NOVEMBER 18, 2010
Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times
HUNTSVILLE, AL -- "Demographics do not determine destiny for a school system."
That was the underlying message Thursday at an economic and education forum hosted by the Schools Foundation, the Committee of 100, Leadership Huntsville-Madison County and the Army Community Relations Committee.
That message became somewhat of a mantra for Jim Williams, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), who gave a presentation on the state of area schools.
"Demographics and finances can make a difference, but they are not insurmountable," Williams said. "I see no smoking gun here that would create insurmountable obstacles to success."
The forum began with comments from Maj. Gen. Jim Rogers, commander at Redstone Arsenal. Rogers talked about how important a good school system is to a community's economic development.
The first thing an incoming military family does, even before choosing a home, is look at the area's schools, he said.
"School systems are the bedrock and the foundation that we build our families and our businesses on," Rogers said.
Williams, when going over data for the three area school systems, explained that PARCA used results from the Alabama Reading and Math Test (ARMT) when doing its comparisons of systems across the state. The benchmark was set high, using the percentages of Level IV ARMT scores.
Reaching Level IV proficiency is like making an "A" on a test in school, Williams said.
To compare student scores by race and socio-economic status, the report used four subgroups of the schools' population - white, black, poverty and non-poverty - and compared them to the state average in each subgroup.
For the 2009-2010 school year, Huntsville's students showed a remarkable achievement gap between races and socio-economic statuses. White students exceeded the statewide percentages at Level IV proficiency across the board, as did most grade levels in the non-poverty category.
The only exceptions were third, fourth and fifth-graders in math, the data shows.
All but one grade in the poverty subgroup scored below the state average in math and reading. The seventh-grade math students scored equal to the state average.
In the black subgroup, only seventh-graders scored above the state average in math. Eighth-graders scored within a percentage point of the state average in both subjects.
Scores were markedly better for both Madison city and Madison county schools. In Madison city schools, students in the white subgroup all scored above the state average, with most age groups scoring 10 percentage points or more above that average. Non-poverty students also scored above the state benchmark.
Unlike in Huntsville's schools, the black students in Madison also scored above the benchmark in nearly every grade level. The only exceptions were third, fourth and fifth-graders in math.
Students in poverty also did better in Madison, with about half of the grade levels scoring above the benchmark and the other half scoring below.
Madison County's poverty-stricken students did the best in that category out of the three systems, with all grade levels scoring above average in both math and reading.
Students in the other three categories all scored above average as well, with the exception of fourth-grade math students in both the white and black subgroups.
Elementary and middle school students in the non-poverty category also scored either at or below the benchmark.
Williams said that, overall, the results were strong.
"Two-thirds of the time, the success rates are above the state average," Williams said. "In those areas, it's time to raise the bar."
As for schools that did not do as well as others, Williams had encouraging words.
"Every school has to start from someplace in the improvement process," he said. "Success is built over time. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
Scott McLain, president of the Schools Foundation, told the audience that Thursday was a "watershed day" for the school systems.
"We have some of the best schools in the Southeast, but we have our challenges," McLain said.
He faulted the public for a lack of involvement in the area's education system. Involvement from the community, including the business community, is vital to the success of the students, he said.
McLain also said it is not good enough for the schools to be as proficient as the state average, citing Alabama's notorious position near the bottom when compared to other states.
"The data we saw is not consistent with the way we think of the Rocket City," McLain said. "Do we want to catch up with the rest of Alabama, or do we want to do better?"
Click here to read the article on Al.com.