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  • Report Card 2020: Education in MGM

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    Montgomery is equipping students and paving the path for progress with its diverse array of education offerings, plus a brighter-than-before future for its public schools.

    “In any community, providing quality education for all children equals a higher quality of life. It’s a simple fact so accepted that adages from cultures far and wide proclaim its truth, like this Tibetan proverb: A child without education is like a bird without wings.”
    Over the last few years, the flightless birds left behind by our area’s once-failing public schools have dominated most discussions of education in Montgomery.

    Today, there’s more than one reason to have a hopeful outlook on education in our area, and since it’s an issue that will play a powerful role in Montgomery’s path forward, that paints the projections for the entire city a much rosier shade.

    The most obvious bright spot appeared on the horizon last November, with the passage—by a large margin—of a property tax increase, from 10 to 22 mills. Now, more money will flow into the Montgomery Public School system; the tax is expected to bring in an additional $33 million annually starting in 2023. And all funds raised by the increase head directly to MPS. The vote that made it a reality—61.1 percent to 38.9 percent—proves a hefty majority of Montgomery residents have bought into the idea above: that quality education for all is a prerequisite for prosperity.

    The cause was bolstered by robust and consistent support from the local business community. Companies large and small seem to understand the part education plays in workforce development, economic development, and therefore, a higher standard of living. The Chamber helmed the effort to enlist area businesses and helped them voice their collective sentiments. Sheron Rose, Senior Vice President, External Affairs at the Chamber, explained the Chamber’s position. “The Chamber has a history of being engaged in education. It is a vital component of the Chamber’s mission: improving the economic well-being of the business community and enhancing the quality of life of the area through the creation and preservation of jobs,” she said. “Passage of the ad valorem referendum was the injection in the arm that MPS and the Montgomery community needed to continue the move forward. The community’s vote shows their desire to improve public education for the good of all.”

    The vote was a big win for education in the MPS district, but the effects won’t be felt for some time, and the work is not done. “The levy and collection of the additional funding for MPS does not start until October 2023. Most of the collections for 2023 will be sent to the school system in 2024,” Rose said. “In the meantime, efforts to make financial and academic improvements should continue.”

    Lessons Learned
    Montgomery will now invest more in public education than it has in decades. But an essential piece of the puzzle is ensuring that this investment pays the proper dividends. A recent MPS audit revealed some egregious misuses of money but also laid out steps to address these issues, as Rose explained, pointing to the hire of MPS Chief School Finance Officer (CSFO) as a positive development. “I think that the biggest take-away [from the audit results] was that a CSFO with a substantial background in education finance was hired for MPS,” she said. “Arthur Watts, an MPS graduate, brought his extensive finance knowledge back to the system that initially prepared him.” Watts quickly submitted a timely and balanced budget for the system—the first in 10 years—and openly asked that the public hold MPS accountable.

    Building on recent success and promising increased accountability are obviously moves in the right direction, and Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education, who spearheaded the progress during his time overseeing MPS, shared his thoughts on the current state of the system. “Many changes have been made during the past two-and-a-half years, and the current  financial picture shows the impact of these positive changes,” he said. “We are very proud of our record of improved financial accountability, transparency and stability under my administration.” And while they’ve garnered a sizable portion of recent education headlines, Montgomery’s traditional public schools are only one factor in the capital city’s education equation.

    Viva Variety
    We’ve all grown accustomed to picking from multiple options in so many facets of our lives, whether it’s as trivial as pizza toppings or a matter with more gravity, like selecting a doctor. More choices mean we’re more likely to find the right fit for our unique needs, and nowhere is getting specific needs met more critical than in education, as Anthony Brock, Head of School at Valiant Cross Academy, explained. “I am a product of Montgomery Public Schools, and I truly believe we still need to do everything as a city and a county to support them. Properly funding our schools and providing other needed resources should be at the forefront of every local citizen’s mind,” he said. “I also believe that options for students and families allow parents to decide what works best for their child. We believe Valiant Cross Academy is an excellent option for our young men we serve; however, it may not be the best option for everyone.”

    The key point is keeping the focus on students, as Justin Hampton, Director of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives at The Montgomery Education Foundation, explained. “The entire conversation around education begins with every family desiring what’s best for their children. Having a diversity of options allows for the needs of each child to be met in unique ways and in potentially unique learning environments,” he said. “Just like no two children are the same, no two traditional, magnet, private or charter schools are the same either. Montgomery is finally moving toward accommodating the rich diversity of its residents, both new and legacy.”

    Like many cities across the country, Montgomery currently has public and private schools, but within these two categories are even more options. Under the MPS umbrella are several distinct offerings, including the system’s magnet schools and its Career Technical Education Department, which has programs at seven high schools, 10 middle schools and one centralized career tech center. It offers 16 program clusters with 25 pathways.

    According to Todd E. Davis, Career Tech’s Director, the mission of MPS Career Technical Education Department is to “educate students to become industry-credentialed completers in a safe and collaborative environment that empowers them to be college and career ready.” “We create programs that produce highly skilled, educated and employable citizens for the global workforce,” he said.

    Thanks to the partnership between MPS and Montgomery Education Foundation, charter schools are now an ingredient in the public school mix too, with Davis Elementary set to open in the fall of 2021 and subsequent schools opening the following year. Ann Sikes, Executive Director of the Montgomery Education Foundation, outlined the benefits charter schools bring area families, namely access and accountability. “Choice and diversity of options are important to families. However, the equity of that choice and the access to that choice is critical to ensure that all students succeed,” she said. “Charter schools help expand the equity of choice and provide two important components; the ability to innovate and a high level of required accountability.”

    Hampton agreed, putting special emphasis on access. “They [charter schools] offer additional options for all families, but particularly to those who otherwise are relegated to only one option or very few options,” he said. “As a community, we should support our neighborhood schools while simultaneously creating new educational opportunities. Along with the recent successes of MPS, it’s an exciting time for public education in Montgomery.”

    Among the city’s list of private schools that’s more than 25 strong, there is also variety. There are faith-based private schools and independent schools, like Saint James School. Saint James’ Head of School Dr. Larry McLemore called the range of education opportunities now available in Montgomery a “great thing.” “When you think about this area, we have a very diverse mix of people—multiple countries, ethnicities, people who’ve grown up here, folks who’ve been all over and come here—that’s a real strength for our area,” he said. “So, it’s great to have choices that reflect that.”

    McLemore stressed the importance of transparency and understanding when families weigh all the options, noting that while Saint James is never exclusionary, it is designed for a specific type of student. “We strive hard to reflect diversity of our area and also to be clear about our mission, which is to serve students planning to go to college,” he said. “So, if you are not planning to attend college, maybe we are not the fit for you.”

    College prep is the core of Saint James, but its “whole child education” focus includes a commitment to diversity. “We recognize that diversity is such a great well of learning and wisdom, so that is a natural thing for a school to embrace,” he said. “Our students come from about 15 or more countries any given year. Diversity of thought is important here too.”

    Private school options enhance the breadth and depth of choices, and different types of private schools create environments tailored to different priorities for different families. In this regard, independent private schools come with a real plus, according to McLemore: the ability to make local decisions, define their own mission and then execute it with a matching curriculum. “Independent schools offer very mission-driven education, and these schools let families find a niche that speaks to their family and their children.”

    Other private schools in the city also pursue a highly specific mission, like Valiant Cross Academy, an all-boys school, which opened in 2015 and has been growing steadily ever since. It’s educational philosophy is centered on discipline and leadership development. “We are a smaller school with a focus on holistically educating our scholars in an intentional culture of structure and discipline,” Brock said. “Our vision is to push against the notion of an achievement gap amongst minorities, but rather an opportunity gap. We believe with consistency and high-expectations, that these young men will be successful.”

    Teaching Tomorrow’s Workforce Today
    Anita Archie, Interim President at Trenholm State Community College, agreed that plentiful educational opportunities and options yield better results, and that’s not just true in K-12; it’s critical in higher education too. “You get to pick what is right for you. Should I attend a college or university? Should I pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree, or should I pursue a certification program or a career/tech program?” she said. “We are not just talking about the traditional students (coming out of high school) but the nontraditional students, which include adult learners, individuals with dependents, students attending classes part-time or financially independent students. It is a plus to any area when students have options.”

    And the benefits bleed beyond schoolhouse and campus borders when education fulfills one of its most basic functions: getting students ready to work. Archie explained, “We can start with the basic premise that education is workforce. At Trenholm, our mission is to provide comprehensive and accessible educational opportunities, including academic transfer and technical programs designed to promote economic development, enhance workforce development and improve the quality of life for the community,” she said. “We work very closely with business and industry in our service area: healthcare, emerging technologies, business administration, culinary and advanced manufacturing.”

    In the IT sector, the education-workforce link is strong and gaining even more momentum, thanks to the Chamber’s TechMGM initiative, which forms partnerships with K-12, higher education, industry and government agencies to continue building a highly skilled and competitive workforce. “We help to facilitate educational programs like BEST Robotics, CyberPatriot, Raspberry JAM and Esports to name a few,” said TechMGM Executive Director Charisse Stokes. “All of these programs better develop our workforce and engage students and IT professionals in the learning process. In addition, we work closely with the leading employers of IT professionals to ensure we have programs within K-12 and higher education that will make our students employable and help them to earn jobs locally within the field.”

    MPS’ Career Technical Education is a direct pipeline to jobs. By providing students with structured training and targeted tools necessary to enter distinct career fields, they prepare students for the many high-wage, highly skilled jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree. “Each student is encouraged to explore various areas of study and to develop the essential skills to feel competent in entering today’s competitive job market,” said Todd E. Davis, Career Tech’s Director. “Students begin to acquire specific job training skills as they continue to take courses that meet their interests and abilities. A rich offering of courses leads students to employment, further education or further training.” CTE also allows students to take concurrent courses so they earn college credit while in high school, and its stats prove it is a roadmap to success for many students, according to Davis. “Students who take two or more CTE courses are less likely to drop out of high school,” he said.

    Mackey also lauded CTE programs, spotlighting how they’re helping 173,165 students (grades 9-12) across the state. “Our CTE program in Alabama is strong and continues to evolve through public and private partnerships,” he said. “Over the past five years, we have seen a 120-percent growth in credentials earned, with 81.9 percent of students in Alabama currently enrolled in at least one CTE class.” Statewide, there 68 CTE centers in seven regional workforce councils with programs driven by local workforce demands and a concentration on high-wage, high demand industries in 16 career clusters.

    Rose listed a few of the many organizations and programs that work in tandem with area schools to augment workforce efforts. “We have AIDT (Alabama Industrial Development Training) that provides skills training to prepare workers for high demand jobs, the Regional Workforce Development Training Center that retrains misplaced workers,” she said. “There’s also Central AlabamaWorks Region 5 that’s a liaison for education systems and industry sectors and works to identify the training needs of industry and then works with educational systems to identify and expose students to relevant careers.”

    This exposure and helping students understand what’s available is a crucial component of education too, as Archie stressed. “Part of our job as educators is to also educate folks on the opportunities, that’s why we love our career discovery program,” she said. It brings 2,000 eighth graders to Trenholm’s campus over two days to learn about various careers. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Archie said. “The students who participate learn so much, things like the fact that the average starting wage here in manufacturing is 56k a year.”

    Archie touted how Trenholm is accomplishing its mission, but she also praised the entire education landscape in Montgomery and as well as the collaboration that’s propelling it to new heights. “The great thing about our area, we are all working together for the same goal. ASU, MPS, private schools, Pike Road, AUM, all of us, we have great relationships with each other, and we’re all trying to better quality of life here using education.”

    A New Way Forward: MPS Accountability
    In 2019, when MPS CSFO Arthur Watts and MPS Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore discovered financial discrepancies in the system, Watts requested an audit that confirmed his findings. Watts then implemented multiple actions to correct what was uncovered, including:
    The central office budget was reduced by $2 million. The state recommends not expending more than 5 percent of the operation budget at the central office level. Watts reduced MPS central office expenditures to 3 percent.

    To combat inefficiencies, personnel were reduced, offices were consolidated, and a school was closed.

    Watts contacted the District Attorney and Attorney General to pursue criminal charges against the employees responsible for misuse of funds.

    New systems were established for collecting and tracking all monies coming into and leaving MPS programs.

    MGM EDUCATION MIX
    Capital city Pre-K through post-secondary education options at a glance:
    • Pre-K
      • Nationally recognized pre-K programs
    • MPS PROGRAMS:
      • Traditional schools
      • Magnet schools
      • CTE programs
      • ROTC programs
      • Dual Enrollment programs in partnership with the postsecondary system
      • GEAR UP Alabama (a federally funded program that equips students to attend and succeed in college)
    • CHARTER SCHOOLS:
      • Two “start-up” charter schools, LEAD Academy and LIFE Academy
      • Three “conversion” charter schools (two elementary and one junior high), slated to open in fall 2021 and 2022
    • OTHER OPTIONS:
      • Private schools
      • Home schooling
      • Parochial schools
      • DoD (Department of Defense) schools for military families on base
    Q: Why are private schools an important part of the educational option mix in the River Region?
    While it is very important for all of us in Montgomery to support our public schools, I think that independent schools play an important role in our community by offering a variety of missionspecific educational offerings in the community. With independent schools, parents have the choice to engage in a small community of administrators and educators who have the flexibility to provide a curriculum that is best suited to the mission of that school community. At The Montgomery Academy, we are committed to providing a strong college-preparatory curriculum that will help us, as our mission states, to develop ‘leaders committed to honor, scholarship, service and the pursuit of excellence.’” - John McWilliams, Head of School, The Montgomery Academy

    Top Marks: Alabama’s Pre-K
    Alabama’s Pre-K program has earned high ratings and stands out as one of the top programs of its kind in the country. It was created to address a longtime issue. “One of our biggest challenges in K-12, is getting students on grade-level for math and reading,” Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education, said. “When students get to kindergarten, many are already behind their peers in other states.” With a high-quality Pre-K program, educators can solve this problem before it starts, according to Mackey. “Once they get to school, they do progress, but focusing on school readiness in Pre-K will change the dynamics.”

    Pre-K programs also make it easier to identify other issues earlier, which often leads to improved outcomes. “From birth to five years old, a child is learning,” Mackey said. “If we are able to recognize learning disabilities at an earlier age, then we can make adaptations and provide resources earlier.”

    POWERFUL PARTNERS: Montgomery & Maxwell-Gunter AFB Join Forces for Educational Excellence
    By Trent Edwards

    In 2018, the Air University Commander and President established an installation-wide Working Group to identify, recommend and implement solutions to address public education. The resulting Maxwell- River Region Partnership for Educational Excellence sought to improve the quality of public education for all children in the River Region. The goal of the Maxwell-River Region Partnership for Educational Excellence is twofold: First, to identify and implement near-term ways to provide military-affiliated families with more high quality public education options for their children. Second, to serve as a catalyst and facilitator for sustainable public education approaches that benefit the entire River Region. Representatives from across Maxwell-Gunter AFB came together with local schools, nonprofit organizations, community leaders and other stakeholders to work collaboratively on the issue.

    The Maxwell-River Region Partnership for Educational Excellence focused on the 3,000-plus children of active duty parents. It helped thousands more children whose parents serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and Alabama Air National Guard. It attracted attendees from dozens of school districts surrounding the state’s other installations. This was possible thanks to the support of local universities, non-profits and elected officials. The group has also benefited from the assistance of national organizations and the advice of peers at comparable installations.

    Local universities have been indispensable partners in the Partnership, providing expertise from their colleges of education and hosting events. In April 2019, Troy University hosted a set of K-12 Educational Workshops to address the most promising ideas identified in January: maximizing Federal Impact Aid, improving stakeholder communication, adjusting timelines and processes, aligning military support to school districts’ needs and out of district enrollment for military-connected students. More than 65 district-level staff, faculty from local colleges of education and outside experts came together to recommend concrete actions that would improve public education in the River Region.

    In September 2019, Alabama State University hosted a K-12 Education Symposium focused on the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children. More than 240 participants from across the state were in attendance. After an overview, participants selected from two tracks: The first provided scenario-based training to school counselors and military spouses. The second was a panel that addressed how to use the Interstate Compact to build partnerships between educational and military leaders. Panelists were State Commissioners and District Superintendents from Arkansas, Missouri and Rhode Island. The Alabama State Superintendent of Education served as moderator, and the Lieutenant Governor closed the event by describing Alabama’s plans to improve military families’ quality of life.

    In November 2019, Auburn University at Montgomery hosted a K-12 Educational Resource Fair. This event brought educational and grantmaking organizations to the River Region, so local schools could draw on them to expand their offerings moving forward. Despite inclement weather, teachers from across the region flocked to the event to avail themselves of resources not always available in Central Alabama and never brought together in a single location before.

    In addition, the Maxwell-River Region Partnership for Educational Excellence has collaborated with several non-profits. Most prominent among them is the Military Child Education Coalition, which sponsored eight River Region representatives to attend the National Training Seminar in July 2019. This experience provided valuable new insights. Further, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools traveled to the River Region twice, at their own expense, to train schools on how to apply for Federal Impact Aid, and the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission has been indispensable to our training efforts. Finally, the National Math and Science Initiative has been active in the River Region.

    In 2019, Air University hosted school superintendents, civilian university leaders, and community organizations for a Public K-12 Education Summit to create dialogue and foster a collaborative approach to enhancing educational opportunities for military-connected children. The event was attended by the State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Eric Mackey and more than 80 other participants. The Summit identified five focus areas: improve stakeholder communication and connections; adjust timelines and processes; align community military support with district needs; maximize districts’ Federal Impact Aid; and establish flexible out-of-district enrollment policies for military-connected children.

    In this new year and beyond, the Partnership’s work continues, and the Chamber is proud to work alongside our military leaders to keep learning and keep improving education for all River Region students.

    MAKING THE GRADE: Overcoming COVID-19 Challenges
    Across Alabama and here in Montgomery, administrators, principals and teachers put in long hours and lots of mental energy to ensure that school would go on in the face of a frightening pandemic. Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama’s State Superintendent of Education, applauded their efforts. “As I have said many times, there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction with a high-quality teacher,” he said. “This circumstance has been and continues to be challenging with bumps and detours, but our administrators, teachers and students have responded well across the state.”

    They followed The Roadmap to Reopening Schools, which was released in early summer and gave schools and educators a framework to develop and implement local plans for the school year that fit their community’s needs. “Some school systems provided an option for students to return to a traditional classroom setting (with modifications) or to learn remotely through virtual instruction, while others started as virtual only and transitioned in the fall to in-person instruction,” Mackey said.

    Virtual learning was essential, and using CARES Act Funding, the Alabama State Department of Education bought a statewide digital curriculum and made it available to all school systems. “Additionally, funding was provided for professional development for teachers; devices for students and teachers; and broadband connectivity utilizing innovative solutions such as installing Wi-Fi devices on buses and the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students initiative,” Mackey said.

    TechMGM Executive Director Charisse Stokes elaborated on the Wi-Fi school buses plan, which was enacted after it came to light last spring that several hundred MPS students didn’t have internet access in their homes. “We worked closely with the City IT department, MPS logistics, IT and administration and also Alabama Power Company to create a solution,” she said. The fix involved outfitting MPS school buses with “cradlepoint” devices used by the City in public safety vehicles. These devices provide internet access in the buses and to areas in close proximity to them. “We worked with MPS logistics to install these units in their school buses, and then created a schedule based on data received from parents on network access,” Stokes said. “This temporary solution provided network access to hundreds of students throughout the week on a rotating schedule in multiple locations. Students could then access their assignments, coursework and resources to complete their schoolwork.”

    SUCCESS STATS:

    MGM Education Achievement by the Numbers
    Approximately 2,310 teachers are educating area students, helping produce 24 National Merit finalists and scholars (2020-2021 academic year), with countless other high-achieving students earning $98,454,072 in scholarship monies (2020-2021 academic year). In the last year, Montgomery students were awarded almost $100 million in scholarships.
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