“While some young Americans, most of them white and affluent, are getting a truly world-class education, those who attend schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations, ” according to the 2013 Equity and Excellence Commission Report, as read by Dr. Tonya Perry, an associate professor at UAB’s School of Education and moderator of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Aug. 21 panel discussion, “With All Deliberate Speed: Best Practices for Education Equity.”
The event rounded out a four-part series that began on May 17 with a workshop symposium for teachers. The date marked the 60-year anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the landmark case overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that allowed state-sponsored segregation in education.
BCRI Education Department Assistant Kendall Chew explained, “As we were discussing how to commemorate [the case], we realized that while we need to address the history, we also need to connect it to the present-day issues of education.”
The issues discussed throughout the four-month event included topics such as school discipline, the prison pipeline, parent-teacher partnerships and leadership delegation, as well as the overarching themes of race, poverty and the achievement gap.
BCRI Outreach Coordinator Sam Pugh attributes Birmingham’s gap in part to an “exodus” from the Birmingham public school system. “People don’t see the school system as an elite school system,” he said. “Because they have the opportunity to move out, they do. That damages the school system and the students.”
Audience member Christopher Whitfield, a 2001 graduate from Ramsay High School and an engineer at Southern Company, said he did not have a negative experience. Describing the subject as “delicate,” he said, “I had a great time going through the school system.”
He dismissed naysayers. “Sometimes people make comments that maybe the school system doesn’t produce quality products or quality students, even hinders them; it isn’t always true.”
Sitting next to him was Aisha Abdullah, 1969 graduate of the then-Ullman High School and mother of children who also went through the Birmingham system. While not negative about the subject, she did say, “It’s a provocative subject because there have been so many things going on in the Greater Birmingham area.”
With such a provocative topic, Pugh emphasized, “Our main goal is dialogue, not just pointing fingers of blame.”
To lead the dialogue, Thursday’s event featured four panelists with enough credentials to fill many minutes: Khadijah Abdullah, executive director for Teach for America, Alabama; Stephen Cockrell, education director for the Woodlawn Foundation; Dr. Kreslyn Kelley-Ellis, president and chief executive officer of the Premier Leadership Academy; and Keli Reese, Title 1 parent council president for the Birmingham City Schools.
During their opening remarks, the panelists spoke on their own topics.
Abdullah, who spent two years teaching in the Louisiana public school system the year after Hurricane Katrina hit, began by distinguishing between equality and equity. She upheld that equality is about providing people with the exact same thing, while equity is about providing fairness. “Everything that is equal is not always fair,” she said, because each student — and each community — is unique. “Equity is about leveling the playing field.”
Discussing kids from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, Kelley-Ellis agreed and held up an actual image of a modified football field, saying, “They have to play uphill while the other team plays downhill with the same rules.”
Still, Kelley-Ellis cautions against sympathy and pity. “We don’t have to feel sorry for our kids,” she said. “We just have to understand them.”
Understanding all parties and perspectives is a matter of empathy, Kelley-Ellis’ specialty. As a trainer who led leadership teams before leading workshops, she said she can give strategies all day long to increase empathy, then slowed her speech and raised her volume: “But no one can make you care.”
Exactly how much each panelist cared became evident after the opening remarks concluded and the Q&A portion of the discussion began. Fielding questions from the audience, the panelists shared personal anecdotes about what had and had not worked.
Reese, a parent so involved she challenges the use of the term “involved parent” — it means more than “a body in a seat at a PTA meeting once a month,” she said — focused on educating parents and on parent-teacher relationships. Citing one parent who got upset at a teacher eye-rolling, she said, “We’ve got to get past the pettiness and move toward collective partnership.”
Perry agreed that efficient cooperation is vital, even when difficult. “The idea of collective partnering means you don’t always get your way right away,” she said, and former principal Kelley-Ellis reinforced the necessity of shared leadership, even at similar personal cost.
Some solutions appeared easy — one educator was able to get dads involved by theming events around the sports season. Others were creative: Kelley-Ellis once got around the continual obstacles erected by what she described as a “queen bee” — a negative and highly influential member of their school community — by buddying up to her and giving her important leadership roles. Her self-effacing problem-solving changed the entire school culture. It was similar for Abdullah during her Teach for America tenure when she asked more experienced, yet unconcerned teachers to watch her class while she taught theirs. Working with people who cared and around those who didn’t, the then 23-year-old raised the graduation rate from 34 to 80 percent in three years.
The success examples seemed to come from a personal spirit of commitment and dedication — even optimistic stubbornness — and their personal efforts affected a particular student or school or community in a particular geographic area in a particular time. But Chew, like several others present at the event, believes that such discussions have a cumulative effect.
“We’re trying to make the whole community — not just Birmingham but Hoover, Homewood, Trussville, the state of Alabama, really — aware that we all play a role in each other’s destinies.” She used herself as an example, saying, “I don’t have children personally, but I know that working here has an impact on other people’s children, other people’s futures.”
She wasn’t the only one to invoke the word “future.” As Perry read, the 2013 report, which had been prepared for the U.S. Secretary of Education, stated that because of the differing levels of access to education, “the U.S. is threatening its own future.” Her voice boomed louder: “A strong public school system is essential to a strong democracy.”
A louder melody rang out when Reese, parent to five children between the ages of 2-7, sang, “What about the children? / To ignore is so easy. / So many innocent children will choose the wrong way. / […] / And if not for those who loved us and who cared enough to show us / Where would we be today?”