This Alabama school got off the failing list. Staying off might be the hard part

By: - March 21, 2023 7:01 am
A teacher, smiling, leans into a table surrounded by students. She holds a water bottle as part of a science experiment.

Pamela Winn, a teacher at Charles A. Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama, uses a science experiment as a method of teaching reading on Wednesday March 1, 2023. Brown Elementary was named a Turnaround School after being on the failing schools list for many years. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

The walls of the principal’s office of Charles A. Brown Elementary are plastered with students’ names and their scores on every assessment. Each assessment tests different school subjects. The assessments often use different standards to evaluate learning.

Principal Janice Drake keeps them close. She needs to know whether a student is falling behind or if an entire unit needs to be retaught.

So Drake constantly checks in with her teachers. And the teachers stay engaged with the work. During a recent interview, a teacher texted Drake a video of a student speaking in class. 

The principal visits classrooms and “blitzes” her students with assessments to make sure they understand every standard. A calendar in her office has key lessons labeled onto every week. If students don’t understand something, she has the teachers do the week over again.

The goal of all of this effort: to stay off the failing schools list. 


As late as 2019, Brown Elementary School, located in Birmingham, was ranked in the bottom 6% of schools in Alabama. But this past year, Gov. Kay Ivey named it a Turnaround School, allowing it to access $15 million shared among 15 schools statewide. 

In some ways, the achievement only marked the beginning of the labors at Brown. Drake needs to innovate. She needs to keep doing what’s working and stop doing what isn’t. She needs to reward her students and teachers for their hard work, and constantly inspire them to succeed. 

Because the failing schools list is still out there.

“It’s easy to get off, but it’s harder to stay off,” she said.

The struggle to move ahead

Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama is seen on Wednesday March 1, 2023. Brown Elementary was named a Turnaround School after being on the failing schools list for many years. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

No matter what their level of achievement, state law — specifically, the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act — requires at least 6% of its schools to be considered failures.

Alabama government has offered assistance to schools that are on the list. But nearly all of them are high-poverty schools that could easily go back on. Over 80% of the students who attend Brown Elementary are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

And staying off the failing school list goes beyond improving scores. It also requires managing staff burnout, a lack of resources and problems that extend beyond the walls of the school.  

In 2004, George Hall Elementary School, a school in Mobile with a high percentage of students in poverty, was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. The state effectively rebuilt the school, hiring new teachers and a new principal as part of a plan to transform five of the lowest-performing schools in the district.  The Center for Teaching Quality worked with the Mobile Area Education Foundation, Mobile County Public Schools, and a consultant to revive the school. The investment bank Goldman Sachs provided money. 

After being reconstituted, George Hall teachers received a $4,000 signing bonus, with the chance to collect a performance bonus of up to $4,000 at the end of each year. For principals and administrative assistants, the bonuses were $12,000 and $9,000, respectively. Professional development was also offered to the teachers.

The five schools also received an achievement specialist, an academic coach, social workers and counselors. Nurses were hired to make mental health plans. There were plans to make class sizes smaller. There were plans to make data warehouses for the school.

By 2009, George Hall had reached nearly 100% in math and reading proficiency. That year, the school received The Education Trust Fund’s Dispelling the Myth award for being one of the highest performing elementary schools in Alabama. 

George Hall’s revival got widespread media attention. The A+ Education Partnership said their scores showed success was possible for all students, regardless of income bracket. The state named George Hall a ​Torchbearer School. The U.S. Department of Education sent a crew to document the work at George Hall, and twice named it a Blue Ribbon school.

But the onset of the Great Recession led to dramatic cuts to school budgets, especially for those in high poverty areas, which took a toll on student achievement. The staff that led the turnaround at George Hall retired or moved on, said Alabama State Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey in a recent interview. And the improved achievement did not resolve the issues of poverty in the community. 

Today, George Hall is not on the state’s failing schools list, and its most recent report card showed 83% academic growth. But its scores have fallen from their previous highs. According to the Alabama State Department of Education, about 13% of George Hall students were proficient in English language arts in the 2021-2022 school year. About 8% were proficient in math.

Mobile County Public Schools spokesperson Rena Havner Philips wrote in an email that comparing George Hall Elementary’s peak and its current scores would be like comparing “apples to oranges.” Philips wrote that testing is more rigorous now, and the school has higher rates of poverty and chronic absenteeism, along with lower staffing, after the turnaround effort ended.

“All of the teachers and staff at George Hall are working harder than ever to serve the needs of our students every single day in a situation that is very different from what it was 20 years ago,” she wrote. “They are doing phenomenal work in spite of all of the challenges they face.  That is evident in the fact that the school experienced 83% growth in 2022 compared to 2021. That growth is to be commended.”

Mackey, who was not state schools superintendent during George Hall’s turnaround, said that “the school district could do what they could do in the four walls of the school and they did amazing work.” But he also said that it showed the struggles schools in poor areas face. School improvement is extremely intensive, and the teachers and principals who do that work eventually leave. 

“The teachers are working so hard for so long, that they eventually have to move on,” he said. “They kind of get burned out.”

Providing struggling schools resources can help improve the school– but only for a limited period of time.

“So, what I used to tell people is what they proved was if you reconstitute a school in a very, very poor place, and you throw unbelievable resources at them, 20% of the time, it will make a difference for a while,” he said. 

Intense work

Principal Janice Sanders Drake assists a group of students with their lessons at Charles A. Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama on Wednesday March 1, 2023. Brown Elementary was named a Turnaround School after being on the failing schools list for many years. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

With the additional funds from the state, Drake is trying to hire additional staff. She wants to hire a social worker and an attendance liaison, and has brought in several teachers. Pamela Winn, a second grade teacher at Brown, came out of retirement last October to teach at the school.

On a recent day at Brown, she had her students perform an experiment where they combined different components into a water bottle with a balloon top. The mix starts a chemical reaction that expands the balloon. 

But it wasn’t a science experiment. It was a reading assignment on comprehending instructions.

The students were transfixed and ran to different tables to see how much each other’s balloons popped up.

The work of Winn and others at the school is intense. Drake asks for 30 minutes a day of work from her students even when they’re on vacation.

In one classroom, Drake got involved in the teaching. One girl was at the front of the room trying to identify the theme of a story. Drake observed for a moment and then took over the classroom. She “popcorned” students, having them repeat what the student said and answer a new question, until the students understood the theme and more.

The principal said later that a teacher has to be clear in their instructions. If not, she said, “you’ll lose them.”

Drake is aware of the dangers of burnout and is trying to prevent it. She had a steak and potatoes party for her teachers to show them how appreciated they are in the work they do. But the work is having an effect.  

According to the Alabama Department of Education, Brown Elementary is well above the proficiency rates for English Language and Arts at around 30% proficiency, with only one of the failing elementary schools getting above 20%. Brown is also well above the percentages for science at around 25%, while elementary schools in the lowest 6% stay between zero and 7%. 

Work remains. In math, Brown Elementary’s scores are on par with the failing schools on the list at 3.01%. The state’s failing schools range between zero and 10%.

Drake said that she’s not sure that “failing” was a fair word to describe the school. Brown was improving, she said, just not fast enough. She said the things they’re doing now have given them a “jump start.”

“Once you get off, you can’t let up,” Drake said.

Turnaround schools 

A teacher sitting at desk and smiling high fives a student standing to her left. A white erase board can be seen behind them.
Telkia Jones, a fifth grade teacher at Charles Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama, high fives a student on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Brown Elementary was named a Turnaround School after being on the failing schools list for many years. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

The Governor’s Turnaround School program provides charting of data, support from the Office of School Improvement Staff, reviews of improvement plans, hiring of new personnel, leadership instructional and calibration meetings, instructional audits and a district transformation academy.

Melissa Shields, assistant superintendent of student learning, said that the governor has promoted “sustainability” as part of the turnaround initiative.

“Our job is not just to create capacity,” she said in a phone interview. “It is to create sustainability.”

Shields said the initiative also brings in the Departments of Mental Health, Early Childhood Education and Human Resources to bring in support from the wider community to the effort.

She said that when she works with schools that are identified as Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools, or bottom 5% identified under the Every Student Succeeds Act, those schools are generally in a three year program. As a result, the schools have conversations about the transition to the funding ending.

Shields said that the follow the data closely to understand when the schools come off and lose, or receive less, support.

“So, how can we have conversations to make sure however they are using that funding can either be continued or sustained in another way that even when we leave,” she said.

Most of these turnaround schools are former failing schools. Like Brown, they are also predominantly high-poverty schools. Most of the failing schools have a poverty rate above the state department average.

Right now, Brown Elementary has a “C” on the state report card– a letter grade that a failing high school has in a neighboring school district. Drake said that while she’s “okay” with their current C, she wants an “A.”

“I have A students and I have A teachers at Brown and I know we can produce an A,” she said. “So, off the list is great but staying off the list is greater and it requires more work.” 

Drake said that the school is probably different from others due to how consistent and data-driven they are: she’s doing data talks with teachers, who talk to parents, who talk to students.

“Not saying other schools aren’t doing that, but we’re doing it on a consistent basis,” she said.

‘We have a voice’

Pamela Winn, a second grade teacher at Charles Brown Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama, poses with her students on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Brown Elementary was named a Turnaround School after being on the failing schools list for many years. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

Brown had been on the failing school list for so long that one person told Drake the label felt “almost automatic.” Some people, she said, had trouble accepting that the failing school label had been dropped from the school.

“It had been so long with the stigma attached to it,” she said.

Parents at Brown Elementary say that the school’s community inclusion is part of the draw for them. They believe that they are welcomed.

“We have a voice in the school,” said JaCynthia Meadows, the mother of a kindergartener and a third grader at Brown.

Her children are zoned for a school on the failing list, but she enrolled her children at Brown when it was labeled a failing school. She wanted a small school for her kids.

She doesn’t believe that the term “failing” was a fair label for the school.

“All of the changing with the administration and just new teachers coming in and out, they had to gain some type of groundedness in order to move up and having a great leader and leadership,” she said. “I think that led to the success of them pulling off what they did.”

She said that since Drake took over Brown, her kids have wanted to do well at the school. Her third grader regularly asks her to take her to Saturday school.

Shields said that the structure of the failing schools list, which is based on the bottom 6%, can be disheartening for schools.

“When a school moved because it was in the bottom 6% and then it moved and they’re so excited about it and then when the failing schools list comes out, they’re still in the bottom 6%,” she said.

Schools can see growth, but they remain on a “failing” list.

Drake has tried to get parents involved and develop a new culture at the school.

“Without parents, teacher buy-in, student buy-in, we couldn’t have gotten off the failing list,” Drake said.

Winn, the second grade teacher, said that being at Brown is hard work, but teaching doesn’t feel like work to her. She was not at Brown when it was a “failing school,” but she taught an “alert” school when that had been the lowest ranking– and her students always had high test scores.

“So to answer your question, sometimes when we label the school, it can give a poor perception of what kids can really do with what’s actually going on, so,” she said. “But labels are necessary, so you just can’t let the label dictate what you do.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9:55 am on Tuesday

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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.