The Choking Game – Our Family’s Effort to Educate

After our family’s tragedy, we were sure we could get support and answers from Dr. Casey Wardynski, Huntsville City Schools Superintendent.

Teacher Turnover in Huntsville City Schools

Since 2009, resignations of tenured teachers in the Huntsville City Schools system have risen 225%, as suggested by a graph provided by Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski …

Erasing teachers in Huntsville

Huntsville is Erasing Teachers

*Writer’s Note 5/27/2016:  I had the opportunity today to speak to one of our Huntsville TFA alum.  I am aware that we have TFA employees that have entered into their position with TFA with a teaching education.   As to the number, those are not available to me.  However, most TFA enter with an alternate certificate and no education background.   I have edited my article to reflect this.  On a side note,  I appreciate those who choose to stay past their TFA tenure and acquire a teaching certification.  Passion for education is something that I truly admire.  Please visit the following webpage and review this article by a former TFA teacher, who happens to be Harvard Graduate:

Huntsville City Schools’ Teachers, we will miss you.

I was fortunate enough in high school to have one teacher for three of my required history courses. His name is Jimmy Knight. For your average awkward freshman, Mr. Knight was intimidating on that first day of high school as he stood before his classroom, elbow propped up on the podium, sizing up every student as they walked through the door. However, as late summer turned into fall, the intimidator turned into the educator. He wanted his students to learn and it showed. I even wanted to do my homework.

Our students in Huntsville are going to lose in this aspect. You see, we are experiencing a mass exodus of seasoned educators in the Huntsville City School system.

They are leaving because they are no longer allowed to do what they do best – educate and build relationships with our students. They are required to teach to tests and pacing guides – pacing guides that are not a fit for every student and sometimes for the majority of a classroom. They no longer have one-on-one time to spend with students with deeper individual needs. They are watching our students and our schools slip between the cracks and they can’t do it anymore. I understand.

Dr. Wardsynki is a big fan of Teach for America teachers. Many people are not aware of exactly what Teach for Amercia is. Teach for America began as a program designed as an emergency response to a shortage of qualified educators in urban areas. As the organization has progressed, it has started to bill its employees as preferable to experienced teachers. Most Teach for America  employees are not trained teachers. They are newly graduated professionals who agree to teach for a period of two years in exchange for an award to pay down student loan debt. Again, most are not trained educators.

They do not cost us any less than a certified teacher and I question the number of Teach for America teachers in Huntsville City Schools Title 1 schools, because these are the students who need a seasoned, experienced teacher the most – the students who sometimes only find stability at school. Seasoned teachers know how to provide this.

Teachers in Huntsville City Schools no longer feel valued and are treated with the utmost disrespect by our Superintendent and the Huntsville City School Board of Education. A teacher should be able to bring issues to the table without fear of repercussion and losing their job. We recently saw that Huntsville Education Association is suing the school board for an ineffective teachers list that they are unwilling to provide. The crowd at Merts Center is persecuting our teachers and they just got caught. However, it is too late. We have lost upwards of 559 teachers in the last two years. This doesn’t count the numbers provided at the last board meeting. These losses have to stop. Now.

I am forever grateful for Mr. Knight and the impact he had on my time in high school and my life. He will always be one of the coolest cats I know. I pray that our Huntsville City School students will find their Mr. Knight in the middle of this chaos.

Teachers, the greatest doctor of them all, Dr. Seuss, wrote, “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” You all mean the world to me and many others – parents and students alike. My heart breaks a little more each time I find another is leaving.

Dr. Wardynski, I would like to know just where the good is in all of these goodbyes.

The Lion, The Witch and The Laptop

Huntsville United Love of Books


What do you guys think about the exclusive use of computers in elementary grades?

Would you consider refusing to accept your child’s school computer next year?

I’d like to, but I wish it didn’t have to be an all or nothing deal. I like computers. I’m on one now, and often, but I wish kids were using more tactile learning (and I don’t mean their fingers touching the keyboard), at school.

I adored books as a child. I remember, and still LOVE the smell of a book’s pages, the feel of the paper (I always loved the glossy ones with colorful illustrations, the best), and burying my face into them, escaping my world for a while, and entering a new one. I can’t tell you how fervently I hoped that I would finally come across the right wardrobe to transport me to Narnia. I checked in every single one I came across.

I can still remember walking into the little, brown Bessie K Russell library on North Parkway (yes, I’m oldish), and walking out, biceps trembling, with a stack of books, that came up to my chin.

To me, there’s no cleaner, fresher, intoxicating smell, than a library.

We are discovering, now with more and more studies showing, that children learn better and perform better on tests, when using paper and pencil, rather than computers.

I love technology, and of course, use it every day, but I’m sad for my kids that they may not experience the joys of learning from a paper book at school…the joys of covering your books in brown craft paper or newspaper comics, (ok, yes! I know! I already admitted I’m oldish!) and just writing and doodling with a pencil! Remember drawing moustaches on the characters in your English book? (I’m sorry, Ms. Denson)

Do you think our kids love the smell of their plastic computers when they open them?

How do you all remember your books?

Do you think our children are experiencing the magic we did?  They deserve to.

Be Courageous – Citizen Comments – May 19, 2016

Wow! What a night! Here’s the video of the citizens’ comments at the Huntsville Board of Education meeting, last night, May 19th.

Citizen Comment – Pam Hill – May 19, 2016

As a 5 yr old student in 1966, I had new crayons, pants my Momma made me, and I walked into Highlands Elementary School in District 5.

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Essenmacher. Fifteen years later she came to my wedding. In 4th grade I had Mrs. Broadhead. She was very strict, but she said I was smart-and I believed her. It was because of her concern for me that I decided that day, one day I would be a teacher.

I then went to Ed White Middle School. I remember a teacher throwing a chair across the pod, and my mother went to the principal Tom Drake and talked to him about that! Next was Butler High School! That was a big jump, but I did fine. I was probably a nerd, but the football players thought I was cute.

I became a Dixie Deb and things went well. However, I did wreck a car in Drivers Education, and to this day, my husband won’t let me drive his truck. I graduated from the largest class Butler High ever had, and I was near the top of my class. My parents were proud. I never lost my dream of being a teacher, because teachers keep children safe and keep their word.

Life happened, I had two beautiful children and even four more beautiful grandchildren. My children graduated from Grissom High and are successful in North AL. I enjoyed being a room mother, a substitute teacher, a mentor, a PTA volunteer, a cheerleader mom, a football mom, and more.

I finally finished my first of 5 education degrees in 1998. Norton Webb hired me at Lakewood Elementary School. Boy! We’re things different in the elementary classroom than they were in the college classroom! Even my student teaching at Stone Middle School did not prepare me for my own classroom.

To be a good, or great teacher, it takes YEARS OF EXPERIENCE. I also believe teaching is a calling. You can tell who is called to teach, and those who simply report to work. I eventually worked at Whitesburg, Hampton Cove, Dawson, and Williams. I taught summer school at Stone and Grissom.

Things have changed now. You can not make friends with your principal or cohorts. Everyone is constantly moved around to create intended dysfunction and chaos. Teachers are now told to follow directives instead of using their creativity. Tests have become more important than teaching. Contracts are more important than commitment, and data is a priority over discipline. Morale has fallen and teachers are racing to retire or resign.

I see the loss of hope in the eyes of educators who remain. I tried to write, call, talk , email , and speak to those who could make a difference. No one listened. I’ll end with the words from Garth Brooks song, “Looking back on the memories we shared, for a moment of the days all the world was right, and many lives are better. And now I’m glad I didn’t know how it would all end, the way it would go. I could have missed the pain, but then, I would have missed the dance.” God bless, and I love district 5.

Citizen Comment – Mark Binner – May 19, 2016

Good Evening. My name is Mark Binner. I am not representing any organization and I want to briefly discuss with you this evening my Huntsville City School Board Citizen Comment Experiences for the calendar year 2016.

Bottom Line Up Front

First of all I wanted to commend the HCS Board for giving Citizens of Huntsville, Alabama, the opportunity to comment on any topic concerning public education – Citizen Comments. Thank you for allowing Huntsville Citizens to talk with you directly, face-to-face and not via Social Media or E-Mails. I have talked directly with you three (3) times, this opportunity being my third. I have noted several observations which I am going to share with you this evening to include recommendations that will improve the transparency between the Huntsville City School Board, the teachers, the students (consumers of learning), parents (The primary stakeholders) and The Citizens of Huntsville.

Observation 1: Is Anyone Taking Notes?

The first time that I addressed the board presenting a Citizen Comment, I noticed that the Superintendent, Board Members, and Board Clerk packed up their laptops and prepared their belongings to leave prior to the commencement of Citizen Comments. The HCS Citizen Comments website states that “The Board will study/research all expressed concerns, issues or requests and may respond at a later date1.” If no one is taking notes, how can the School Board respond later? I humbly recommend that Mrs. Ferrell denote highlights for each Citizen Comment so that the School Board members can discuss the comments during the next work session and determine if additional action is required. This is the primary reason why I provide hardcopies of my Citizen Comments.

Observation 2: Put Down Your Phones, Please

I would respectfully ask that Board Members please put down their phones when Citizens are presenting their comments. Paying attention to all Citizens when talking to you face-to-face will demonstrate that you are interested in the topics being discussed. I will make the same promise when you are addressing the Citizens during your Work Sessions – “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.

Observation 3: The Time Limit Is Too Short

I have to tell you that three (3) minutes goes by very quickly – Lighting Speed. A Citizen can use up 20 seconds just satisfying the Citizen Comment Specifications documented on the HCS Website2. Allowing a time limit of five (5) minutes will allow Citizens the opportunity to present meaningful challenge(s) and follow up with a recommended Courses of Action (COAs).

Observation 4: Don’t Make Citizens Wait Until The End

Sometimes waiting up to four (4) hours can wear down a Citizen before they have the opportunity to present their Citizen Comment. My first Citizen Comment that I presented at the 18 February 2016 Board Meeting almost did not happen due to the aggressive Work Session Agenda, but thanks to Walker McGinnis, I was able to address the School Board. I would like to recommend that there be two Citizen Comment Sessions, one comment session prior to the start of the School Board Work Session and one comment session afterward instead of waiting until the end of the Board meeting.

Hearing comments from the Citizens of Huntsville, in my opinion, is vital to maintaining transparency between the governing body of the School Board and the Citizens. As you are all aware, the Citizens of Huntsville elected you to your board seats. If you have not noticed lately, the Citizens in the districts that you represent are energized and ready for a change in the present circumstances. I will continue to present Citizen Comments to the Huntsville City School Board for the foreseeable future. In the coming months, I will encourage every Citizen to register and vote in the upcoming city elections. Local elections are the ones that have the most significant impact on the Citizen’s daily life.

It is time for One Huntsville!

Thank you for allowing me to present my Citizen Comment to the Huntsville City School Board.

– Mark Binner

Citizen Comment – Deb Stern – May 19, 2016

Good Evening. I am Deb Stern.

I would like to use my 3 minutes tonight to continue teacher celebration this month of May, by thanking a few of the many wonderful teachers my boys have experienced over the past 9 years.

First, I would like to thank the Elementary, Middle and High school administration, and staff that have welcomed me into the schools over the years. They have valued what I have to offer as a parent, and a volunteer.

I would like to thank the librarians, Suzi Ellet, Leeann Childers and Cindy Maxwell, for making the libraries the happening place, not for the internet, or the café, but for the great selection of books. Hampton Cove Middle checked out over 9 thousand books and ebooks this year! They have about 600 students so you can all do the math.

For the elementary years,Teresa Brumlow, Susan Connor, Dixie Seely, Nanette Respess and Susan McCluskey were magical with inclusion classes. They had children ranging from special needs to gifted. They challenged every student, while moving them through the year, as a cohesive unit.

I am thankful for the 6th grade reading team at Hampton Cove Middle. Specifically Vickie Lanza and Debbie Hester. Before the district-wide protected reading list, teachers were able to select what their classes would read. I watched these teachers’ excitement, and creativity, as they made reading fun.

If they found a great piece of advanced literature, they would find ways for grade level, and inclusion classes to also experience the story. For example, they found different editions of A Christmas Carol, like this graphic novel and this DK classic with pictures. The visuals really helped the students understand unfamiliar terms. The book study would be celebrated with an English Tea.

There were so many memorable book celebrations in middle school. I have watched Vickie Lanza mentor younger teachers in working with struggling readers and teach reading standards. She is experienced and knows quick simple ways like the Scholastic magazine to practice reading elements.

A huge thank you to the seasoned teacher that was bold enough to tell me it was ok for my son to repeat pre algebra his 8th grade year since he was not very proficient and passed with a D the first time through in 7th grade. And to Cindy Howard , who taught him that second year, thank you for giving him the knowledge base and confidence to tackle honors math classes through high school. He is now prepared to study computer science next year at UNA.

Thank you to Dustan Carroll at Hampton Cove Middle, for igniting a love for social studies in both my boys. You not only are phenomenal with advanced students, but also inclusion classes. You are great with academics, but also teach our children to be better citizens and critical thinkers.

Thank you Mrs. Dotts, HHS, for being an inclusion English teacher this year. For my son that doesn’t always take constructive feedback well, he never gets upset over the red pen marks or the amount of work. When I ask about it, he just says, “I learn from my mistakes”. If you want to increase writing skills in the district, maybe you can figure out how to clone Mrs. Dotts.

Mrs. Fullerton and Mrs. Cruse. You are so skilled in your teaching. You have prepared and encouraged my son with learning disabilities to enroll into higher level math and science for his 10th grade year.

Thank you Amanda Howard for the most meaningful, and comprehensive IEP I have ever seen. His assessment was so thorough. If you need somebody to train other teachers, she would be excellent.

Thank you Nany Barnes in special education, for always giving me honest and caring advice. You always kept the best interest of my child as a top priority. And thank you Nancy, for loving our kids, and giving so much of yourself, for their benefit.

– Deb Stern

Citizen Comments – Kori Paull – May 19, 2016

The word of the month is Courage.

Defined as mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.

I spoke a few weeks ago and was concerned about the direction of Huntsville City Schools. That took courage.

What I didn’t say then was that in January I decided to homeschool my child. That took courage. Courage to stand against those that say I am giving up on the system. That I am part of the problem. Courage to go back to creating lessons and rubrics and grading papers when at this point in my life I wasn’t expecting to be doing that work. Courage to do what was right for my son.

But if you remember me from a few weeks ago you’ll remember that I have another child. A daughter. Her experience has been mostly positive and public school is a good fit for her (for now). However, I’m still concerned about where we are headed as a school system, and with the lack of open and honest communication. It is for her and so many of our children that I am asking you now to be courageous.

Withstand what is difficult. It may be hard to admit but everything is not ok in Huntsville City Schools.

Venture into conversations about the things that need to improve alongside the celebrations of success. When parents and students and teachers ask questions and bring up inconsistencies and are struggling to understand what is happening and why it is happening, please don’t brush them aside.

Let’s persevere together. I am doing my part as a citizen to be informed. I am attending board meetings, researching available documents online, and trying to maintain an open positive outlook. I contributed my comments and questions to the drafted Behavior Learning Guide. I am asking you, the leaders of our school system, as well as our citizen-elected board of education to do your part.

Peter Drucker said, “Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.”

Have the moral strength to do what’s right.

We need open and honest communication. And courage.

– Kori Paull

Citizen Comment – Bambi McGaha – May 19, 2016

Huntsville City Schools – The Problem Is Deeper than Discipline

I admit it. I was one of “those” parents – the parents who were highly upset at the fact that a group of “bad” kids were being sent into our school and causing classroom disruptions and discipline issues. I let my anger get the best of me a few times before I stepped back and started to really dig into the weeds of the issue. Then I began to see that our issue in HCS is much deeper than we even imagined. We don’t have a discipline problem. We have a reading problem of astronomical proportion.

I was fortunate enough Tuesday night to attend the Community Update on Huntsville City Schools at Harrison Wellness Center and when I left that night, I left with a broken heart. That was the night I discovered the magnitude of our problem. Friends, we have a large portion of children in our community who CANNOT read.

Yesterday, I decided to dig a little deeper and look at some of the numbers myself. At McNair Junior High School in District 1, according to ACT Aspire testing for 2014-2015, only 3% of all 8th grade students read above grade level. Now you might think, well that’s okay. Those are numbers for kids reading above grade level. Let me go a little deeper. Only 18.03% of children in 8th grade at McNair read AT grade level. This means that almost 79% of 8th graders at McNair either need a little or a whole lot of help to get to grade level reading.

Another thought to ponder: If these children can’t read, they cannot complete math word problems or science problems or history problems on a test.

Let’s dig even deeper. A friend posted a video chat on Facebook after the meeting at Harrison Center the other night. He made a statement that really struck a bell with me. To paraphrase, he essentially said that it is much easier for a child to cause a disruption in the classroom than it is for a child to admit in front of a classroom of his peers that he can’t read. There hasn’t been a truer statement. We have a big problem, friends. It is so much deeper than discipline and the BLG.

Our teachers have spoken to this. HCS Board of Education – your beloved testing is proving this. You and city leaders are ignoring this. Shame on you. This concern effects not only the present, but the future of our great city. Our children are the future. The new Behavioral Learning Guide is not going to fix a reading problem, and my friend hit the nail on the head, because yes, it is easier for these children to act out, than it is to be ridiculed.

That being said, yes we have some students who are truly unruly children. However, I would put money on the fact, that if we addressed and brought remedy to our reading problem in Huntsville City Schools, the discipline issues would level out.

For those who are like me, for those that don’t see that our issues are much deeper than you want to admit, I challenge you, before you overreact, before you decide that we have too many “bad” kids, please dig a little deeper into the weeds. Our problems at HCS are big. They are REAL and they are not always the same on a personal level, but every problem is a part of connecting the dots to the bigger issue. I’ve started to connect the dots. Some of it can be solved by simply teaching our children to read.

– Bambi McGaha