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Working to educate Alabama’s kids when they aren’t in a classroom

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Board of Education have said Alabama’s children will not be returning to their classrooms on April 6, but they will be returning to their studies.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,” Ivey announced.

The education community is trying to figure out exactly what this means.

“Learning must continue,” former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. said. “We have an obligation to our students to provide them with the means to continue their education during this pandemic.”

“Beginning April 7th School Districts, under guidance from the State Department, must develop study plans for students and have the means to assess what learning occurred,” Hooper added. “Districts must offer online or paper-based instruction based on available resources.”

There was an assumption by many that this would mean a shift to E-learning. The Alabama Political Reporter, however, has been told that there are problems with implementing that strategy.

Veteran Jefferson County educator Lara McClendon told APR, “My kids don’t have devices.”

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Without their own computers or smartphones, kids can’t access E-learning even if the school were to suddenly start live-streaming classes to them in their homes.

Brian Rhodes is president and owner of BBB Educational Enterprises Inc., a Birmingham based education company.

Rhodes said that if 650,000 Alabama school children all go online at the same time with live streams from their schools there isn’t enough bandwidth to handle it, especially with their parents all working from home clogging the internet infrastructure.

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“The pipeline can’t handle it,” Rhodes warned.

APR asked what about kids without internet access or the child whose internet is accessed in his or her mom’s car from the parking lot of a McDonalds or library.

Rhodes predicted that they would struggle to keep up.

The crisis has exposed the state’s lack of broadband.

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

APR asked Rhodes if you ‘Can you hold back a child who was passing all of his classes when school ended because he does not have internet access.

“I don’t think you can,” Rhodes said. “Not if he was doing well before.”

Rhodes did believe that the schools could continue to give grades during these eight weeks of at-home instruction.

Another option that was discussed was sending home a stack of worksheets for the children to work on at home with some printed out lecture materials.

Rhodes said that is what he thought many systems would do, but predicted that worksheets alone without that interaction with a teacher would be insufficient for kids reading skills to improve during this period of social distancing.

McClendon said that school systems often ration the copies that a teacher can make and charges teachers who print off more than the rationed amount.

APR asked if the teachers have pupil supply money left to pay for materials during this crisis.

Some do, most have already spent it on materials for their classroom,” McClendon said.

Rhodes proposed actually sending books to the kids.

“The key thing is getting something in the kids’ hands,” Rhodes said. “We have got to get books out to kids.”

APR asked how much this would cost.

“Three or four $7 or $8 books and would only cost about $40,” Rhodes said. “I am not talking about a lot of money, with a bag to put them in maybe $50 to 55 a kid.”

APR asked, If you send books home, is there a danger you won’t get them back?

Rhodes said that was no problem. Let them keep them as the start of their own home library.

Rhodes’ plan would be to do this for every kindergarten through second graders and K-3 if there was enough money and that each school system should pick the books that best match the skill levels of their students as well as their own cultural issues. The teachers would then give assignments from the books as well as lead online small group discussions on the materials. Rhodes suggested that the legislature pay for it with a supplemental appropriation.

APR asked McClendon if this proposal would help.

“In some systems, it probably would,” McClendon said.

“It’s my belief that teachers need to be in contact with families on a regular basis,” Hooper said. “Teachers must help students set goals. Furthermore, School Districts should reach out to all available resources both public and private.”

Rhodes said that it was important to get buy-in from parents. Give them instructions and goals, but don’t make it too complicated.

McClendon said that her students understand the technology.

“We do google classroom all the time,” McClendon said. “It’s the parents who don’t understand the technology.”

APR asked: what about the kid in the third grade who reads at a first-grade level?

“Any of our kids who are struggling readers will” fall further behind no matter what we do Rhodes said. “They need one on one with a teacher. You are never going to be able to get that with this. The variations are too great. “The technology is not sufficient.”

McClendon predicted, “Everybody is going to be behind.”

APR asked if the school systems would encourage teachers to work from home as much as possible or would they require the teachers to report to their school building despite the virus risk.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” McClendon said.

APR asked McClendon if the teachers would benefit from a special influx of pupil supply money to pay for the costs of materials for home learning.

“Yes they would,” she answered.

“Congress must step up to the plate and offer financial assistance to k- 12 education much like the congress is doing for large and small businesses in this time of crisis,” Hooper said.

APR reached out to U.S. Senator Doug Jones (R-Alabama) to see if federal resources were available to address the unexpected costs of suddenly transforming the way the state educates it’s children by this time next week.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jones said the Congress has provided for relief for school systems in the stimulus, “The Phase III deal provides money for an Elementary and Secondary Education School Emergency Relief Fund. According to CRS, Alabama should be getting roughly $216.9 million. That will go to the state then be distributed to school districts.”

The coronavirus stimulus passed the Senate on Wednesday, was passed by the Senate on Friday and then signed by President Donald J. Trump.

“We also must learn from this experience,” Hooper said. “Every state and every school district should have contingency plans developed for every possible disruption to classroom learning. We did not see this coming. Its shame on us if we are not prepared for the next national emergency. Vice President Pence has called the teachers who continue to interact with students remotely American heroes.”

The Alabama public schools sere 744,845 students in 1,530 public schools.

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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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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