A Deeper Look: Superintendent Responds to Huntsville School System Scrutiny

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Earlier this week WHNT News 19 brought viewers a story regarding allegations Huntsville City School teachers were being asked to change grades. We also took action to bring the concern straight to the superintendent.

WHNT News 19 obtained a copy of an email we are told is from now-retired University Place Elementary School Principal Lee McAllister to all school instructors. The email that has been circulated on blogs and social media reads:

“It has been the procedure all year that no child is to receive below a 50 on their report card as the grade for any subject.”

The email goes on to say if any teacher has given a grade lower than 50, it should be changed. Superintendent Casey Wardynski says this email does not have ethical implications of any sort.

“I think in one of our elementary schools the principal put out don’t give kids less than 50 percent; I’m fine with that. If you’re in second grade and you get a zero it’s going to be very difficult to recovery from. A 100 and a 0 average out to a 50 – that’s still an F. What we want to convey to kids is have we mastered these skills or haven’t you? And have you mastered them on a high level, an advanced level or just barely; those are the key ideas.”

Wardynski says he was happy to debunk what he calls a complete misunderstanding but there are groups of parents, retired teachers and education advocates who claim ‘there’s more where that came from.’

In recent weeks the state of Huntsville City Schools has been the topic bringing passionate parents together in town hall settings specifically to discuss what they call ‘real solutions’ for failing schools.

Increased parent involvement is the primary call to action but school administrators maintain there is certainly a big difference between a failing school and a school prescribed by designated standards as “failing”.

Passion, they say, is a plus but we asked Huntsville’s superintendent how he personally responds to grassroots groups who are organizing, recruiting, rallying, blogging and posting under the premise just about everything the school system is doing is “outside the best interest of Huntsville students.”

“Well there all certain people that like a little bit of the limelight and schools certainly direct a lot of attention,” says Wardynski, “but when I go around town I probably can’t count the number of times during the day that people are appreciative of the direction Huntsville City Schools are headed.”

From allegations of grade changing to Butler High School complaints compiled in an infamous notebook by those who purport violence in schools has been swept under the rug – Casey Wardynski says during his time in Huntsville he has heard it all.

“There’s the odd individual here and there who is worried about ‘too much testing, not enough testing, grades aren’t hard enough, grades are too hard’ –  that sort of stuff. What I try to do is keep my eye on the key issue that we’re trying to focus on which is getting kids ready for college and career,” Wardynski says.

Others, like Terri Michal, say there is more to the story.

“I think they are really starting to get concerned as more information comes out about things that maybe aren’t being done correctly in the schools.”

Michal, who touts herself as a fierce education advocate has been one of the most vocal challengers of the school system.

“This policy of changing grades and not allowing any child to get below a 40 at Butler or a 50 at University Place, that is not written anywhere; parents don’t know. That’s the scary part of it whether it’s right or wrong, helpful or not helpful, they have unwritten policies they are enforcing parents are unaware of – that’s where it’s wrong,” Michal claims.

Wardynski says, though, grading transparency is a continued concerted effort by the system.

“That’s the reason this year we began our shift to standards-based report cards so there we’ll spell out the specific standards we are interested in a child mastering and then mom and dad will be able to see ‘well, they got a high-level of mastery in these areas of math, I know what they can do’, as opposed to, ‘well they got an A in 3rd grade math — what is 3rd grade math about, I’m trying to remember?’.”

Michal brings up the debate and school of thought which says the current grading system is “busted.”

“The A, B, C, D, F – it’s all wrong and we’re just trying to level the playing field which is one of the arguments behind doing this with grades,” Michal says. “How about we fix the grading system?”

While advocates remain passionate Wardynski says he has to remain dispassionate when it comes to policy.

“If you base your policies on emotion you’re probably going to be unhappy at the end of the day,” he says. “School systems are about large things: large number of grades, large number of children, large number of standards. We need to be pretty analytic and somewhat dispassionate when we’re thinking about what we want our kids to be able to do; that’s not an emotional topic. That’s a topic about ‘can I get a job, can I go to college?’ – emotion is not going to do you a lot of good there,” Wardynski explains.

The superintendent says despite his efforts to dispel what he calls misinformation he is sure those who protest policy will continue to show up at board meetings this fall.
Organizers of grassroots advocacy groups tell us they certainly don’t plan to give up on their mission any time soon.