As the last day of school approached at Birmingham’s Oliver Elementary this week, 44-year-old teacher Ann Marie Corgill found herself reflecting on what, for her and many others, was a devastating year.
When she decided to walk away from the school after teaching only nine weeks last October, she was in a low place, she said. Not only did the 21-year teaching veteran question her methods, but the Birmingham City Schools system informed her that, although she was nationally board certified and a former Alabama Teacher of the Year, she was not “highly-qualified.”
Her story was picked up in local and national news with stories in The Washington Post, CBS News, USA Today, National Public Radio and Huffington Post.
“It was awful,” she said. “Just awful.”
The teachers and students who remained at the school had to pick up the pieces and deal with the fallout.
“All the media came storming at us like we let this prized possession get away,” said Oliver second-grade teacher Tamika Smith. “We are all highly qualified to do our jobs.”
“It was embarrassing,” said Tamara Burney, an instructional coach at the school. “A light was shining on us and it wasn’t the right light.”
Eleven-year-old KaDarius Hamilton was one of Corgill’s students. His mother, Ashli, said she is glad the school year has come to an end.
“I feel relief,” said the 30-year-old stay-at-home mother. “Relief that it is over.”
Her son is a fifth-grader, is bipolar and has AD/HD. Change, for him, can send his world into a tailspin, she said. But change has been his only constant this school year. When counting the number of full-time educators and substitute teachers he’s had since August, KaDarius was on No. 5 or 6, his mother said.
On top of that, Hamilton’s youngest child Kristen, a first-grader, also had a teacher change during the year. No one from the school told Hamilton when it happened and why.
“They don’t tell me anything when it comes to my children,” she said. Hamilton doesn’t plan to return to Oliver after this year.
“If they don’t give a damn, I don’t give a damn.”
The principal, Selena Florence, declined to comment for this story after multiple requests, but Mark Sullivan, Ed.D., academic officer for the Birmingham City Schools, spoke to the issue.
“We know this has been a difficult year at Oliver,” he said. “Having multiple teachers in a school year is not ideal, but I can assure you that the teachers working with the students are qualified. Students are resilient. They deserve the best and we want to make sure we put the best teachers in the classrooms.”
Good intentions, daunting demands
Corgill – who had taught in Mountain Brook, Hoover and Trussville schools for several years – was drawn to Birmingham, she said. She had read about what was happening with the Woodlawn Innovation Network, a group of schools in the eastern community that was being rallied by a concerted effort of support and resources. Corgill wanted to be a part.
“My heart and soul had been tugging,” she said. “It was time to make a difference in a new community.”
She was hired to teach second grade at Henry J. Oliver Elementary School the summer of 2015. Tucked away in a corner in the aging community of Oak Ridge Park, the 482 kindergarten through fifth-graders are housed in a newly minted, brick two-story building only two years-old.
On a recent Friday, the outdoor message board admonished: ATTENDANCE IS IMPORTANT, BE HERE EVERYDAY. The grounds were serene just before lunchtime. Fat pine cones dotted the land and a black fence lined the perimeter. Behind the building, kids – wearing various combinations of school-uniform blue, khaki and white – swung high on swings and ran around the playground.
Oliver had been a small community school since opening in 1959. It merged with the nearby Gate City Elementary, combining the populations of two public housing communities along with nearby home and apartment dwellers.
The school has struggled with getting acceptable test scores. For example, of the fifth- graders who took the ACT Aspire reading test in 2014-2015 nearly 70 percent did not meet academic content standards.
But Corgill welcomed the challenge, she said.“I spent all summer in that classroom,” she said. “I rearranged that room ten times. I was literally there almost every day. I wanted it just right and to feel like a place that honored children.”
The first day was a treat, Corgill said. “They were talkative, excited, and jumpy and wiggly and loud and funny. We practiced moving from the rug to our spot and finding a book.”
After a few days, however, she realized there were a multitude of needs.
“I was not prepared,” she said. “I recognized that these kids needed lots and lots and lots of support in order to be able to problem-solve or to make a decision that is not going to hurt someone or to learn how to stand in the line to walk to the lunchroom.”
Some children had severe behavioral issues and problems at home that would make an adult shudder, she said. Those issues would manifest into trouble focusing in the classroom.
“Every day I was ordering books,” she said. “I was reading, studying up, going online and researching ‘How do you help a child who is angry, abused or won’t communicate.’ It didn’t matter that I was teacher of the year – awards, credentials, certifications, degrees.”
“Sometimes we as teachers want to have high expectations, and we should, but we should also find out where they are and move from there,” said Tonya Perry, Ph.D., director for the UAB Center for Urban Education. “You have to figure out thirty times simultaneously where you need to be and that is hard if there is an academic mismatch in what the teacher believes you can do and what you can do.”
“I started to question my own beliefs,” Corgill said. “Am I biased? Is this something that is cultural? I wanted to have serious hard conversations with people and I didn’t know how to do that. I wanted to be respectful of what’s normal. I knew it was going on in people’s heads that, ‘Oh, she’s from Mountain Brook, she’s white, oh she’s teacher of the year.’ I wanted them to know that I am just a person who wants to learn from them and help children.”
Nearly 80 percent or above of the teaching force is middleclass white women, Perry said, while 45 percent (and climbing) of students in schools across the country are minorities.
“The best thing you can do is observe the culture, the customs and the practices,” Perry said. She suggests educators learn to crack the code in how their students best learn.
“There are other ways they can learn that have value. Hidden literacies. They could be ingrained in their home lives,” Perry said, speaking in general terms and not in reference to Corgill. “Take the time to get to know that. You can’t be a white woman and think you are going to make your children great based on your frame.”
Plus, behavioral issues at an urban school can be because of a multitude of reasons, fourth-grade teacher Keana Winston said.
“It’s a coin that has more than two sides,” she said. “Some are facing food insecurity. Some are in foster care. Some couldn’t sleep the night before because there was a shooting outside. They are in these itty bitty bodies and expected to act like adults when they get home.”
Some educators advised Corgill to “Show them (the kids) who’s boss” or “You can’t let them get away with anything,’” she said.
“So I was struggling because my belief is you’ve got to let them fail and mess up so they can learn and change behavior and mindset,” Corgill said. “So, if I am punishing all day and sitting them out of recess and yelling and taking off points, that’s just punishing and its putting a Band-Aid on something that needs stitches.”
And there was yelling at the students, Corgill said.
“This is something I questioned: Am I being disrespectful by saying I would never do this. I didn’t want to be disrespectful if that is the way different children respond. But I still don’t believe that any children should be screamed at, or belittled.”
Academic officer Sullivan said screaming is not the standard in Birmingham classrooms.
“I’ve never been there (at Oliver) and have seen people yelling,” he said. “All people want to be treated with dignity and respect and no one wants to be yelled at, no matter what culture you come from. Our teachers understand that.”
“I am not going to lie and say it doesn’t happen,” said third-grade teacher Lane Tucker. “If a teacher is yelling at the moment, they have exhausted everything on that checklist. That is what some respond to best. But then, no matter what happens, the teacher tells their students they love them. It’s over; we are ready for a new day tomorrow. It’s not out of hatred, it’s out of frustration.”
Corgill began to do it, too.
“I screamed for the first time in my career,” she said. “When you are surrounded by negativity you tend to fall into it. I felt that weight, that heaviness. I didn’t like that.”
Sullivan acknowledges there were “about 27 disciplinary actions” from the start of school August 5 up through October, he said.
“I don’t see that as rising to the level of a being a school that is out of control,” he said, noting that most of those incidents were 5-to-6-year-olds who may or may not have been “having a tantrum.” And, if the same child had multiple issues, each incident is counted individually. Disciplinary actions can range from minor offenses like distracting other students to major ones such as drug or alcohol use.
Sullivan said that this number is a slight rise, but after several requests the school system did not provide the exact numbers and those from comparative years.
“Those children are bad hell,” parent Hamilton said. She acknowledges that her son has been one to cause disruptions in the school. He threatened to kill someone, she said, but was put in in-school suspension. Hamilton felt like her son should have been suspended.
She feels as if leadership at Oliver does not dole out punishments equal to the infractions to keep the schools numbers of major disciplinary actions down.
An unexpected move
After a few weeks in, Corgill was starting to settle in, she said, but then on the Thursday leading into Labor Day weekend, the principal told her that she wanted her to make a switch.
“She said, ‘I want you to try fifth grade,’” Corgill recalled. The fifth-grade teacher was leaving to take a curriculum job, and this switch would go into effect the following Tuesday.
“I was so shocked,” she said. She felt that the principal moved her because she did not seem to have a grasp on the behavioral issues of her second-grade class.
“I told the principal that I would do whatever was needed to help the school,” she said, but she also warned the principal that fifth grade was out of her territory of familiarity.
“I don’t know fifth grade,” she told her. Second-grade was her sweet spot and the thought of having to teach fractions to fifth-graders was nerve wrecking.
But when Corgill got in the fifth-grade class, she learned that second-grade work was right in line with the grade-level many of the students were on, she said. “And that blew my mind.”
There were also students with serious mental and emotional issues who need specialized lessons.
“I never saw an IEP,” Corgill said of the Individualized Education Program, which is a written statement plan individualized for students with special needs. “I had three children in my class that went out for special services and for some reason I could not get my hands on an IEP to read their plan. I kept being told they had a checklist of things we can work on. I was like, we have to look at the IEP. It is a legal document.”
Parents like Hamilton were furious because there are specific directions on how to make sure her son can be in an environment for his optimal performance. If the educator doesn’t know what not to do, it can affect his behavior dramatically.
Corgill was out of her league, she said. Then, she was contacted by the board of education.
“They say, a month into this, I was not certified,” she said.
In the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a Title I school has to have what is considered a “highly-qualified” teacher, which means a teacher with an Alabama State certification. (The Every Child Succeeds Act has now replaced that. The language “highly qualified” is no longer there, but the requirement about state certification remains.)
Corgill got her first Pre-K-3 Alabama teaching certificate when she started teaching in 1994. In 2000, she passed her national boards and got the Middle Childhood Generalist Certification, allowing her to teach grades 3-8. She did her national board re-certification in 2010.
“Little did I know Alabama does not accept national board certification as equal to an Alabama state certificate,” she said. “It is not even honored in our state in Title I schools. This had never been a problem anywhere else.”
It was acceptable for her to teach up to grades 3 because of her Alabama certificate, but her national board certification that extends to grades 8 was moot. In order to continue teaching fifth grade she would need to pay to take a series of tests proving she is qualified in the eyes of the state.
At the same time, Corgill noted that there are teachers in Oliver’s classrooms that do not have certification at all.
Teach for America recruits college graduates and professionals to teach in high-need schools. Currently, they have four teachers at Oliver, according to the organization. Some of the teachers have completed their certification, but not all. Fourth-grade teacher Winston, who had worked at a public relations firm, is on her second year teaching at Oliver. She is currently working on obtaining an alternative certification through Alabama State Department of Education’s Alternative Baccalaureate-Level Certificate Approach. Before being hired on this certification route, she was required to have a bachelor’s degree with a 2.5 GPA, pass a series of teaching exams, and be enrolled in an in-state master’s degree program in elementary education.
This did not sit well with Corgill.
“They wanted me to take a test and I put my foot down,” she said. “I was like enough is enough. You are pulling people off the street to teach. You are honoring people who do not have teaching certificates and letting them teach.”
Ashli Hamilton was disturbed when she learned of the non-certified teachers.
“Something needs to be done,” she said. “You are not supposed to be teaching children.”
“Teach for America teachers can teach in our school. They are teachers who may or may not have have certification,” Sullivan, with the board, said. “There are avenues by which they can gain certification. All are degreed. They have the content knowledge and are working on pedagogue as far as the alternative or the emergency certification.”
Corgill was given the option to go to another school and start another class in primary grades.
“I have been with two groups of children in less than nine weeks,” she told them. “To move me to another class is not fair to any of the children or to me. So, I wasn’t going to pick up and move again somewhere else.”
The board also offered to pay for her to take the tests.
“It is not about paying, it is about honoring the certification I have and trusting my expertise,” Corgill said. “You moved me here; you wanted me here. So, figure it out. Emergency certification is not hard. I didn’t push it and they didn’t offer it.”
Corgill’s students were upset, teacher Winston said. “I hate it for the kids,” she said, “but it teaches them to be flexible and adapt. Kids are resilient.”
Tucker said that several of the fifth-grade students were reading the news articles printed about Corgill and Oliver. She found herself having to answer questions about why the woman left. “She decided to leave,” she told them. “It was her choice. It didn’t have anything to do with students.”
Not long after that, retired educator Vickie Jones got a phone call from Oliver’s principal. Jones had taught third grade before but came home to care for her dying mother, and then she wanted to spend time with her growing children.
When she was interviewed for the position for a second-grade vacancy, Jones asked why there was an opening so late in the school year. She was told there were several openings, in second, third and fifth, Jones said.
When she was hired, she assumed it was for second grade but was told she would be put in the fifth-grade slot. “I wouldn’t have hired me for that position,” Jones said. “I questioned it, but I took it anyway.”
“The first day was horrible,” Jones said. She was given a binder and “it had kindergarten level lessons, like letter recognition.” She discovered that one student couldn’t read or write. She could only recognize the letters in her name.
And, that first week, Jones was told she had four days before progress reports had to go out to parents. She had to scramble and do quick assessments of the students so that she could at least have something to turn in.
She also found out she had a child with mental issues that could be agitated with certain triggers. She learned that when she unknowingly triggered him.
“I was about to walk out of the door,” Jones said. “It’s very frustrating. I wanted to leave, but I made a promise and I wanted to keep my promise.”
During a recent visit, teachers looked drained headed to the lunchroom as they walked beside a line of students snaking along the walls. One teacher looked up and gave Jones a tired look of solidarity.
“I have a room at Hill Crest,” one joked, referring to a mental health facility.
A fifth-grader with glasses and high-top fade proclaimed, “We’re the baddest class in the school.” When asked why he thought that, he simply said, “You’ll see.”
On this day, the students in Jones’ class have a paper due at 2:30 p.m. They are supposed to write a cover letter, one page about alternative fuel sources and include a works-cited page.
But for most of them, writing is anything but what they are doing. One student is feverishly tapping on the laptop, trying to revive it.
One student stood up and proclaimed, “I’m god!”
Another responded: “I seen Jesus in a book.”
“If you see Jesus in real life, you will die.”
“If I could time travel I would go back and eat that apple,” the student said, presumably talking about the Garden of Eden.
Jones tries to focus them: “Use your resources,” she said. And the room is filled with them. A bright, airy classroom with tan walls and dreamcicle orange cabinets expose a room with a brand new Promethean board, shelves and shelves of books, Ziploc bags of colorful cubes to help with math computation. There is an American flag hanging with pride from the walls. Weekly objectives as well as definitions of verbs, adjectives, nouns, and conjunctions are posted for all to see.
Jones was frustrated, though. Students ask her the same questions over and over again, acting as if they haven’t heard of the lessons she taught them. One asks her a word he doesn’t know.
“De-ter-mine,” she sounds out to him.
On days when her fifth grade class is too hard to manage and nothing she learned in all her years of teacher training seems to work, Jones walks over to her desk and lets her mind roam to another place.
“I sit there, look out of the window and stare at the railroad tracks,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. Every day I have my resignation letter already written out. I just change the date.”
On Wednesday, May 11, it turned out that she didn’t need that letter. Jones was told by the principal that her contract would not be renewed. She feels as if it is in retaliation for her talking for this story.
“I am disgusted with the whole system,” said Jones, who after being told she was fired would have to continue working nearly two more weeks.
“How many people have to leave before you understand it’s a problem?”
Seeing the positive
Other teachers at Oliver don’t echo Jones’ sentiments.
“Oliver is a great school,” second-grade teacher Smith said. “They can say that elephants are roaming around the school, but come to the school and see for yourself. And, volunteer to help.”
Smith lists off the many things at Oliver that are “good,” she said, from the math derby to the science fair and a recent basketball game of the teachers versus the students. The school staff often goes into the community and hosts cookouts and events to build relationships, she said.
There are also several measures put in place to help support positive student conduct, Sullivan said, including Oliver’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support program where students are recognized for behaving well. There is a student-of-the-month program and several incentives put in place to encourage positive behavior.
In addition, Oliver has been the recipient of many resources provided by the Woodlawn Innovation Network. The school was the first in the city to receive its own site coordinator, a full-time staff person whose main job is to find resources for the students and their families. David Liddell began in August of 2014.
Liddell works with the school and community to forge partnerships that include teacher training, a farm lab in conjunction with Jones Valley Farm, a mentoring program called The Breakfast Club, a feeding program that provides food for the weekend to 115 children and supplying an on-site mental therapist who provides services 30 hours a week.
And as far as getting students on the track for academic excellence, “We are teaching and teaching hard,” Smith said. “Parents send the best they have and we are giving them (the students) the best we’ve got.”
“Academic wise, I can only speak for my kids,” third-grade teacher Tucker said. “I have a couple who are not on third-grade level, but some are on sixth, seventh and eighth-grade level. There are struggling readers, but also some in the gifted program.” (A certified teacher comes weekly to work with advanced students and their teachers to make sure they are getting lessons that have the rigor they need.)
Burney said that Corgill’s former students are making strides.
“Right now they are doing an awesome job with the teacher they have,” she said. “They have made some growth. I see progress. Do I think that they would have done better with a consistent teacher? They would have.”
“It was disappointing to lose Corgill,” Liddell said. “She loved the kids. It was even more disappointing that the conversation about Oliver was not about the innovative things they are doing.”
What’s the solution?
Corgill hates the negative attention Oliver got, too, she said. Her only hope looking forward is that maybe something good for the children can come from this.
“We’ve got to have this school of teachers with the same vision and same belief about kids and the same way of handling them and we didn’t have that. Building a solid community with their eyes on the child.”
She is still determined to teach in Birmingham, she said. She wants to create a school.
“I see the need for a mixed income, mixed everything, of all children of all races of all background, religions to come together to be one,” she said. Her vision is to have the first teaching school in Alabama where teachers-in-training “live with us and have a vision of what it can be. If we can get young, passionate, excited and child-centered humans in the building from the very moment they enter college, then we can grow schools.”
She said she is not trying to preach the ills of Oliver or any school.
“It is about doing what I can at this moment and time and about living my purpose and what I was put on this earth to do. I don’t want to be a principal, I don’t want to be a coach, I don’t want to be a district administrator. Those are not my gifts. I want to teach children. That’s what I do, she said. Burney, Smith, Tucker and the others at Oliver said that’s their goal, too.
“Come see what we do in action,” Burney said. “You would be amazed. We are doing some good things.”
And she said it is not fair to judge Oliver based on this one tough year.
“It’s like looking in your home and judging you based on one bad week, one bad day,” she said. “All the good times, which outweigh the bad, don’t matter.”
About the writer
Marie A. Sutton, a proud alumna of Oliver Elementary School, is a writer in Birmingham, AL. She is the author of “The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark” and is director of UAB Student Media.
Read the previous report: Alabama Teacher of the Year Leaves Classroom. Here’s Her Story.