They may represent three different school systems, but at the end of the day, they all play for the same team.
Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Matt Akin, Madison City Schools Superintendent Robby Parker and Madison County Superintendent Matt Massey gathered with the Rocket City’s business community Feb. 7 to have a conversation about education in the Tennessee Valley for the sixth annual State of the Schools, hosted by the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. The event provided the education leaders with an opportunity to highlight the successes and challenges of each of their respective school districts, as well as share insight into how they are working together to improve student success.
“We know the importance of our success, collectively, to the future of this county,” Akin said.
Parker and Massey agreed.
“We have different challenges, and we do lean on each other,” Parker said. “There are things that I have to deal with that they don’t have to de
al with, there are things that they have to deal with that I don’t have to deal with, but I can’t imagine a metro area – there’s nowhere else in the state, I’d put us up against other large metro area in America – where you have three separate, large school systems, where the superintendents are this close. We want to win on Friday night, everybody wants to win on Friday night at football, but other than that, I’m telling you, we’re partners.”
“We don’t want anyone to have the perception that somebody is trying to one up somebody else,” Massey said. “It really is a collective effort.”
When asked to point to their top successes and challenges, Massey looked to an increase in the amount of Advanced Placement courses offered – 3,500 exams will be administered this year – as well as greater access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics offerings as a high point. Money, however, continues to be a problem for the district, especially when it comes to Massey’s desire to expand PreK. Madison County ranks 114 out of 137 school systems in terms of funding in the state.
In Huntsville, Akin is most proud of ensuring students are both college and career ready, not either/or, as well as the system’s PreK program, the second largest in the state. Recruiting and retaining teachers remains a challenge – almost one-third of the system’s teachers have zero to three years teacher experience – as well as finding the best ways to serve students living in poverty.
“We are committed to serving our students in poverty, but it’s a different level of service,” said Akin, who pointed to a need for more afterschool and summer school services for those students.
Parker pointed to his district’s ability to make sure that “every kid as a chance,” as a point of pride. It’s a commitment, Parker said, that is guaranteed through the system’s frequent rezoning to ensure that the ratio of “haves” to “have-nots” is equal across schools, an initiative made possible thanks to the work of the Board of Education and his predecessor Dee Fowler. One in four students in Madison city schools lives in poverty.
Another high point for Parker was every single school receiving an A on the Alabama State Department Education Report Cards. The biggest challenge for the district is growth – some 300 students move into Madison each year, a statistic that will require a new elementary school and middle school in the next five years, and a new high school, or additions to the current high schools, in the next seven.
Collectively, the three school systems educate more than 50,000 students across Madison County, and are three of the highest performing school systems in the state of Alabama, according to Ryan Hankins, executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council Alabama, who explained some of the Alabama State Department of Education Report Card findings for attendees. Huntsville is the top performer for large city school systems in Alabama, with Madison coming in at number two in the state when compared to other smaller city school systems, and Madison County ranking second in the state of all county school systems.
Hankins combined data from all three systems to make a figurative “supersystem” that is a top performer when compared to other large districts in the state.
“The systems in Madison County, in the area, are graduating more students, sending slightly fewer of them to higher education in the last couple of years, but those that go are better prepared, and less in need of remediation, which is a win on all fronts,” Hankins said. “So what does this mean? It means a number of things. It means that employers are hiring from a region, not from a school system, and when you look at the region of Madison County, the region is outperforming essentially every other region in the state. It is something you should be proud of and can promote. The individual systems are also outperforming in their peer groups, which is something you can be proud about and promote.
“Yes, we know that schools are struggling, and areas are struggling, but that’s a county, community-wide problem, that needs a community-wide response, and we believe that this perspective, looking at your schools in the aggregate, at the county level, gives you a position and enthusiasm and strength to build on.”