An Anniston resident with a grandchild at Cobb Elementary, Woodard has spent many early afternoons parked outside the school, along with other parents waiting to pick up their kids. He’s heard that Anniston’s enrollment is shrinking and worries that Cobb, with only 155 students, will eventually be on the chopping block.
There are things about the school system that could be better, he said. But if Cobb closed, he’d miss it.
“It’s a nice school,” he said. “It’s close to where parents live. The classes are small.”
Woodard’s views run contrary to some of the results from a poll of Anniston residents conducted last year by the nonprofit organization GETT Moving East Alabama. Pollsters asked 400 people what they thought of a wide variety of issues affecting the city.
At first glance, the poll results sound like a scathing indictment of the school system. A full 97 percent of residents cited school improvement as an important priority for the city. Only one issue — job creation — got more votes, with 98 percent saying bringing new jobs was “very important.” More than half of those polled rated the school system “fair” or “poor,” and six in 10 said they were “very dissatisfied” with the school system’s efforts to improve quality.
There’s evidence to support that rating. While Anniston’s elementary schools do well on the tests administered yearly under No Child Left Behind, Anniston High School has failed to make NCLB’s annual educational progress goals for the last six years. Only 71 percent of students at Anniston High graduate on time, according to the most recent state accountability figures, about 10 percentage points below the state average.
But there’s more to the poll numbers than meets the eye. Older, white residents — the people least likely to have personal contact with the current school system — are overrepresented in the GETT Moving survey sample. And they tend to judge the school system more harshly than black residents.
Thirty-nine percent of white residents said Anniston’s schools were “excellent” or “good,” while 61 percent described them as “fair” or “poor.”
Black residents were more ambivalent. Fifty-two percent gave the school system a “fair” or “poor,” while 34 percent said the schools were “good” and 14 percent called them “excellent.”
The Anniston school system’s student body is 94 percent black, school officials say.
And despite the efforts of pollsters to get a representative sample, the GETT Moving numbers are skewed toward people unlikely to have kids in the school system. Sixty percent of poll respondents were white, while just less than half the city’s residents are white. More than half the respondents were older than 55, beyond the age at which most people raise children.
For some local residents, the results mirror something they’ve warned about for years. The problems in the schools are real, they say, but the public opinion of Anniston’s system is shaped by people who don’t use the school system.
“A lot of people look at the system and say, here’s a system that is more than 90 percent black,” Wonder Osborne said. “People think that because of that, there’s no father in the home, and the children don’t know how to act.”
Osborne, who is black, works in Anniston schools on a daily basis as director of the Public Education Foundation of Anniston, or PEFA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the city’s schools.
The school system Osborne sees is different from the one she believes local people are seeing in the media, or hearing from the rumor mill.
“That reputation is not necessarily true,” she said. “Some of the finest students in the county are in the Anniston school system. They just don’t get the attention.”
Joan Frazier, the superintendent of Anniston City Schools, agrees. The city’s schools have serious challenges, she said, but the school’s reputation never accurately represented those challenges.
“I came to Anniston in 1990, and when I started, I heard all the rumors,” she said. “I don’t think the perception has ever matched the reality.”
The reality, Frazier said, is that Anniston’s elementary schools are meeting state academic standards. And while Anniston High has struggled, she said, the school is making progress.
It’s true that Anniston High hasn’t met state standards for the last six years. But under No Child Left Behind, the bar for test scores is set higher each year. If Anniston High were judged by the standards from five years ago, Frazier said, the school would be in the clear.
Progress on the dropout rate has also been obscured by No Child Left Behind’s rising bar. Frazier said the on-time graduation rate three years ago was 59 percent. Now it’s 71 percent — a big leap, but not enough to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind.
Frazier said she takes on-time graduation for every student seriously. But the system is moving in the right direction, she said.
‘Excellent’ school, leaky roof
Shanquita Arnold, parent of a 10-year-old at Randolph Park Elementary school, said she’s seen the improvement.
“It’s a lot better than it was when I went there,” said Arnold, herself an alumnus of Randolph Park, Anniston Middle and Anniston High.
Arnold said she was bullied in school. Now the schools have programs to discourage bullying, she said, and teachers take the problem seriously.
“I would rate this school excellent,” she said. “They’ve always been good about keeping us informed.”
When the school’s roof leaked, that bothered her, but it’s been patched now, Arnold said.
Osborne, the foundation director, said she’d like to see more resources devoted to the schools as well. Her organization, PEFA, recently gave the school system a check for more than $11,000 to buy computers and other technology. More investment will be needed if Anniston wants to get kids ready for the future, she said.
“We can’t go on teaching in the old way,” she said. “Students don’t respond to that.”
Buildings and equipment may soon take center stage in Anniston’s debate about schools. After years of decline in the city’s population, and a decades-long flight from the school system by white and upper-income families, Anniston’s entire system is down to about 2,400 students. The school board maintains seven schools — five of them elementary — and the school board has been meeting to discuss how many buildings it can afford to operate. School board members have been reluctant to use the word “closure,” but Frazier has made it clear that the talks are, in her words, about “lessening the number of schools.”
Nowhere to go
That would likely generate a backlash from parents, who — despite the school system’s reputation — hold their schools in high regard.
“I think my son’s in a very good school,” said Randolph Park parent Robert English.
Like most poll respondents, he said schools definitely need improving. But ask him what specifically needs improving and he quickly ventures beyond school grounds. He said he spent his own teen years hanging out “on the street,” and he knows it’s a distraction from school.
“The problem is that kids get in trouble because they don’t have anything to do,” he said. “There’s nowhere for them to go.”
English isn’t alone in that opinion. Two-thirds of residents in the GETT Moving poll respondents said “providing entertainment venues for young people” was a high priority. The numbers were highest among black residents, younger residents, and people from the middle to lower end of the income scale.
English said he is also worried about where his 8-year-old will be able to go after his school years. The kid is brainy, English said: He reads all the time, and has announced that he wants to be a scientist.
“I want him to be ready to go college,” English said. “I want the school to get him ready for that.”
Again, he’s not alone. Of the GETT Moving poll respondents who rated the schools “fair or poor,” 16 percent said their biggest complaint about the system was that students didn’t leave the school college-ready. It was the most common answer among a host of reasons the respondents offered.
Frazier said the school system is already planning to focus more on post-secondary work in the coming years. Part of that effort, she said, is driven by changes she expects to see in the tests used to judge schools.
“We’re going to have to start paying more attention to ACT scores,” she said, referring to the college-readiness exam used by many universities.
Asked what schools need the most, Frazier said community involvement.
“We have to get people involved with schools,” she said. “It they were in schools, they’d be able to help — and they’d see the progress we’ve made.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560