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Opinion | Problems continue for Montgomery’s first charter school

Josh Moon

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Montgomery’s first charter school remains a first-rate mess. 

As former LEAD Academy principal Nichole Ivey-Price prepares for another hearing in her ongoing wrongful termination lawsuit against the charter school, a number of current and former LEAD employees have told APR that the environment at the school remains one of near-chaos. 

Perhaps most surprising, the employees said that Unity School Services — the management company led by Soner Tarim, the controversial charter school guru with questionable ties to a Turkish religious movement — is no longer involved at LEAD. 

According to the employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear that they would face retaliation for speaking about the situation, Tarim and his top employee haven’t been at LEAD in weeks and office duties usually performed USS have instead fallen on other staff members and volunteers. 

“We were told quietly that Soner quit and isn’t associated with LEAD anymore,” said one employee. “No one knows what’s going on around here, but you can look at the front office on any day and know something isn’t right. It’s nothing but volunteers.”

I tried to contact both Tarim and new LEAD principal Ibrahim Lee. Lee failed to respond to detailed questions. Tarim never returned messages. 

The issues go far beyond Tarim’s apparent departure. 

According to several teachers, three more LEAD teachers have resigned in the last few weeks causing a significant staffing shortage. So significant, in fact, that several non-certified teachers have been hired to fill open positions. 

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A copy of a personnel list that was approved at a recent LEAD board meeting was provided to APR. That list had five teachers’ names. Four of the five lacked certification, according to state records. One person on the list, a LEAD employee said, hasn’t completed a background check. 

In addition, LEAD employees told APR that the school’s office is often staffed with volunteers. That isn’t necessarily uncommon for elementary schools, but what is uncommon, they say, is that the volunteers have access to private student records. 

“You can’t do what they’re doing and not expect a problem at some point,” said a LEAD teacher. “It is so obvious now that this school was not even close to being ready to open. Whoever approved this never spent a day here.”

Fortunately, the majority of the Alabama Charter School Commission members who approved the opening of LEAD — despite clear and obvious issues and shortcomings — have been removed from the commission and replaced. 

But that doesn’t solve the issue for Montgomery students. 

And desperate parents in Montgomery hoping for an alternative in a school district that has faced more than its share of challenges over the years. 

LEAD was sold to desperate people as a beacon of hope. But from the start, it appeared to be little better than a scam.  

There was never a plan to create a different sort of school. There was never a plan to address specific issues within Montgomery. There was never any indication that LEAD administrators, including board president Charlotte Meadows — who used the publicity of the school as a springboard to be elected to the Alabama House — had a plan for success that extended beyond not following tenure laws. 

Maybe, if nothing else, LEAD will put to rest once and for all the absurd notion that tenure laws are somehow the difference between Alabama’s worst schools and Alabama’s best schools — all of which are operating under the same tenure laws. 

In one semester, LEAD is already on its second principal and has lost nearly half of its original staff, according to current and former employees. There have been issues with payroll, with employees receiving proper pay, being compensated for training and having their pay cut arbitrarily. 

There have also been sickening accusations of LEAD administrators working to push special needs students away from the school. 

And none of it should be a surprise to anyone who paid attention to the fiasco that unfolded during LEAD’s application process — when professionals who determine the readiness of charter schools all over the country told Alabama’s commission that LEAD wasn’t fit to open. 

For political reasons — and for financial reasons — LEAD’s application was pushed through anyway. And defenders of this farce blamed the negative press on “anti-choice naysayers” or tied the criticism to a dislike of Meadows. 

The place has been a catastrophe since the doors opened. Just as the authorizers predicted.

And Montgomery students and parents are once again left with an empty promise.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.

“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”

Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.

Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”

In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.

Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.

She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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ASU’s Ross: Coronavirus has exposed longstanding inequities in college funding

Josh Moon

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Traditionally underfunded and serving an economically challenged student population, America’s historically black colleges are particularly vulnerable to the challenges of COVID-19 and many are facing bankruptcy, Alabama State University President Quinton Ross told CNN on Monday evening. 

Ross was interviewed by CNN as part of the network’s coverage of how coronavirus shutdowns of college campuses are disproportionately affecting HBCUs. 

“It exposed a number of inequities that were already present prior to this virus,” Ross said during the piece. 

HBCUs typically lack large endowments and hefty budgets, making it harder for them to adjust to shifting courses online. Also, serving a more economically disadvantaged student body often means that the students don’t have the necessary Internet or computers at their homes to participate in online courses. 

Ross said that some HBCUs needed more substantial technological infrastructure to transition to online and other alternative learning methods to ensure the continuity of education for entire student bodies; many of whom were returning to homes without connectivity or computers.

“We had to rush to try to provide and undergird ourselves with technology, and many of the infrastructures were not prepared,” he said.

Ross has said that federal emphasis on access to technology is not just an HBCU issue, “it is a nationwide issue that must be addressed.”

The underlying inequities Ross mentioned stem, in part, from states, such as Alabama, implementing racist funding practices, leaving HBCUs funded at significantly lower levels than white colleges. That made it impossible for HBCUs to keep pace on matters such as technology infrastructure.  

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Former ASU vice president John Knight, a longtime former state representative, in the 1980s filed a lawsuit on behalf of ASU and other black colleges in the state, challenging the funding policies of the state. The state lost and was forced to pay millions of dollars to at least partially rectify decades of improper funding that denied thousands of black Alabamians a college education.

 

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Jones calls for more federal aid to students, schools and teachers amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday asked Senate leadership to include money for public schools and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding. 

Jones and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led a group of other senators in drafting a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that urges aid to be directed to education during the coronavirus crisis. 

“We continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools,” the letter reads. “This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.”

“It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out,” the letter continues. 

Approximately $13.2 billion through the CARES act Education Stabilization Fund has already been disbursed to governors for distribution to K-12 schools. 

Education organizations recommend $175 billion more for the Education Stabilization Fund to be divided between local education agencies and institutions of higher education, according to a press release from Jones’s office. 

 Full letter below: 

 Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

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 We write to urge you to include, in any upcoming legislation designed to provide additional relief to Americans during the COVID 19 pandemic, significant additional support for our nation’s schools. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included an Education Stabilization Fund to provide immediate support, we continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools. This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.

 School districts rely almost entirely on state and local revenue. Low-wealth districts rely the most heavily on state aid and will be most impacted by the economic implications of this crisis. It is our duty to ensure that children receive the education they are rightfully entitled to. Students cannot learn if their schools are forced to downsize operations, eliminate teaching positions in critical subjects, or lay off other critical support staff such as social workers and counselors, due to depleted budgets.

 The U.S. economy is expected to contract by six percent in 2021,[1] changing the lives of all Americans in dramatic ways that are not yet fully known. One thing is certain however, students will still need to continue learning and progressing through school. Our nation’s teachers are crucial to ensuring that learning can continue, yet current projections expect the reductions in education spending due to the pandemic to be two and a half times worse than the lowest point of the last recession. [2] It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.

 As local communities and school districts see their revenue shrink, they will be forced to look at staffing cuts, as salaries and benefits comprise the majority of school budgets. As a result of this crisis, Learning Policy Institute estimates that if states experience a 20% decline in revenue, without federal intervention, about 460,000 educator positions will be eliminated. [3] Congress must invest now to stabilize the public education sector and fill the current gaps in our education workforce and prevent an even more dire shortage in the years to come.  

 In addition to focusing on our educator workforce in any upcoming economic relief package, we urge you to continue to help schools to address learning loss facing our most disadvantaged students and ensure that all students with disabilities can continue to access the Free Appropriate Public Education to which they are entitled. We therefore urge you to provide substantial, flexible additional investments through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Finally, if the next funding package includes infrastructure provisions, we urge you to explicitly include K-12 schools as eligible recipients for funds.

 Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

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When public schools reopen, nurses could be the key to combating coronavirus

Josh Moon

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When Alabama’s public schools open their doors to students in the fall, there will be one group of people on the front lines, entrusted with the monumental task of identifying and isolating potentially sick students and tracing their contact with other students. 

School nurses. 

The already overworked and underappreciated (and usually under-compensated) nurses that care for thousands of sick and injured school kids every day in this state will become perhaps the most vital cog in a plan to keep Alabama’s public schools from becoming hotspots for COVID-19. 

But there is a hitch: There aren’t enough of them. 

“We know that the school nurses will take the lead this fall in whatever plans are developed to respond to this (COVID-19) virus,” said Diana Collins, the president of the Alabama Association of School Nurses. “We feel like that having a nurse in a school all day, every day during this pandemic would solve a number of issues that will arise and provide the best care for our students. 

“A major concern for us is the lack of nurses in so many schools. It’s something we’ve spoken with legislators about, and I think those talks have been productive. But of course, money is an issue with something like this.”

Determining just how many school nurses that the Alabama State Department of Education is employing at a given time — and the number of nurses that should be serving each district — is a tricky task. Several factors go into determining the number of nurses needed, including the school population and the known health issues of its students. 

By law, each district must employ at least one head nurse, but that still leaves a number of public schools in the state without a nurse stationed on campus. According to figures provided to APR, about 300 schools in the state don’t have a nurse on campus. Many of those are rural schools, which would require extensive travel for the district’s head nurse. 

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That’s an issue that many principals and district superintendents have brought up numerous times over the last several years. The coronavirus outbreak has only heightened their concerns. It might also be the best chance to make a change. 

“Could this be the time that people realize we need a school nurse in every school every day?” asked Jennifer Ventress, the head nurse for ALSDE. “I believe that’s a possibility. But again, it’s about paying for it and where does the money come from. There’s no question that the nurses serve an important function, particularly in the poorer districts. And they will play an important role with the (coronavirus) this fall.”

State officials are examining the possibility of using at least some of Alabama’s allocation of CARES Act money to increase its total number of school nurses for at least the upcoming school year. 

Ventress said ALSDE officials are still formulating a plan for the fall — one that includes using nurses and their extensive training to help identify and isolate students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms — but that nothing, including the available dollars, has been finalized. 

Under the plan currently in the works at ALSDE, school nurses, in addition to identifying and isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms, would also assist superintendents and principals in identifying areas in which students suspected of having the virus can be sequestered safely. They also will help ensure that students get medical treatment. 

The finer details of that plan have not yet been worked out, Ventress said, because of a number of fluctuating variables. State superintendent Eric Mackey on Wednesday asked district superintendents to consider pushing the start of the 2020-21 school year back to at least late August, in part, so school leaders would have more time to gather data. 

Ventress said many of Alabama’s school nurses will spend that time working with the Alabama Department of Public Health, helping it to track down and perform contact tracing on patients who test positive for COVID-19. That program will provide nurses with valuable experience for the fall school year, and also provide them with a few extra dollars.

“It is a completely voluntary partnership that we have formed with ADPH to assist them in some much needed tracing,” Ventress said. “We see it as a win-win with no downside. It’s voluntary for our nurses and gives them great training and a little extra money. At the same time, it helps out ADPH, and they could really use the extra assistance right now.”

The primary benefit to ALSDE, obviously, is that by the start of the school year, it should have a small army of school nurses trained to perform proper contact tracing and familiar with the workings of ADPH. 

But not in every school. 

“Right now, school nurses are needed more than ever,” Collins said. “We are a vital bridge between the schools and the health care providers. We have been caring for these kids for a long time, and we know that environment better than anyone. I would just hope that everyone remembers that we’re all in this together and that everything we do should be in the best interest of the health and wellbeing of the children.”

 

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