I got called to the principal’s office last week, so to speak.
Apparently my column a few weeks ago questioning the veracity of massive increases in graduation rates both locally and statewide over the past few years didn’t go over so well at the Mobile County Public School System campus. The school system’s director of communication, Rena Phillips, shot me an email detailing a number of the successes being accomplished throughout MCPSS and also invited me out for a dreaded high school tour.
I’m not going to lie. The idea of touring high schools wasn’t a real thriller. I kind of figured it would go like this: They’ll take me to see all the smartest students at the best schools, then say, “See how great we’re doing?” and expect me to suddenly realize exactly how awesome things really are. Maybe 25 years in the news business has left me a bit jaded.
So it sounded like a perfectly good waste of an afternoon, but I figured it’s not bad sometimes to get out of my thoroughly worn office chair for something other than lunch.
In addition to getting sucked up in the state’s scandal over suddenly boasting graduation rates that would put Huckleberry Alabama among the top three states in that category, MCPSS also was recently dinged by the Alabama Department of Education as having eight schools designated as “failing.” Among those were high schools B.C. Rain, Blount, Vigor, Williamson, Theodore and LeFlore.
MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek had brushed these “failing” designations off as the result of the state giving sophomores the ACT Aspire test for the first time and using that to determine progress. In an article last week, Peek told Lagniappe reporter Jason Johnson she believed the failing designations were unfair and “detrimental” to schools that ended up wearing that scarlet F.
“I think it’s a very narrow outlook at what students are doing, and it isn’t based on educational practices as much as politics,” Peek said. “I think it’s very unfair to the students and the faculty and staff members because they’re not failing and they’re not low-performing.”
While I could see her point — to a degree — it also still sounded a lot like the kind of deflecting that’s pretty standard when the school system gets bad news. So with all of that as a backdrop, Jason and I headed out to B.C. Rain last Thursday to meet Phillips for a tour.
She had set it up for us to see both Rain and Theodore High — two failing schools. Immediately we met Principal Marlon A. Firle. I was sort of surprised he wasn’t off on a movie set somewhere because Mr. Firle looks like a principal out of Central Casting — big, tall, distinguished, most definitely in charge and with a voice that makes Darth Vader’s sound adenoidal.
We quickly headed for the Aerospace Training Facility — one of the signature academies established at 12 area high schools over the past four years. The aerospace academy was clearly designed with an eye toward preparing students for jobs in Mobile’s burgeoning aircraft industry, and I have to say despite my cynicism it was impressive.
Students were working on computers drafting aerodynamic designs, putting rivets in the outer shell of an actual commercial passenger jet and tinkering with an actual jet engine. They checked tools in and out of the tool shop and seemed genuinely excited to talk about what they were doing.
Yes, it was definitely a dog and pony show meant to impress, but it did. I had heard about these academies but never seen one up close, and certainly B.C. Rain’s Aerospace Training Facility was far more advanced that I would have imagined. But the really impressive thing was talking to the students and asking them what the academy means to them.
Most of the students I spoke with are convinced they want a career in the aerospace field and are optimistic about the prospects. It certainly seemed to me that regardless of what the tests said, B.C. Rain is meeting some pretty important student needs with the success of that academy.
The students let Jason and me take a couple of turns on the flight simulator, crashing digital Blue Angels and 747s into crowded virtual neighborhoods — Oh the humanity! — before we jumped on Interstate 10 for the trip to Theodore. There we met Superintendent Peek and Principal Chip Menton. Somehow or another — probably because I don’t get out of my chair enough — I’d never met Peek in person, so I was curious how she’d address my offending column.
After she made me write, “I will not ever question MCPSS statistics again” 500 times on a chalkboard, everything was good. Whew!
Menton took us on a tour of his school, professing to being rather shell-shocked Theodore had landed on the failing schools list. Theodore is the only Mobile County school on the list that has a poverty rate of less than 50 percent, so they’re not in familiar territory.
He and Peek showed us through Theodore’s various academies — they have them for engineering, dentistry, nursing, marketing, arts and humanities, business and leadership. While we didn’t visit all of these, the nursing and dental academies were full of students who seemed engaged and active. And they also featured some creepy “patient” dolls and disembodied heads for dental work. There was even a dental chair, but I passed up an opportunity for a quick checkup.
At the end of the tour, Peek asked, in a way a teacher might ask a young student, “Well, did you learn anything today that changed your mind?” I said I hadn’t, because I’m still not convinced our skyrocketing graduation rates go hand-in-hand with a skyrocketing level of proficiency, and aren’t just making the system and state look better when the kids aren’t really learning more. But maybe that short answer is a bit harsh.
A quick trip around a couple of high schools isn’t going to wipe away questions about just how much our students are learning and whether the people graduating in the middle to low end of each class are really ready for college or work, but I did come away feeling like even some of these “failing” schools are doing work that is beneficial to a lot of students and will have a lasting effect on their lives.
Despite the endless wrangling over how exactly we measure whether MCPSS is pumping out well-educated students, it does look like even in some of our “failing” schools Peek and her employees are accomplishing things of which they can be very proud.