Friday, December 21, 2007

Farewell and thanks!

This will be the last post from here me on the Classroom Blog. After nearly two years at the Star, I'm headed to North Carolina.

Thanks to all of you who have kept coming back for local education news since we launched in August. Happy holidays everybody, and remember to check back once school's back in session for even more updates.

Calhoun County Schools' financial director to retire

Bob White will conclude his 23-year career today as the chief financial officer for Calhoun County Schools. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star

In his nearly 23 years on the job, the Calhoun County Schools annual budget has tripled, and the cost of a school bus has grown 20-fold.

But during his tenure, chief financial officer Bob White has maintained the county's reputation for doing the most with what it has.

White spends his final day on the job today before heading for retirement.

He said the biggest difference he's seen since joining the school system in May 1985 is the heightened glare of accountability's spotlight.

"We had it before, but it's more formal now," he said.

"From how we managed money then and where we are now is a ton of difference. But it gives us an opportunity to publicly display what good stewards we are with taxpayer money."

White grew up in Memphis, Tenn., served four years in the Navy, and graduated with an economics degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He took his first job out of college as an accountant with Shell Oil Co.

After that he worked in banking in Talladega until coming to Calhoun County.

"I think back to how much more simple life was when I came here," he said.

"When we started measuring how well each school system is doing compared to everybody else, it put a different picture on everything."

See the full story here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Anniston students lend hand to local charity projects


Misha Whatley and Niketa Hughley paused in Anniston High School's hallways to see what their hard work led to.

The seniors gazed at a poster showing the 168 gifts bought with money they raised for Toys for Tots.

With beaming smiles, they high-fived.

"We did it," Whatley said.

Their efforts were part of a busy holiday season at the high school as students offered a hand to local community service projects.

"We teach more than reading, writing and arithmetic," said Melinda Hicks, an Anniston High math teacher and sponsor of the school's chapter of national math honor society Mu Alpha Theta.

"Giving back to the community starts when you're a young adult."

The math honor society students raised about $250 in a week last year, mostly from patrolling the school for loose change donations.

This year, the group's 14 students — plus Hughley, who volunteered on her own, Hicks said — began their efforts around Veterans Day and tripled last year's haul.

Donations went to Ginger Bunn, who set up her store as a drop site with the Marines, who organize the toy drive for needy children each year.

See the full story here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Winners and travelers at Donoho

A couple of announcements from The Donoho School have come my way thanks to Paige Faulkner.

First, eighth-grader Jack Lentjes won the school-level competition for the National Geography Bee, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, last week. He answered the most oral questions on geography in the first round of the 20th annual bee. He will take a written qualifying test next month for a chance to advance to the state bee.

Also, two students have been accepted into the People to People World Leadership Forum.

Richard Bateman and Samuel Garner will join a group of students in Washington next September. They'll earn high school credit while studying leadership and exploring some of the U.S. capital's monuments and institutions. Forum delegates will also participate in small-group discussions and experience first-hand how leaders develop strategies, make decisions, build consensus and foster change.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower began the program in 1956.

New drama club takes center stage at Saks Middle School

The Saks Middle School drama club works on the final script before the broadcast of the morning news to the school’s classrooms. Pictured from left are Kelly Kilgore, Marissa Washington, Deja Dorman, Tiffany DeBoer, Jacob Callahan and Akeem Webster. Photo: Kevin Qualls/The Anniston Star

Tiffany DeBoer likes to stay involved at school.

So the Saks Middle School seventh-grader came in to school at 7 a.m. Tuesday even though she had no exams that day and could have stayed home.

Marissa Washington, also in seventh grade, did the same to help deliver the day’s announcements on a closed-circuit TV newscast.

It’s the first of what advisers hope will be many activities for the school’s new drama club.

“In their classes, doing skits, we saw how the kids just eat that up,” said Diana Durham, a reading teacher and one of the group’s sponsors.

“The children need an outlet. We have to teach the academics, but we’re so pushed by testing. There are just not enough arts in our schools.”

Another sponsor, Holly Dougal, prepared a script for student tryouts earlier this year. Students in any grade with at least a C average and no disciplinary issues could audition, and 42 were selected.

“I’m just glad it gives kids who aren’t interested in sports an opportunity to do other things,” Dougal said.

“They were all real excited that first meeting.”

See the full story here.

Merging schools: Gadsden superintendent praises consolidation of high schools


Bob Russell will tell anyone who asks about the success of consolidating Gadsden’s three high schools into one.

Tuesday he offered a report to the Anniston Rotary Club.

“As you go around the state, people talk about (consolidation) all the time, but they’re too scared to do it,” said Russell, a 38-year veteran of education and Gadsden’s superintendent for the past eight years. “People come to us to see how we did it.”

Consolidation talk in Calhoun County pops up sporadically and is generally met with a chilly reception.

But the state could soon offer millions of dollars from a bond issue specifically for consolidation efforts. Clay County is examining the possibility of combining its two high schools. And with dwindling enrollments in Anniston, it could be a topic for a new superintendent to address.

In Gadsden, the City Council and mayor approved a one-cent sales tax in 2002 to produce about $1 million a year for 20 years to help the schools get a bond for a new, consolidated high school.

Russell said he began a series of dozens of community meetings to discuss combining the former Gadsden, Litchfield and Emma Sansom high schools.

“Certainly, the most difficult thing was getting people sold on our idea,” Russell said. “We knew we could get the kids. The adults are the people who have things to say.

“We had lost enrollment over a 10-year period, and we weren’t teaching the things in our system to compete with other high schools.”

See the full story here.

Grant would team up JSU with Oxford


MONTGOMERY — Jacksonville State University is in the running for a $20,000 grant that would establish Oxford City Schools as a demonstration site for co-teaching.

Known throughout the state for its success in teaming-up general and special education teachers in the classroom, Oxford City Schools is a natural fit for such a collaborative program, said Stephen Armstrong, professor of special education at JSU.

“Oxford City Schools are already doing great things in special education and its one of the top systems in the state for co-teaching,” he said. “One of the issues for school systems that want to do this (co-teaching) is having enough special education teachers, but Oxford does have enough and they also have good administrative support.”

Armstrong said if JSU is successful in getting the grant from the Alabama State Improvement Grant program it would bring about a marriage of the academic study of co-teaching and the realities of making it work.

What they learn from the seven-month project could be beneficial to school systems and educators throughout the state and beyond, he said.

Khristie Goodwin, special education coordinator for Oxford City Schools, said for several years the school district has sought to educate students with disabilities in “the least restrictive social and academic environment.”

Putting general and special education teachers side by side in the same classroom helped make that happen, she said.

See the full story here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

ACT offers tips for high schoolers

ACT has sent along a couple of news releases over the past week trying to keep high school students and parents on their toes.

First, they offer advice for courses college-bound students should be taking. Generally, they advise that taking the most challenging classes available is the best way to prepare for college and the workplace. That means, four years of English, four years of math including one course beyond Algebra II, and three years each of science and social studies.

Also, ACT provides a checklist for assessing your progress.


  • Continue to take challenging courses
  • Keep track of scholarship and financial aid deadlines
  • Apply for the FAFSA online in January
Sophomores and Freshmen:
  • Meet with your adviser to discuss college
  • Start gathering information on schools that interest you
  • Emphasize the importance of challenging courses
  • Talk to high school staff to make sure you understand preparation needs
  • Look into financial aid and college funding, including at the U.S. Department of Education

JSU housekeeper Ester Uesry named employee of the year


Ester Uesry spends her days on five floors of Jacksonville State University’s library.

Starting at 6:30 a.m., she mops, vacuums, dusts, and cleans bathrooms on floors eight through 12 of Houston Cole Library, pausing occasionally to speak to students she recognizes.

When the JSU Board of Trustees meets on the 11th floor of the library, Uesry is especially careful to make sure everything is neat before they arrive.

Uesry, 55, was honored as the university’s 2007 employee of the year at a staff luncheon Monday. She said she was surprised to receive the award, which came with a plaque.

“I think maybe they chose me because everybody says I do a real good job and I try to get along with everybody,” she said. “I work real hard at being good at my job.”

Brenda Measles, housekeeping supervisor for Jacksonville State, said Uesry is one of her best workers. Measles said Uesry’s dedication to her job is one reason she wrote a letter nominating her for employee of the month. Uesry won that honor in May, which put her in the running for employee of the year.

See the full story here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Out-of-district attendance policy undergoing revisions


JACKSONVILLE — The out-of-district attendance policy at Jacksonville schools, unchanged since 1995, is undergoing revisions that could mean increasing tuition costs next school year for students enrolled in the system who live outside the city limits.

Unlike other school systems in the county, Jacksonville and Piedmont city schools have defacto unitary desegregation status, which means they are not restricted from allowing nonresidents to attend their schools.

Children of Jacksonville State University faculty have long been considered for admission, as well as the children of business owners in the city.

For other nonresidents, an annual tuition charge of $350 per student, and $200 for each additional student, is applied.

“From outside (the district) you can pick and choose. You can use any criteria except for race or gender,” explained Jacksonville Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey.

While the appeal of attending the city’s schools is a strong incentive for many people to move to Jacksonville, board members say further loosening of enrollment options would risk loss of the system’s identity.

“I’m not in favor of just letting anybody who wants to come to Jacksonville,” said Sue Jones, vice president of the Jacksonville board of education. Jones said she favors making allowance on a case-by-case basis.

See the full story here.

Calhoun County considers plan to provide laptops to students

Megan Singleton, left, and DeAnthony Smith, students at Weaver High School, work on their new laptops. The Calhoun County School System are considering a program that would provide laptops for all students in grades 7-12. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star

The Calhoun County school system is considering a plan to keep every high school student connected.

The system’s plan could mirror programs in Auburn and Cullman to equip each student in grades 7-12 with his or her own laptop computer.

“How many jobs do you see today that don’t involve using any type of technology?” said Lisa Amerson, technology director for the county schools.

“If we’re going to prepare a student, we need to put those tools in their hands.”

Amerson and Superintendent Judy Stiefel presented the program to the county school board during a recent work session.

“We haven’t made the commitment to this yet,” Stiefel said. “It’s a wonderful idea, but my intention was so board members could be thinking about it and gather any questions they might have.”

Amerson said the county could start with a pilot program with seventh-graders at one of the county’s schools. They would receive their laptops next fall and keep them for four years.

See the full story here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

More from Huntsville

During yesterday's hearing about the construction of White Plains Middle School, judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. complimented the Calhoun County Schools for what he saw on a tour last week to examine whether facilities are equal regardless of racial makeup.

"Everyone was very courteous," he said. "The principals were exceptional and you should be proud of what you have been able to accomplish with the limited funds available."

Smith toured White Plains elementary and high schools and the elementary, middle and high schools in Saks. He said that though the buildings were neat and clean, the need for new facilities across the county was evident. He called White Plains Elementary, the newest school in the county, "the crown jewel exception."

The judge also said he understands the myriad difficult situations faced by school systems today, such as taking on roles formerly served by parents or the community as a whole. He also said his son attends a public school and his wife is involved in the local foundation in Huntsville that aims to assist the school system.

White Plains school hearing concludes; decision pending


HUNTSVILLE — Calhoun County Schools officials offered more than two hours of testimony Thursday and now await a federal judge's ruling on construction of a new middle school in White Plains.

U.S. District Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. scheduled the hearing to find out why he wasn't informed construction was under way until the school system had spent more than $3.2 million on building the new school.

In brief closing remarks at the end of the hearing, Smith said he would save his ruling for a written order. But he left school officials with one directive:

"Don't let this happen again," he said before adjourning.

The Calhoun County school system remains under a 1970 federal court desegregation order that requires a federal judge's approval of any new school construction.

Court records show that work on the new White Plains Middle School began June 21. The school system petitioned Smith on Sept. 17, but did not inform him until Nov. 2 that construction had begun.

"If I were angry, as a rule, and you were less than completely truthful, I could have issued an order enjoining any construction and had U.S. Marshals enforce that order," Smith said.

The judge said the system had followed the order with all new construction through 2006. No previous projects ever had required a hearing.

But the school board approved a five-year capital plan that included the new school in August 2006 and hired an architect in September of that year.

In a federally mandated biannual report filed with Smith in October 2006, the system did not mention the new middle school.

"If Calhoun County Schools had been forthright and honest, we likely would not be here today," Smith said.

See the full story here. And check The Star's Web site for updates when the judge's order comes down.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anniston High could get new sports programs

At last night's Anniston BOE work session, Interim Superintendent asked for some guidance on starting new golf and wrestling programs at Anniston High School.

County Commissioners James "Pappy" Dunn and Robert Downing combined to give Anniston $10,000 to start the programs. The school hasn't yet spent that money. Board members told Frazier they would like to see a plan for what the coaches would do before they agree to pay the coaching supplement from the commission's donation.

Also, board member Bill Robison suggested getting together more often, especially as the system moves toward February, when it can formally begin its search for a permanent replacement to former superintendent Sammy Lee Felton. Tuesday's work session was the first since the board received Felton's evaluation in June. Robison suggested meeting for the work sessions once each month, earlier in the month, to perhaps set the tone for the formal board meetings, which occur on the third Thursday of each month.

Trinity Christian has new principal

Trinity Christian Academy principal Tim Snow talks with students Hunter Bennett, left, Katie Spenlove and Katlyn Dobbs, right. Photo: Kevin Qualls/The Anniston Star

OXFORD — Tim Snow never thought he’d find himself teaching a classroom full of students.

Now he’s gone to the principal’s office.

Snow is the new principal at Trinity Christian Academy.

As a history major at Pensacola Christian College in Florida, he planned a career working with museums.

“I never thought I could get up in front of people, let alone children,” he said.

But the college required every student to take one course in education. It spurred his change in plans.

“I kind of fell in love with teaching,” he said.

In considering a career in education, Snow wanted it to connect with his Christian faith.

“My faith is not something I do on Sundays,” he said. “It’s something very personal to me. I want to see my students develop the same thing I have, not just a casual relationship with Jesus.”

After 13 years of teaching at private Christian schools in South Carolina, North Carolina and Ohio, Snow said he began to feel led to administration.

It timed out with Trinity’s principal vacancy.

See the full story here.

Anniston BOE to decide payroll issue later

The Anniston Board of Education will decide next week whether to seek a loan to make its December payroll.

Board policies require employees be paid on the last working day of each month, which will be Dec. 20.

But the system will not find out from the Alabama Department of Education when its monthly state money will be transferred to its account until Dec. 17.

In 1999 as well as the past three years, the board approved a short-term loan to make sure its account was sufficient to pay its more than 300 employees for December.

Interim Superintendent Joan Frazier said at Tuesday’s work session that the state typically transfers Anniston’s money anywhere between the 17th and 21st of each month.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Felton out of running for Russell post, for now

Sammy Lee Felton, Anniston's former superintendent, was one of five finalists to be the next schools chief in Russell County. The board there plans to meet tonight to discuss salary negotiations with its first choice, Yvette Richardson.

in Monday's Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, writer Sara Pauff examines the Russell board's dealings with superintendent turnover.

The Anniston BOE signed Felton to a four-year contract in 2005 but voted 3-2 to buy him out in August. He remains on paid administrative leave through February. Joan Frazier is currently serving as interim superintendent. The search for Felton's permanent replacement is one item on the agenda for a board work session at 6 p.m. tonight.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ohatchee teachers get classroom money

Thanks to Terri Beecham at Ohatchee Elementary, who passed this along:

Third grade teachers there were presented with a $1,500 reading grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama. To earn the grant, teachers and students completed reading and health activities and produced class journals to demonstrate what they had learned. The teachers received the grants at a ceremony on Friday. Students also received certificates of achievement.

Pictured, left to right, are teachers Anita Hamm, Lori Harrell, Brooke Cargal and Kelly Gandy, and Tony Haynes of Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Does a pot bust trump a 4.0 GPA?

Larry Gordon of the Los Angeles Times recently had a story about colleges and universities increasingly worrying about students' backgrounds. The Virginia Tech murders earlier this year has administrators concerned about past behavior and whether they've ever been convicted of a crime.

But critics claim it's an invasion of privacy to look into a student's history, and high school seniors are getting anxious about the potential probes.

This from the story:

"I'm really stressing myself out about this. Is it worth it to apply? Is this going to cancel out all my virtues?" asked an Oregon teenager with a stellar academic record who is petrified that colleges will learn about his conviction four years ago for shoplifting a shirt.

The student, who requested anonymity, said he has only applied to universities that do not ask about such issues and he is hesitant to apply to those that do by their January deadlines. He concedes that what he did was wrong but said colleges should only ask about violence or chronic cheating, not a one-time foolish mistake such as his.

Where do you come down? Let the Classroom Blog know in the comments section below.

Friday, December 7, 2007

State teachers earn national certification

The Alabama Department of Education announced this week that 226 teachers across the state had earned National Board Certification.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group formed in 1987 to advance the quality of teaching and learning by developing professional standards for accomplished teaching.

Alabama pays each candidate's $2,500 application fee and provides a $5,000 annual salary supplement. First-year nationally board certified teachers also receive a one-time $5,000 classroom bonus.

"Achieving (certification) demonstrates a true dedication to the professional of teaching and most importantly dedication to students," said State Superintendent Joe Morton. "These teachers are making positive changes in the classroom, which result in better students that improve our school systems and educational communities."

Local school systems had eight teachers attain the certification. They are:

Tawana Bonds, Calhoun County, elementary and middle education counseling

Tara Hood, Calhoun County, early childhood generalist

Jennifer Roberts, Calhoun County, elementary and middle literacy and language arts

Mary Twigg, Calhoun County, elementary and middle literacy and language arts

Rita Harper, Talladega County, library media

Karen Beverly, Randolph County, physical education and elementary and middle education

Christy Fordham, Roanoke City, social studies and history

Meredith Sears, Roanoke City, social studies and history

The NBPTS has a searchable database to find every teacher in the country who earned certification for 2007.

Judge’s tour could decide White Plains’ building plan


A federal judge spent most of the school day Thursday touring five of Calhoun County’s 17 schools.

Judge C. Lynwood Smith requested the tour before he decides whether to approve the construction of a new middle school in White Plains.

Smith originally had scheduled a courtroom hearing for Thursday as well, but decided to delay the hearing to make sure he had ample time for his site visits and travel.

He has not yet set a new date for the hearing.

The Calhoun County system remains under a 1970 federal order to desegregate its schools. Provisions in the order require that all facilities be equal regardless of the school’s racial makeup and that a judge approve any new school construction.

Court records show construction on the new White Plains Middle School began June 21. The county petitioned Smith to approve the school Sept. 17 but did not notify him until Nov. 2 that construction had already begun.

Smith asked to tour White Plains, where the two schools have a 5.7 percent black enrollment, and Saks, where the zone’s three schools have a 32 percent black enrollment.

“We were glad to have Judge Smith visit in our schools today,” Superintendent Judy Stiefel said.

“We hope the tour was helpful to the judge in reviewing our petition for the new school.”

See the full story here.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Ranburne High School to use portable classrooms while new building constructed

Ranburne High School Principal Trevor Kribbs looks into one of the many broken windows at the school. Cleburne County school officials plan to raze the building, then conduct classes in portable trailers while a new school is built. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star

Paint peels, concrete crumbles and students squeeze through too-narrow hallways between their classes.

At more than 60 years old, Ranburne High School is showing its age.

Rather than provide a quick-fix face-lift, Cleburne County schools officials plan to demolish the structure and build an entirely new facility.

But in the 16-month interim of construction, the high school's campus will convert to a 25-trailer village.

"It's definitely going to bring a challenge," said Principal Trevor Kribbs.

"But I think it will run effectively. It will just be a little organized chaos there at first."

Kribbs said the benefits of a new school would be worth any inconveniences of the all-portable classroom campus.

"This building has served its purpose for almost 70 years," he said. "I just think it's time to move on. That's how the majority of my staff says they feel."

The project will be Cleburne County's first new school construction in 20 years. Superintendent Scott Coefield said the system will use its share of a state bond issue, projected at about $2.4 million, to start the project.

Cleburne County will also borrow about $6 million against its annual state allotment for facility needs.

It will be the largest project so far for a system with plans to grow.

See the full story here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

AIDB celebrates anniversary, continues music program

Some goings-on of note this week at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind:

The Alabama Industries for the Blind will celebrate its 75th anniversary tomorrow. They plan a day-long celebration beginning at 8:30 a.m. and including a formal program at 2:30 p.m. The keynote speaker is Jim Gibbons, president and CEO of National Industries for the Blind.

Begun in 1932, AIB is one of the nation's largest employers of the blind and visually impaired. Products and services include screen printing, mops, brooms, paper products and military supplies. It's also the sole producer of men's uniform neckties for all branches of the military.

"We take pride in the products we produce and have been recognized for delivering quality goods in a timely and efficient manner," said Billy Sparkman, AIB's executive director. "But our most important products are our employees whose lives are transformed from tax consumers into tax producers."

Also this week, AIDB announced two grants to the music program at the Helen Keller School of Alabama, which helps between 75 and 85 children a year with sensory disabilities.

First, the Alabama State Council on the Arts provided the program with $9,840 to help continue a music educator on the campus. The program's total cost is $24,600, and the James W. and Wynona Wilson Foundation made a matching contribution.

"It's a phenomenal program that really motivates student learning and provides instructors with creative alternatives to teaching," said AIDB President Terry Graham. "We are fortunate that Alabama's residents have a true appreciation for the arts, feel that all children should be exposed to various cultures and have the opportunity for artistic expression."

Yellow Jackets go Orange; Blue Knights in high Cotton

Oxford High School band members practice Tuesday after school for their performance at the Orange Bowl and a parade in Miami on New Year's Day. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

Two local bands will help revelers ring in the New Year in two of the country's biggest cities.

Piedmont High School will travel to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl, and Oxford High School will perform at the Orange Bowl in Miami.

Chris Pennington, director at Oxford, said that though other bands had to audition, Orange Bowl organizers sent a special invitation to the Yellow Jacket band.

"They look at programs who have traveled in the past, and they look at your accomplishments over the years," he said.

"Occasionally, they select a program they know will be able to hold up to what they need it to do."

Oxford will be one of 10 bands from around the country to perform during the festivities surrounding the Bowl Championship Series game.

Band members will leave Dec. 30 for Miami. On New Year's Day the Yellow Jacket band will compete in a field show and then march in the Orange Bowl parade.

The winner of the national competition will perform alone before the Jan. 3 game featuring Virginia Tech and Kansas, set to air at 7 p.m. on Fox.

n Piedmont, the Blue Knights band has been preparing for its New Year's trip to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl.

Director Jamie Thomas said this was the biggest trip he could recall for the Piedmont High School band.

The group sent a tape of last year's halftime show to Cotton Bowl officials and won a spot through that audition.

The Blue Knights will be one of 14 bands involved in the Cotton Bowl.

"We worked hard, and the musicianship and entertainment value of the show helped them select us," Thomas said.

Cotton Bowl organizers have sent each band arrangements of songs they'll perform during pre-game and halftime of the game Jan. 1, which pits Missouri against Arkansas and will air at 10:30 a.m.

The band will also perform in the Cotton Bowl parade through downtown Dallas on New Year's Eve.

See the full story here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

JSU alum named Alexandria assistant principal

Thanks for indulging the Classroom Blog's three-day weekend. Now it's back to work on this chilly Tuesday morning.

We'll start this shortened week with some news from Alexandria High School. Banyon Allison has been named the school's assistant principal. Allison also serves as an adjunct professor at Jacksonville State University's Department of Educational Leadership, where he recently won the 2007 Alumnus of the Year.

Allison is also this year's president of the JSU J-Club football booster group.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Delay in notification to judge could postpone work on White Plains Middle School

Construction on the new White Plains Middle School may be delayed because a provision of a 1970 desegregation order says a federal judge must approve any new school construction. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

A federal judge wants to hear from Calhoun County Schools officials why a new middle school in White Plains was a quarter of the way finished before he knew construction had begun.

Should the judge decide to delay further work, the school’s $12 million price tag could climb even higher.

The county system is under a federal desegregation order issued in 1970 as part of a lawsuit that encompassed dozens of systems in the state and seeks to end vestiges of dual systems divided along racial lines.

One provision of the order requires approval from a federal judge for any new school construction.

In court filings, Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr., who handles most matters in North Alabama related to the order, wrote to the county that he had received proper notification for four construction projects since 2004 at White Plains, Ohatchee, Pleasant Valley and Alexandria.

But for the White Plains Middle School project, he didn’t receive a letter about construction until Nov. 2. By then, he had already read newspaper accounts of plans and visited the school’s Web site to see photos of the groundbreaking.

School system documents show construction began June 21. The schools filed their petition for Smith’s approval Sept. 17.

Smith wrote that the delay in notification “made this court all the more suspicious about the motives of the school system.”

He set a hearing for 10:15 a.m. Dec. 6 in Anniston to find out why the delay occurred.

Following that, he has asked to tour the construction as well as schools in Saks, which have the county’s highest concentration of black students, and White Plains, which have the second-lowest.

Superintendent Judy Stiefel did not wish to talk extensively about the judge’s inquiry before next week’s hearing.

“We’re committed to satisfying the court’s concerns,” she said.

See the full story here.

Read the 244 pages filed so far in federal court here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Oxford Middle among first to use ARI-Project for Adolescent Literacy to improve students’ reading

Oxford Middle School algebra teacher Heather Smith works with eighth-grade student Auburn Ramey. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

OXFORD — A reminder to WIN greets students in almost every class this week at Oxford Middle School.

The message — to understand the What of everything they read, find the important Information, and Narrow it to the shortest summary possible — is part of a statewide reading program the school was among the first to adopt.

A new report from the Alabama Department of Education shows it’s working, and state officials hope the results are convincing enough to the Legislature come budget time.

Since 1998, the Alabama Reading Initiative has focused intensive training on students in grades K-3. The program began at 16 schools, and the Legislature provided money to put it in every school in the state last year.

The investment appeared to pay off, as Alabama fourth-graders showed the largest gains in the nation on reading scores this year.

But eighth-grade students in the state held steady. The ARI-Project for Adolescent Literacy aims to change that.

ARI-PAL began in 14 pilot schools—selected from 26 applicants—last year, including Oxford Middle.

Principal Janice Williams said the school’s commitment to train teachers and use the research-based methods won the school its status as a pilot site.

“We would all agree that (reading instruction in upper grades) has been the overlooked area,” she said.

“A lot of times this is the crucial age. They’re either going to make it or break it here. We need to get them the intervention to save these students at risk of dropping out.”

See the full story here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Local schools make use of innovative Smart Boards


The new equipment protruding from the wall in Donna Plunkett’s classroom at The Donoho School looks a little intimidating.

But Plunkett knows it offers new, engaging ways for her elementary science students to learn.

Plunkett’s room on Monday became the second at the school to be equipped with a Smart Board, a high-tech combination white board, projector and computer monitor.

“The children today aren’t afraid of any of this new technology,” Plunkett said.

“I knew it would mean turning my room upside down for a day, but it’ll be exciting once I get going with it and see all the fun things we can do.”

The board allows teachers to write with a stylus or with their finger. The notes can download to a computer to be printed or e-mailed later.

Teachers also can navigate Web pages using the touch screen, or play DVDs for their classes.

Plunkett said she’ll be able to project dissection projects so each student can see the proper method.

“Our math and science teachers have made a compelling case for how they can use them,” said Ben Cunningham, technology director at Donoho.

“Really, you’re only limited by your imagination.”

See the full story here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Researchers say kids will eat healthy school lunches

Hope everyone had time to sleep off the tryptophan this weekend. To wrap-up our weekend of feasting, here's an item from the AP today on school lunches:


MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe getting schoolchildren to eat healthy foods isn’t a hopeless struggle.

Bucking some common notions, a University of Minnesota study has found that school lunch sales don’t decline when healthier meals are served, and that more nutritious lunches don’t necessarily cost schools more to produce.

“The conventional wisdom that you can’t serve healthier meals because kids won’t eat them is false,” said Benjamin Senauer, one of three economists who wrote the study.

Previous studies have concluded that students prefer fatty foods and that healthier meals cost more to make, the authors noted.

The study, which appears in the December issue of the Review of Agricultural Economics, analyzed five years of data for 330 Minnesota public school districts. It looked at compliance with federal standards for calories, nutrients and fats.

When the researchers crunched all the numbers they found that schools serving the healthiest lunches did not see a falloff in demand.

While serving better meals does entail higher labor costs, the study found, that’s offset by lower costs for more nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables compared with processed foods. However, many districts need to upgrade their kitchens and train their staff to prepare these foods, the researchers said.

See the full story here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Takin' a turkey break

Schools began their five-day recess for the Thanksgiving holiday today, and likewise the Classroom Blog will take a brief respite.

In the meantime, check out The Star this holiday weekend for stories about a volunteer in Saks who's been carrying the chains on the sidelines at Wildcat football games for 40 years, and another about giving books as Christmas presents for children this season.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

County BOE keeps officers

At its regular monthly meeting last Thursday--covered ably by staff writer Dan Whisenhunt in my stead--the Calhoun County Board of Education voted to maintain its officers for the next year.

Tom Young will remain the board's chairman and June Evans keeps her post as vice chair. They were the top-two vote getters in the 2006 election and were elected to those positions after being sworn in last November.

Also at the meeting, the board approved its meeting schedule for the next year:









4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office




4:00 p.m.

Central Office

December No Meeting Scheduled

Monday, November 19, 2007

State will lure teachers with scholarships

Sallie Owen, of the A+ Education Foundation, passed this note along recently:

The state will begin offering $2.4 million in scholarships for teacher education students. Priority will be given to applicants who want to teach math, special education, science and English language arts. Applicants must be Alabama residents enrolled at in-state institutions, and recipients will be required to teach in Alabama. Scholarships will be available for traditional four-year undergraduate students as well as those pursuing a three-year alternative teaching license. The first awards will be announced by May.

Information on how to apply is not immediately available. Keep an eye here for updates when we know more.

Ashland, Lineville school merger on the table: Consolidation would end 84-year-old rivalry

Photo Illustration: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star

ASHLAND — It might seem that the annual Clay Bowl is the only time Ashland and Lineville residents care to be within shouting distance of each other.

Maybe that’s because they’re on opposite sides of a football field. Shouting.

Lifelong residents here will tell you that the rivalry between Clay County and Lineville high schools has historically burned as fiercely as any in the nation.

But Superintendent Ben Griffin says he has encountered mostly open minds as he pursues what some think could be a once-a-generation opportunity to offer more classes, save money and merge the two schools.

This year, the Legislature approved a $1.07 billion bond issue for school construction statewide. Griffin said the Alabama Department of Education has advised superintendents that interest earned from the sale of those bonds could be available for grants specifically tied to school consolidation.

That’s an idea that fails to gain traction in many communities as simmering emotions about links to rural, local schools boil to the surface.

It’s even happened before in Clay County as residents — including Griffin — resisted closing two high schools in 2003.

Some in the county say while they might not have personal objections to combining the high schools, they doubt the community as a whole would ever go for it.

But Griffin said the circumstances are different — and more favorable — now.

See the full story here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lineville alumna wins state teaching honor

Proud parents John and Linda Garrett wrote in this week to let us know their daughter, Bonnie Garrett, has been named one of the Milken Family Foundation's top teachers in the country.

Garrett, 29, teaches biology and aerospace science at Ed White Middle School in Huntsville. She was Alabama's only recipient from Milken this year. The honor comes with a $25,000 check.

Garrett graduated from Lineville High School in 1996 and went on to earn a degree from Alabama A&M University. Her parents still live in Lineville.

"Ms. Garrett has exhibited the ability to motivate the difficult to teach students," Principal Annie Savage told The Huntsville Times. "Because of her calm demeanor and caring attitude, all of her students work up to their potential."

Anniston schools still short of funding


The Anniston City Schools system remains shy of its state-mandated general fund balance, but it did not lose ground from last year.

State law requires school systems to maintain one month’s operating expenses in their general accounts.

At the school board’s meeting Thursday night, Chief Financial Officer Tanya Holcombe said Anniston ended fiscal 2007 with about $1.09 million in reserve.

That’s about 75 percent of the $1.455 million needed to meet the mandate, which is about where Anniston stood at the end of fiscal 2006.

Interim Superintendent Joan Frazier also noted that a school construction bond will be paid off this year.

The City of Anniston has given the school system money for those payments. The schools could net an extra $600,000 next year if the city maintains that appropriation.

Frazier said officials at the Alabama Department of Education likely will meet in January with systems that don’t have the required reserves. She said she is already speaking with officials there and will be ready to present a plan, just as the schools did last year.

See the full story here.

County BOE plans to seek system-wide accreditation


The Calhoun County school system will seek district-wide accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, replacing individual school accreditations, the Calhoun County Board of Education agreed Thursday evening.

Accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools measures such factors as the quality of a school’s teachers, its core curriculum, efficiency and the school’s environment. SACS accreditation is mandated by the State Department of Education.

The district accreditation protocol is a relatively new process, according to information from SACS’ Council on Accreditation and School Improvement.

The SACS information says the new protocol was developed “in response to requests from superintendents and other district leaders throughout the nation who wanted to better coordinate accreditation with ongoing system improvement initiatives and state mandates.”

School systems may voluntarily seek the district-wide accreditation.

In the past, the Calhoun County system’s 15 schools were accredited on a school-by-school basis, Superintendent Judy Stiefel said Thursday night.

See the full story here.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Donoho calls off Friday classes

Administrators at The Donoho School have decided to call off all Friday classes to allow students and faculty to attend memorial services for 17-year-old student Benjamin Stanford.

"We just felt like that's our way to the family of saying we love them and we support them," said Donoho president Jan Hurd.

Hurd said that in a faculty meeting Wednesday, about three-quarters of the school's faculty said they had planned on attending the services Friday. She and other administrators made the decision Wednesday afternoon.

Stanford's body was found in a wooded area in Villa Rica, Ga., Tuesday after a search by more than 100 volunteers.

The family will receive friends today from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Speed Channel Dome at the Talladega Superspeedway near Lincoln.

The memorial service will be Friday at 11 a.m. at the Speed Channel Dome.

The Donoho School will hold a candlelight memorial service at 5 p.m. today in the grassy circle on campus.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Meet Patty Hobbs

Patty Hobbs left Northeast Alabama for the big city after college, but her alma mater persuaded her to come back home.

Hobbs graduated from Jacksonville State University and briefly taught at Weaver High School. But her interest in politics lured her to Washington, D.C., where she worked for 27 years, first on Capitol Hill for then-Rep. Dick Cheney. She moved to the Reagan White House and then on to the U.S. Department of Education, where she spent 21 years.

"Everything good that came out of the Department of Education, she had a hand in," joked Eric Mackey, Jacksonville superintendent and chair of the Chamber of Commerce education committee, at a recent meeting.

But when JSU's Child Development Center was in need of a new director, they turned to Hobbs.

"It's really not something I had thought about," she said of working with younger children. "But JSU has done a wonderful job with this place."

Homewood poet talks creativity to White Plains students


WHITE PLAINS — Charles Ghigna knows there’s still time for some converts.

Growing up, like most boys especially, he despised poetry and preferred sports.

Tuesday, the author of 38 books and more than 5,000 poems from Homewood tried to spark some creative interest in students at White Plains Elementary.

“I hated English,” he told the students, drawing out the subject he disdained in a nasally voice, inducing an echo of giggles.

“I thought poetry was for sissies and grandmothers. Gerunds and participles were green and gooey, waiting there to get me.”

Then came his 10th-grade English teacher, a Mr. Summers, a lover of poetry.

Ghigna bailed on his original topic for his first poetry writing assignment — death.

“I thought you had to write about these big emotions,” he said. “But I had never died before.”

So he chose to harness his affections for a new girl in class and tackle life’s other grand inspiration, love.

The writing — aside from a sprinkling of vocabulary words from that week’s lesson — showed the emotional novice typical of a teenage boy. But when the class applauded that day, and the girl offered a kiss on the cheek after school, it led to a career in verse.

See the full story here.

Learn more about Ghigna here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Talladega College is awarded grant for black health-care study


Talladega College has received a $83,000 grant to gather information on black health-care problems.

Dr. Angela Martin of Anniston will assist in the three-year study to identify challenges black Talladega residents face with access to health care and health-care information.

Talladega College will hold monthly open forum meetings with an estimated 350-person group from Rocky Mount Baptist Church of Talladega.

During the meetings, participants will discuss problems with health care they see in their lives and communities.

Martin said the venue will be a good opportunity to listen and will allow her and others to evaluate the community’s needs.

Leonard Cole, director of the office of sponsored programs at the college, said the program is one of at least five pilot studies across the country working on what’s causing health-care disparities among the races.

“We are trying to bridge or narrow that gap,” Cole said.

See the full story here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Jacksonville board member re-elected to state post

Sue Jones, a member of the Jacksonville Board of Education, has been re-elected as leader of the Alabama Association of School Boards sixth district.

She's one of nine members of AASB's Board of Directors, which governs the association. Jones sits on the bylaws and Teacher of the Year selection committees and has presented at AASB's summer conference.

Jones was first elected to the Jacksonville school board in 2000 and won re-election in 2004. She retired as a teacher in Jacksonville after 27 years in the classroom. She now also works as a health education consultant.

"Sue has proven her deep commitment to serving Alabama's schoolchildren, her community and District 6," said Sally Howell, executive director of AASB. "She has been a true asset to the association's leadership team, and I look forward to continuing to work with her."

District 6 includes the city school boards of Anniston, Attalla, Fort Payne, Gadsden, Jacksonville, Oxford, Pell City, Piedmont, Sylacauga and Talladega and the county boards in Calhoun, Cherokee, Cleburne, DeKalb, Etowah, St. Clair and Talladega.

Low revenue could signal tuition hikes: Presidents to meet next week

By Markeshia Ricks
Star Capitol Correspondent

MONTGOMERY—A slowdown in revenues going into the Alabama Education Trust Fund and a continued rise in fixed costs for four-year colleges could lead to tuition hikes for students at four-year institutions around the state.

The education fund is expected to grow by 6 percent, down from its initial 8 percent projection, and four-year university presidents plan to ask for at least level funding from the state to help them absorb the increased cost for health care and utilities institutions have to pay.

Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Gregory Fitch said to meet the costs of providing a higher education, the state’s institutions might have to pass on more of the cost to students by way of higher tuition.

It’s an option that Jacksonville State University President William Meehan, however, said he’s going to try avoid.

Meehan said JSU hasn’t raised tuition in the last two years, and he would like to keep it that way.

For the 2007-08 school year, a semester’s tuition for the 12 hours most JSU students take, along with room and board, is $3,657, according to the university’s Web site.

“We’re trying to hold to that for our students because 80 percent of them are receiving some financial aid, and we try to be very conscientious about that when it comes to tuition increases,” he said. “Any decision we make about that would likely be made in April, not now.”

See the full story here.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Felton talks buyout with Russell board

From the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer today, Sammy Lee Felton, Anniston's former superintendent, interviewed with the Russell County school board to become their next schools chief.

The paper reports Felton addressed questions about his buyout in Anniston this past August. The school board here clashed with Felton over who should be assistant principal at Anniston High School, and the disagreement eventually led to the board terminating his contract. He remains on paid administrative leave until February.

Anniston BOE attorney Jim Campbell told The Star last week that the system would have to pay Felton his buyout package of one year's salary plus benefits regardless of his future employment.

Ledger-Enquirer reporter Sara Pauff writes today that Felton said he did not recommend renewing the contract of Charles Gregory it was not in the best interest of students.

Felton also cited his experience with school construction after the high school was damaged by a May 2006 fire.

Felton is one of five candidates for the top job in Russell County. The final candidate interviews with the board tonight.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Anniston schools tech coordinator thrives in role

Anniston City Schools Technical Coordinator David Land checks on computer hardware in an Anniston High School classroom. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

As Melinda Hicks erases equations off her white board, she asks her Anniston High School calculus class a question.

But with a smile she directs it at David Land.

“This would be so much easier with a smart board, wouldn’t it?” she says, with a wink, referring to the electronic gadget teachers use to write on from anywhere and project for the class to see.

Land gets the hint.

As the new technology coordinator for Anniston City Schools, he assures her help is on the way.

The school board hired Land in August. Before the vote, some board members made sure he knew the challenges that awaited him.

Now, after about three months on the job, Land is focused on bringing the school system up to date.

“We’re going to bring kids back,” he said. “Anniston is going to offer more opportunities than anyone else.”

Land brings a career of experience with computers to his first job in education. After time working in counterintelligence with the Army, he spent seven years working in computer espionage at the U.S. Department of Energy.

He took leave on disability, but before he could return, the department eliminated his job.

Land cast a wide net searching for his next job, but an opening where he grew up tugged him hardest.

“I went to Noble Street and Cobb” schools, he said. “It’s a different school system that I came back to.”

See the full story here.

State preschool program highly ranked, lacks accessibility


Alabama’s state-funded preschool program consistently ranks among the highest quality nationwide.

But it serves less than 2 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds, the least accessible in the country.

That’s where private preschool centers, such as Jacksonville State University’s Child Development Center, come in. The Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce education committee toured the facility at its meeting Wednesday.

“It’s amazing how much really young children can learn,” said Patty Hobbs, director of the center.

Rather than provide a babysitting service, several studies find the best facilities offer a curriculum that prepares children for school.

The Alabama Partnership for Children is developing the “Blueprint for Birth to Five.” The plan will set out what quality preschools will teach and what parents should look for when it’s time to enroll their children.

“What you hope to find in a good preschool is what you see here,” said Eric Mackey, who chairs the committee and whose son is enrolled in the center.

Hobbs said the Child Development Center is working to align its curriculum with the statewide standards. “We expect some will be reading before they get to kindergarten,” she said.

The center also serves as the host site for hands-on training for Jacksonville State University students in early childhood education or nursing, Hobbs said.

“We’re happy JSU has seen the benefits as a real community service they want to continue to do,” she said.

See the full story here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Biz and ed on the same page

A few leftovers from this morning's meeting of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce education committee:

- Lynne Smith from the Community Foundation of Calhoun County, was one of 13 local representatives who traveled to Washington, D.C., recently for a summit of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, part of the national Chamber of Commerce. During the conference, she heard from business leaders whose top priorities included training students for whatever comes after high school. "We're all saying the same things," she said.

Smith said Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said that if he offered investment advice, the room would empty as they rushed to call their brokers. But he said his best tip was to invest in education. The group also met with the ambassador from Finland, who said that the biggest shift in education there happened because of recession and the country had no other choice.

- Donna Jackson of Westinghouse Anniston delivered 24 boxes--one for each public school in the county--with school supplies donated by Westinghouse employees. She also said the deadline for $500 Wee Care grants--to help teachers with classroom needs--are due by 4:30 p.m. Nov. 14.

- The community foundation has 42 scholarships available to 2008 high school seniors worth anywhere from $500 to $32,000. The deadline to apply for those is Feb. 1.

- Bobby Burns, assistant superintendent of Calhoun County Schools, said he received a notice from the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., this week saying that Kennedy, chairman of the Senate education committee, would not offer any proposals for No Child Left Behind for the rest of the calendar year.

Alabama is among leaders for standards for school principals


Alabama is among the South’s leaders in making sure quality principals lead every public school.

The state has shown improvement since 2002 in five of six areas for designing programs to train and certify principals, according to a report from the Southern Regional Education Board.

Those strides trail only Louisiana among the nonprofit board’s 16 member states.

Kathy O’Neill, director of SREB’s learning-centered leadership program, said Alabama’s progress is impressive because the state has only worked on the issue for two years, compared to six years in Louisiana.

“Alabama has a brand new set of standards, which I personally share with other states,” she said. “They have done a wonderful job with them.”

The board is helping states coordinate efforts to shift the role of principals from their administrative duties to focusing on the teaching and learning happening in schools.

“When I was a school leader, we were charged with making sure the books were in place, the halls were clean, the buses ran on time,” O’Neill said. “We still have to do that. But the issue of student achievement wasn’t even on the radar. If we train potential leaders right, they can really make a difference.”

SREB is encouraging states to look at six areas to ensure principal quality, including:

• Recruiting future principals.

• Requiring internships with proven leaders.

• Redesigning programs that train principals.

• Offering extra help to schools with poor performance.

• Maintaining certification only for principals who show improvement.

Alabama lagged only in creating alternate paths to becoming a principal.

See the full story here.