By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Back-to-school time often is filled with a fresh outlook and determination for success—not just for students and parents, either. School administrators and education officials who partner with Birmingham City Schools are also fired up about the new goals and plans in place for the city’s students in 2016–2017.
J.W. Carpenter, executive director of the Birmingham Education Foundation, is enthusiastic about the upcoming school year which begins Aug. 8—in part because of the groundwork laid by Superintendent Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, who has been on the job since July 1, 2015.
“She has had a year of learning the ropes, a year of planning,” Carpenter said. “I’m extraordinarily excited about the vision she’s set, the strategic plan she’s drafted … the meaningful, measurable goals she’s established.”
The Birmingham Education Foundation—an organization that focuses on increasing the number of city school students on the path to college-, career-, and life-readiness after high school—provides a broad range of support for Birmingham City Schools. This year, according to Carpenter, the group (also known as the Ed Foundation) will serve the most students ever with a full year of valuable initiatives, including ACT preparation, pre-AP help, and essential-skill building, as well as career and college access.
Carpenter recently returned from a fellowship to attend a nonprofit leadership program at Harvard Business School, an experience he describes as “the single best professional development I’ve ever seen.”
“I learned several different things. The trends—here in the United States, internationally, and with the big thinkers at Harvard—are collaboration, collaboration, collaboration,” he said. “We can no longer work [alone.] We have to work with one another”—something already in the works between the Ed Foundation and Birmingham City Schools.
“We are the most collaborative, the most aligned that I’ve ever seen,” Carpenter said. “That includes people within the school district. That includes people in the community. That includes those two groups working together. When those folks collaborate and focus on what is most important—our students being college-, career-, and life-ready when they graduate—that’s when we as a community win.”
During his trip to Harvard, Carpenter also gained a greater appreciation for the Magic City.
“I gained a different perspective about how lucky we are to be working in this community. Even with all of the challenges, the history during which we were far from our best, we live in a community that is generous, not just with dollars but with time. I am fortunate to have this position with the Ed Foundation because I get to see the very best of so many different people who cross every possible line of difference to focus on what’s best for our students.
“Talking to a lot of colleagues [at Harvard], I learned that they have a lot of things going for them, they have a lot of great communities. The more I listened, though, the more grateful I was for living in Birmingham.”
Carpenter, 37, left a promising career with a local law firm to become the founding executive director of Teach for America–Alabama, which recruits college graduates from universities across the country to serve as teachers for at least two years in low-income communities. He has served as executive director of Ed Foundation since September 2013.
As a white male, Carpenter said he is aware of the privileges he was given, privileges that Birmingham’s students often do not have because they do not have the same opportunities he had.
“The main difference between me and the students at the Birmingham City Schools has nothing to do with ability; it’s the margin for error,” he said. “Mine is wider, and theirs [is smaller].”
The students he gets to meet have the potential to be world-changers, he said.
“I think the idea that simply because they have less privilege than I do they would somehow end up in a different place is infuriating,” Carpenter said. “It’s not just infuriating on a moral level; it’s infuriating on a strategic level. I’m a patriot. I love this country. If you believe in this country, you must believe in giving all students an excellent education. There is no other way to think about it.”