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Horizon Elementary School teacher Dr. Gay Barnes is named Alabama Teacher of the Year

Horizon Elementary School teacher Dr. Gay Barnes is named Alabama Teacher of the Year

By Yvonne Betowt, The Huntsville Times

MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- Horizon Elementary School teacher Dr. Gay Barnes of Madison was named the 2011-12 Teacher of the Year at the annual Alabama Stars in Education dinner and awards ceremony in Montgomery Wednesday night.

Barnes was presented the award by State Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton near the end of a live televised broadcast on Alabama Public Television.

"I really thought it would be another person," said Barnes in a telephone interview with The Huntsville Times. "I was just stunned."

A first-grade teacher at Horizon, Barnes made it through the ranks of 16 candidates from the eight districts throughout the state. She will now represent Alabama for National Teacher of the Year honors.

The parent of five biological children and three stepchildren, Barnes credits her mother, Barbara Lucas of St. Clair County, for inspiring her to get an education. She also thanked her husband and children for their support in listening to her classroom stories every day.

Having the State Teacher of the Year in his school system is "a humbling experience" said Dr. Dee Fowler, superintendent of the Madison City Schools, where Barnes is employed.

"We are very excited," he said. "We have known Dr. Barnes is special. Now the rest of the state knows."

Her principal, Rodney Richardson, was thrilled when he heard Barnes' name called as a loud cheer went up from the District 8 representatives and family members.

"We are super excited," Richardson said. "There were a lot of great candidates. This was definitely surreal. Personally, I thought she would win it. If I had to put my finger on one thing that sets Dr. Barnes apart is her passion and love for kids and education. She brings real world experiences to the classroom. We are going to celebrate when we get back home."

Richardson and Fowler both emphasized Barnes represents many dedicated teachers in the Madison School system.

Barnes agrees.

"I represent every teacher out there," she said. "I want to be a positive representative for all the extraordinary teachers out there. I just happened to get lucky to be in the position to move forward with this process."Gay_Barnes_Teacher_of_the_Year

Barnes said the award is "a huge honor and a lovely compliment."

She was especially excited to see her colleagues who surprised her by attending the dinner. They brought a banner with pictures her students had drawn of themselves and waved it following the announcement.

A native of St. Clair County, Barnes earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a master's degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a doctorate from Alabama A&M University.

In addition to teaching at Horizon, she has taught at Heritage and Columbia in the Madison school system and at public and private schools in Huntsville.

Barnes said this will definitely push her to "rock star status" with her students, but not necessarily because she won the award.

"They will be excited because of being on TV," she said.

A segment shown during the ceremony, which was filmed last month in her classroom, aired on statewide public television during the program.

Barnes will have the use of an automobile for a year for winning the award. She will use it to travel throughout the state promoting education.

In addition to Barnes, the other finalists were Marla Hines of Vestavia Hills, who was named the alternate if Barnes isn't able to continue in her role at any time during the year, Katherine Pitts of Thomasville High School and Pam Yau of Edgewood Elementary School.










Horizon Elementary's Dr. Gay Barnes was named State Teacher of the                                                                                                                                                                                                             Year in Alabama. Joining her at the awards ceremony is Horizon Principal                                                                                                                                                                                              Rodney Richardson and Madison Superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler.                                                                                                                                                                                                             (Special to The Huntsville Times).

Speak Up initiative still going strong, will wind down this month

By Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Though the Speak Up initiative is slated to wind down at the end of this month, the campaign to involve the community in discussions about public schools is showing no sign of slowing down.

"We just passed 1,000 people in our participation list," said Debbie Beaupre, executive director of the Schools Foundation. "We have completed 81 conversations as of Thursday, we have another 14 scheduled and I have a full inbox of requests for more."

The non-profit Schools Foundation launched the Speak Up effort last August as a way to get the community talking about ways to improve the Huntsville, Madison and Madison County school systems. The initiative was modeled after the 2001 "Yes We Can!" campaign that has been credited with reviving the struggling Mobile County school system.

The effort in Huntsville has blossomed, with eight conversations planned for Wednesday alone, said Beaupre.

"I used to say it snowballed, but it's grown more like a spiderweb, reaching out in all directions," Beaupre said.

The first of the community conversations began in November, Beaupre said.

"We invited anybody who wanted to be involved to let us know," she said. "We had a few test conversations in November, but hit the ground running in January."

Part of what kicked the initiative into overdrive was the revelation late last year of the financial trouble plaguing the Huntsville city school system. The system is currently working through a financial recovery plan designed to eliminate a deficit that left it $19.5 million in debt last fall.

"As you might imagine, the interest in this initiative is mostly in Huntsville," Beaupre said.

Over the course of the initiative's fundraising efforts, which began in February 2010, the Schools Foundation has raised more than $70,000 for Speak Up, she said.

Though the conversations will end this month, fundraising -- and the work to help the schools -- will continue.

The data obtained through the conversations will result in community contracts developed for each of the three school systems.

"It will mesh the priorities of the community with the priorities of the school systems, so we're all working for a set of clearly identified goals," Beaupre said.

The timeline for the contracts has them ready sometime this fall. Once they are presented to the school boards, the Schools Foundation will monitor the actions taken to ensure that the community contracts' goals are met.

"This is not just a short-term flash in the pan," Beaupre said. "This is a long-term commitment to education."

To learn more about that commitment or to sign up to host a community conversation, visit


Speak Up for Young Professionals

Huntsville, Ala. – March 3, 2011

The Schools Foundation community engagement initiative Speak Up: A community partnership in support of public education in Huntsville, Madison, and Madison County will hold two Community Conversations for Young Professionals. All Young Professionals are invited to participate in these community-wide conversations.


These conversations will take place on Tuesday, March 15 and on Wednesday, March 16 from 12 until 1pm at Renasant Bank, 4245 Balmoral Drive.


Speak Up, a program of The Schools Foundation, was launched last fall. Its purpose is to give individuals and organizations -- through a series of neighborhood and community conversations – the opportunity to address what they perceive to be the public schools' strengths, weaknesses, and wishes. The program’s mission is a unified plan to enhance the quality of local education developed through a shared vision, shared responsibilities, and an identification of the resources needed to guarantee the plan's success.


Young Professionals should allow one hour, start to finish. Bring a friend or co-worker and join your peers to share your vision of what our community and schools will look like in ten years. Be part of a group that looks for positive action to resolve problems.


For more information and to register, go to


The Schools Foundation is a 501©3 non-profit organization supporting the three public school systems in Madison County, Alabama. The foundation serves as an advocate and leading organization for community engagement, as well as a vehicle for individuals and businesses to support public education. The Schools Foundation’s mission is to create higher expectations and widespread community support for Madison County schools, leading to world-class performance of principals, teachers, and students. For more information about opportunities for school partnerships, contact The Schools Foundation at 256-503-3213 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Huntsville public schools still racially inequitable, DOJ says

Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times



HUNTSVILLE, AL -- Forty-one-years later, the U.S. Department of Justice still isn't comfortable with the level of race-based inequities found in Huntsville's public school system.

In a letter written by a Justice Department attorney last week, it is made clear that federal officials are closely watching the actions of local school system officials as they attempt to make cuts and close schools to alleviate the financial deficit that left the schools $19.5 million in debt.

The letter was sent to school board attorney J.R. Brooks, who in December 2007 had mailed four boxes of system data to Washington. That submission marked the first step in the lengthy process of coming out from under the 1970 court order that ended a dual school system based on race.

While the response, coming years later, did not expressly deny the system unitary status, it gave eight pages of examples why school officials should not anticipate that change anytime soon.

Federal investigators identified racial disparities in student and faculty assignment, advanced course offerings and student discipline.

Using enrollment data from the 2007-2008 school year, investigators found that student enrollment was nearly evenly divided by black and white students, yet the majority of the district's schools were "racially identifiable black or white due to the composition of their respective student bodies."

Investigators found a similar trend involving the assignment of teachers.

The investigation also showed that the school system appears skewed when it comes to the offering of advanced placement courses.

"Black students in the predominantly black schools in the district were not afforded the same opportunity to enroll in advanced courses as their peers in the predominantly white schools, and black students in the predominantly white schools were not enrolling in advanced courses at nearly the same rate as their white peers," the letter stated.

The Justice Department found that the city's predominately black schools reported significantly more discipline issues than predominately white schools of the same size. In the black elementary schools, even kindergartners were being suspended as forms of discipline.

Additionally, there were significant racial disparities in the number of students disciplined in the system's "non-racially identifiable" schools, the letter stated.

The Justice Department recommended that Huntsville consider hiring consultants to help with disparities related to advanced courses and student discipline.


Huntsville school board: Elected or appointed?

Published: Thursday, February 03, 2011, 6:09 AM

By Challen Stephens, The Huntsville Times


There it sat, halfway down the list of what the volunteers hoped to see in Huntsville within 10 years: An appointed school board.

But unlike a solar power initiative or free public transportation, this wish-list item at Monday's Speak Up! focus group has potential. After all, two thirds of the cities in Alabama already appoint school board members.

And some folks in Montgomery, those with the power to make such a change, are talking about the need to do something to improve the leadership atop the financially foundering Huntsville schools.

But what would be the point? "I yearn for folks with a business background being able to get involved and make these hard decisions," said Rep. Phil Williams, R-Toney, who is leading the call to do away with the little district elections. "I'm a bit frustrated we're to this point."

He said the city board's failure to plan for anticipated state budget cuts now threatens the economic health of the whole area. Williams said he is speaking to lawmakers about a proposal to place board appointments in the hands of the city council. That might allow for business leaders and university professors who would otherwise shy away from campaigns.

Not all are convinced.

"I haven't heard an outcry from the people for changing anything," said Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. "They've certainly got problems, but it didn't happen over night ... that's why the people elected them. They've got to find a way forward."

Mayor Tommy Battle said talk of changing the board is a distraction, as a $20 million shortfall in the school system raises more pressing matters, such as staff cuts and school closures. When asked if the right people were in place to move the system forward, Battle said: "We have the people in place that have to move forward. They've been elected. That's just it."

But Williams said elected members may be reluctant to cut a program or sell a school because they hope to hold onto their seat. "Once people get elected they change," said Williams. "We could change this situation."

He pointed to Madison City Schools. Madison residents may apply to serve on the board. Each year the city council screens applicants, holds public interviews, and makes one appointment.


Madison Mayor Paul Finley said the system has worked "extremely well," as voters hold council members accountable, while "apolitical" board members are freed from the competition between different parts of the city. "We've done redistricting four times in the last 11 years," he said.

"There's a lot of people who would not feel comfortable in an election process," said Finley on Wednesday, "but they feel very comfortable in being appointed by a city council."

What's more, said Williams, the Madison board members aren't paid. Meanwhile, Huntsville, in addition to having the highest paid superintendent in this state, also has the highest paid school board.

Board members here receive $23,343 a year. But only 27 of the 68 city schools systems compensate board members, said Susan Salter at the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Looking at a recent survey, the highest she could find, after Huntsville, was Montgomery, which paid board members $10,000 a year. Choctaw, Lauderdale and Shelby county systems paid almost as much as Montgomery. Mobile and Birmingham pay board members $700 per month, she said.

But pay is not a big part of the issue, said Williams. Instead, it's about qualifications and the reality that a school board campaign in Huntsville can be a divisive and expensive proposition.

For example, despite crowded city council races last summer, board member Jennie Robinson ran the most expensive campaign in the city, raising more than $60,000. Such a price tag, combined with the narrow scope of the board, opens the board to the influence of a few special interest groups.

Over last decade, the employees in the Huntsville Education Association and the business executives in the Committee of 100 have attempted to influence nearly every board election. For example, the Committee of 100 alone put up more than half of the $40,000 raised by newly elected David Blair.

And finally there is also a matter of low participation in the selection process. Despite all that cash, only about 4,000 people voted in the runoff between Blair and Emily Elam.

As nature of the system's deficit spending emerged, letters to the editor began to appear blaming the board. "Amid obfuscation and finger-pointing, the fact remains that an incompetent school board has put our system $20 million in debt, sullied our good name and lost the trust of the people," wrote Esther Davis.

Huntsville councilman Bill Kling said he's received similar e-mails promoting an appointed board. "Personally, I'd be a little reluctant," said Kling on Wednesday.

He said the council may be able to tap business leaders and retired educators who may not wish to campaign. "But I would hate to see the public lose its right to vote for five elected officials."

State Sen. Paul Sanford said he hasn't heard much call from voters, and he is not convinced the city council would be up to the task. "We've seen the city council shy away from wanting to have political responsibility," said Sanford, who once proposed getting the council more involved with the Huntsville Housing Authority.

Besides, he said, appointments wouldn't remove politics, but rather shift the debate to the council. "It just kind of transfers it."


In 1970, Hartwell Lutz, a state representative at the time, said dissatisfaction with the state of the schools, especially in south Huntsville, led to the end of the old appointed board. "I wrote the bill," said Lutz.

State Rep. George Grayson forced the change to district elections. Grayson, a man who in 1993 would plead guilty to extorting $1.7 million from Huntsville, sued in federal court and in 1988 a judge ordered the five single-member districts we have now.

Lutz on Wednesday said he regrets ever moving away from the appointed board.

"I don't' think it's worked out the way people thought it would," he said. "I think the school board has become where each board member has to look out for his or her constituency and that's just politics, and I don't think that's served the school system too well."


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