HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Many changes are coming to Huntsville City Schools. Thursday, the board approved a major system-wide rezoning plan - one that has people talking, curious, concerned or all three.
WHNT News 19's Steve Johnson spoke with board president David Blair and vice president Laurie McCaulley about the changes coming in 18 months. Blair and McCaulley were our guests February 6 on Leadership Perspectives, our weekly segment that spotlights issues and decision-makers in the Tennessee Valley.
We asked McCaulley why rezoning is important.
"I explain to them, from our perspective, it's time for rezoning," McCaulley said. "This
desegregation order was initiated in 1963. We were 2 years old, most of the parents and I [at the time]. Now, it's ironic, that 51 years later we are having to bring a resolution to these things, and everything we're doing would be to benefit children."
"The longer we wait, I share with them, the harder it's going to get and the more it will impact the city," McCaulley added. "We have always been about treating each other fairly and rightly, and we have always put our children first."
We asked about how the school system's rezoning plan relates to the 1963 desegregation order.
"There were things the court order has explicitly laid out that we need to do," said Blair. "We need to make sure our academics are strong across the whole city, we need to make sure discipline is applied fairly across the city, we need to make sure our staff reflects the racial makeup of the city, plus or minus 15 percent, and that the facilities are equitable."
Blair said many parents have questions about consolidating and closing some schools.
"We had a lot of space we didn't need anymore and we were able to cull that out. Keep in mind, that space takes maintenance. Every dollar we spend on maintenance is a dollar we can't spend in the classroom," Blair said. "Once you start building buildings and consolidating, you have to change zone lines, so it's a manifestation of what we're doing, but it's part of a bigger package."
Many parents and students have expressed frustration about certain schools closing, including Johnson High School and Butler High School. How have board members been able to convince parents and students this is a good thing?
McCaulley answered first. She is a graduate of Johnson, Class of '79, and each of her children are also Johnson alums.
"One of the hardest things to do, to me, was look at my alma mater, and [see] it's not the same school I graduated from," McCaulley said.
McCaulley said both schools are smaller in number now, and combining the two student bodies at the new Jemison High School will give students new opportunities. Butler will bring in about 435 students and Johnson will bring about 560, McCaulley said.
"We try to share with them - I do - that's what's fair," McCaulley said. "It's a new campus, a new school, it's a new combination of students. We would like for them to come together as one because they are District 1, and it's home to both of the communities."
Is it also a fresh start, we asked? Getting a new school with a new name?
"For us, it's the academics. We've changed out the leadership teams at Johnson and Butler," said Blair. "We've seen a 10 percent graduation rate increase at Johnson. We've seen a 15 percent increase at Butler. Certainly everyone is concerned about the buildings [closing], but we're concerned with making sure those kids graduate."
Will getting a new school help the students, we asked? McCaulley replied with an enthusiastic yes.
"We will increase the resources as well as the educational opportunities they didn't have at the current sites. With the number of students we're increasing there, we'll get to offer more programs," McCaulley explained. "When you have a 500-student population, there's not many opportunities that they can have. But now, when you're going to almost a 1,000-student body, they can have more AP classes, more advanced classes, more electives, and that's what we want for them. We want them to have career academies. We want everyone graduating as productive citizens."
In south Huntsville, people have expressed about zoning changes coming to Whitesburg School. The new zone lines bring students who currently attend McDonnell Elementary, many of them Hispanic.
"Right now, [Whitesburg's] poverty level is in the 40 percent range," Blair said. "With moving the McDonnell kids to Chaffee and Whitesburg, it's going to drive their
poverty rates up to the mid-60 percent range. Poverty aside -- we all understand
the effects poverty has on education -- but again, we've been tackling that. So if you look at the educational - the academics at McDonnell, what you find is those kids have been doing a great job. It's a solid school, discipline problems are low, academics are solid, so we feel, our vision, is that we're merging two schools that are similar academically."
"We're going to put programs in there, we're going to put the support in there that is needed, so that school can continue to grow," Blair added.
Blair said the makeup of the Whitesburg area has changed.
"With the school itself, we want to make sure that, you know, the Whitesburg area is transitioning. It's a graying neighborhood, and you've got folks that are moving off," Blair said. "We want to make sure that area is a destination for folks, that they want to come there for the academics, for the programs, for the track - we're talking about continuing to support Grissom - we want Grissom to continue to be strong, grow to be
strong, as well as all the other high schools - but we do not want to do anything to impact that track right there."
Will the Huntsville zoning changes end the failing school problem, we asked?
"We're focusing strongly on academics. The leadership is changing. The resources are changing," McCaulley said.
McCaulley explained how the school district has changed its hiring policies.
"We're changing our teachers - bringing in effective teachers. Even with our hiring processes, we do that differently, because in the past, when we had schools that are on those lists, not meeting state standards, it was difficult to find teachers who would come work at those schools," McCaulley said. "So what we do now, is that central office does the hiring, and our teachers go through a tough screening committee. Afterwards, they are put on a list. Our principals pick from that list. All those teachers that pass the interview must agree to work any place in any school, that the superintendent sees fit to place them. If they refuse, they cannot have employment with Huntsville City
Blair said in the system's most recent round of hiring, Huntsville City Schools had almost 20,000 applications for 150 positions.
"We've got a lot of folks who want to be here," Blair said.
Are parents buying in to this, we asked? How do board members respond to parents' concerns?
"What they're going to be looking for is actions. These changes won't take place for 18 months, so we've got 18 months for a transition plan," Blair said. "What I'm asking everybody -- hey c'mon, be part of the solution -- come help up. Give us suggestions, and then, at the end of that 18 months, if it's terrible, then make the best decision for your child. But for these 18 months, c'mon, let's all pull together, let's get what we need in there and really make this a success. The vision we have for these schools is that every one of our kids graduates. Every one of these kids is college and career ready and we're moving towards that vision."
Regarding the Department of Justice - should we be released from the 1963 desegregation order, and why?
"I think Huntsville City has demonstrated that -- this new board -- our good faith effort in complying with everything [the DOJ has] put in front of us," said McCaulley. "We have tackled the issue of transportation. We are tackling the issue of staff placement. One thing said in the original decree, when they came through - the predominantly black schools had predominantly black staff, and the predominantly white schools had predominantly white staff. And so one of those provisions was, they wanted the staff to reflect the city. Check - we've done that."
"Regarding quality of teachers/curriculum - we have a process in place, policies in place now to make sure that no longer happens," McCaulley added.
It's easier said than done, though. The Department of Justice opposes Huntsville's school rezoning plan and has one of its own. Why, we asked?
"They want to make sure there are still things in place that they continue to monitor the system. They want to make sure that a school system that is truly demonstrating, that as soon as they say okay, you get unitary status, that they don't go back into your old habits," said Blair. "We understand that. Unitary status is not a holy grail. It's kind of like a blue ribbon. The blue ribbon rewards you for the excellence you're doing, and so that's the same thing we're doing. We're doing the right thing across the city, and demonstrating it - not talking about it, but doing it - and so if we continue to do that, unitary status just kind of comes along."