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State stakes hopes on pre-K

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama students trail their peers in most other states as well as children in other developed countries. In 2018, Edweek graded Alabama’s K-12 achievement at a 66.1 with a solid D letter grade. Alabama has actually shown some improvement versus our peers in other states in the latest rankings, but the state still grades solidly in the bottom ten for performance. Louisiana is last with a 60.9 and a D-.

While the state is looking at a variety of strategies to improve education performance; one strategy that is being heavily invested in is improving the performance of children before they get into traditional five year old kindergarten.

The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education is overseeing an ambitious program of expanding voluntary pre-K access to more children in the state.

Tuesday Secretary Jeanna Ross was presenting details of her department to the Alabama House Ways and Means Education Committee.

Ross said that it is important to coordinate all of children’s programs from birth to age 19.

Ross said that the state’s pre-K is a comprehensive cohesive program for families.

“We know it works because we have done research,” Ross said. “We have a very strenuous evaluation of every program. We meet monthly with the research and evaluation team.”

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Ross said that allows them to turn quickly before people see any negative affects from anything that they try that does not perform as hoped.

“We want to run a very tight ship,” Ross said. “The early years of life matter.”

“Nobel Prize Winner Professor James Heckman’s work with a consortium of economists, psychologists, statisticians and neuroscientists shows that early childhood development directly influences economic, health and social outcomes for individuals and society,” Ross said.

Ross presented a slide showing that 25 percent of the brain is developed at birth, 70 percent at one year of age, 85 percent at 3 years, 92 percent at 5 years, 95 percent at 7 years and 98 percent at age 10.

Ross said that the goal of DECE is to make sure that those children are given the right quality of experiences.

Ross said that half or more of the children that arrived in First Class pre-K are below developmental expectations for four year olds; nearly all were meeting or exceeding developmental expectations by the end of that year.

“When we get them they typically are not where we want them to be,” Ross said.

Ross said that within the pre-K classroom, 8 to 10 percent are children with special needs, and even those children show improvement during the year.

“I was a former pre-K teacher,” Ross said. “We see the same thing across the state because these classrooms are a model.”

Ross said that other states including: Montana, Nevada and Mississippi are meeting with DECE to model their programs after.

The State appropriations in the 2018-2019 school year was $95,962,000. That is up from 2017-2018’s $77,462,000. DECE is funded primarily out of the Education Trust Fund budget.

The increase in funds allowed them to fund 1045 voluntary pre-K classrooms, which is up from, 941 last year and 811 classrooms two years ago.

The number of students in the 2018-2019 school year is 18,756, which is up from 15,996 last year, and 14,934 students two years ago.

Thirty-two percent of Alabama four year olds are now enrolled in pre-K, which is up from 28 percent last year and 25 percent two years ago.

“There are currently 5,462 students on the waiting list for this current 2018-2019 school year,” Ross told the legislators.

DECE opened up registration for the next school year on Jan. 1, and as of Feb. 11, 13,172 children have pre-registered for the 2019-2020 school year.

Ross said that the cost per child is $7,600.

“We gave 18 percent more money, and we only got 4 percent more participation,” said State Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook. “When we gave the money I thought we would be up to 40 percent participation by now.”

Ross said that there are upfront costs to starting new classrooms.

“There is a lot of equipment and material that has to be purchased and there was also the teacher pay raise we had to fund,” Ross said.

“We should not accept that we have failing elementary schools in the state,” said Chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa. “We should bring your department into that and target those elementary schools.

Ross said that they have 129 teachers going through a two-year very strenuous program.

“This matters to our state,” Ross said. “If you want to do something about our prisons and our economy you have to invest early.”

DECE Legislative Liaison Ada Katherine Van Wyhe told the Alabama Political Reporter that the goal is to eventually get 70 percent participation in the Pre-K program.

Van Wyhe said that the amount of time that takes depends on how much money the Legislature gives them. Ross said that DECE is now doing home visits for newborns and that that program has now expanded to all 67 counties.

APR asked if the state was going to start mandatory inspections of all homes with newborns.

Van Wyhe said the home visits program is all voluntary and that parents can pre-enroll their children into the program before birth. DECE draws down Medicaid dollars to pay for the program.

APR asked what the DECE budget request for fiscal year 2020 will be.

Van Wyhe said that would be announced by Gov. Kay Ivey in the State of the State address.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it

Josh Moon

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Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures. 

The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month. 

State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan. 

In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”

The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)

In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000. 

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In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.  

To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months. 

The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots. 

It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned. 

But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half. 

Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse. 

To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction. 

In every school in Alabama. For two full school years. 

“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”

The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state. 

The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents. 

The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas. 

There is no better plan.

 

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State releases plans for expected school reopenings in the fall

Micah Danney

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Schools are expected to reopen at the start of the school year but rules will vary by district and by school, with guidelines and recommendations from the Alabama State Department of Education instead of a mandated statewide plan.

Remote learning will be key, said State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey on Friday. Many parents around the state want it, especially for children with medical conditions, he said.

The Department of Education plans to build out a statewide remote learning system that includes WiFi hotspots and a learning management system that makes lessons, tests and teacher correspondence accessible on smartphones.

As many as 80 percent of parents polled in some counties said they want to keep their kids at home when school starts, Mackey said, so fully remote learning will be an option for those who want it.

There is no deadline for districts to report their individual plans to the state.

Contact-tracing will be an important tool to prevent outbreaks and keep students and staff safe, said State Health Officer Scott Harris. Measures taken seasonally to prevent the spread of flu will become routine procedure, with stricter cleaning regimens and quick response to possible symptoms of illness.

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The most important screening begins at home, the officials said. Parents will need to check temperatures and watch for early symptoms.

Mackey said that some things will need to change more than others. Athletic competitions can go on with social distancing measures in place, like spacing out students on the sidelines and spectators in the bleachers. 

Activities like choir practice will need to adjust more creatively due to the higher risk of contagion that comes with packing students together to sing for long periods of time.

Small groups will be preferable to large gatherings. Outdoor activities are better than indoors. Shorter events are safer than longer ones. Congestion in hallways and at choke points like school entrances should be mitigated. Such will be the guidelines and recommendations that individual facilities will consider.

Harris said he was confident that the department’s approach is a good one, but said that decisions are being made according to present circumstances. Cases are increasing daily, he said. He stressed that the public’s behavior moving forward is critical.

“The decisions we make every day will determine how this turns out,” Harris said.

The Alabama Education Association issued a statement that approved of the state’s deference to local decision-making.

“With AEA’s strong presence in every school district in the state, AEA will be there when those plans are drafted and make sure student and educator voices are heard in the process,” said AEA President Sherry Tucker. “The health, safety, and success of students and educators are top priorities for AEA. We welcome parents and other community leaders to join with us as we move forward.”

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AlabamaWorks Governor’s Survey deadline extended one week

Staff

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AlabamaWorks and the Alabama Workforce Council announced on Thursday the deadline for responses to the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies — a new tool to survey business owners in different sectors and regions and identify current, in-demand occupations and the credentials of value aligned to those occupations — has been extended one week and will now close on Friday, July 3.

“This survey is vitally important as we continue in our ‘Strong Start, Strong Finish’ education and workforce initiative,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “We remain committed to our post-secondary attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled employees to the workforce by 2025, and this survey will help us clearly identify the in-demand careers and associated skills that will help us develop the necessary competency models needed to reach that goal and provide quality opportunities for Alabama’s citizens.”

The majority of jobs lack specification regarding the necessary skills required to perform the job and, as a result, the bachelor’s degree has become the default certification for most jobs that require a postsecondary education. Identifying the skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes needed to succeed at in-demand jobs will prepare Alabama’s workforce for the future. 

The Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies will be conducted annually to assist the 16 Technical Advisory Committees of the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways with their work of linking credentials of value to one or more specific competencies and then sequencing competencies to build the DNA for a career.

“The AWC has consistently engaged in and supported efforts regarding credentialing,” noted AWC Chairman Tim McCartney. “The future of workforce in Alabama will be highly impacted by these efforts to establish clear career pathways that are built upon the skills and knowledge shown to be in the most need and provide the highest value for employees and employers across the state.”

 

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Jacksonville State considers renaming Bibb Graves Hall

Eddie Burkhalter

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As municipalities and schools across the South grapple with monuments devoted to the Confederacy post-George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer, Jacksonville State University looks toward its own Bibb Graves Hall, named for the former governor and Klu Klux Klan member. 

Matthew Reeves, a 2020  graduate of JSU, started an online petition Saturday calling on the university to rename the building, built in 1930, and which houses the school’s administrative offices. 

Reeves told APR on Wednesday that after talking with a friend at the University of North Alabama about that school’s own Bibb Graves Hall, he decided to do something himself to enact change locally. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, 3,072 people had signed his petition, including one person who in a comment on the petition welcomed the change. 

“From a  person of color considering this college in the future, it would make me feel more included,” the person wrote. 

Reeves suggests the school consider renaming the building after Barbara Curry-Storey, JSU’s first black student and a 1969 graduate of the university. 

In a post Monday to the university’s Facebook page, acting JSU President Don Killingsworth Jr. wrote about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, and about the possibility of changing the name of campus buildings. 

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Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family,” Killingsworth wrote. “What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.” 

Killingsworth said JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center to address racism and to work to help the campus community “broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.” 

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you,” Killingsworth said. “The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.” 

Reeves said Killingsworth has been good about listening to students’ concerns, and that he believes Killingsworth is headed in the right direction, but that it’s important to continue to hold the administration accountable. 

“We’re gonna stay on top of it and make sure that it really happens,” Reeves said, adding that there’s a JSU Board of Trustees meeting in July that he’s certain himself and a group of former and current JSU students will attend. 

The University of Alabama System’s Board of Trustees recently approved the removal of three plaques honoring Confederates, and appointed a group of trustees to review and study the names of buildings on all UA System campuses. 

Similar petitions urging building name changes have been signed by current and former students at the University of Alabama and at Auburn University. 

“I think it’s a great first step. Obviously, we have a long way to go, and changing the name of a building or taking a statue is not going to end racism,” Reeves said. 

But perhaps doing so will open doors and lead to more substantive change, he said. 

JSU acting President Don Killingsworth’s full statement: 

“Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

“Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family. What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.

“Members of the JSU family have shared the pain they are feeling because of Mr. Floyd’s death. Let us be clear: Jacksonville State University values Black lives. We stand firmly against the harm and injustice people of color continue to face, and we are committed to addressing systemic racism through actions we take individually and as an institution.

“A timely opportunity for JSU to continue to address social injustices is upon us. In February, a group of faculty, students, and community partners applied to the Association of American Colleges and Universities to participate in a summer institute on “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.” JSU was notified in March that we were approved to participate, and we will be moving forward with this opportunity. As a part of this initiative, JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center and will collaborate with the community to work to dismantle racism. This center will work to help the campus community broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you. The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.

“While there is no way to erase the harm our faculty, staff, and students of color are experiencing, please know that JSU offers resources to help you seek care and support. Faculty, staff, and peers, please encourage your students, colleagues, and friends to seek resources and help from these university services and staff:

“Students may seek assistance through the JSU Counseling Center by requesting counseling services or by calling 256-782-5475. The center is staffed by individuals steeped in knowledge of counseling those who have experienced racial trauma, and they are glad to offer assistance to anyone affected by the recent events.

“The Associate Dean of Students, Josh Robinson, can help with student advising and referral, and he will inform students about options and resources for getting the help they may need. Contact the Dean of Students Office at 256-782-5491.

“Employees who are interested in talking to someone should reach out to the JSU Human Resources Office at 256-782-5007.

“Several individuals have asked about giving a gift in memory of George Floyd. JSU has created a new scholarship with management by JSU’s Black Alumni Chapter, which will select recipients. If you are interested in making a donation to this scholarship, please click here, scroll down in the Fund Designation section, and choose Black Alumni Chapter Endowed Scholarship. Choose the In-Memory option and fill out that section.

“JSU is beginning the recruitment process for a Diversity and Inclusion administrator. The person in this position will be another resource for the campus community and will assist the institution in fostering a sense of belonging for all students, faculty, and staff.

“Finally, please know that we are here for you and will work tirelessly to ensure an inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment for the entire JSU family.

Sincerely,

Dr. Don C. Killingsworth, Jr.

Acting President”

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