Madison’s Superintendent Talks About School Growth, Common Core

MADISON, Ala. (WHNT) – Madison City Schools are constantly growing – and that presents challenges, says Superintendent Dee Fowler.

Dr. Fowler joined us February 27 for Leadership Perspectives, WHNT News 19’s weekly interview segment hosted by Steve Johnson featuring newsmakers and issues in the Tennessee Valley.

Madison City Schools gain about 300 students every year, Fowler said.  He says he can’t remember a time when the system hasn’t been building a new school or renovating an existing one to accommodate that growth.

“We always say keeping growth positive is one of the biggest challenges we have in Madison City, but it is a great challenge to have,” said Dr. Fowler. “We would rather be in a growing district than in a declining district.  A lot our budget is consumed by paying our mortgage on our new buildings.”

However, school funding doesn’t increase every year.  How does Madison manage to get the money to keep building, we asked?

“You know alot of people, when I go around the state, people say ‘Well, you’re from a rich district.’ That gives me some pause because we know the numbers,and when we look at the numbers, we’re probably the poorest rich district or the richest poor district in the state,” said Dr. Fowler. “We’re on the cusp there. But I always tell the folks this, too: We’re a rich district because the citizens in our community have made education a priority. If you live in the City of Madison, you pay 27 mils of property tax for education. The state law only says 10.”

“We have funds, but we have funds because our citizens have decided that’s important for us.”

Madison is currently renovating Bob Jones High School, which is relatively new.

Fowler said one the biggest expenses is trying to keep technology up to date.

“Things that were new five years ago are antiquated now, as far as technology
goes,” he said.

Fowler said the school district has been fortunate with state and federal funding.  He said a state bond issue helped fund the construction of Mill Creek Elementary and federal stimulus money helped build James Clemens High School.  Now, the district is able to afford renovating Bob Jones because the state legislature passed the BRAC bill to distribute money to districts that were impacted by the BRAC move.

“We’ve been very fortunate that every time we’ve got to build a new school, a blessing happens for us, and we’re able to access that blessing because our city fathers have given us the means to be ready when something comes around,” said Dr. Fowler.

Fowler said there are approximately 10,000 students in the Madison system, with more coming.  He said the growth is good, but causes him concern, too.

“I love the city. I say this and I mean it in all sincerity. If they made Madison socks, I’d wear ‘em. I’m a Madison guy,” Dr. Fowler said with a grin. “But I worry that every time we build a new school, that becomes a hot spot in the city.”

“We’ve always said that Madison City Schools will be great, and Madison City Schools will enjoy greatness as long as it doesn’t matter where you go to school. If you go to Bob Jones or you go to James Clemens, you get the same education, you get the same opportunities. If you go to Discovery Middle or Liberty Middle, or if you go to Mill Creek or you go to Rainbow Elementary, you all get the same quality education, and that’s what we’ve got to work toward,” Dr. Fowler added.

We asked Fowler about Huntsville’s Digital 1-1 Initiative, where each student has a school-issued computer.  Does Madison plan to do that soon?

“One size does not fit all,” Fowler said. “Huntsville is doing exactly what they need to do for Huntsville City Schools, and hopefully we’re doing for Madison City Schools what our students need.”

Madison City Schools encourages students to bring their own device, and a recent survey showed 90 percent of students have their own device, Fowler said.

He said he has a superintendent’s advisory committee made up of secondary students
from around the district. They give him feedback on different topics, and they’ve definitely discussed this one.

“They like the blend of ‘bring your own device’ and a book,” Fowler said.  He said they’ve asked students if they’d like to go all digital. Students say no, they like the book, with a device.

Fowler also said they try to make accommodations for students who do not have their
own device.

“Everybody doesn’t have the same opportunities. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that in the City of Madison, one out of every five kids is on
free or reduced lunch. So yes, we have our challenges,” he said.

Madison recently added Spanish in Kindergarten and First grade.

“We hope to add a grade every year,” said Fowler. “Research has shown that learning a different language enhances learning across the board.”

“To be very frank, I think in America we’re somewhat behind the curve with
this,” he added.

Fowler said parents have thanked him for adding Spanish to the curriculum.

“The Earth is now flat. There are no boundaries. We have to prepare kids for a global economy, a global learning environment,” he said.

We asked Dr. Fowler about Common Core – the highly politicized educational standards. He didn’t shy away from the question nor did he dance around the answer when we asked him if he supports Common Core.

“Yes, I support Common Core and yes, I support the way it’s been implemented in Madison City Schools,” Fowler said right away.

“We started the Common Core math standards two years ago. This year, we’re seeing some great growth. We’re very excited about where it’s going. This year, we rolled out the English and Language Arts standards,” said Fowler. “Those standards are more difficult than the standards we’ve had in the state of Alabama, and I think initially, there were some parents who were like, ‘Whoa, my kid’s not doing as well in reading and English and language arts as they had been in previous years. I don’t think I like this.'”

“Now, then, I think as it grows, and people see that this standard is a more rigorous standard – the old standards were 1999 standards. I don’t want my doctor using 1999 standards. I don’t want my computer to be from 1999. Why would I want my education standards to be from 1999? Kids change. The way we teach changes. These standards have to change. The new standards help us to have kids know more ‘why’ than just rote memorization.”

Dr. Fowler stressed rote memorization is needed – students must know their multiplication tables and rules for English and grammar.

“But we want kids to be more inquisitive,” Fowler added.  “We want them to know why things happen, instead of that it just happens.”

Obviously, there are parents who don’t like Common Core.  What is his response to their concerns?

Fowler said the school system has worked with PTAs to hold forums to talk about the standards.  They’ve also had the books on display for parents to review.

“I got one email that I won’t forget – it was from a person who was very strongly entrenched in the right wing of the Republican Party. He wrote to me and he said ‘Dee, I’ve read this book,’ and he said ‘I don’t think anyone has ever – there’s never been a textbook written that everyone likes, and I don’t see anything different in this textbook,'” Fowler said.

“When you really look at it – how do you slant math to be anything but math?” Fowler added.