The Alabama State Board of Education approves minutes during its regular meeting on February 9, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
Jefferson County Superintendent Walter B. Gonsoulin, Jr. often gets asked when a “C” became a failing grade.
Pleasant Grove High School, in the Birmingham suburb of Pleasant Grove, has a “C” grade from the Alabama State Department of Education. But it’s also on the failing schools list.
In 2013, Alabama passed the Accountability Act, a law which required the bottom 6% of the state’s public schools to be classified as “failing schools.” Families who attend these schools are permitted to transfer their students to schools that they are not zoned for under the act. Under that law, the school is failing.
But on state report cards created under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), designed to identify schools needing comprehensive support, it’s passing.
And Gonsoulin has explain to parents how a school can appear passing while simultaneously “failing.”
“It can be confusing, it can be very confusing,” Gonsoulin said.
Jefferson County currently has five high schools on the failing schools list. There are 79 schools in total on the list of “failing schools.” All but four of these schools have poverty rates above state averages.
Under the Accountability Act, many schools bear the title of a “failing school” year after year. As reported by Trish Crain of Al.com, four schools have been on the list every year since it was first published: Bellingrath Middle School in Montgomery, Capitol Heights Middle School in Montgomery, Bullock County High School in Bullock County and Hayes K-8 in Birmingham.
In the hopes of raising low national test scores, Alabama has passed laws over the last decade aimed at improving school performance, from the Accountability Act to the 2019 Literacy Act to the 2022 Numeracy Act. But the laws do not pull from the same definition of a struggling school and do not provide the same avenues of support.
The Accountability Act allowed parents of children in the bottom 6% of schools to claim tax credits that could be used for transfers to other public or private schools, but did not direct additional resources to the schools themselves. By contrast, the Literacy and Numeracy acts provide resources to struggling schools. The lowest 5% of elementary schools in reading scores receive a dedicated regional literacy specialist under the Literacy Act.
Gonsoulin said the laws mean well but can add new burdens to school districts. For example, under the 2021 TEAMS Act, aimed at recruiting more math and science teachers in Alabama, the state provides funding to raise salaries for STEM teachers. But the district has to pay to pay to increase their supervisors’ salaries, which can create a financial strain.
“So I think that the intentions are well, but what we have to be concerned about is actually how does it impact the individual school district and the teachers and the students,” he said. “Because anytime you put a bill like that in place, or an act like that in place, then that means that there are other requirements that need to happen.”
Mark Dixon, president of A+ Education Partnership, an education policy and advocacy organization, said there are efforts to better coordinate many of the services.
“I think there are a lot of efforts underway right now to better coordinate the services that are being provided to the schools that need it most, and that’s what they deserve,” Dixon said.
The Accountability Act guarantees that 6% of the state’s schools will always be listed as failing, based on performance on state reading and math tests. That bothers Gonsoulin.
“You could have some schools that have made a lot of progress, and you always will have a bottom 6%,” he said.
Michael Sibley, communications director with the Alabama State Department of Education, said that “failing” is not a term used by the department, despite being described that way under the law. On official ALSDE forms, these schools are referred to as the “lowest 6%” based on state assessments.
The Accountability Act has similarities to the “Great Schools Tax Credit Program,” a model piece of legislation created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization. But the model bill did not include language about “failing schools” or create a permanent class of them.
Former Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the author of the Accountability Act, did not return messages seeking comment. Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the House Education Policy Committee, said that she believed that the “6%” came from the desire to choose a number for the Accountability Act, but she was not a sponsor of the bill. Collins has since signed onto efforts to reform schools in Alabama and sponsored the Literacy Act.
“I think it was just picking some number that we would concentrate on and try to improve,” she said.
Sibley said that one way of looking at the use of percentages this way is that the schools most in need receive targeted support. He said that he hopes the schools that end up on these lists for school improvement will soon have overwhelming proficiency.
He joked that it would be great if, in a few years, they need to deal with “pesky schools” stuck with 80% proficiency.
Dixon said that he believed that percentages work well for the Numeracy and Literacy Act because they better assist students in those subject areas. He said that there are different ways a school’s report card could be adjusted to better reflect where a school stands.
“It’s a good foundation, but it’s probably time to look at that again,” he said.
One up, one down
To get off the failing schools list, a school has to improve faster than other schools. And if one school gets off, another falls to the bottom.
Erwin Middle School and Minor Middle School are two Jefferson County schools that have exited the Comprehensive School Improvement list. Gonsoulin said that they worked with the State Department to create improvement plans for the school. For Erwin, they installed an attendance counselor to improve the school’s low attendance.
Center Point High School in Jefferson County has been on the failing schools list more than once. The district has changed the leadership and added an early college academy to improve the school.
A school identified as a “failing school” without any being on any other list will have a dedicated administrator to support them, said Melissa Shields, assistant state superintendent of student learning. Those administrators are able to reach out to the Office of School Improvement for specific requests.
Shields said that while it’s difficult for schools to exit the list, it’s not impossible. She pointed to Gov. Kay Ivey’s list of turnaround schools, which receive additional resources. Of those schools, all but two are former “failing schools.”
“We never give up on a school,” she said.
Bonnie Short, director of the Alabama Reading Initiative at the Alabama State Department of Education, said the Alabama Literacy Act tries to get help directly to the schools. Schools receiving support under the Alabama Literacy Act are those that fall under the bottom 5% of schools for literacy proficiency.
Support for these schools is individual and based on the needs for the schools. All schools identified by the Office of School Improvement have a dedicated administrator. Schools identified under the Literacy Act receive coaching.
“’It’s differentiated support and it’s individualized to what’s going on in each individual school. And it’s so much more than academic,” Sibley said. “There’s an academic base to it, but it’s everything: It’s the culture and climate and its attendance.”
The Alabama State Department of Education did not respond when asked what supports are available for high-poverty schools.
Gonsoulin says they have a path forward for Center Point High School to exit the failing list, but it will likely take many years. Improving Center Point means working with the middle schools that send students there, and the elementary schools where those students begin.
In contrast, schools that fall below the standards for four consecutive years in math scores under the Numeracy Act are no longer able to continue as they had. Local school boards have three options in that scenario: entirely reconstitute the school with new personnel; be taken over by an external entity, such as a university or charter; or become a charter school.
Collins pointed to that part of the bill when asked whether schools should be considered “failed” at a certain point.
“If a school is not making improvement with student achievement, there’s a problem and it needs to be addressed,” she said. “That’s the only way we’re going to have all students be successful.”
In other words, some underperforming schools will continue as they have been indefinitely. Others might be remade into something new. Identified failing schools, which may languish indefinitely, need to do more than just steadily raise their test scores.
‘No one wants to be part of something that’s bad’
Recently, state education leaders have asked at what point a school needs to be labeled as “failed” versus “failing.” Rep. Artis McCampbell, D-Linden, has prefiled a bill that would change the designation of “failing school” to a “fully supported school” and another bill that could change the designation to “lowest sixth percent school.” McCampbell did not return a message seeking comment.
Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, used to teach in Montgomery’s Robert E. Lee High School, one of the struggling schools. In addition, he does work with the high school students in Montgomery’s traditional high schools, all of which fall to the bottom 6% of the list, through trips to Washington, D.C. and New York and college preparedness.
Ensler said that the students he works with are not constantly aware of the label of their schools, but feel the general stigma.
“It’s hard,” said Ensler. “For young people I know, to them, it’s ‘Okay, my school may be failing and, then, looking around what may be happening in the neighborhood and thinking about are there job opportunities, is there economic development.’ It’s like the whole system, or whole society, is failing them.”
Gonsoulin said that the designation of “failing school” impacts students and teachers.
“Whenever you are part of that school, then that label can weigh negatively on your emotional state,” he said. “No one wants to be a part of something that’s bad.”
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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Phillip Ensler.
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