After a nudge from local leaders, a private group of citizens has launched an ongoing study into what it might take for the city of Mobile to break from Alabama’s largest school district and form its own.

As Lagniappe has reported, poor academic performance in some local schools — whether real or perceived — has been a growing concern for city officials in recent years and for some, separating from the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) is an idea worth entertaining.

While neither Mayor Sandy Stimpson nor the Mobile City Council are directly involved, questions they might have about what it would take for the city to support a quality school system of its own will be answered over the next few months by Mobile’s Education First Coalition.

Established earlier this year, the coalition is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit tasked with determining if a city school system in Mobile would be financially feasible and whether it would be in the best interest of the city and the more than 23,700 students enrolled in public schools here.

The group is chaired by Mark Foley, who spent more than 17 years as president of the University of Mobile and recently served as the interim headmaster of St. Paul’s Episcopal School.

While the full membership of the coalition is unknown, documents filed with the Alabama Secretary of State’s office in May list the directors as Foley, Trustmark National Bank Regional President Mike Fitzhugh, Senior Pastor of Mount Hebron Church Ministries Joseph Fred Johnson and his wife, Linda Johnson.

Pastor Johnson was not immediately able to comment, but Foley and Fitzhugh recently discussed some of the coalition’s ongoing efforts with Lagniappe. However, it’s still very early in the process.

“The purpose of our organization is to foster measurably effective educational engagement with every public school student in Mobile,” Foley said. “To accomplish that purpose, we have initiated and coordinated research to determine the feasibility of the potential formation of a public school district for the city of Mobile, and the research process is underway.”

An element of the research process is a financial feasibility study being conducted by Decision Resources, LLC, led by education consultant Ira Harvey. Harvey’s name should be familiar to Alabama educators, as his  business is one of very few that perform this type of study.

Decision Resources is usually contracted by city councils — the case in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Saraland, Chickasaw, Satsuma and Fairhope — all of which Harvey found could feasibly support a successful school system … providing citizens were willing to fund it with their tax dollars.

Throughout the course of his work over the last decade, the fees for Harvey’s studies have varied, and are likely dependent upon the size and complexity of the school system being analyzed. His company was paid $25,000 by the city of Satsuma, while the the work he performed for Orange Beach in 2014 came with a $50,000 price tag.

Calls seeking comments from Harvey were not returned, but it stands to reason an analysis for a potential school split in Mobile — one that would potentially halve Alabama’s largest and oldest school district — would cost a bit more. However, that’s a bill the city of Mobile isn’t picking up.

Foley said Mobile’s Education First Coalition has already “sought and secured” the funds needed for the study and other fact-finding efforts from various private sources. He said Harvey began his work in September, and the results are expected to be released publicly in early spring.

Are schools in Mobile failing?

School officials have often taken issue with the limited scope some accountability measures created by the Alabama Legislature use to judge individual schools, but the perception they create is a reality school and city officials have to deal with regardless of their merit.

At least four schools within the city limits have been identified as “failing” under the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) every year since 2013 — some multiple times. The state identified nine “failing” MCPSS schools this year, and all but three are located in Mobile.

City Councilman Joel Daves said he believes the perception that the city has bad schools negatively impacts business recruitment and is likely a driving force behind people leaving Mobile to enroll their children in such public school systems as Saraland and Baldwin County. That’s one of the reasons he’s voiced support for at least studying the feasibility of a city system.

“I’m all for looking into it,” Daves said. “The main question is: Are we providing the best education we can for the students? I don’t see why we shouldn’t always be looking at that.”

However, Mobile County School Board members and MCPSS administrators have had strong opinions on defining “failing” schools as those in the bottom 6 percent of statewide reading and math scores.

The “failing” standard was created in the AAA, which allows students attending those schools to transfer to nonfailing public or private schools and even receive scholarships to do so. It also ensures that 6 percent of schools will always be “failing” regardless of how they perform.

While MCPSS performs above the state average in many areas, standardized test scores haven’t been great across the board, a fact that’s been borne out by data Mobile’s Education First Coalition has already collected.

At the coalition’s request, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) compiled and analyzed MCPSS test scores and high school graduation rates, then broke them down by various student subgroups such as race, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

The data is based on test scores from 2016, which is the last year the ACT Aspire was given to students in grades 3-8 and grade 10. It’s also the last batch of test scores the state has disclosed to the public.

PARCA’s report, released in March, shows measurable disparities in achievements of black and white students and between students who attend schools in Mobile city limits and those enrolled in other areas of the county.

There was a significant disparity in the percentage of 11th graders identified as “college ready” based on the scores they received on the ACT, the standard college entrance exam administered to all high school juniors in Alabama since 2014.

In the schools within Mobile’s city limits, only 3.4 percent of black students met that mark compared to 38 percent of white students. In the schools outside of the city, those percentages were lower overall, but the gap between them was smaller — with 2.1 percent of black students designated as “college ready” compared to 12.5 percent of white students.

Scores on the ACT Aspire in 2016 were higher, but similar gaps between student subgroups showed up in the results. According to PARCA, 32 percent of black students in the city met proficiency standards for their grade level compared to 66 percent of white students. In the county, those numbers were 24 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

It’s worth noting that by every measured standard in the report, PARCA’s data shows schools within the city of Mobile outperforming those in other areas of the county. Though not by much, those schools also exceeded the statewide average from 2016 in all but one achievement category.

It is possible those numbers are skewed by magnet schools in the city.

The data shows a larger percentage of students in MCPSS’ six magnet programs met state standards across various grade levels and testing subjects — some with a difference of more than 20 percentage points.

More data from PARCA’s report on MCPSS schools can be found below.

More than a test score

Local school administrators aren’t denying or hiding from the test scores the PARCA report was built on. The leadership fully acknowledges the school system has had some testing concerns and has been working to address them.

However, they also say the goal posts for success keep shifting.

Lakesha Brackins, MCPSS deputy superintendent of academics, told Lagniappe you have to acknowledge there is an issue before you can address it, but changing the educational outcomes for thousands of students takes time and a lot of focused effort.

“We know we have some areas, as far as student achievement is concerned, where we can do better, but everyone has to realize those issues are not going to be fixed overnight,” Brackins said.

“We try to to look at what each school has going on and treat them individually. We may have a deficiency at one school, but they may not be struggling with the same thing at another.”

Brackins said teachers have to ensure students can master the material they’ll be tested on without “teaching the test.” It partly involves determining where each student is academically through in-house assessments and teachers’ observations in the classroom.

According to Brackins, teachers are also supposed to tailor instruction based on the needs of each student, which can mean pulling some aside for additional work on certain subjects and sometimes even going back to address skills those students should have mastered at a prior grade level.

She said MCPSS is also working with principals to make sure they can understand and interpret the data to help measure what students have and haven’t learned. The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) Office of School Improvement is also working to help MCPSS and other systems bring up test scores.

According to Michael Sibley, ALSDE director of communications, the department is already in the process of implementing what he calls a “Transformation Academy” at each of the nine MCPSS schools. The academies will work with school administrators to improve “academic achievement overall, including the need to reduce achievement gaps” like those identified in the PARCA study.

While there’s been some effort to address low scores for several years, Brackins said it has been difficult to track progress because the state has continuously changed the exam used to measure student progress and determine Alabama’s “failing schools.”

Before it was changed to the ACT Aspire, the standardized test used was the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT+). However, after only four years, the Alabama State Board of Education voted to stop using Aspire last summer when federal officials determined it failed to properly align with standards actually being taught in classrooms.

Former State Superintendent Michael Sentance, who has since been terminated from the position, opted to use the Scantron assessment for federal accountability purposes in the interim. Then, in July, the school board hired the Data Recognition Corp. to develop a new testing system as a permanent replacement, but it won’t be administered until 2020.

“As a state, we’re going to have to get something consistent. If I’m teaching kids in eighth grade, I need to be able to see how they did in grades three through seven, but I can’t do that because the assessment has changed so many times,” Brackins said. “We’re building this plane while flying it, and we’re never going to get to our destination if the plane keeps falling apart in midair.”

Appetite for instruction

When Harvey’s study is completed next spring, it will still be up to the Mobile City Council and the mayor to determine whether a city school system is worth pursuing in Mobile. So far, most of the council is still waiting for the details.

Council Vice President Levon Manzie, a former member of the county school board, acknowledged there is an achievement gap between black students and white students in the local school system. He also believes it’s a gap Mobile has to address.

However, before he’s convinced to sign on in support of a city school system, he said “someone would have to convince me [it] would reduce that gap.” In other words, like others on the council who’ve spoken with Lagniappe, Manzie says he needs more information to make a decision.

Councilman Fred Richardson, who has broached the topic of a city school system for some time, stopped short of a complete endorsement, though he said he is glad to see a feasibility study underway. Of the eight failing schools in the county system, seven sit in Richardson’s council district.

Richardson also said he would personally like to see MCPSS’ new superintendent, Chresal Threadgill, direct more resources to those failing schools to improve student performance.

“I don’t want to see any failing schools, but we have a new superintendent and we ought to give him a chance,” Richardson said. “We’d only take over the schools if we thought we could do better.”

The only member who seems to have already made up his mind is Councilman John Williams, who said the city shouldn’t be considering a school system at all until it can address the outstanding issues it has with public services, public safety and infrastructure.

“I’m against [looking at a city school system] until we have the best city services ever provided in the entire Southeast region,” Williams said. “The safety of the public is a core service and until we master that, we shouldn’t worry about things we know nothing about.”

Requests seeking comments on the ongoing feasibility study from council members Gina Gregory, C.J. Small and Bess Rich did not receive a response.

Mayor Stimpson has also been fairly selective when giving his thoughts on the idea of a city school system. He has previously commented publicly on the failing schools in Mobile, writing on Twitter in January that “Even one failing school is not acceptable — much less nine. Our schools are the cornerstone of our city. … Now is the time to solve this problem.”

A statement from Stimpson’s office said: “We are supportive of the study to explore our options and to understand the impediments to our success. I am eager to see the final results and learn how we can create a stronger future for our children.”
The office did not respond to requests for specific input on Mobile’s Education First Coalition, but Stimpson was at least partially involved in the group’s formation earlier this year. According to Foley, Stimpson personally asked him to lead the effort, though Foley said the coalition has since maintained its independence from the city of Mobile.

As for MCPSS, the system’s leadership is unsurprisingly opposed to an idea that would essentially halve the MCPSS student population and a large portion of its funding sources. In a statement to Lagniappe, Threadgill said he believes the school system and the community are “better together.”

“While some may see our large size as a negative, it is that size that allows us to offer a multitude of academic and extracurricular programs and a wide range of school-choice options, including magnet schools, signature academies, international baccalaureate programs, the University of Alabama Early College at Murphy, the Cambridge International School at Alma Bryant, first-class pre-K classrooms and two stand-alone special-needs schools,” he wrote. “While we can’t control the decisions being made around us, our concentrated efforts are and will continue to be devoted to the 55,000 smiling faces that walk through our doors each day.”

Dale Liesch contributed to this report.

Updated at 2:06 p.m., Sept. 26, to include a statement from Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.