Engaged for education: Survey shows what some Anniston residents think of their schools
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Sep 22, 2013 | 6040 views |  0 comments | 88 88 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston High School (file photo).
Anniston High School (file photo).
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Anniston residents are sharply divided over whether the city's school system helps or harms the children it serves, according to a survey conducted for The Anniston Star by Jacksonville State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research. But there's little appetite for closing Anniston City Schools.

Other major findings from the survey:

— More than three-fourths want Jacksonville State University and other colleges to partner with the school system to improve students' outcomes.

— Nearly two-thirds want an outside organization to act as an “advocate and critical friend” for city schools.

— A slight majority — 52 percent — say the school system needs more money.

The Star paid JSU’s Center for Economic Development to conduct the survey, in which questionnaires were mailed to to each of the 11,008 addresses in the city this summer. Five hundred eighty-one people responded to the survey, and many added their own impassioned, handwritten comments.

"Some people wrote entire letters," said Mark Hearn, a JSU professor of management and researcher for the Center for Economic Development. "They were very engaged with the topic."

Divided on quality

The survey showed Anniston residents almost equally divided on the question of whether the school system is doing its core job — providing the city's children with a quality education. Thirty-nine percent said yes, the school system is providing quality instruction. Forty-two percent said no.

That divide reflects a debate that has long simmered in the Model City.

State numbers suggest Anniston's schools are a system in crisis. Anniston High has failed to meet state goals on standardized testing for several years in a row. Anniston Middle recently landed on a list of 78 "failing" schools compiled by the state Department of Education. Only 65 percent of students graduate on time.

Yet the people most invested in the system — parents of the city's students — often say the school system is better than its reputation.

"I have a son who just graduated from Anniston High School and I have no complaints about his education," wrote one survey respondent, a black woman in her 40s who did not give her name. "He came from a private school and did better at Anniston."

Residents without school-age children, or with children in private schools, were far harsher in their assessments.

"It is a runaway train about to jump the tracks," wrote one unnamed respondent, a white man in his 60s, who listed his income as $100,000 or more.

After decades of white flight to the suburbs and private schools, the student body in Anniston's public schools is more than 90 percent black. The racial and income divide shows sharply in the responses to The Star's poll, in which parents with kids in city schools — who are more likely to be younger, and African American — rated schools higher than people without children in city schools.

"The people with kids in the system support the system," Hearn said. "They should be the ones who are the most informed about the system."

Escapees

Even so, a few survey respondents told of their efforts to escape the school system. One of them, a multiracial woman in her late 20s, said in a handwritten letter that she'd sent her kids to her hometown “up north” to get them out of the school system here.

"Due to financial problems, I wasn't able to move to a different district," wrote the woman, who said her household income was less than $10,000 per year. "But once my children went to a different high school, they got back on track and graduated."

Another respondent, a white man in his early 20s, wrote that he sought a GED through classes at a local community college so he wouldn't have to attend Anniston High.

"I always wanted a true high school diploma but that will never happen now," he wrote.

The survey didn't ask about the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows students in "failing" schools to transfer out of the school they’re zoned for, or offers them a tax credit to attend private schools. Only one respondent wrote in support of the idea.

To merge or not to merge?

The survey didn't include questions about racial divisions in the school system, but it weighed heavily on the minds of respondents, both black and white. Several wrote to say the flight of white and upper-income families left the system with no political clout.

A few of those respondents also brought up the idea of a merger — shutting down Anniston City Schools and folding them into Calhoun County's school system — both as a way to integrate and as way to deal with the city's declining student body.

But advocates of a merger appear to be a vocal minority. Only 35 percent of respondents said the school system should shut down, while 48 percent said the Anniston system should stay open. Most of those keep-it-open respondents didn't elaborate on their position, but one wrote that the question itself represented an "anachronistic mindset."

"We should focus on improving the school system, not dissolving it," wrote the respondent, an African-American man with children at Constantine Elementary and Anniston Middle School.

Fix it

If there's anything a majority of Anniston residents can agree on, it's that the school system needs more outside support.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said the school system should partner with institutions such as Jacksonville State University and Gadsden State Community College to improve student outcomes. No question on the survey saw so many respondents giving the same answer.

Teaming with a university might not seem like the most obvious solution to a struggling school's problems — but, as JSU dean of education John Hammett notes, most colleges aren't JSU.

"We produce more teachers than any institution in the state," Hammett said.

For years, Jacksonville State had no special relationship with Anniston's schools, Hammett said. The college would send student teachers to Anniston for practice teaching, but the focus was on JSU's academic needs as much as Anniston's.

"Before, we'd send students to the classroom, and for days or weeks, they'd sit there and observe," Hammett said. Later, the student teachers would teach the class and be graded on their performance. But no one would test the students to see if the student teachers helped them.

Now, the university has changed its approach, at least in elementary schools. Student teachers "co-teach" — working alongside teachers from the first day of their time in the system — and are assessed on whether their students have actually learned something. Among other things, Hammett said, the approach allows one teacher to work with students who are struggling with a concept while the other can work with students who are ready to move on.

Hammett said the university is slowly expanding that approach to Anniston's high school. JSU has also started a dual-enrollment class that lets Anniston High seniors take a college-level education course.

"Our goal was to get more minority involvement in education," he said. The program could produce future teachers who could work in the Anniston system, he noted.

Beyond those partnerships, it's not clear what other sorts of support local residents want to see from JSU or Gadsden State — although several respondents wrote that they'd like to see classes on financial literacy and courses in trades such as welding or air conditioning repair.

Superintendent of Education Joan Frazier said the school system has been working on exactly that issue in recent years.

"We now have eight job-training programs," she said, "which I think is a lot for a district of this size."

An advocate

Other struggling school systems have also been moving toward more career-oriented education. Mobile’s county school system has turned four of the county’s high schools have become “career academies,” each focused on preparing students for careers in a single field such as aviation or health care.

That approach came about in part because of the efforts of the Mobile Area Education Foundation, the foundation’s leader said. For more than a decade, MAEF has raised money for school programs, advocated for more school funding and pushed reform of local schools.

“We do heavy public engagement,” said Carolyn Akers, director of MAEF. “Most foundations are sort of do-gooders who give grant money. What we do is invest public and private resources in a community goal, based on data.”

Based on poll results, Anniston residents seem to want a similar organization in the Model City. Even though the city already has nonprofit foundations in place to support schools, 64 percent of respondents said they’d support the creation of an independent organization to act as a “critical friend,” chief fundraiser and advocate for schools.

Those numbers were a little surprising to Akers, who said she’s been invited to the city several times over the past decade by various city leaders to discuss creation of a similar organization for Anniston. Each time she came up, she said, it became clear that not all the city’s leaders were on board with the idea.

“I come up there, I give the ‘I have a dream’ speech, and nothing gets done,” she said.

Akers said MAEF has developed concrete goals — such as bringing the county’s graduation rate up to 80 percent by 2020 — and develops resources aimed specifically at meeting those goals. For instance, the group is now looking for more ways to make use of the time kids aren’t in school.

“If these kids are on free or reduced lunch and in high-poverty communities, chances are eight hours of school isn’t enough,” she said. The foundation is looking for ways to set up study facilities in community centers, to give kids a place to learn at nights and over the summer.

Akers said Anniston is similar to Mobile County in that it has racial and geographic divides to overcome. But setting up a MAEF-like foundation, she said, requires getting people in every group on board.

The Anniston area already has a few foundations dedicated wholly or in part to helping Anniston’s city schools. Attempts to reach leaders of two of those organizations, the Public Education Foundation of Anniston and the Anniston Community Education Foundation, for comment on the poll were unsuccessful.

Frazier sees the entire question about a "critical friend" for the school system as a leading one.

"We have three to five foundations in the city that are filling that role," she said. "The only difference is the 'critical friend' part. That would put a slightly different spin on things."

Money needed, some say

A slight majority of respondents — 52 percent — said the school system needs more money in order to fulfill its mission.

"I was pleasantly surprised at that," Frazier said. She said she's often heard people say that more money wouldn’t help.

One possible reason for that critique is the fact that Anniston spends more money per pupil than neighboring districts. Statistics from the state Department of Education show Anniston spending more per pupil than any district in the county in the 2008-2009 school year. Federal statistics from the 2010-2011 show Anniston spending more per pupil than any local system except Oxford City Schools.

Frazier said those numbers are somewhat misleading, because a significant portion of that money is federal funding Anniston receives as a high-poverty district, money that is directed toward specific programs and isn’t available for the local school board to spend at its own discretion.

Only 28 percent of respondents said the school system didn’t need more money.

Among those who wanted more funding, many mentioned specific needs such as better facilities or more books. A few expressed frustration that the city of Anniston — which provides funding for the school system but doesn't govern it — chose to build a new jail while school facilities haven't been revamped.

Frazier said it was encouraging to see a majority, however slim, supporting more money for schools.

"It is difficult to talk about education without it coming back to money," she said. "Throwing money at a school system without accountability is not the answer.

“But quality instruction costs money,” she continued. “Buildings cost money. Technology costs money."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star. ABOUT THE SURVEY

Jacksonville State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research mailed surveys to every residential address within Anniston’s city limits, a total of 11,008 residences. (Some of those residences may have been unoccupied; the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 9,904 households in the city.) The four-page survey asked 16 questions about the status of the school system. Respondents were asked their age, race, income and other demographic information but weren’t asked for their names. A total of 581 people responded. Researcher Mark Hearn, who conducted the survey, said it has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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