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Our Schools Want To Talk- With You
By Steve Campbell | The Huntsville Times
March 07, 2010, 7:09AM
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HUNTSVILLE, AL -- They use phrases like, "engage the community," "develop partnerships," and are guided by the words, "yes we can."

But local leaders insist the latest push to improve Madison County's three school systems isn't about virtuous-sounding phrases that don't lead to meaningful action.

The "Yes We Can Huntsville-Madison County!" movement calls for months of input from citizens on what they want from schools, how people are willing to help, and what they expect from school leaders.

The Schools Foundation, a local school support organization, announced last week it would lead the movement, which involves heavy fundraising.

After more than 300 community conversations, the citizens' demands are built into a contract between school leaders and the people. Then everyone gets to work.

"It sounds fuzzy," said Scott McLain, a Huntsville developer who is co-chairing the movement. But he added: "There's no ulterior motive to this other than to engage the public."

There's no push for a tax increase, he said, and officials won't greet citizens with preconceived notions about what's best for Huntsville, Madison, and Madison County schools, McLain said.

The only result wanted is better schools.

The first Yes We Can movement, at least such a movement with that name, started in Mobile County in 2001.

Carolyn Akers, executive director of the Mobile Area Education Foundation, said locals had distrusted the state's largest school system for decades.

As a whole, student achievement was lousy, she said. The school board was too political. Private schools swelled. Neighborhoods cried inequity.

"It didn't matter what side of I-65 they were on," Akers said. "Nobody felt they were being treated fairly."

Mobile County leaders began more than 50 conversations with their constituents. They visited churches, community centers, people's homes - even a barbershop.

They stayed away from town hall meetings, where someone with a microphone presents ideas while the people listen. Officials wanted it the other way around.

Akers said the community wanted accountability for school performance, better communication between the school system and the public, and of course, better schools.

Businesses donated money. More people volunteered at schools.

In the 2003-2004 school year, the first year No Child Left Behind Act figures were available, Mobile County Schools made only half its academic goals in pursuit of "adequate yearly progress." In 2008-2009, the system made all but one of its goals.

Problems remain, Akers said, but according to the federal government's definition of "proficient," Mobile County students mostly hit the mark on math and reading.

Akers said Madison County leaders shouldn't think Mobile County's school improvement strategy will improve Madison County's schools.

Indeed, while many families once fled Mobile County schools for Baldwin County, Akers said, schools in Madison County are rapidly growing. School leaders here must accommodate more and more students while state money shrinks because of the recession.

"This is not about replicating what happened in Mobile," Akers said. "I just know some of the processes that will help get you there. It will have to be a Huntsville undertaking."

McLain agrees. "We're trying to emulate the process," he said. "We're dramatically different (from Mobile County)."

First comes fundraising. The Schools Foundation must raise $285,000 to do the work required in Yes We Can program, including setting up hundreds of small group community meetings and generating strategic plans customized for each school system.

The community conversations begin in April and may last for more than a year. McLain said the conversations are vital to the effort.

"(People) do care about education, but the process has not been set up to make them comfortable, make them feel a part (of the process) and make them feel inspired," he said at the Monday meeting.

After the conversations, local leaders and the public will create strategic plans designed for each school system.

While "Yes We Can" was a theme for President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008, the "Yes We Can" movement here is not affiliated with a political group. To avoid polarizing potential donors, McLain said local leaders may label the movement "community engagement" or something else.

"If (Yes We Can) is going to give somebody an excuse not to support public education ... ," McLain said, "then I think it's dangerous to our efforts."

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