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14 Alabama schools stuck on 'failing' list indefinitely

Reader Comment: The law is nothing but a cluster. It has been a cluster from the get-go and it gets bigger by the day. It's original intent had nothing to do with helping get poor kids into better schools, but had everything to do with helping those who already had their kids in private schools get a tax break (including those in the legislature). Of course, even that part is up in the air right now as the State Dept. of Ed. and the Dept. of Revenue interpret the law. My guess is that everything will be worked out so that the rich can get their tax break and the poor will be right where they have been all along. Just wait and see!

by Challen Stephens

Two of Alabama's "failing" schools met every testing goal set up by GOP lawmakers, but still landed on the state's watch list.

Midfield High near Birmingham and Hayes K-8 in Birmingham both met new goals for reading and math scores, yet both were listed as "failing" anyway. That's because of a second, less-used definition of "failing" in the Alabama Accountability Act.

"It is not fair, but when they passed the act, that's one of the things they left in there," said Superintendent Demica Sanders at Midfield City Schools, referring to the state's use of an "old designation" to label Midfield High.

Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers -- working without input from educators -- looked for a way to identify public schools where tax dollars might instead be used to support tuition to private schools. They decided to rely on ranking public schools in reading and math over the last six years and searching for repeat low-performers.

But the GOP lawmakers in the Alabama Accountability Act also tagged as "failing" any school named as persistently low-achieving on the federal School Improvement Grant application. The latest application was 2011.

Because the "failing" label isn't based on test data, the schools can't test their way off the state list.

"I really don't know how long we will be on that list," said Sanders at Midfield, saying she had been attempting to explain the situation to parents and teachers, but had also been asking questions herself.

Dr. Melinda Maddox, Alabama assistant superintendent, said she can't predict when there will be a new round of improvement grants for Alabama to update that portion of the "failing" list.

The state department rules, published this spring, say: "This list will not be revised unless a new school eligibility list is required for new USDOE School Improvement Grants." The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately reply to inquiries about the grant process late Wednesday.

Perhaps an even stranger result of this subsection of law is the labeling of four special needs centers.

Each was listed on the federal grant application and so each, by law, was labeled as "failing." But these schools are reserved for students with special needs.

The Alabama Accountability Act was eventually revised to exempt such developmental centers from the statewide rankings. But lawmakers left out the exemption when defining as "failing" the schools on the grant list.

For the sake of clarity, here's how the state's "failing" list breaks down.

Alabama has 78 "failing" schools. Four are special needs centers. That leaves 74 "failing" neighborhood schools.

Of those 74, all but two missed a testing goal for reading and math. Hayes and Midfield landed on the list strictly because they qualified for a federal School Improvement Grant in 2011.

Eight neighborhood schools missed the testing goal and also appeared on the grant list. That's eight schools, like Butler High in Huntsville and Central High in Tuscaloosa, which struck out on both fronts.

In the end, that means 10 neighborhood schools (14 schools if you count the special education centers) are stuck in some sort of "failing" limbo. They can raise scores all they want, but they won't come off the list until a new grant application is filed or state lawmakers revise the act.

Looking at all this, David Blair sees a black eye for the state.

"For me, it's a matter of economic development," said Blair, a school board member in Huntsville where three schools are stuck as "failing" by virtue of the grant designation. That includes Dawson Elementary, which saw large testing gains over the last two years.

Blair said the label is a "PR issue" for the whole state, as companies investigate where to relocate and come across long lists of labeled schools. "Failing schools affect the Hampton Coves and Blossomwoods of the world," he said, referring to more affluent neighborhoods in Huntsville.

Sanders at Midfield said her high school last year received $1.4 million through the federal grant, and has added after-school tutoring, a graduation coach, a social worker and has provided training for teachers. "We're trying to keep the teachers uplifted."

She said so far only one student has notified the school of plans to leave Midfield High for a private school. "I think nobody is leaving because no other schools in our area are willing to take them," said Sanders.

As for when her high school will be able to climb off the failing list, Sanders said she is still seeking answers. "I don't know what next year will hold."

— Challen Stephens
AllAlabama blog





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