New world of education may have challenges, but also provides greater opportunity

single-meta-cal February 8, 2018

When the three R’s are joined on a near-equal level by S-T-E-M, when neuroscience and cybersecurity are part of the conversation, it’s a clear reminder to Baby Boomers that their public education is as different from today’s schools as dump truck and a Ferrari.

“[When we were in school,] we all sat in rows and were taught the same thing,” said Dr. Matt Akin, Superintendent of Huntsville City Schools – and too young to be considered a Boomer. “We all moved on at the same pace. We graduated and we went to (college) or we went to work. But it’s a different world. You have to be so much more prepared than even 10 years ago.”

“One thing that resonates is that one size doesn’t fit all,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle.

We’re going to meet the kids where they are and do our best to take them forward quickly.”

The curtain to that “different world” was peeled back again Wednesday in the annual State of the Schools breakfast, hosted by the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce and The Schools Foundation.

It brought several hundred business, community and education leaders to the Jackson Center on the HudsonAlpha campus.

“We had a lot of people there to hear about education, and they were there to hear solutions – and to be part of the solution,” Battle said.

They also got to hear some promising data.

“All three of our local systems together make us the best in the state,” said Huntsville City Council Member Dr. Jennie Robinson, a former Huntsville City School Board representative, “and that’s worth celebrating.”

Three superintendents take the stage

Elizabeth Fleming, Executive Director of The Schools Foundation, brought a new wrinkle to the program, questioning the three superintendents of the local systems in a roundtable format. Akin (pictured above at the right) was joined by his counterparts, Matt Massey (seated left in photo) of Madison County Schools and Robby Parker of Madison City Schools.

“What I appreciate is the team approach,” Battle said. “All three of the systems, all three of the superintendents, work together. All three are different, but they share a lot of common ground.”

It was a freewheeling discussion that didn’t shy away from the challenges they each face, or the controversies of metrics and how schools are graded and judged. But the real focus was on opportunity and new approaches.

“At Huntsville City Schools, we’re going to meet the kids where they are and do our best to take them forward quickly,” Akin said.

That begins early in life. Each elementary school has Pre-K, and there are programs in place for children even younger. As students advance, “we really focus on student choices,” Akin said. The curriculum is broad-based, with more opportunity to develop individual interests.

Students are prepared to be college or career-ready, though Akin stressed those aren’t mutually exclusive. A student could be taking advanced-placement English during one block – and advanced manufacturing skills in the next.

“Not all of our kids are going to be rocket scientists and engineers,” Battle said. “They may be working in advanced manufacturing or the arts. So we need to help them be ready to step into the workforce, no matter their field of choice.”

Debate over report cards

Last week, the Alabama Department of Education released its “report cards” for the state schools, based on their 2016-17 performance. Madison earned an A, Madison County a B and Huntsville City Schools a C.

In an understatement, those measuring methods have not met with universal satisfaction by officials.

“What we’re looking for is how to make the whole system better rather than slapping a grade on you that was earned two years ago and walking away,” Battle said. “That’s not getting involved in education. That’s Monday morning quarterbacking.”

However, in some key metrics, the three were among state leaders, according to Ryan Hankins, executive director for Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. On the ACT Aspire rankings, gauging student proficiency in science, math and reading, Huntsville was the top-performing system among large cities, Madison City was second among smaller cities and Madison County second among counties.

“Employees are hiring for a region and not a school system, and this region is outperforming essentially every region in the state, which is something you should be proud of,” Hankins said.

“And the individual systems are outperforming (comparable sized areas), which is something you should be proud of.”