TAKING FLIGHT: School systems find success in 2018

Published 3:00 am Monday, December 31, 2018

A study conducted by the City of Troy found that the Troy City Schools system is at a “critical point in its history” in 2018 and Pike County Schools is being looked at by systems around the state as a model for success.

Both school systems offered more academic, extracurricular and career readiness programs during the year than ever before.

The latest report card grade for Troy City Schools shows that the system improved from a “C” grade of 79 last year to a “B” this year with a score of 82.

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The report card measures a variety of data including academic achievement, academic growth, graduation rates, college and career ready data, chronic absenteeism, enrollment by student subgroup and more.

The state has not yet released the data that breaks down the school system’s score, but Superintendent Dr. Lee Hicks said the improvement shows the hard work of the students and faculty to improve.

“It’s a credit to our administrators, students and parents who accepted the challenges we gave them,” Hicks said. “It shows you that, again, when you do things right, you’ll improve. We’re proud of the score; now we have to try to improve on it for next year.”

Hicks credited partnerships with colleges and local businesses such as Lockheed Martin and KW Plastics for helping to make students in the system more career-ready than ever before.

Students at Charles Henderson High School have a unique opportunity to participate in a one-of-a kind Workforce Development program. The school partners with Lurleen B. Wallace and was the only high school in the state to offer the Ready-to-Work program developed by AIDT. The Culinary Arts program at CHHS continues to grow and students within the program have competed in national contests including a competition to create space food for astronauts and another to craft a meal for Congress. Charles Henderson offers Advanced Placement courses in the areas of Science, English, Math, Psychology, and Art. A partnership with Troy University’s Acceleration program allows students to begin in 10th grade and offers 11 college-level classes in the areas of science, history, English, economics, music, and accounting. Charles Henderson High School offers the Accounting Academy on the campus of Charles Henderson in which students can earn an Associates Degree from Enterprise State Community College while completing high school credits.  The Future Business Leaders of America operates the Trojan Corner, an on-campus store that sells school merchandise and Game Day t-shirts.

While students have found success in the classroom and in extracurricular settings, the system has come upon challenges financially. The system ran out of money with a month left in the fiscal year ending (FYE) 2017 and had to work with the city to secure a line of credit to meet a $365,000 shortfall in the FYE2018 budget.

“Every year we’ve had to cut and cut and cut,” Hicks said. “We don’t have any fluff; there’s nothing you can say ‘Oh, if they can do away with this, you would save some money.’ There’s no one item you can save on.”

Meanwhile, the Business Education Alliance of Alabama was working on a study of the school system at the behest of the City of Troy. The study analyzed the school’s budget and performance and found that there may be some areas where the system could reduce expenditures. It also proposed possible solutions to increase revenue for the system, including increased local funding by increasing property taxes or sales tax.

A survey of mostly Troy residents, many of who were involved with the school system in some way, found that many participants were “somewhat” to “very” dissatisfied with the amount of local funding for the school system.

Mayor Jason Reeves cautioned the answer is not simply to increase funding.

“You can’t throw money at something and expect it to be fixed,” he said. “We’re not at that point. There are a lot of things we’ve got to work on and we’re a long way from the point of considering (a tax increase or other financial incentives from the city). Pushing in that direction right now shortchanges us on things we need to do to be engaged and helping make the schools more successful.”

Instead, Reeves said the study and survey should be used as a reference to bring the community together to discuss what steps should be taken to improve the system and sustain it for years to come.

“The point of the study was to provide an outside, expert opinion that would start and process and a dialogue among all stakeholders in the community on working toward providing the best education possible for the children in our community.”

Those stakeholders include the children, parents, teachers, business community and citizens throughout Troy. “Everyone in the community, whether you have four kids in the system like I do or don’t have any, is affected by public education,” Reeves said.

The Pike County School system achieved national recognition this year and was the first Alabama school system ever visited by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB).

“What you have done is truly breathtaking,” Terry Mazany, former president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, told students, faculty and administrators gathered with the NAGB members at lunch. “You are leading the country … and your story is the future of education in our country. Education can’t be kept separate from career preparedness … and while the NAEP (administered by the NAGP) is the gold standard for academic cognitive performance, what we don’t know is how to do is assess and provide information about everything else, which as you have demonstrated is critically important.”

Superintendent Dr. Mark Bazzell said it was an honor to be visited not just by the NAGB, but by many other schools around the region as well.

“Back in the spring we had a lot of visitors to our system, somewhere around 20 different groups came to look at some of the good things we have going on,” Bazzell said.

In May, just in time for the NAGB visit, the system opened its $1 million-plus Advanced Learning Center.

“We were excited about being able to put the center to full use this year,” Bazzell said. “We have about 100 academy students working in various programs towards associate’s degrees this year. This is great for them, especially for those students that will continue their education at Troy University; which amount to about half. The center is a place for them to call home while they are college students in the morning and high school students in the afternoon.”

The school system dropped from a “B” grade of 84 on last year’s report card to a “C” score of 79 this year, but Bazzell said that doesn’t show the whole story.

“Trying to take everything and aggregate it into a single letter grade not one of the best things that we can do,” Bazzell said. “I encourage people to look deeper into the data – the percentage of students enrolled receiving dual enrollment credit, the percentage receiving meaningful STEM experience, average SAT score. There’s lots of data out there about individual school systems that are not factored into a single letter grade that really better inform the public.”

The school district offers a full complement of outstanding programs at all levels, including participation in the Alabama Reading Initiative and Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative. The district also prides itself in a growing STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focus which includes fifth-and sixth-grade and seventh- and eighth-grade STEM Cohort groups, a ninth grade STEM transition course, and STEM Academy. The system is now pushing STEM courses even earlier, introducing the programs to second through fourth grade students beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

High school programs feature several Academy/Early College Options. These include Agriscience, Business & Finance Academy, Exercise Science and Health, First in Flight, Health Information and Technology and Performing Arts. These programs allow students to graduate from high school and a partner post-secondary institution with an associate degree. There is no cost to students.

Additionally, the Global Studies Academy allows students to attend Troy University part-time at no expense and earn 24 semester hours of college credit prior to graduation. Post-secondary partners include Troy University, Enterprise State Community College, and Wallace College – Hanceville. The district has many business and industry partners and is an active member and financial supporter of the Pike County Economic Development Corporation. 

Pike Liberal Arts saw a transition this year as Eric Burkett stepped into the role of headmaster after Becky Baggett stepped down from the position.

“We have had a very successful year at Pike Lib,” Burkett said. “We continue to succeed academically, with ACT scores above the state average. We have also had success in the AISA District and State Oratorical, Spelling Bee, and Scholar’s Bowl competitions. As for the arts, the Patriot Pride Band has had a banner year.”

Burkett said he also takes great pride in what his students did for community service during the year.

“Our juniors and seniors collected several items for donation to Hurricane Michael victims, and we have students on a mission trip to Costa Rica now,” Burkett said. “Our Junior Ambassadors continue to provide great service to the Troy community, and more than two dozen of our students went to Atlanta to help with Operation Christmas Child. Recently, our baseball players helped with the Turkey’s From Heaven service project. It has been a fabulous first semester at Pike, and the best is yet to come. Community service and leadership are instrumental in the development of our students. We not only develop minds but we develop leaders and community servants with our students’ community service hour and projects throughout the year.”

Burkett said Pike Liberal Arts offers an alternative for families seeking education with a Christian foundation, with each day starting with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, and the Bible is interwoven into the curriculum.

“We measure our value in terms of quality, relationships, and experiences that we offer our students in a unique atmosphere,” Burkett said. “It is truly a family atmosphere. Whether it’s a service project, athletics, or the arts, students and their families  work together with our faculty and staff to bring together talent, effort, and resources to give our students the best opportunity to be as successful as possible.”