Mobile County, Alabama, had been “stuck” on education reform for years.
In 1954, after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Mobile school board released a statement that said, “It must be recognized that integration is not acceptable to the major portion of our people … The traditions of two centuries can be altered by degrees only.” This polarization persisted for decades. Some whites framed the school problems as the unwillingness of blacks to improve their lives. Some blacks saw whites as finding creative new ways to impose segregation.
The community’s inability to come together and support schools was taking its toll. By 1987, Alabama ranked 51st in the nation in education spending per person. To help alleviate the funding crunch, in 1988 the Mobile Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning for a local school levy. It failed, and it failed again in 1992 and 1999.
The school system in Mobile – Alabama’s largest with 100 schools and nearly 60,000 students – was struggling with low reading proficiency, low graduation rates, inequity between urban and rural schools, and other issues.
Today, Mobile County’s education system continues to face challenges, but the community has come together after years of the persistent efforts of the Mobile Area Education Foundation and other reform groups and growing out of a Reconnecting Communities and Schools Initiative The Harwood Institute led with the foundation in the early 2000s.
The results represent a stark contrast to where the community had been for so many years:
- In 2001, 27 out of 100 schools in the district were meeting state standards. By 2005, 85 out of 100 were meeting or exceeding state standards
- In 2011, 9 out of 13 Alabama schools awarded the Torchbearer award for highest performing, high poverty schools in the state came from Mobile
- Scores for 3rd grade-level reading are up.
- A levy passed for the first time in 41 years in 2001. Ten years later, the county voted to continue funding for yet another 10 years, this time with 87 percent of the vote.
- The school board created teacher incentives to encourage highly skilled, experienced teachers to teach in low performing schools.
How did this change happen? Around 2000, the Mobile Area Education Foundation reached out to The Harwood Institute. According to Foundation President Carolyn Akers, they needed to “change the conversation,” in the county.
The Institute partnered with the Foundation to bring its Reconnecting Communities and Schools Initiative to Mobile County. The initiative was based on the idea that the entire community must take ownership of educating children for the community to move forward. The foundation and a local steering committee engaged the community using the Institute’s approach, which focuses on finding common ground to act on people’s shared aspirations. It began with these simple questions:
- What kind of community do we want?
- What kind of schools do we need in order to get the kind of community we want?
The foundation branded this local effort the “Yes We Can” campaign to engage people across the county. What surprised them most was that white rural parts of the county felt just as neglected as much of the black community. People felt left out and left behind. Through this process though, more and more people became interested in what was happening around education.
In 2001, the governor sought balance the state budget by cutting education. Mobile would take a hard hit. The cuts would mean layoffs of 300 teachers, a seven-week delay in the start of the school year and an end to all extracurricular activities, including football.
The foundation called for a march downtown to protest the cuts. Fearing no one would show up, 10,000 people did.
The county once again tried to pass a levy to offset the cuts. This time, it passed – the first in 41 years. Momentum was clearly shifting.
As a result the foundation sped up their work with the Institute – holding even more conversations – which produced a Community Agreement on the kinds of community and schools people wanted. This agreement formed the basis for a whole series of reforms the foundation and its partners advanced, including programs to get more students interested in science and math and innovative proposals to turn around failing schools.
These wins are rooted in the shared aspirations of people across the community who have been engaged and have become champions for education. Mobile County, once stuck from years of cynicism, mistrust and the legacy of Jim Crow, has turned a corner.