Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said he failed teachers and students because he didn’t realize how big a challenge ACT Aspire would be, nor did he provide them with what they needed to master the state’s new standardized test.
Nichols, who is retiring in May, also Tuesday challenged the four mayoral candidates to spend a day in the footsteps of a teacher or principal before they try to tell him what’s wrong with education in Decatur.
“These people,” he said pointing to a group of school administrators in the crowd at the Decatur County Club, “are working day and night, and we owe them a lot more support than they are getting.”
Nichols’ comments came after a group of educators, community leaders and elected officials sat silently as a representative of a research firm painted a gloomy picture of the impact poverty has had on test scores in Decatur.
Joe Adams, of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, said Decatur City Schools has one of the most diverse student populations in the state, but that diversity comes with challenges because the district is dealing with a significant number of students who are not connected to the community.
He was speaking about the district’s rising Hispanic population, which has grown from less than 1 percent in 1996 to 24 percent this year; and student poverty, which has more than doubled to 61 percent in fewer than two decades.
“Your challenges are quite significant,” Adams said.
Nichols, who followed Adams to the podium, said he could speak his mind because he is retiring. He twice mentioned the board could fire him, which drew a laugh from the audience.
Nichols’ speech was passionate in defense of teachers and administrators, and about addressing poverty and issues associated with the district’s changing demographics.
As for people who have not “gotten their hands dirty” working with children in the school district, he said he didn’t care what they thought about education.
Nichols called out the four announced mayoral candidates, saying they shouldn’t run for the office if they are not committed to education. He challenged incumbent Don Kyle and candidates Reggie Jackson, Tab Bowling and Jeremy Goforth to spend a day in a school if they want to see what teachers deal with daily.
Kyle, whose wife was a school teacher for 35 years, said he is well aware of the challenges teachers face. “I’ve been committed to education my entire life,” he said.
Jackson, Goforth and Bowling said they are also committed to education and will accept Nichols’ challenge.
PARCA’s report in the past has focused just on how Decatur City Schools was doing compared to other districts, but this year Adams carried it a step further and told the crowd that issues with test scores are a community problem.
“Teachers are not the entire answer,” Adams said.
Adams said students spend about 33 percent of their time in school and the other time away from school in areas of the city that largely are disconnected from the educational system.
Decatur City Schools elementary education supervisor Rachel Poovey said the district will try to close some of the gaps with families in poverty this summer when it offers spots to 60 students at the summer extended day program.
She said they are focusing on non-English-speaking students who are largely Hispanic and whose parents have little contact with the school district.
“We’re going to have bilingual teachers coming in two days a week working with the parents,” Poovey said. “We have to do a better job closing gaps with this demographic. The need level is tremendous.”
Nichols said he plans to try to make amends for his failures after he retires by working with families in poverty.
“The greatest challenge we have is to help mom and dad get jobs that pay them above the poverty level,” he said.
Decatur City students — like most statewide — are struggling with the new ACT Aspire standards, which have been in place for two years. The second round of results the state released in November showed the majority of Decatur’s students continued to read below state averages and are not on track to be college- or career-ready when they graduate.
Adams said poverty continues to be the overriding issue with Decatur’s test scores. He said included in the students living in poverty are a significant number of students who are not English proficient, which means they may not understand the questions they read on the test.
Decatur City Schools testing coordinator Wanda Davis said 670 students who took ACT Aspire last month were not proficient in English. Students in grades three through eight take the test.
Nichols said the district is a lot more educated about the challenge Decatur faces with ACT Aspire. He and Davis said Decatur City Schools, as well as other school systems in the state, did not receive any material to help them prepare students for the new test.
One local education official said it’s like sending high school kids to the National Football League and expecting them immediately to perform like All-Pro players.
ACT Aspire is the elementary and middle school test equivalent of the ACT for high school students, and is designed to link elementary and secondary progression in the framework of having students ready for college or a career.
Blake McAnally, who represents the Decatur City Schools Foundation, which sponsored the event, said the school district can’t fix its issues overnight. He said the community has to take a more active role in helping the school district.
McAnally said people can complain or they can “get busy” and help solve the problem.