Akers leads the Mobile Area Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that Mobile County’s 60,000-plus students receive a top-notch education that puts them on the highway to prosperity. As the foundation’s chief executive officer, she is at the front of a decades-long community-based effort that has turned the story of Mobile public schools from a tragedy to avoid to a success to be replicated.
For these reasons, The Anniston Star names Akers as our Alabamian of the Year for 2012. We define a worthy recipient as, “An Alabamian (or Alabamians) who made a significant mark on events over the past year; someone who lived up to the state creed’s dictate ‘to foster her advancement within the statehood of the world.’ ” Previous honorees have included former governors Albert Brewer and Bob Riley, Jimmy Wales, a key developer in the creation of Wikipedia, and the congregation of First Baptist Church of Williams for its awesome relief effort following the April 2011 storms.
Akers fits nicely in that company.
More than 20 years ago, progress for the Mobile school system was tied up in a muddle. The district was woefully short of funds yet distrust of the system was such that building a consensus to do the right thing was believed impossible. Several attempts to provide more money for schools failed. By 2001, 40 years had passed since the district invested new dollars in its growth. A yes vote that year marked a significant swing for Mobile schools.
Under the banner “Yes We Can,” Akers led a community-wide effort to connect residents to public schools. Public listening sessions discovered that Mobile County residents wanted an improved quality of life, a strong economy and a more accountable school board. Equally important, the public said, schools needed to improve.
Alabama native David Mathews, Kettering Foundation president and CEO, said, “What impresses me about her work is what happened in Mobile.” In the 1980s, Mathews said, the Mobile school system was “in about as bad shape as it could be.”
What’s worse, he said, perhaps 70 percent of Mobile County residents had no direct contact with public schools. Akers’ greatest gift was leading an effort to enable the entire community to rally around public schools. The lesson in Akers’ work, Mathews said, is that “community support is not impossible.”
For Mathews, the “real story” is one of “persistence.” Akers rallied the Mobile community around the premise that the public should play a role in creating great public schools. That coalition, he said, “would not give up.”
Akers assembled and engaged a civic army that put the school district on a path to improvement. Akers has written that the district’s subsequent success “illustrates that action linking communities and schools works. Schools, classrooms, teachers and student achievement scores improved. The achievement gap between those in poverty and those not in poverty and black and white students closed. Citizens believed that because of their work, students were learning more and had more opportunities then before. There are more students achieving at higher levels in Mobile than at any time in the community’s history.”
What community wouldn’t want that for its public schools?
R. Preston Bolt Jr., a Mobile attorney and Anniston native, sits on the Mobile Area Education Foundation’s board. He agrees that Akers is a master at engaging an entire community. “We live in a top-down world; the experts come up with the solutions and our leaders try to convince everyone else to go along,” Bolt said. “Carolyn’s different view was that the people need to say what they want and expect from education, and only to the extent the schools are responsive to that expectation will they be successful.”
The Mobile Area Education Foundation is well-respected throughout the state and nation as an advocate for improving public schools. The foundation is pursuing more than a handful of initiatives, including (a.) closing the achievement gap among poor students, (b.) persuading high school dropouts to earn their diplomas, (c.) improving the district’s graduation rate to 80 percent by 2020 (“80 by 20”), and (d.) creatively stamping out illiteracy.
Jennifer Edwards, who directs the foundation’s 80 by 20 graduation rate effort, said Akers’ starting point is at a basic question. “I’ve seen Carolyn lead the Mobile community in focusing like a laser on improving public education by asking the simple question of ‘Is this good for ALL children?’ For her, it’s that simple. We have a responsibility to give all of our children — regardless of socioeconomic status — the tools they need to become successful.”
Akers has spread her gospel of civic engagement to public schools across the state. Most notably, Akers has worked with Dothan to create an effort on improving schools in that Wiregrass city. The early results are promising. It’s no secret Akers is interested in helping Anniston City Schools. She has visited The Star’s editorial board to discuss strategies to duplicate Mobile success and she has visited with various Anniston education stakeholders. We should be so lucky to enlist Akers in an effort to connect this community to its public schools.
As the Mobile foundation notes on its lists of principles, “Great schools make a great community.” That’s a slogan everyone can get behind.