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Goin' to the WOO

Susan Notes: I'm honored to say I was in the group of thirty thirty parent/teacher/community activists from around the nation who visited--and learned from--the WOO in March 2003.

by Norman Scott

I first visited the World of Opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama (the WOO) in March of 2003 with a group of thirty parent/teacher/community activists from around the nation who were organizing ACTNOW (Advocates for Children and Teachers National Organizing Workshop) to create a strategy for the opposition to high stakes testing. We were treated to two days of intense discussions on the negative impacts testing and the new No Child Left Behind Act was going to have on education, an impact that has only increased by leaps and bounds over the past three years.

The students and its supporters at the WOO, led by its director Steve Orel, gave us a lesson in dedication to an educational ideal that many of us were not finding in our schools. We each were asked to tutor someone and I spent two hours teaching math to a young woman studying for her GEDs, one of the most intense learning experiences for me as a teacher (I can't vouch for what she learned).

One-on-one learning allowed me to explore the boundaries of her knowledge of fractions and I was able to find an entry point where I could see what I was teaching her was making some sense. I came away convinced that working with students in this way on a regular basis could have an impact and would love to see it tried no matter how expensive in at least one school as an experiment.

ACTNOW gave Steve Orel and The WOO the first annual "Courage in Education Award" for their work in attempting to rescue students who had been pushed out by the school system because of the potential their scores would lower their schools' ratings. Steve had been fired by the Birmingham school system for exposing this practice and they closed down The WOO. The community came to its rescue to reopen it and it is now in its sixth year of existence, all under Steve's directorship.

I recently revisited the WOO when I hitched a ride with friends driving down south. We were on the highway following our sketchy Mapquest directions to the WOO, which is in a remote high poverty area on the edge of Birmingham across the street from a housing project (with buildings no more than two stories tall) when a van cut in front of us and the driver started gesturing to follow.

Not sure if this was a carjacking or someone with a barbecue restaurant looking for business (we had been doing our share of damage to our cholesterol counts), we hesitated until out popped a yellow piece of paper that said "The WOO" on it. The driver was Steve Orel who just happened to come across our van. "You think I couldn't recognize three Jews from New York?" Steve, who is Jewish and a civil rights activist (which must go over real big in Birmingham -- he has had his house shot at) told us later.

We had filled the van with donations of clothing, kitchen supplies, books and a few computers and while we were unloading there was a staff meeting taking place (the WOO was closed for spring break.) We overheard discussions about how to address issues facing individual students -- discussions that should be taking place in every school but so rarely do.

Despite the fact that Steve has been ill recently, he puts all the time he can into the WOO, the best therapy for him. We got to spend some time with him, always a refreshing experience. He told us that in the early days their operating budget, funded solely by donations and grants, was two days away from closing the place down. Now they are nine months ahead of the curve, still a tight squeeze. (I can think of no better place to make a donation.) Steve has an amazingly rational way of dealing with struggling students. Everyone is accepted. No one is thrown out. All ages are welcome as students or to contribute skills in any way possible.

At times he is crticized over the issue of students' appearance, especially the pants-hanging-down syndrome. Steve is often asked how he can allow that "look" in the WOO since these students will be looking for jobs. He responds "They're not looking for jobs yet." "But what happens when they do look and go in dressed that way?" "Then they won't get the job and maybe figure out the reason and dress appropriately the next time."

Call this the "let nature take its course" approach. Many school rules create problems with students and can interfere with the primary focus --reach them so we could teach them -- and doing that effectively required some level of trust which often breaks down over fairly trivial things. One can end up wasting a lot of time trying to get kids to not chew gum or take off their coats. But of course many educators disagree with this approach and would call us liberal weenies.

The WOO web site states, "At the World of Opportunity (WOO) we teach with and learn from the whole person. Our students are human beings, not test scores." Bulletins proudly announcing when a student gets their GED (66 so far) are sent out regularly, as are facts such as "384 students obtained library cards in 2005." Contributions are welcome and much needed and appreciated. Tel: 205-271-9532

The WOO 7429 Georgia Road Brimingham, AL 35212-2921

Remembrances of the Civil Rights movement From the WOO we headed off to the campus of the University of Alabama for a stop at Dreamland, a fantasy camp for serious ribs, ribs so thick and juicy you can hardly get them into your mouth. That meal prepared us for the wonderful Birmingham Civil Rights Institute where fading events from our teenage years in the 60's were brought back in such a vivid manner as we followed the timeline from Rosa Parks to the death of Martin Luther King-- water hoses, Bull Conner, sit-ins, etc. The Institute is directly across the street from the famous 16th Church where a Ku Klux Klan bombing killed four girls.

We spent the next day touring Montgomery-- Jefferson Davis' southern white house and the Civil Rights Memorial Center with exhibits on the martyrs of the movement. With the passage of time it is good to have a remberance of things past. With all the current talk of terrorists, frightful images of the KKK, with its ability to strike fear and terror in the hearts of so many, certainly has an impact. That so many people stood up to them speaks volumes for the human spirit. Steve Orel and his wife Glenda Jo are examples of this spirit.

— Norman Scott
The Wave



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