Birmingham City Schools

A Conversation With the Superintendent: Birmingham Schools’ Herring Talks About Facing Competition for Students, Being Accountable and Building Relationships

Birmingham city schools Superintendent Lisa Herring looks on as Ramsay High School Principal Cassandra Fells and speaks during the graduation. (Source: Julianna Hunter)

Birmingham City Schools have a lot of competition for students, as reflected in enrollment decline and in the private, parochial, charter and other alternative schools that serve the Birmingham community.

Students in the city have many options, depending on religious affiliation, or ability to pay, or talent, or simply availability and choice.

That competition does not go unnoticed and it does have an impact, Dr. Lisa Herring, superintendent of the Birmingham City Schools, said in a recent interview. But she did not grant competition from alternative schools an outsized share of responsibility for enrollment declines in the city schools.

She said talking about competition for Birmingham students also means considering other factors important to student success.

“We always want to strive to be the very best,” she said. “We know that there’s accountability in that. And I believe that’s important, not just for our students but for our teachers, principals, parents and all. But we just want what’s best for our children. … So, if we talk about competition, we have to talk about care. If we say competition, we have to talk about competency.”

Having looked at BCS enrollment over the past 10 years, she said, “There has been slight decline, not extreme, but certainly slight in that there’s some decline each year with one exception … . There was one year when we had an increase.”

The increase was in the 2015-2016 school year, when BCS had 24,010 students in K-12, according to the Alabama State Department of Education website, up from 23,963 the year before. Otherwise Birmingham schools have had gradual declines most of the past decade, with the end result of a nearly 5,000 student decrease. In 2008-2009, the school system had 27,218 enrolled in K-12, according to the state department information. In the 2018-2019 school year, it had 22,246. The ALSDE website includes enrollment back to 1995-1996, when BCS had 39,545 students in K-12.

Pre-K numbers dropped over the decade, from 2,109 in 2008-2009 to 1,938 in 2018-2019. Pre-K enrollment peaked in 2013-2014 with 2,331 students. Going back to ‘95-‘96, there were 3,192 students in pre-K.

Declining enrollment, Herring said, is not all about students leaving for alternatives. “That’s tied to not just having school opportunities and school choice, but also a highly transient community. But to answer your question specifically, it makes us want to stay focused on making our schools a first choice based on offerings, and it’s based on performance.”

 ‘Force for Greatness’

Herring said that fighting declining enrollment is a big part of the BCS five-year strategic plan, “Force for Greatness.” That plan, covering strategies, benchmarks and goals for the district through 2023, addresses ways to do something Herring returned to over and over in the interview: “making sure we offer the opportunity for parents and children to consider us a first choice.”

She pointed to the four pillars of the strategic plan, saying that each addresses enrollment.

Birmingham City Schools’ Strategic Plan

“The first one is tied to student success where we measure our performance across the different grade bands,” Herring said. “But really we measure it so that we have a goal to improve it. Pillars two and three talk about team excellence and stakeholder trust.

“That third pillar, which is stakeholder trust, actually highlights a measure that’s tied to student enrollment and we have a goal to move toward an increase in enrollment. But it’s more than just saying, ‘Come to Birmingham City Schools.’ We’re educators. We know that any family is looking at how do our schools perform, how do we provide resources to improve that and support that and how does our interface with families, with our teachers, with our students, how is that a driver for a sense of belonging. We have been intentional about putting metrics in place in the strategic plan over the next five years.”

Herring said that the plan allows BCS to “monitor and measure” progress toward those goals “and keep us in the space where we can alter or adjust accordingly … . At the end of the day, we want to make certain that if you’re in Birmingham City and you are zoned to a school or at least into our district, we’re giving you an opportunity to select based on what could be best for you and your family. Whether that’s a career academy, whether that’s pre-K, if we can get you in, we want to keep you. And we also want to measure that as well.”

Charter Schools

Charter schools are a relatively new source of competition for Birmingham students. They are public schools that pull students from the local population of kids. They get public funds, so they don’t charge tuition, and they have flexibility under state law to operate independently of local school boards such as Birmingham’s. They do have to meet academic goals and can be shut down if they don’t.

Birmingham currently has two charters – i3 Academy, which will open in 2020 and offer K-5 in the Woodlawn area; and Legacy Prep, originally known as Star Academy, which opened earlier this year in west Birmingham with plans to eventually serve students in grades K-8.

Both schools applied for approval from the Birmingham Board of Education. Both were turned down, only to appeal to the state, specifically the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, which then overruled BCS and approved them.

Herring seemed to take the arrival of the charters in stride.

“I think you’re essentially asking, does enrollment and the fact that charter schools exist drive how we look at applications, etc,” she said. “There’s a protocol and an expectation as I understand the law and the governance that’s the driver for that. So, I think for the system, the board, etc., what we want to do is to make sure that we honor what the state’s put in place.”

The state essentially supporting a system designed to compete against a city district doesn’t affect how Herring feels about her mission. “We honor that because that’s what the state’s put in place. Does it have impact? Sure, it does. But as a leader, it’s less of a ‘feel’ and more so of a focus on how do we drive our work to make sure that we can be considered a first choice.”

Student Transfers

BCS doesn’t track how many students transfer into or out of the district to or from alternative schools, Herring said. Because of that, she said, she had no data on what performance gaps might exist for students moving into or out of BCS.

She said the “transient nature” of parents could be a factor in some transfers. Other reasons “could range from school performance to athletics. There are varying reasons and I think that’s an opportunity for us as a district to engage in terms of stakeholder trust and continuation.”

She cited a Parent Advisory Council that has provided some insight into what parents want from the Birmingham school district.

“Quite honestly, in my engagement with the parent council, their guidance for me is around, not so much the exit (of students), but culture and climate, making certain that we keep an engaging and relevant culture inside of our schools,” Herring said. “I think it also is tied to service. … Relationships – knowing that families and parents and students feel that there’s a relationship with someone in the school as it relates to the needs of their children and then as students get older.”

Parents are also seeking a rigorous curriculum for their students, she said, adding that they would like to see the same kinds of classroom offerings that exist in Birmingham’s more successful schools made available to students “across the entire district versus a select set or a magnet, etc.”

Herring mentioned the BCS career academies. Known officially as Academies of Birmingham, that initiative is described on the BCS website as an “innovative approach to preparing today’s students for career and college success. The mission of the Academies of Birmingham is to provide students with a safe learning environment that promotes intellectual growth and career exploration. Academy students are presented with a rigorous academic curriculum and provided access to business networks that will prepare them now to compete in a global economy.”

“Our career academies are powerful to help us retain students, particularly at the secondary level,” Herring said. “I think for any system, when you start to see a great increase in mobility is when you move from elementary to middle then to the high school.”

Besides the career academies, BCS offers other “stellar programs,” Herring said, specifically touching on music education “where we have been identified across the state and nationally” and Birmingham’s participation in the state’s First Class Pre-K program, a nationally acclaimed curriculum organized under its own department at the state Department of Education. Not all preschools across the state are part of the program, which has a limited, but growing adoption rate. But Herring said all of Birmingham’s pre-K classes are part of the program.

Message to Parents

Herring said that Birmingham City Schools has more to offer than what is reflected in state assessments, although she did acknowledge the need to improve the district’s academic standing.

“Birmingham City Schools is a district to not only watch but a district to get involved in,” she said. “Over the last 24 months … we’ve been intentional about the progress that we have made and that we still need to continue to make and that’s important. … But I think the other part of that is, we care about students.”

She said that, aside from the measures and metrics used in state assessments it’s important to see how Birmingham is helping students in its charge succeed. It’s “the growth that we provide for the students from when they first walk in the door. And we grow our children. We grow our scholars and we love them,” Herring said. “But that doesn’t mean that we’ve perfected it and that’s a journey that we’re willing to take together for Birmingham.

And we want to be accountable. So that’s where that strategic plan matters and that’s, I think, the other piece too – not just talking about it, but being accountable for what we have to do.

“That’s important for me to communicate,” she said, adding that “our doors are open with the full intent of wanting to be able to serve children and serve them well.”

Despite that, she said, one of the goals of the city’s public school system is “making sure we offer the  opportunity for parents and children to consider us a first choice.”

Read BirminghamWatch’s special report on Birmingham schools:

Making the Grade? How Birmingham City Schools Are Doing Depends on Which Measure You Choose.

Many Questions About Birmingham City Schools Remain After Three Months of Trying to Understand the State of Education

The History of the Birmingham City Schools

Shooting for the A — Birmingham Schools principal succeeded at one school. Now he’s aiming to redirect another that is facing significant challenges.

An Introduction to Birmingham Schools, From A to F