HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Huntsville City Schools leaders, the U.S. Department of Justice, and attorneys got together before a federal judge on Tuesday to talk about the district's desegregation case and share a status update with the community.
A recent report shows there is still disparity between how students are disciplined, among other problems, but the district continues to work in good faith to follow through with the judge's order of a consent decree. This consent order is the roadmap to the district's ultimate goal of unitary status, which can only be achieved when the district has been granted unitary status on each of these "green" factors:
- Student Assignment
- Extracurricular Activities
- Faculty and Staff Assignment
- Other factors:
- Equitable Access to Course Offerings
- Student Discipline
In Tuesday's status conference, Superintendent Matt Akin said this year they have worked to improve climate and culture within the school system, including building relationships with teachers, staff, parents, and the community. He said they have also focused the central office from oversight to support.
The district will continue to streamline its magnet program, improving its visibility of programs in which students can take part. In some cases, more white than black students applied to be in the programs. The district will also need to continue to monitor its gifted programs and advanced classes to ensure they are more racially balanced and students are provided with equal opportunities to move into them. The district told the court it is taking steps to improve the gaps and identification of gifted students.
Teacher Retention Is Key
Akin recognizes that the district's biggest opportunity is teacher retention and support. This, he said, is essential to transforming climate/culture and is a crucial first step. Akin says getting out from under the rule of the U.S. Department of Justice depends largely on who's leading the classrooms, because teachers impact every area of the consent order.
"Whether it's discipline or whether it's innovative teaching practices or closing the achievement gap, you have to have a stable teaching force," he commented to WHNT News 19.
The DOJ agreed, saying they have noticed the district's improvement in this area.
"A stable teaching force, a qualified teaching force, really impacts everything else that goes on in the school system," Akin continued, later adding that he believes many of the district's other problems, including discipline, can be resolved once the teacher retention improves. "Once we establish that foundation, I think we are well on our way and it can help take care of the other issues."
Akin says the board's recent approval of teacher pay raises to take place over the next three years can keep the district competitive.
They are also encouraging teachers to get their national board certification. It costs $2,500 for the certification, but Akin says they're looking for support from local businesses to cover the cost.
"Right now we have about 85 teachers who are either going through it or signed up for it," Akin explained. "The nice thing for teachers is not only are they improving professionally, the state of Alabama gives a $5,000 bonus and they've also approved up to a $10,000 bonus to certain Title I schools."
The report found there's still a literacy gap, so the district is planning to introduce a new reading program for elementary students.
"We like to say we'll meet them on their reading level rather than their grade levels so a lot of it is professional development," Akin said. He added, "Vitally important is to make sure we are improving reading levels with our students."
Part of the district's plan forward is the Indicators of Future Success, which the district will use to measure itself on how it is doing.
The federal judge noted the racial disparity of students not in challenging courses due to a lack of this important foundation.
"We need to keep focusing on providing that training to teachers," he said.
At a recent board meeting, the board approved bringing in new technology to help teachers individualize learning. Akin said this can help close achievement gaps.
"We've made some changes, and giving teachers more flexibility, but we can help differentiate instruction and meet kids at their academic levels," he stated.
School system attorneys said they know Superintendent Matt Akin will soon leave for a new job leading the new Gulf Shores City Schools system, but they cited leadership in the administration, work the teachers are doing, and the attorneys' diligence as reasons to be confident moving forward with consent order implementation.
They said they understand it will take lots more time to reach unitary status, but they still look forward to it.
Nearly every person who came up to speak during the public comment portion mentioned their appreciation for Akin and his efforts this past year. Most credited him with the progress they have seen and some improvement in the climate in schools.
"It's a little embarrassing," Akin admitted. "I did my job. That's what I've tried to do, and I worked with the team. We have a great team in place."
He said the success of the district is not up to one person. He feels confidence in the people he leaves behind and their ability to carry the school system forward toward unitary status.
"The board agrees with the goals we established, and the things we have ongoing. We have great leaders in place, we have outstanding principals who don't get enough credit. Certainly the teachers are showing the commitment to what we're doing. All those things combined, I think it will keep carrying on. There's a lot of momentum."
Community members say they're optimistic for the future, but there is at least some concern.
"I think it would be unhealthy not to have some concern about the transition. It is important that whoever replaces him in the transition and ultimately, whoever receives the permanent appointment, that he or she is willing to embrace the efforts that are in place," said Oscar Montgomery, President of the North Huntsville Community United for Action. "We don't want to start from Square 1 again. We want to pick up where we are and continue to move in the direction that we're headed."
The Desegregation Advisory Committee, which has evolved over the years, is a crucial part of the consent order and how it is carried out. The neutral party is made of parents and students and serves as the go-between for the court and the community to monitor how the school system is doing.
Community members can learn more about the DAC here.
The DAC chair, Lonette Jenkins-Bell, told the court Tuesday that there were 16 committee members, but only a handful of its members seemed fully committed meeting after meeting. She said the position on the DAC is like a full-time job.
However, she said the DAC has made major strides in terms of how it relates with the community, including:
- Providing a better understanding of what the DAC does
- Establishing a P.O. box for community correspondence
- Repairing broken links on its website
- Being more transparent
- Better communicating meetings
- Rewriting the consent order into layman's terms
- Improving meeting attendance
Jenkins-Bell said the DAC meetings have seen a 47% increase in attendance, which she attributed to breaking the ice within the community and bringing the meetings directly to neighborhoods where people would feel more comfortable attending.
The judge thanked the DAC for their hard work, and for their insight to go out into the community.
The judge also encouraged people to take advantage of the DAC if they have questions or issues related to the consent order and how the district is implementing it. She pointed out that there haven't been any African-American fathers represented in the DAC yet, and she encouraged everyone interested to apply to be a part of it.
The application window is now open for people who want to be a part of the DAC.
The Department of Justice stated in court that many people may not have understood the challenges of implementing the consent order. The DOJ said it appreciates the district for its work in moving forward toward unitary status.
The DOJ monitored the district, and continues to do so along with a federal judge. They each conduct site visits to observe classrooms, meet with administrators, submit requests for information, seek community input, and attend community meetings.
The DOJ cited an improved climate at the embattled Rolling Hills Elementary, but noted other problems from the Grissom fight videos to a racial incident at Huntsville High School in which students sent out racially discriminatory messages to other classmates. They said they saw in these cases, the principals working with the students to resolve tensions and establish unity. However, there are some parents seeking to withdraw students from Jones Valley, which is concerning to many.
The Judge's Reaction
Tuesday, the judge said she was struck by what a privilege it is to be a part of this conversation. She said if done well, they can all learn from one another to make the school system a better place for students and to ensure that it is here for every one of them.
She joked that she can't order Akin to stay, but she hopes that he understands what a difference he made and that he is appreciated.
Judge Haikala said the court shares the concern to make teachers and administrators feel more appreciated, but she said she understands all the tension because they are dealing with children and their lives.
While Judge Haikala will issue an opinion later on about the rest of her reactions, she noted that there is nothing more positive than seeing the community working hard to tackle the challenges it faces. She said the discourse strengthens all involved, and that acknowledging problems is the only way they can lead to meaningful solutions.
She said she heard the themes of relationship-building, and appreciates that goal.
Haikala explained that the process of fulfilling the consent order won't happen overnight because the decades of division it will remedy didn't happen quickly either. She said the court is committed to fully implementing the consent decree.
She said during school visits, she noticed the students in Huntsville City Schools really want to achieve. She sees promise in the schools. And she said the issues can resolve themselves when students believe in the schools and can clearly see that the schools they go to can protect them, support them, and keep them safe.
Walker McGinnis, board member, tells us this case takes lots of time, money, and effort. He said it has been three years and he now wants to see some green factors approved as a sign of progress. He said his concern is that not one single green factor has been approved yet.
Tuesday, some attorneys argued that one of the closest green factors, transportation, should not yet be approved because the board recently chose a new bus service and they want time to see how it works out.
No motions for unitary status were made Tuesday, since it was just a status conference to update the court and public on the district's progress.
Michelle Watkins, board member, said she wanted people to notice the progress that has been made.
"We have made some great strides," she said. "Dr. Akin has put a good road map down. If we continue to follow that road map, we will will be on track to meeting the standards of what has been laid out for us."
She said the district will make changes, follow up, and continue to work for the students it serves. She urged the community to get involved in the DAC and to keep the district accountable.