National education leaders to visit Pike County Schools

Published 3:00 am Saturday, May 12, 2018

Encouraged to have “big, blue sky visions” about the future of education in America, a group of national leaders is coming to Pike County this week to experience first-hand what those possibilities can be.

The 26 members of the National Assessment Governing Board will visit the Pike County Schools on Thursday as part of the group’s quarterly meeting, taking place in Montgomery. The NAGB is an independent, bipartisan organization that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card.

“The board has never been to Alabama before,” said Chasidy White, a former Tuscaloosa-based teacher who now serves as Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Alabama Department of Education and is completing her first term on the national board. So the opportunity to bring them to her home state also afforded the chance to spotlight an innovative rural school system program.

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“Our governing board had just had a conversation about how to prepare students for life between now and 20 years from now,” White said. “We were encouraged to have big, blue sky visions … and I said, ‘we can actually show you those big, blue sky dreams by going up in the sky.’”

White was referring to the First in Flight Academy, one of eight career-readiness academies offered through the Pike County Schools system. These programs, which range from agriculture to business and finance to aviation, allow for students to earn both an associate’s degree and a high school diploma concurrently, at no additional cost to the students.

“As we are planning for the future, we are really at a crossroads in education,” White said. “Sometimes it’s not an assessment at the end of a senior year that determines career readiness. Sometimes it’s the student who graduates in December of his senior year already having an associate’s degree and a job.”

And for that, she said, Pike County is a shining example of success.

“Pike County schools are not only a model for the state, they’re a model for the nation,” she said.

Dr. Mark Bazzell, superintendent of the Pike County Schools, said the system has placed an emphasis on career readiness programs for more than a decade, starting with the Business and Finance Academy and expanding to eight different associate’s degree programs. “We’ve graduated about 120 students in the Business and Finance Academy alone,” Bazzell said. “And this year, we had 20 students graduate with associate degrees across four of our academies: flight, ag, business and finance and performing arts.”

Bazzell said the district’s goal is for 30 to 35 percent of its students to graduate with an associate’s degree and for the remaining 65 percent to graduate with a short-term certificates, in courses that will range from IT to app development to aircraft frame construction. “We are pushing our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives down into the second grade so our kids will be more involved in coding and the STEM process at an early age,” he said.

That’s an ambitious goal for an admittedly small, rural school system in Alabama. “We have more than 2,100 students and of those more than 75 percent are at or below poverty level,” Bazzell said. “We know the governing board could have picked other school systems in Alabama – ones like Hoover or Vestavia Hills – but there are a lot more systems in Alabama that are like us, with a high percent of poverty level students, and we believe we can still do innovative and creative things with them.”

Pike County’s success despite the challenges of being a rural system is part of the reason White selected the system as the only one the governing board will visit during its multi-day meeting.

“I really wanted to highlight a rural system,” she said. “This is the board’s first visit to Alabama and the first time they’ve visited a rural system … last year we were in Minneapolis, and before that Los Angeles.”

The board members include a cross-section of educators, business representatives and public service sector leaders, including former governors; sitting state legislators; and corporate leaders. In addition to the site visit in Pike County, members will also cover pre-K education, measuring postsecondary preparedness and NAEP’s assessment schedule.

They will spend the day in Pike County on Thursday, including flights at the First in Flight Leadership Academy and visits to the Business and Finance and Agriscience Academies, as well as a group lunch with school officials.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to share the good things we have going on in the Pike County Schools, Bazzell said. “We sometimes get busy working to do the best we can for the kids and really take for granted some of the opportunities we have provided for the kids … (and that is thanks to) our leadership team, faculty and staff.”