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.