Alabama: Renewing School-Family-Community Relationships
Dr. Tyna Davis
One and a half years ago, Alabama Education Association (AEA) formulated a cadre of approximately 30 educators to review the four recommended models for the School Improvement Grants (SIG). After study, the cadre recommended the transformation model. This came after an intensive process of discussing and focusing on the pros and cons of each model. The group unanimously agreed that the transformation model was the model that we wanted to use in our state. Through conferences, AEA’s Alabama School Journal, editorials and news articles, we recommended to the locals the Transformation Model. This was important because it helped shape the approaches used by our school systems. Of 14 Alabama awardees, 13 are transformation and one is closure. The one local that is recommending closure has had this issue on the local board agenda for several years.
Prior to the announcement of the SIG school recipients, the Alabama Education Association had adhered to its mission of promoting and providing excellence in education; had been involved in collaborative relations with many organizations; and had begun to employ the research-based elements of change in our school reform efforts. AEA has taken the lead in many education initiatives in our state. The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE), and the State Superintendent have endorsed and embraced all of the initiatives. Legislatively, we worked to pass bullying legislation and incentives to promote national board certification for teachers. Through regulation and/or through the directive of the state superintendent of education, we developed and/or implemented Priority Schools Initiative, Jumpstart into Spanish, Collaborative Teacher Model, and now, the Common Core Standards.
When AEA received the list of the SIG school recipients, we began leveraging relationships that were built previously. We are utilizing our education family, community outreach and educational partners. Communication is key to success. We began by meeting with our UniServ directors. We armed them with their system applications, information on the Priority Schools Campaign (PSC), and informed them of the assistance that we would be providing. We are in constant communication with our superintendents, local presidents and UniServ directors. They get direct communication from us about the SIG program, and we do not make decisions without involving them.
For the community outreach component, we have involved many community groups statewide. In one of our locals, we piloted the “Community Conversations,” and then expanded the conversations to leverage community support, resources and partnerships. Also, we have encouraged our local education associations to increase their capacity and collaboration by partnering with community organizations and community groups. This partnership and collaboration can help us propel our agenda of promoting success and improving the image of our schools. Because the media is slow to share good news about our schools, we want to use these organizations as a way of getting out our messages about the good things that are happening in our schools.
In terms of collaboration, in the early 2000s when the National Education Association piloted the Priority School Initiative, we helped form a group known as our education family. This group includes members of the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE), Alabama Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Alabama Education Retirees Association (AERA), School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA), Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS), and the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB). They were involved when we trained the Priority School Initiative. This collaboration brought about a greater understanding of the AEA’s mission of educational excellence. Not only did we work together on a common issue, it was a public relations move, the Alabama Education Association is seen in a different light. As a result of that collaboration, training, and piloting of the initiative, seven schools had tremendous success.
Additionally as a result of that early meeting in 2000, the education family works collaboratively on a variety of statewide issues from legislative initiatives to seeking new revenue for schools. In addition, we have partnered with Pan-Hellenic organizations, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis, foundations, businesses and the NAACP. Many representatives of these organizations speak at our conferences, and we are represented at their conferences. Through this collaboration, we have been able to address charter schools and garner support of AEA’s position on charter schools. We have successfully dealt with the issue of charter schools through both policy and regulation, and because of the support of community groups the association has political clout. Since the General Election this year, things have changed; however, I believe that with the partnerships with many groups we will be very successful.
In the area of improving staff capacity and effectiveness, AEA is providing intensive training on Educate Alabama – the teacher evaluation system adopted by our State Department of Education. We were involved in the development of this system and AEA has developed a training module to accompany that evaluation system that assists teachers in being successful.
Our priority schools have three basic characteristics that can be improved: demographics, insufficient resources and instructional practices. Demographically, some schools serve low-income children living under highly stressful conditions that inhibit learning. The issue is not just low income, but an environment that destabilizes home life. Insufficient resources are a mainstay in these schools. Ineffective school practices are oftentimes prevalent. These schools are plagued by uncoordinated curriculum and professional development, unreliable instructional strategies and lack of leadership. These factors are deterrent to school improvement.
Undoubtedly, many cases of low performance result from a confluence of forces. If we look at demographics, insufficient resources, and school practices, which of these can we change or positively impact?
As an association, we have perhaps the greatest impact on the instructional practices. AEA offers NEA developed training on I Can Do It, KEYS, and C.A.R.E. Also, AEA has developed many training modules that we offer. We know that when we look at those things that are characteristics of our priority schools, to work on one isn’t going to solve our problem.
While we may begin with school practices, we must also work in concert with other partners to address insufficient resources. Our work must be to advocate change in the demographic factors that are barriers to academic achievement for our students.
Our teachers will be doing everything they can with professional development, but if these same schools have insufficient resources, our students still may not succeed. I believe as an association we have a responsibility to work in the other two areas. So at AEA, we are working with insufficient resources and demographics through other agencies.
In the area of leadership, AEA recognizes that in a successful transformation, the principal alone typically does not, and cannot, provide all the leadership or make all the decisions. Other stakeholders, including key teachers, administrators, other staff, parents and community members, assume responsibilities for leading change in their own domains. They work closely together as “teams.”
Beyond our SIG schools at every conference, training and meeting, we are encouraging members to request from their administration that they be a part of the team that provides local leadership to articulate the vision, work as partners with the school leaders to keep the school focused on instruction, and utilize focused, research-based professional development driven by identified instructional needs.
Teachers and staff should be involved in more collaborative activities. We must break down the traditional isolation of teachers in their own classrooms and get them to work together on reviewing data, developing lesson plans and assessments, aligning curriculum, etc.
A powerful strategy employed for improving instruction is individual mentoring or coaching by accomplished teachers or administrators, both for beginning and, where necessary, experienced teachers. AEA has worked with the state department of education in developing a statewide mentoring program and teacher evaluation system which we are confident will improve instruction in Alabama’s classroom and ultimately have a positive impact on student achievement.
Tyna Davis is Manager, Education Policy and Professional Practice at the Alabama Education Association.