Report Card 2020: Education in MGM
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.”
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.
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 consistency and high expectations, that these young men will be successful.”
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.”