Huntsville City Schools explains new report on desegregation status

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Huntsville City Schools is still under federal supervision as it works to comply with a consent order between the system, and the U.S. Department of Justice, in a federal desegregation case.

The district agreed with the DOJ on the path forward to a fully-desegregated school system, outlined in a consent order handed down by the court, in 2015. In the consent order, the court provided a description of what the school system needs to do to ensure a fair and equitable situation for every student.

Last month, the school system provided an annual report about how it is implementing those steps, including data about discipline, majority-to-minority transfers, and course offerings.

The Third Consent Order Report

The data comes from last school year, analyzed and compiled in a current report submitted to the court.

It mentions multiple changes that impacted the district during that year, including former Superintendent, Casey Wardynski's, resignation. There were also two new board members and some staff changes to deal with. The district also ended its relationship with Pinnacle, which managed alternative school services under contract with Huntsville City Schools, during that time.

Despite these changes, the district reports that it noticed a need to build teacher relationships and that work continues to improve under the new superintendent, Matt Akin.

The school system's report also includes a challenge before it on behalf of discipline: what it calls "misconceptions" about the Behavioral Learning Guide. Misconceptions that, the district says, create misplaced blame on the BLG for discipline woes.

"There is the misconception among some that the BLG has tied our hands and we can not discipline students," noted Akin in an interview Tuesday. He later stated, and a judge affirmed, that the BLG does provide mechanisms to reprimand and discipline students who display violent threats or behaviors.

"It's a new approach to discipline with changing behaviors along with punishment. I think you see that challenge outlined in our report," said Akin.

The district believes that the misconceptions about the BLG, or a lack of understanding or comfort level with it, led to other problems including teacher concerns about whether they're allowed to report poor behavior and public mistrust of the BLG.

"We aren't saying, 'Hey, you can't put numbers in.' Put the numbers in. But let's worry more about equitable discipline and especially, safe and orderly environments," said Akin.

But the reports also show some continued trouble in the discipline category for Huntsville City Schools. The district told the court that it knew the discipline conditions outlined in the consent order would be the most challenging to implement.

Most schools' discipline data either stayed the same or increased, meaning more disciplinary action was reported during that year. Still, there is a clear gap in how black and white students are disciplined, which the district said it must close while correcting misconceptions about the BLG.

Meanwhile, according to the reports, there has been extensive professional development on the Behavioral Learning Guide and how teachers and administrators should use it.

"The District wants its administrators, teachers, students, families, and the greater Huntsville community to understand that the District can and will work toward closing the discipline gap between Black and White students while maintaining safe schools," the district said in its filing.

Other categories were also included in the district's report to the court.

Majority to minority transfers increased each year since the district implemented them, it said. The school system said it was confident in that process.

As far as equitable access to course offerings, the district reported that across the system, the number of students taking AP courses decreased. However, it noted that the focus has been more on honors courses. The school system is trying to, it reported, better support black students in AP performance and has made participation in honors a priority. Meanwhile, it has focused parent outreach to see an increased in participation from black families.

You can read the full series of reports here.

The Court's Opinion

The court also issued an opinion regarding the district's implementation of the consent order.  You can read it here.

Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala, who is the judge over the Huntsville City Schools Desegregation case, has a firm grasp on what the district is doing, and needs to do, to reach unitary status.

She wrote that in order to release the district from federal supervision, it must take the steps outlined in the consent order to eliminate racial segregation and show "good faith."

"To obtain relief from federal supervision, the Huntsville Board of Education not only must fulfill its obligations under the consent order but also must demonstrate the Board’s willingness to maintain the goals of the consent order after supervision ends. The latter objective requires the Board to demonstrate “good faith,'" she stated.

She said that "good faith" is something she is paying close attention to.

As far as facilities go, the district is doing mostly well here. In fact, board attorney Chris Pape noted that this area is where the district feels most confident it is close to moving to unitary status.

But Haikala said there is still room for improvement:

"For the most part, the new school facilities are equitable. There are some exceptions. The new Grissom High School, a predominately white school, has tennis courts; the new Jemison High School, a predominantly black school, does not. (Doc. 507-9, p. 2). In addition, there have been maintenance issues relating to the athletic facilities at Jemison High School; there is no evidence that there are similar issues at Grissom. (Doc. 537, pp. 234-236). The Court reminds the Board to ensure that all facilities are equally well-maintained."

She also addressed M-to-M transfers, saying some parents actually asked anonymously for her to curtail them.

The judge added that there has been a shift in the racial composition of some schools, and has seen data that supports a number of white students have been removed from those schools. She called it, "white flight."

This is part of a greater discussion the judge introduces about school climate and how these things can adversely affect it.

She said M-to-M transfers must continue, writing that she understands the strain the schools face, but progress must not be slowed:

"The Supreme Court’s call to swift action in 1969 cannot be answered withfurther delay in 2017. From a practical standpoint, the Court appreciates that significant change within any system, including a public school system, can strain a system temporarily as the system adjusts to the new norm. The jump-start that the consent order has provided for elimination of racial inequality from the City of Huntsville school system has created some strain. But slowing the pace of change to accommodate the majority would exacerbate the injustice that African-American residents of Huntsville have suffered for decades."

The judge notes a continuing achievement gap between black and white students as another challenge the board must face.

She also wrote later that in some ways, the superintendent turnover slowed progress on discipline.

Haikala also said that the court shares the district's concerns about threats of violent behavior.

"We are on the same page when it comes to discipline and our commitment to providing safe environments in schools," Akin said of Judge Haikala's opinion.

Board attorneys said they saw Haikala's writing as both a critique and a positive. Haikala noted many things the district is doing well, including the DOJ and district working well together in this case.

"I think it was both critical and positive, acknowledging some of the difficulties and being supportive of the fact that they're challenging," said Pape.

Haikala ended with this statement, channeling things Akin has already mentioned:

"The motto that Dr. Akin and Reverend Montgomery espoused can become the motto for the district: for the good of all of the children, do what’s right. Put it on banners. Preach it in the pulpit. Say it to your neighbor. Set the example: do what’s right. If the district does that, the consent order will take care of itself. It’s 2017; for the good of all the children, it’s time to do what’s right."

Akin agreed on Tuesday.

"It's a journey of the community. It's not something the superintendent and the board are doing alone. It's something all of us have to do together. All of us means community leaders, school system, administrators, teachers, parents, pastors. It means all of us working together so that we are doing it in good faith."

Of reaching unitary status, he stated, "I would say it's going to be a long journey that we take day-by-day. But it requires all of us."