'Failing' label is reattached to Anniston Middle School, but just a word to some
by Tim Lockette
Jan 17, 2014 | 3711 views |  0 comments | 76 76 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Buses line up at Anniston Middle School at the end of the school day Thursday. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Buses line up at Anniston Middle School at the end of the school day Thursday. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
MONTGOMERY — Anniston Middle School has landed on a state list of "failing" schools for a second year in a row.

School officials aren't surprised by the listing. But they aren't convinced either.

"Failing is not a word I use to describe schools," said Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier.

Alabama's State Department of Education released a list of 76 schools deemed to be failing under the Alabama Accountability Act. Passed last year, the act grants a tax credit of up to $3,500 to families who pull their children out of failing schools and enroll them in private schools. The bill also allows students to transfer out of failing schools and enroll in other public schools, either in the same district or in another district.

So far, only 52 students have moved to private schools, statewide, as a result of the Accountability Act. Education Department spokesman Michael Sibley said 719 students have transferred to another school within the same district, and 18 have transferred to another district.

No one has transferred from Anniston Middle, the city's superintendent said. The city is still bound by a court order arising from Lee v. Macon, the state's decades-old desegregation lawsuit. Frazier said the suit prohibits students zoned for Anniston schools to attend another school district. Anniston has only one public middle school.

"We've had only two requests," Frazier said. "They were referred to the board's attorney for an explanation of why we can't do that."

Officials at Trinity Christian Academy, a private school in Oxford, said last year that they'd enrolled one student last year who was zoned for Anniston Middle. That student had moved to Anniston over the summer.

Anniston Middle's presence on the "failing" schools list last year was shrugged off by most local officials, who were already working on a plan to consolidate the city's schools. Anniston's shrinking population also caused enrollment to shrink, and the school board had plans to reorganize schools, using fewer buildings.

Originally, that plan involved selling the Anniston Middle campus — across from Lowe's on Alabama 21 — to the city of Anniston, who would market it as prime commercial development property. With middle-grades students transferred to another school or schools, Anniston Middle's "failing" rating would become irrelevant.

Things changed when the city backed out of the school purchase last month. City officials said the $6 million price tag was too high, and the city already owns property near the school.

It's no longer clear whether Anniston Middle will stay open or close. School board president Donna Ross said the board has not yet voted on the issue, but it won't be settled until after the board hires a new superintendent to replace Frazier, who is retiring. The board will vote on a new superintendent today, Ross said.

Ross said the "failing" status has united the school's faculty.

"It's bringing the teachers closer together as a team," she said. "When people are saying things about you, you'll pull together. You want to prove them wrong. They know they're good teachers, and they know they're good kids."

Anniston Middle principal Lynwood Hawkins hadn't heard about the new failing schools list until The Anniston Star called him.

"What do you mean, on the list again?" he said. He declined to comment further, referring additional questions to Frazier.

If teachers are uncomfortable with the "failing" designation, that may be fine with the Accountability Act's creator, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. Marsh has long maintained that "failing" status will spur schools to action.

"There's already been talk of closing the school," Marsh said. He said the closure plan was "a sign the Accountability Act works."

Ross said the sale of the property to the city was the main reason for the original decision to close the school. Former city councilman Herbert Palmore first floated the idea of the city buying the school in 2011, but the school board didn't vote to close the school until last year.

Frazier said she'd expected to see the school on the failing list for its second year. Under the Accountability Act, a failing school is any school that has been in the bottom 6 percent on academic performance statewide for three of the last six years.

That three-year rule makes movement off the list fairly slow, said Sibley, the Education Department spokesman. The list shrunk by only a few schools since last year. This year, as last year, Anniston Middle is the only school in Calhoun County that made the failing schools list.

"On the failing schools list, there's not a lot of room for growth," Sibley said. "A school can improve, and still be on the list because they were in the bottom 6 percent during the last six years."

Last year, state superintendent Tommy Bice repeatedly told reporters that he considered the schools on the list to be "priority" schools. Reluctance to use the word "failing" is widespread among educators, many of whom say the label will do more harm than good.

For purposes of the Accountability Act, however, the state Department of Education has adopted the term. Even state school officials call it the "failing" school list.

"That's what it's called by law, and we are duty-bound to call it that," Sibley said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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