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Opinion | Praise The Lord. Woodland Prep gets bad news from charter commission

Larry Lee

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Finally.  Thankfully.  Mercifully.

The colossal mishmash of an attempt to open a charter school in Washington County has now been taken off of life support and left to flop, flounder and gasp its last breath by the state Charter School Commission.

The application to open Woodland Prep was approved in May 2018 by the commission on a vote of 7-2.  It is noteworthy that of the seven YEA votes, only two of these commission members remain.

(The commission has 10 members.  Four nominated by the governor, three by the speaker of the house, one by the lt. governor and two by the senate majority leader.  Six of these members have taken office since last May, no doubt in part to the on-going controversy created by Woodland Prep.)

Then the charter asked for a one-year extension on June 7, 2019 stating more time was needed for construction and permitting.  This was granted on a vote of 5-1.

At that time the contractor said the school would be ready for tours in January 2020.

However, instead of meeting this time line, Woodland Prep asked the charter commission at their Feb. 3, 2020 meeting for another building extension.  This was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back and the commission balked.

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In a near-unanimous vote, the commission not only voted down the extension request, they also approved a motion to proceed with the paperwork to revoke Woodland Pre’s charter application.  The charter will be given 30 days to respond to the commission and the commission will then react to this response.

It was clear the commission has run out of patience with the charter and their endless excuses for why there has been so little progress on completing the facility and enrolling students.

This frustration was strongly expressed by commissioner Paul Morin of Birmingham who explained that since the Woodland Prep application was first approved in May 2018, the state highway department closed a major intersection in Birmingham where I-59/s0 and I-65 join and totally rebuilt it and re-opened for traffic.  “And ya’ll can’t build a small school building in the same time?” he asked.

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As we’ve documented here countless times, this has been a sordid mess from day one.  The charter law has been ignored, due diligence has often been woeful, information has been either sketchy or simply withheld, the truth has been badly warped and the Washington County public school system has been left to left to wonder for too many months what future budgets will look like.

It has proven beyond a doubt that Alabama’s charter school law is flawed and needs serious re-tooling.

I titled one of my first posts (April 10, 2019) about all of this, The Rape of Washington County.  That is still an appropriate description of what unfolded in the very rural county of only 17,000 people.  No citizen of this state deserves to be treated as second-class.  But that is what happened for months and months and months.

Fortunately, a small band of dedicated people in the county simply refused to go quietly into the night.  They were tenacious in their efforts to expose wrong doing and make sure people in Montgomery knew about it.  Without their hard work and perseverance, it is unlikely this story would have ended this way.

And educators all over the state, most especially those in rural areas, owe them all a debt of gratitude.  They have proven that you can indeed fight city hall–and win.  Time and time again they have told me that they do not oppose charter schools where they are needed and will strengthen local education options.

However, this was never the case in Washington County. Thankfully, some folks in Montgomery were finally convinced they were right.

 

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Education

Wide variance in educational attainment between counties

The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows a wide variance in educational attainment between Alabamians residing in different counties.

According to the PARCA research, across the state, 10 percent of Alabamians over the age of 25 have earned a master’s or higher-level degree. Sixteen percent of the adult population has just a bachelor’s degree. Just 9 percent of adult Alabamians have an associate’s degree.

Nearly 22 percent of Alabamians have attended college but did not earn a degree, and 31 percent of Alabamians have earned their high school diploma or GED but did not receive any education beyond that.

Ten percent of adult Alabamians have finished the ninth grade or higher but have not gotten a diploma or GED. Just 4 percent of Alabamians 25 or older dropped out of school without at least finishing the ninth grade.

At least 35 percent of Alabamians have at least an associate’s degree. By comparison, 20 percent of the adult population in Massachusetts has a master’s degree or above and 24 percent have at least bachelor’s degree. Factoring in the 8 percent with associate’s degrees, 52 percent of Massachusetts adults have some sort of degree versus just 35 percent of Alabamians.

Alabama is 44th in educational attainment. West Virginia is 51st with 30 percent — 22 percent with a 4 year degree or above. Georgia, largely due to the success of the HOPE scholarships, has 40 percent of the population with a degree two year or above. Mississippi is at 33 percent. The national average is 39.9 percent.

The PARCA study also breaks it down into county-by-county differences. The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.

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In Madison County, 8.1 percent of adults have an associate’s degree, 25.7 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and 16 percent have a master’s or higher degree. More than 20 percent have some college but no degree, 20.8 have a high school diploma with no education above that, 5.9 percent finished the ninth grade and 2.9 percent dropped out in the ninth grade or earlier.

Nearly 50 percent of adults in Madison County older than age 25 have earned at least a two-year degree. Madison County is followed by Shelby County with 49.5 percent, Lee with 43.1 percent, Jefferson with 40.7 percent and Baldwin at 40.7 percent. These are the only five counties that are above the national average.

The bottom 10 counties for educational attainment are Wilcox, Bibb, Greene, Coosa, Cleburne, Bullock, Lawrence, Conecuh, Barbour and Washington. Wilcox is in 67th place for educational attainment and is also regularly one of the state leaders in its unemployment rate. Just 3.6 percent of adults in Wilcox County have a master’s degree or above, just 8.9 percent have completed their four-year degree and only 4.8 percent have even an associate’s degree. Just 17.3 percent of the adult population in Wilcox County has any sort of degree. That is 22.6 percentage points below the national average. Nearly 20 percent of adults in Wilcox County have attended college but did not finish, and 40.3 percent has a high school diploma or the equivalent but no college. More than 16.5 percent finished the ninth grade but did not get a diploma or GED. Nearly 10 percent did not finish the ninth grade.

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Educational attainment is a concern because the fastest growing professions generally require more education than simply a high school diploma. Gov. Kay Ivey is trying to increase the percent of the workforce with at least a two-year associate’s degree or the technical training equivalent of a two-year associate’s degree.

Many high-paying technology jobs require a two year or even a four-year degree or above. It is difficult for the state to recruit those sorts of employers to counties where the workforce is not competent to fill the positions. Those sorts of employers often have to recruit employees from far outside the county or even the state.

Even manufacturing jobs are increasingly high tech as new factories use more robotics and automation than the factories of the past. Today’s high-paying jobs require more knowledge, skill and technical competence than the factory jobs of the past.

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Education

Higher Ed Commission elects Dothan businessman, Huntsville CEO as chair and vice chair

Micah Danney

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Charles Buntin was elected chairman and Miranda Bouldin Frost was elected vice chair of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, the commission announced on Friday.

Both have been members of the commission since 2015.

“As the coordinating board for public higher education in Alabama, I pledge to continue to work with our institutions throughout this pandemic to maintain the highest level of excellence for Alabama’s students,” Buntin said. “Earlier this year, our colleges and universities proved their resilience to a changing work environment by successfully transitioning to online learning.”

Buntin is a shareholder and realtor with Tom West Company in Dothan. He graduated from Leadership Alabama in 2013, is a current member of the Houston County-Dothan Rotary Club and is a former chairman of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bouldin Frost is president and CEO of LogiCore Corp. in Huntsville, a company that provides Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) services to U.S. Department of Defense agencies.

She is a member of the Greater Huntsville Rotary Club and a board member of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

The commission faces steep challenges. State funding had been increasing to help institutions recover from the 2008 recession before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now institutional enrollments, budgets, auxiliary revenue and the health of employees and students are simultaneously at risk.

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“The dedication to student success shown by Chairman Buntin and Vice Chair Bouldin Frost will guide their decision making as the higher education community navigates the current COVID crisis and its impact on Alabama’s universities and community colleges,” said Jim Purcell, executive director of the ACHE.

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Alabaster City Schools gets federal grant to bolster security

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona on Friday announced that the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a $374,883 grant to Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education to bolster school security. 

The grant is administered through the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) School Violence Prevention Program (SVPP), which has awarded almost $50 million in grants nationwide. 

“I am pleased to announce that the COPS Office has awarded this grant to the Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education this year,” Escalona said in a statement. “The safety of our students is a top priority and this grant will enhance school safety for these students. While there have been some unique challenges to this school year, our commitment to ensuring students are safe when attending school is the same.” 

 “With the new school year underway, the safety of our nation’s students remains paramount,” said COPS Office Director Phil Keith in a statement.  “Although this school year may look different at the start, now is the ideal time to make preparations to enhance school safety for when all of our children are back in the classroom.”   

Alabaster City Schools will be able to coordinate with law enforcement, train local law enforcement officers to prevent student violence, buy metal detectors, locks, lighting, and other deterrent measures, buy technology to notify local law enforcement during an emergency and other measures that provide a significant improvement in security, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

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Gov. Kay Ivey awards $72 million for remote learning tech in state colleges

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday awarded $72.34 million in federal coronavirus aid to the state’s higher education institutions for remote learning technology. 

“Since July, the state of Alabama has awarded $432,753,000 to various levels of education to ensure that we have a safe and smart continuation of educational instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “COVID-19 has exposed deficiencies in our remote learning capabilities, and I am pleased to award our institutions of higher education the critical funds to enhance their instructional experience.”

“My office has received numerous CARES Act funding requests, and we are eager to help as many folks as possible. We are still reviewing them to ensure they meet eligibility under the letter of the law and will be forthcoming when finalized,” Ivey continued. 

 The Alabama Community College System will receive $27,345,000.

  • From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
  • To support the purchase of technology hardware and software to facilitate distance education and remote learning at the state’s community colleges
  • $8 million for a laptop loaner program to assist low-income and other students within special populations with remote learning
  • $10 million for a statewide virtual desktop environment that will allow students to utilize institution owned software anywhere and at any time
  • $2,920,000 for video conferencing equipment in a classroom at each community college
  • $6,425,000 for Zoom rooms, next generation firewalls and online course assistance

“Alabama’s community colleges have adapted quickly to a new learning environment at each of our 24 colleges, but we are constantly looking for new, innovative, and engaging ways to improve the student experience,” ACCS Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker said in a statement. “We are grateful for the additional resources this funding will provide to enhance learning for Alabamians for years to come.”

Alabama Public 4-Year Institutions will receive $25,000,000.

  • From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
  • To establish a reimbursement for universities for costs they are incurring related to remote instruction and learning
  • Maximum allocations per institution have been established
  • This is in addition to the $50 million the Governor allocated on July 6, 2020, to assist the universities with COVID-related expenses

“While the Higher Education Partnership is energized by the return to campus of our students this fall, the year has certainly been filled with COVID-19 related challenges for Alabama’s 14 public universities,” Alabama Higher Education Partnership executive director Gordon Stone said in a statement. “Throughout the year, Governor Kay Ivey and her team have worked with the institutions to make sure that Alabama’s next generation of leaders have been served with a continuous learning experience. Thank you, Governor Ivey, for once again recognizing the importance of our students, faculty and staff with the latest round of CARES Act support.”

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Alabama Independent Colleges will receive $20,000,000.

  • From the $118,346,250 for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction
  • To establish a reimbursement program to assist Independent Colleges with expenditures that they are incurring related to the coronavirus
  • Maximum allocations per institution have been established

“On behalf of the 25,000 students at Alabama’s Independent Colleges, we want to express our sincere gratitude to the governor,” Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities president Paul Hankins said in a statement. “The additional support is greatly appreciated in this unprecedented time of financial need. These funds will go a long way to ensure our schools can remain open. Our colleges have done everything necessary to keep their students safe and on campus.”

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