Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin announced Tuesday that the pilot program of his Birmingham Promise Education Initiative had been successfully completed, though he entreated members of the city’s business community to partner with the program as it expands.
The City Council approved Birmingham Promise as part of the city’s FY 2020 budget, though not without controversy. The $2 million to fund the initiative was taken out of the city’s allocation to Birmingham City Schools, which was cut from $3.2 million to $1 million. That cut drew criticism from some school board members, although others downplayed the impact it would have on the school system’s overall budget. Birmingham school Superintendent Lisa Herring supported the initiative, cowriting a letter with Woodfin introducing the program.
Woodfin has described Birmingham Promise, a private-public partnership that intends to give juniors and seniors in city schools paid internships and dual enrollment opportunities, as “probably the biggest apprenticeship program this city or any city its size has ever seen in America.”
Twenty-three students graduated from the pilot program last week, having spent summer internships with companies including Shipt, Altec and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama.
In a video celebrating the graduation presented to the council at Tuesday’s meeting, Rachel Harmon — the deputy director of talent development in Woodfin’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity — said the program would “(provide) students with real-world work opportunities and build mentorships and professional experiences and then supporting them when they go off to post-secondary institutions for school.”
The video also included corporate leaders such as Leroy Abrahams, head of community affairs at Regions Bank, urging other businesses to participate in the program. “If you’re an organization doing business in Birmingham, you have a vested interest in the success of our students,” Abrahams said.
Some members of the council, including John Hilliard and Wardine Alexander, made the call-to-action even more explicit. “I challenge each one of you in the audience to reach out to other corporate communities, other providers, and even some of the other leaders in our communities,” Hilliard said. “If we want Birmingham to go forward, we have to look into the future and we have to pull everyone along with us.”
Council President Valerie Abbott, meanwhile, hurried to clarify that not all businesses that partner with Birmingham Promise need to be “big, giant corporations.”
“We need more people from the corporate community, but businesses of any type can have an intern,” she said. “We need hundreds of businesses to take on these young people so that they can learn. … It could be a mom-and-pop business that wants to teach someone the ins and outs of running a business. … I think we all need to work to encourage other businesses to take on an intern.”
Abbott also worked to dispel criticisms that the funding for Birmingham Promise had taken money away from city schools, saying that, instead, the funding reallocated to the program from the schools in the FY 2020 budget had been replenished by increased tax revenue.
“(Birmingham City Schools) really didn’t lose $3 million,” she said. “They kind of stayed even on that $3 million (because of the revenue increase), and this is in addition. … We didn’t take anything from anybody, and I think that’s a very important point for people to consider.
Hilliard also dismissed critics of the program. “When you’re an innovator and you’re doing something different, you’re going to get the naysayers saying it won’t work,” he said. “But I realize this: you’ve got to keep trying, keep pushing to the very end.”
The only voice on the dais in opposition to the program was Councilor Steven Hoyt, who had vocally opposed the program during the FY 2020 budget process and ultimately voted against the budget as a whole.
“Certainly the mayor is warranted a celebration with respect to what he’s trying to do with our young people,” he said. “Of course, principally I already said I disagree with that, because I think we could have augmented our programs that we already have and that exist with the Birmingham City School system. But it’s good to know that at least the interim program is working. That’s fine. I want to commend you.”
The city will announce its “broader campaign” for the Birmingham promise program in February.