Huntsville City Schools attends status conference to update court on consent order

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala held a public status conference Wednesday in the Huntsville City Schools Desegregation Case for Huntsville City Schools and the US Department of Justice to inform the public and the court on the progress with the consent order. The conference lasted for more than eight hours.

The school system is using the consent order as a tool toward unitary status, which when reached would mean the government is confident that Huntsville City Schools is offering equal educational opportunities to all students.

The status conference, in which no decisions were made, was open for the public to attend. At the end, community members were able to provide feedback to the court on how they see the consent order is going.

The Status Conference

A status conference is similar to a hearing in that oral arguments are heard, except no decisions are made and the court makes no rulings. It is more like a court-mandated meeting.

Huntsville City Schools, the DOJ and the court do this semi-annually to provide reports.

Today the audience included PTA members, parents, board members and members of the Desegregation Advisory Committee.

Board attorneys and Superintendent Matt Akin said they believe that the system is making strides toward multiple green factors. They feel most confident that the transportation system does not discriminate based on race, and have moved for unitary status on that area. The DOJ still needs to confer and agree.

But attorneys say even if unitary status is reached in that singular area, there is much more work to do.

That includes instruction, where district leaders say they recognize there are literacy problems and math acceleration. The DOJ expressed concern that students who are behind will never meet the standards.

Discipline

Discipline was perhaps the biggest discussion. DOJ attorneys said it was the area where they received the most concerns, both real and perceived. They want to address all of those concerns.

The system presented multiple discipline initiatives. They also presented data that shows there is still disparity in this category.

There was an increase in discipline for every racial group last year, said attorney Chris Pape, although he could not determine whether that is from an increase in reporting through the BLOOM app that helps teachers track discipline data electronically.

He said there is a 4:1 ratio between black and white students respectively, who are being sent to their school offices for discipline referrals. For out of school suspension, that ratio goes up to 16:3.

Attorneys say this means there are still gaps between the racial groups, and the district will continue to take action by tracking data monthly. They feel confident they will see change.

The positive here, said Pape, is that there were fewer expulsions between last year and the year before, a dramatic change from year to year. He said this speaks to the progressive steps the schools are taking and mindfulness of the principals.

Arrests did not seem to change between the two years, Pape said.

Also wrapped into this discussion is the LAUNCH/ACE program, where the school system is operating an alternative school following its termination of the contract with Pinnacle Schools. District leaders said they want to continue to meet students where they are and work on career tech aspects of this to make sure the alternative school has engaging instruction, which is a challenge.

The DOJ said they will continue to have an ongoing dialogue with the system with regard to discipline.

There was much discussion about the Behavioral Learning Guides. Christie Finley, deputy superintendent, stressed that it is a living document and can be changed to make improvements if the district finds there is something that isn't working. The district believes the Behavioral Learning Guides, although they are changed between years, keep the same philosophy and can provide much-needed discipline stability. The DOJ said the BLG is an important tool to ensure consequences for poor behavior are age-appropriate and consistent.

They look forward to reviewing the discipline data more carefully and seeing if the BLG has a positive impact on the schools.

The DOJ approved of the discipline initiatives the school system has taken, counting these as a positive step. Another positive step, according to DOJ attorneys, is that the district acknowledges there are significant discipline issues. They feel confident they will see improvement over time.

Other Topics

Attorneys also discussed school climate issues at Rolling Hills, Blossomwood, Jones Valley Elementary Schools, and Huntsville High and the administrators/district's plans to make those better. The DOJ said they had received correspondence from the community regarding concerns there, and the DOJ visited those schools multiple times to conduct classroom observations and phone observations. They plan to continue monitoring the situation to make sure teachers receive support.

Equitable access to course offerings is another topic on the table. There is discussion surrounding gifted programs and making sure those along with AP, Honors and other programs are all in place and being conducted without problems. There is much attention being paid to how many students are in each of these classes and their demographic breakdowns. The DOJ wants to see the system take steps to move toward more inclusion of black students in gifted programs.

The Desegregation Advisory Committee

The Consent Order provided for the creation of the DAC, which acts as an impartial body and a go-between between the public and the judge. They ask for information from the DOJ and the school system to respond to citizens who are concerned and address problems people report to them.

The president of the DAC said they are having a problem where few members of the public attend DAC meetings or leave comments through lock boxes at the schools or the DAC website or email. They want more comments so they can continue to help the school system improve in a confidential and impartial way.

Members of the community are encouraged to remain engaged throughout the year through attendance at Public DAC Meetings and by submitting feedback through the Desegregation Advisory Committee.

You can email the DAC here: hsvdac@gmail.com.

Reaction

Community members also had a chance to speak to the judge, and many chose to highlight concerns as they saw them with regard to the district.

Rev. Oscar Montgomery, North Huntsville Community United for Action President, told WHNT News 19 of the achievement gap: "We've got to work on closing that gap."

He added, "If we stay the course-- and there are going to be some pains and things that make all of us uncomfortable in the process-- but it's worth it. This is something we can not fail at."

Ayoka Billions said after this status conference, "I am appreciative of the opportunity to hear both sides, to hear hard information. You hear a lot of rumors, a lot of people upset on all sides of the issue. So it is nice to hear facts."

She added, ""I am encouraged. I still have a lot of concerns. I just kind of look forward to what changes will be made over the next few years and to see what the impact will be on the school system and my kids and my family."

Akin said for him, this is not about seeking unitary status to please the court, although that is certainly a task they must work toward. He said he believes it's beyond that, to make real and lasting changes to benefit the children.

"It's not about unitary status. It's about creating a school system that others look at and say 'that's where I want my kids to go to school,'" said Akin.

The Department of Justice and Huntsville City Schools appear to work well together. The DOJ told the court interactions have overall been positive. They praised the school system for being cooperative.

Ultimately, the DOJ said they want to make sure the consent order is implemented with fidelity.

The court was complimentary of the school system and the effort it has made so far. Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala said she knows what the system has undertaken is difficult and time-consuming. She said there are bound to be growing pains, but the challenges are worthwhile.

She said the court knows there are many issues to be addressed, but she is hopeful of what she heard today. She became emotional discussing how glad she is to see both sides embracing the consent order and what it stands for, as long as each is transparent about the challenges that remain.

Many people including parents, attorneys, community members and the judge praised Akin for how much he cares about his staff and his schools, and how he is using his heart to pursue fairness for all students.

What's Next

Akin said the school system was presenting information from last year during this status conference.

"Our meetings are now about the future," he said. "One of our goals is to try to recruit and retain teachers. I think that's probably the foundation of everything we want to do is to have a stabilized teaching force. At the same time we have talked about personalizing education and meeting kids where they are and taking them forward quickly. Those are the goals we are working on."

On Nov. 15 of each year, the board reports to the DOJ with annual report. Board Attorney JR Brooks said it's very comprehensive. The DOJ reviews the report, then communicates with the school system and sometimes there are more requests for the schools.

There are telephone conferences between school system attorneys and the DOJ once a week to once every two weeks over the course of a year. Attorneys said the school system responded to 107 requests from DOJ last year.

The DOJ visits the school board and does random school visits to ensure the consent decree is being followed.