2017 Birmingham Elections

Parents Criticize Birmingham Public Schools. Still, ‘Somebody in Every School is Fighting for Something,’ They Say.

Voters gathered at Woodlawn United Methodist Church to discuss education issues before the upcoming city elections.

“Why are parents having to create battle strategies?”

The question was from Nicholas – a new parent, a teacher, a volunteer supporting Birmingham public schools – and addressed to Birmingham parents of school-age children.

It came in a BW Listening conversation focused on education issues Thursday at Woodlawn United Methodist Church. BirminghamWatch is asking what’s on the minds of Birmingham voters as they approach elections of a mayor, members of the City Council and members of the school board.  Facilitator Marie King – who also has moderated city election candidate forums – guided the discussion.

Nicholas listened to parents in the small group talk about problems in their children’s education, being involved in the schools and communicating with teachers and administrators.

“Keep everything documented,” cautioned Valencia, an active school volunteer who nonetheless had trouble getting her son’s problem with another student addressed.

“Get to know other parents. Educate one another. Have your tribe,” said Yawntreshia, who once pulled her child from a city school rather than protest her own treatment.

“Why can’t parents get engaged? Parents are turned off; they’re being treated beneath their personal dignity. When you get turned off by the schools, you’re not talking about going to the board meeting,” she said.

It’s an environment in which a parent may quickly reject the city’s public school system. Kenyata, looking for a demanding school for her child, was told there would be no homework in an early grade, she said. She immediately opted for a private, religious school. “When it comes to your kid, you’ve got to be there for your kid,” she said.

Challenges for parents in dealing with public schools was one of two main topics emphasized at the Listening session. The other was the introduction of charter schools into the Birmingham city schools mix.

Nicholas said he has seen the idea of charter schools “put some fire” to perform beneath the public schools. But parents in the group were suspicious of the motives, accountability and community understanding of those who would run them.

Amanda, who coaches a program for city school students, attended a meeting at which advocates for charter schools promised more resources as a lure. “It’s political activists putting money into the charter school movement,” said Juliet, a parent. She and Amanda see ideological and financial motives – more than educational ones – driving the campaign.  “It’s like private prisons,” Amanda said.

Yawntreshia and others also worry that private sponsors of charter schools will fail to take into account “the truth of the street” in their plans. She and others are aware of Chicago’s school plan, which they say put students at risk by “sending them across town” and across lines that mark gang territory. Juliet suggests that branding schools as failing and opening doors to charters is a lever for gentrification. In that case, she said, newcomers, not current residents, profit.

There’s some burnout with reform efforts. Valencia remembers that her community welcomed Woodlawn Innovation Network (WIN), a privately supported school-improvement initiative, when it came to her community in 2013.

“We were struggling. We needed help,” she said. “The Birmingham city school system wasn’t helping us. The city was not helping.” Now Juliet suggests WIN can be part of the problem, taking teachers out of understaffed schools for meetings and training.

Given their criticisms and complaints, is there anything right with Birmingham city schools, facilitator King asked. Participants in Thursday’s session did see a positive side of the coin: bright, talented students and some teachers; their relationships with other parents; school pride; and “at least somebody in every school fighting for something.”