In Alabama, two schools received gold medals and 16 received silver or about 5 percent of the evaluated high schools. Alabama’s neighbor to the east, Georgia, had 10 gold medal schools and 37 silver medal schools, about 10 percent of its evaluated schools. To the west, in Mississippi, there were no gold medal schools and four silver medal schools, about 1.5 percent of its evaluated schools. In the northeast, Massachusetts had 24 gold medal schools and 30 silver medal schools in the ranking, about 15 percent of its evaluated high schools.
While Dryden notes that it’s hard to compare schools in different states because the states measure success in different ways, states do create an environment that allows schools to be more successful.
Money is a big issue, she said. The education budget in Alabama has been slashed over the last several years, Dryden said. That means the state spends less per pupil than many other states, she said.
“Massachusetts has a whole lot more money than we do,” said Board of Education member Jerry Cash.
But money isn’t the only issue, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, public information manager for the Alabama State Department of Education.
“There’s a million ways to create that environment,” Valdes-Hubert said.
Each state has to decide how it is going to get there, she added.
Money does allow the schools to pay more teachers and keep the teacher-student ration down and that is one ratio Alabama should improve on, Valdes-Hubert said.
But she notes creativity in the classroom and the flexibility to exercise innovative teaching are also important as is rigor in the classroom, she said.
“We’ve been improving on that,” Valdes-Hubert said.
The state is making a concerted effort to increase the availability of Advanced Placement classes to its students. It has added ACCESS to provide web-based access to AP classes for students in any high school. For instance if a particular high school doesn’t offer an AP class, the student can sign up to take it online through another school or via video class, she said. There is no cost to the student and it allows students who otherwise don’t have access to AP classes the opportunity to take them, Valdes-Hubert said.
“There are currently 720 students taking AP-web-based and video classes,” Valdes-Hubert said. “That’s 720 students who wouldn’t have had that opportunity without distance learning offerings.”
Mary Boehm, president of A+ College Ready, agreed that the AP classes do a lot to improve student performance.
A+ College Ready is a non profit, non partisan organization that works to improve the participation and pass rates in AP classes. It was created in 2008 with a $13.2 million grant from National Math and Science.
“It’s not the only thing, but in Alabama our expectations have been so low for so long,” Boehm said.
AP classes provide a national and even international standard for schools to teach, and when the students earn a qualifying score they know they would have passed the college course, Boehm said.
Boehm said a grant provided by A+ College Ready to Cleburne County High School allowed intensive training for the students and the teachers to succeed in the AP classes. This is the final year of the three-year-grant and she said the culture at the high school has changed. More students are taking the classes and earning the college credit on the test offered at the end of the course.
In 2009-2010 the system had 37 students enrolled in AP classes and six made a qualifying score on the test. In 2011-2012, the number of students taking the AP classes had jumped to 112 and 19 made qualifying scores on the tests.
Even as the grant ends, Boehm is confident the students will continue to take AP classes and score well.
Boehm also noted that 10 of the 18 schools that received gold or silver medals in Alabama had been a part of the A+ College Ready progam. The others were stronger schools that would be expected to have strong AP programs on their own, Boehm said.
Creativity in the classroom is also important in helping students succeed, Valdes-Hubert pointed out.
Alabama has a diverse student population and teachers need to find ways to reach out to all of the students, she said. That can be accomplished if a state offers flexibility to teachers and to schools.
The Department of Education has been able to do that under the Innovative School System program, Valdes-Hubert said.
“It’s one way we are trying to make a very flexible learning environment,” Valdes-Hubert said.
It recently awarded Florence City Schools and Lawrence County Schools flexibility for programs they designed to meet the needs of their students and to improve issues at their schools.
Lawrence County Schools requested the opportunity to create an agriculture-based diploma.
Among the stated goals were increasing the system’s graduation rate by 3 percent and increasing two and four-year college enrollment by 3 percent.
Other ways of offering flexibility may be allowing schools to offer Saturday classes or night classes, Valdes-Hubert said. It’s important to offer something other than the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. model for students who need it, she said.
Another way to allow teachers to be creative in the classroom is through the teacher education, she said. The department works with colleges to try to give the new teachers a taste of what the classroom will be like. It has worked to increase the number of student teaching hours. The department also works closely with the colleges to let them know what skills the teachers will need in their classroom.
“That’s been a goal,” she said. “To get to those new teachers and say ‘This is what’s happening in today’s classroom.’”
Staff writer Laura Camper 256-463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.