are not developing those same opportunities. And so parents, are like anybody else, they want to live in a nice house, and if those nice houses are being built within an area that they can go and live and still keep their jobs, not have to move across the country to get a good home then they’ll do that. And they take their kids with them.”