MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Mobile County's public school system is the largest in the state. Ten percent of Alabama's children go to school every day in Mobile County. A big system can also have big issues.
In the early 90s the problems were so big, Executive Director of the Mobile Area Education Foundation Carolyn Akers said she was concerned enough to do something about it. Akers recently shared about the past and how things are a lot better today.
"I had children in the school system at that time. I had one child that was in middle school and one child that was in elementary school, and I was a frustrated parent. I had served as the PTA Chairman at both schools and done everything I could do, but I knew that we could be so much better," Akers remembered.
Akers' said her concern for the schools and her love for Mobile were catalyst for creating the Mobile Area Education Foundation in 1992. As executive director, Akers expertise was an asset.
"I've always loved science. I loved those kind of fields, problem solving, doing that kind of work. I had a BS in both biology and chemistry. Then I had a masters in micro biology. I was drawn to it probably because of that. I like trying to figure things out," Akers said.
There were difficult problems to solve.
"We were not a very good school system. It didn't matter what data you looked at, we were at the bottom of every really bad struggling list. We had a lot of issues going on, and it distracted us from doing what we needed to do: operating the high quality public school system that we knew we were capable of doing. We had to start where we could start, which was with a handful of a people. I used to say all the time believers need only apply. We had a lot of work to do. We had a lot of repair work we had to do," Akers shared.
The repair work involved a lot of listening.
"It was about collecting the voice of the community making sure that we heard it loud. We did a lot of listening. We called them community conversations. We had groups of 15 to 20. It was around folks that had been disenfranchised because of the closing of Brookley or because of poverty issues. We had to come together and the way that we felt we needed to do it in this community, was community by community. We went to communities where we've never been before," she said. "We developed what I call a leaderful community. A lot of new leadership that was developed and neighborhood type leaders, people that really could partner with their schools to get this incredibly difficult work done."
Akers said the community also gave critical support with their vote.
"In 2001, we passed the first property tax in 41 years," she said.
She said she had the support of the community.
"It was very humbling. This community said, ‘We're going to get some things right,' That 2001 tax referendum vote was really important. Two years ago we passed the renewal at 87 percent which for us was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!' because for so long it had been, ‘No. No. No,' And now all of sudden, the community's starting to understand the cause and effect. It really is important that investment that we're making through our taxes," Akers said.
She said schools were successfully transformed.
"We did a lot of work around improving math scores. All of our elementary schools being proficient, many have become torchbearer schools, not just elementary schools, but high performing schools," Akers stated.
More than 20 years and seven superintendents later, Akers said partnership is key.
"They understand that the community does in fact own the public school system and that they both have responsibilities and they have a voice in getting those shared expectations. Partnership is really what we've done here, between the school system and the outside external community. We co-own the strategic plan together. We hold each other accountable publicly. We monitor progress and report it. It isn't designed to be gotcha, so partnership is the word. Ms. Peek always says, the latest superintendent, how she describes it is we have a symbiotic relationship. We really are close, and we work together; but it doesn't mean that we always agree. And it's always Kumbaya, but certainly we negotiate and we work it out," Akers said.
Mobile Area Education Foundation and the school system started tackling their dropout rate about three years ago. The partnership along with a grant through the mayor's office has helped the system improve its graduation rate to 70-percent. The foundation's challenge now is to make sure the graduates are ready to go to college and ready to go to work. A humbled Akers was recently recognized for her efforts by Anniston Star News organization as "Alabamian of the Year."
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