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Opinion | Washington Post digs into Washington County charter fiasco

Larry Lee

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When a newspaper with the national impact of The Washington Post covers a story out of tiny Washington County, AL, you immediately know there is something serious afoot.  In this case, it is the Washington County charter fiasco that got the attention of veteran education reporter Valerie Strauss, who has worked for this newspaper for nearly 30 years.

Because of her vast experience with all things education, Strauss did an excellent job interviewing people from both sides of the issue and adding info about charter schools that are not common knowledge.

While the article is gripping, what really jumped out at me is the fact that state superintendent Eric Mackey would not talk to her and charter  commission chairman Mac Buttram gave her only a brief, very generic email response.

As the folks in Washington County will quickly tell you, this entire process has been shrouded in secret with info being ether very difficult, or impossible, to obtain.  Which only leaves us to wonder what are Mackey and Buttram trying to cover up?

Read the entire article here.

Here are portions of what Straus wrote:

In Alabama’s Washington County, a charter called Woodland Preparatory School has been approved by state officials to open even though: 

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 * The mayor of the town where it will be located says he doesn’t want it and doesn’t know anybody who does.

* A national organization that evaluates charter school applications gave the thumbs-down on Woodland’s application, saying it did not meet educational and other standards benchmarks.

* It’s sponsored by a new nonprofit organization while at the same time being built by a for-profit Utah company. It will be operated by a for-profit Texas company headed by a man who founded a controversial charter school network in the Lone Star State. That company is contracted to receive 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources.

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.* Residents fear the charter school will drain resources from traditional public schools, and say they have no recourse: The Alabama Public Charter School Commission — the panel that approved the new school — is autonomous and answers to no one, its chairman says.

Thad Becton is president of Washington County Students First, a nonprofit organization formed in 2017 that drew up and submitted Woodland Prep’s application to the state commission.

Becton said in an interview that “moms and dads” want better educational options for their kids, and that’s why Students First is trying to open Woodland. Asked who belongs to his group, he said, “We currently have business owners, teachers and even a librarian among our group.” He did not respond to a question about how many people belong to his group.

He said some students are already enrolling, although he would not answer queries about how many. It’s fewer than 50, according to a person with knowledge inside the Washington County School District. The school’s application says it expects to have 260 students in its first year.

Becton said the school would open this summer as an alternative to the county’s traditional public schools, which he said are academically “so bad that there are nearly 900 students attending surrounding county schools, traveling daily or home-schooling.”

However, the latest state report card shows something different. The state report released in December 2018 and covering the 2017-2018 academic year shows Washington County schools with a “B” grade, the same as a few of the top-ranking districts in Alabama. That was up from a “C” the year before. Woodland Prep’s school site sits near three schools that have grades above the state average, local officials said.

Before the commission approved Woodland, the school’s application was given to the nonprofit National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which had a contract with the Alabama State Department of Education to review charter applications. It analyzed Woodland Prep’s application and said the proposal “does not meet the standard for approval.” The association’s assessment said:  Woodland Prep’s educational plan “does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design.”

Woodland Prep’s education plan :does not constitute a rigorous, quality instructional design.”  It was concerned that the application included limited information about the company that will operate the school. A draft contract between that company and the school was not provided for review.  The financial plan and capacity section of the application only “partially” met standards, with no information provided about the “fundraising track record” of the board that would govern the school.

Mac Buttram, head of the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, did not directly respond to a query about why the commission approved Woodland Prep despite the negative appraisal of the application and local opposition. He said in an email: “After the Commission reviewed the application and interviewed the applicants there was a vote. The majority of the Commission voted to approve the applicant.”

As it turns out, the state commission approved a few other charter schools whose applications had been found wanting by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But the association is now out of the picture: The Alabama State Department of Education dropped its contract.

Eric Mackey, Alabama’s superintendent of education, did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment about how the commission operates.

The school’s website has a page introducing its principal, identifying her as “Amy O.” and doesn’t name the school where she is now working. The woman pictured on Woodland Prep’s website is Amy Owens, also pictured on the website of Rocketship Spark Academy in San Jose, where it says she has been assistant principal and principal. A March 14, 2019, report by San Jose Inside said Spark was one of three schools in the Rocketship charter chain that the California Department of Education had cited for failing to ensure proper teacher credentialing. Owens did not immediately respond to queries from The Post.

Becton’s group won’t own the school. The deed for Woodland Prep is held by Woodland Charter Holdings, a Utah company that has one registered agent, a woman named Jennifer Lind who is identified on the website of the for-profit American Charter Development company as its office manager. She did not respond to phone and email queries for this article.

Woodland Prep will be operated by a company based in Sugar Land, Tex., called Unity School Services (USS), whose founder and chief executive officer is Soner Tarim.

Tarim previously co-founded and served as chief executive officer of Harmony Public Schools, a charter school chain that critics say is part of an informal network of scores of charter schools operated by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher from Turkey who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and is wanted by the Turkish government.

A number of schools in the unofficial network have been investigated over a period of years by state and federal agencies amid allegations regarding hiring practices that favor Turkish nationals, abuse of the H-1B visa process and preferences in the awarding of contracts to related Turkish businesses. Former employees have alleged that they were required to contribute some of their salaries to the Gülen political movement, although representatives of Gülen have denied it over the years.

According to the management agreement between the Alabama school’s founding organization and USS, the “annual fee to be paid for operational services performed between July 1, 2019 through June 20, 2020 will be 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources.”

It is all way too murky.  Too much misinformation being tossed about.  Not way enough transparency.  Too many “players” who are controversial.  Financial arrangements that just don’t meet the smell test.

Perhaps most baffling is that it is the RESPONSIBILITY of the state superintendent to look our for ALL the children of this state who attend public schools.  Yet he is refusing to do so.  He is refusing to talk to the media.  He will not allow people from Washington County to be on the agenda for the May 9 state school board meeting.

The children of  Alabama–and the citizens–deserve better than this.

 

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Education

South Alabama medical residents work alongside Orange Beach first responders

Brandon Moseley

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Residents in USA Health’s Emergency Medicine Residency Program are given the opportunity to rotate with emergency medical services (EMS) in Orange Beach. The residents are stationed at the Orange Beach Fire Department giving resident physicians the experience of responding to emergency calls alongside paramedics and firefighters.

Paul Henning, M.D. is the associate program director of the Emergency Medicine Residency Program at USA Health and medical director of Orange Beach Fire/Rescue.

“The expertise that a patient gets in the field can determine outcomes,” Henning explained. “It bridges the gap between the physician and the paramedic. Seldom, if ever, do physicians have this kind of exposure to prehospital emergency services. It also gives the physician more perspective of what the paramedics are doing in the field. If we have an opportunity to improve the prehospital scope of practice, then we have accomplished our goals.”
Henning also serves as an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.

He said that it is vital that physicians understand what happens in the prehospital stage of care.
The innovative program was established in July 2019.

Andrew Warner, M.D., took a nonlinear path to emergency medicine. Dr. Warner is a former Green Beret, who served with the U.S. Army 5thSpecial Forces Group on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following his military service, he went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He completed his residency training in family medicine at USA Health and started in the emergency medicine program as a second-year resident.

Warner expressed his great respect for the Orange Beach first responders, who “epitomize true dedication to patient care and outcomes.”

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“I have further learned to appreciate just how critical those precious seconds in the prehospital setting are for patient survivability,” Warner added.

Justin Thomas, M.D. is a second-year emergency medicine resident and was the first USA Health resident to rotate in Orange Beach. Thomas said that the experience opened his eyes to the constraints paramedics endure while working in the field, particularly when responding to calls in rural areas of the county.

“There are locations they respond to that may be in the middle of the woods, or down a dirt road someone only goes down once every couple of weeks,” Thomas said. “They have to lug their supplies and the stretcher to the house, assess and care for the patient, and then bring them to the ambulance.”

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The medics are limited by the supplies and tools they have with them, Thomas said. “It’s much different being at a hospital with all the resources at your disposal versus working from an ambulance with limited capabilities.”
Thomas earned his medical degree from the American University of the Caribbean. He took a nontraditional route to emergency medicine. As a resident in USA Health’s Family Medicine Residency Program, he rotated in the emergency department at University Hospital and was attracted to the field.

After graduating from his family medicine residency in June 2019, Thomas was offered a spot in the new Emergency Medicine Residency Program. Dr. Thomas was given approval from the American Board of Emergency Medicine to start as a second-year because of his months of training in emergency medicine during his family medicine residency.

Economic developer Dr Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Response time is critical, especially in rural areas and areas that have longer distances to medical facilities than urban counterparts. The partnership between USA Health emergency medicine residency program and Orange Beach paramedics and fire rescue is a win-win situation. Both parties learn from one another and gain a deeper understanding of the pre-hospital setting, and most importantly, having professionals available in emergency situations with unique skill sets can ultimately save more patients’ lives.”

The partnership is mutually beneficial for USA Health’s emergency medicine residency program and Orange Beach’s paramedical and fire-rescue services. By adding the resident physicians the paramedics are able to provide a higher level of care to patients.

“I love to hear the interaction between our staff and the residents,” said Orange Beach Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling. “Even when they’re not running calls, there is a tremendous amount of knowledge being transferred in their conversations.”

The residents gain more diversity of exposure in Orange Beach than in a larger city like Mobile, Henning said. “Most fire and rescues in large cities are close to hospitals, so the transport time is usually 10 minutes or less, whereas in Orange Beach the time could be significantly longer. When they are able to render care for a longer period of time, they have the chance to sharpen their skills and have more patient exposure.”
Dr. Henning said that Orange Beach also gives the residents the unique experiences of working on fire and rescue boats.

Henning said that before starting the EMS rotation, the residents are required to be fully licensed by the state and to have completed an online medical direction course. If any questions or concerns arise, Henning and other emergency medicine attending physicians with USA Health are always available to provide their medical direction. Residents cannot start the EMS rotation until their second year. As the first class of residents graduate to their second year, six residents will rotate throughout the academic year. Third-years have the option to do an additional EMS rotation.

(Based on original reporting by USA Health’s Lindsay Lyle.)

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Economy

Alabama Workforce Council delivers annual report touting improved career pathways

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The Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) recently delivered its Annual Report to Gov. Kay Ivey and members of the legislature. The report highlights the many and varied workforce successes from 2019. It also outlines policy recommendations to further solidify Alabama as a leader in workforce development and push the state closer to Ivey’s goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the state’s workforce by 2025.

Gov. Ivey acknowledged the recent progress stating, “the continued efforts of the AWC and the various state agency partners in transforming our workforce are substantial. Significant work has been accomplished to ensure all Alabamians have a strong start and strong finish. We will continue to bolster our state’s economy through dynamic workforce development solutions to help us reach our ambitious goal.”

The AWC, formed in 2015, was created as an employer-led, statewide effort to understand the structure, function, organization and perception of the Alabama workforce system. The goal of the AWC is to facilitate collaboration between government and industry to help Alabama develop a sustainable workforce that is competitive on a global scale. 

“This report details the tremendous efforts of the dedicated AWC members and their partners who have greatly contributed to the progress of building a highly-skilled workforce.” noted Tim McCartney, Chairman of the AWC. “To meet ever-growing job needs of an expanding economy, we have put forth recommendations to bring working-age Alabamians sitting on the sidelines back into the workforce to address our low workforce participation rate.”

Included among the many highlights from the report are:

  • Created the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship to support apprenticeships and work-based learning statewide.
  • Established the Alabama Committee on Credentialing & Career Pathways (ACCCP) to identify credentials of value that align with in-demand career pathways across Alabama.
  • Furthered foundational work toward cross-agency outcome sharing through the Alabama Terminal on Linking and Analyzing Statistics (ATLAS).
  • Commissioned statewide surveys to better understand the characteristics, and potential barriers, of the priority population groups (during record-low unemployment) identified as likely to enter or re-enter the state’s workforce. 
  • Provided technical assistance, support staff and grant writing services to a cohort of over 30 nonprofits from across the state enabling them to expand services and directly connect more Alabamians to training and economic opportunity. Services helped cohort members secure over $6.4 million in grant money through various out-of-state grant programs.
  • Identified and evaluated 17 population segments of potential workers and determined the likelihood of adding members of those respective population segments into the workforce. Within this process, issues affecting the state’s labor participation rate were also detailed. 

Vice-Chair of the AWC Sandra Koblas of Austal USA commented, “the energy around workforce development in Alabama right now is incredibly exciting. We are working together with businesses, nonprofits and agency partners to reduce barriers, increase opportunities and grow the state’s overall economy.”

The full report can be viewed here.

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To learn more about the Alabama Workforce Council please visit: www.alabamaworks.com/alabama-workforce-council

 

 

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Committee hears state plan to address student mental health

Jessa Reid Bolling

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State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey asked the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee for funding to put more mental health professionals in schools. 

While addressing the committee, Mackey said that having more counseling available for students will help to not only address student mental health but to also help teachers who are “overwhelmed” with trying to make up for the lack of counseling services. 

“Teachers are the frontline on good mental health for our students,” Mackey said. “They have to do a lot of the work but teachers are not therapists. They don’t have time to do it, they’re not trained to do it and teachers in our state are absolutely overwhelmed with the problems that are coming into their classrooms. 

The Alabama State Department of Education in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Mental Health created the School Based Mental Health Services Program (SBMH) in 2010 with the goal of ensuring that children and adolescents, both general and special education, enrolled in local school systems have access to high quality mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment services. 

The collaboration places a certified mental health professional, hired by the mental health department, in a school system to be available throughout the school day, with an estimated cost of $50,000 per site, according to Mackey. 

Mackey said in his presentation that there is a need for far more of these therapists than he is requesting but that there simply are not enough of them available to be hired. He also noted that seeking the help of social workers and organizations like the Department of Human Resources to fill that need for more school counseling would ultimately harm their existing duties. 

“If we put students in therapy but then they’re going home to a dysfunctional situation, then we’re just spinning our wheels and that’s why we’ve got to have community collaborations and we’ve got to have these other strong agencies like Mental Health (Department) and DHR to support the work with the communities.”

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Alabama State Senator Jim McClendon (District 11) said that he has heard from “frustrated” teachers who have to take on responsibilities apart from teaching. 

“They were kind of depressed, the teachers were, simply because they felt like they weren’t able to do the job they were hired to do because they were doing so many other things,” McClendon said.

In the 2019 Fiscal Year, nine mental health centers were added with the $500,000 appropriation in FY19. There are now a total of 72 school systems participating in School-Based Mental Health. Mackey says there will be 82 by the end of this year and asked for funding for 20 more after meeting that goal.

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Education

Business, community leaders call on lawmakers to support Gov. Ivey’s push for more Pre-K funds

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Governor Ivey’s push for a $25 million statewide expansion of Alabama’s high-quality, voluntary First Class Pre-K program was endorsed today by business and community leaders from across the state. If approved by the state Legislature, the proposed funding increase would add at least 160 new classrooms next year and help enroll at least 2,889 additional four-year-olds.

The Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force included its support for Governor Ivey’s budget request in its 2020 Legislative Recommendations. The ASRA Pre-K Task Force consists of more than 60 prominent leaders from the business, education, civic, medical, legal, philanthropic, military, and child advocacy communities.

In addition to increased funding in FY2021, the Task Force’s plan proposes a series of recommendations to fully fund the state’s First Class Pre-K program by the 2022-23 school year while maintaining the program’s benchmarks for quality and accountability. The Pre-K Task Force’s Recommendations are available in their entirety at https://www.alabamaschoolreadiness.org/asra-pre-k-task-force-recommendations/.

“We are not there yet, but the state is moving in the right direction to provide high-quality, voluntary pre-k to all families that want it,” said Mike Luce and Bob Powers, business leaders and co-chairs of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance Pre-K Task Force. “The Alabama School Readiness Alliance’s Pre-K Task Force is pleased that Governor Ivey is once again prioritizing additional funds to add more pre-k classrooms across the state. We stand with Governor Ivey and encourage lawmakers to appropriate the $25 million increase outlined in her proposal.”

For 13 years in a row, the National Institute for Early Education Research has ranked Alabama’s pre-k program as the number one state-funded pre-kindergarten program in the country for quality. Research by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham has found that students who participate in a First Class Pre-K classroom – regardless of demographics, zip code or school – are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than their peers.

The Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education manages the First Class Pre-K program. It allocates funding for the First Class Pre-K program through a competitive application process. Public and private schools, child care centers, faith-based centers, Head Start programs, nonprofits, universities, and other community-based providers are all eligible to apply. Potential providers can apply for three different levels of funding: an excellence classroom (up to $50,400), tiered funding (ranges from $86,904 to $100,008), and a new classroom (up to $120,000). Applications for First Class Pre-K classroom funding are due March 13 on the Department’s website, www.children.alabama.gov.

The ASRA Pre-K Task Force first proposed expanding voluntary pre-k access to all families in 2012. Since then, state leaders have incrementally increased the level of investment in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program from $19 million to $122.8 million. In 2012, the program enrolled just six percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds. In the 2019-20 school year, nearly 40 percent of Alabama’s four-year-olds attend First Class Pre-K.

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