By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Kelley Castlin-Gacutan had a busy first year as the superintendent of Birmingham City Schools. She hit the ground running on July 1, 2015—and hasn’t stopped since.
“I just can’t believe how quickly time has flown by,” said Gacutan (pronounced guy-coo-ann), who is also known as “Dr. G.”
Classes begin on Aug. 8 for Birmingham City Schools students — and the superintendent and her team are prepared.
Gacutan said, “We’ve been very busy focusing on having alignment among all of our schools in terms of our mission” to guide all students to excel and instill in them our core values: diversity, integrity, respect, excellence, compassion, and teamwork.
Even more exciting, according to Gacutan, is the level of community support.
“We’re getting input from the community on our five-year plan to help us move forward,” she said during an interview in her office last week. “In my experience, I have found that you don’t always have a widespread of community support in efforts to achieve at high levels. To see the level of support we have in this community, where people really want to see the school district get better, is overwhelming. It’s exciting to see.”
Gacutan said she also is energized by support from local organizations. Last week, groups like HandsOn Birmingham, the Birmingham Education Foundation, and others participated in a Back-To-School Beautification project held at 43 Birmingham schools.
J.W. Carpenter, executive director of the Birmingham Education Foundation, said he shares Gacutan’s enthusiasm.
“We are the most collaborative, the most aligned I’ve ever seen; and that’s within the school district, within the community, and it includes those two groups together,” Carpenter said. “When those two groups are collaborative and focused on what’s most important — which is our students graduating college, career and life-ready — that’s when we as a community win.”
Knowing that she is not alone in her efforts to improve the school system is energizing, Gacutan said, but her high expectations present challenges.
“Sometimes, because we are striving for excellence, it’s not always understood where we’re trying to go because people can’t really see our vision,” she said. “They might not be able to internalize some of the things we’ve been trying to implement because they can’t see it right now.”
Steps Toward Improvement
Her ultimate goal is to take Birmingham City Schools off the failing-schools list. This will not happen overnight, Gacutan explained.
Earlier this year, the Alabama State Department of Education designated 18 Birmingham City Schools as failing, meaning the schools’ test scores fell in the bottom six percent of those across the state.
“We believe that having a systematic way to provide instruction, to assess how we’re doing, and to provide intervention where needed is going to help us ultimately better position our students for success,” Gacutan said.
Those efforts include implementing an instructional framework, which starts with “teaching the standards.”
“College- and career-readiness standards are being taught in every classroom,” Gacutan said. “At the end of each lesson, students are expected to provide a summarization that helps them understand what they were learning and why they were learning it.”
Gacutan now has a year of experience as the schools’ chief, and that will make a difference, according to Carpenter.
“This is her first school year where she’s had a year of learning the ropes and planning, and I’m extraordinary excited about the vision she’s set, the strategic plan that she’s drafted and really starting to set meaningful, measurable goals for the kids,” Carpenter said.
There is good news to report about Birmingham City Schools: Since 2010, graduation rates have improved, with 80 percent of students graduating in four years.
“Even in the midst of difficult times, we all know how important it is to celebrate,” Gacutan said during a press conference last month. “It is important to recognize that over the last three years the district has seen incremental growth in the graduation rate.”
The Role of Teachers
Gacutan, a Hueytown native, has held a broad range of positions since becoming an educator in 1991. After completing her undergraduate studies at Tennessee State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, she earned a Master of Education in Early Childhood Education from Brenau University and a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. During her career, she has been a teacher, an assistant principal, and a principal; she also served as deputy superintendent of operations for Bibb County Schools in Georgia.
As a former instructor, Gacutan knows the importance of teacher involvement.
“[There are] things teachers can do in the classroom to monitor students’ success,” she said. “It might be a unit test. It might be a thumbs-up, thumbs-down that the student understands what is being taught.”
Developing Strong Readers
From the beginning, Gacutan has stressed the importance of improving reading.
“The emphasis has been on reading because it’s the foundation,” she said. “Students need to be able to articulate what they are learning. Students need to be able to articulate which algorithms, solutions, problem-solving skills they used to come to a specific answer. All of that involves reading.”
In order to improve reading scores, Birmingham City Schools has established a core team to work on streamlining the reading programs.
“What we found was that our schools were doing different programs according to what worked in that particular school,” Gacutan said. “So we said, ‘Let’s look at one reading product we can really articulate.’ A lot of our students are transient, they go from school to school, so they need to have a common reading program they are familiar with.”
The Role of Parents
Parents are another key group needed for student success, so Gacutan conducted “listening and learning tours.” Those sessions allowed school officials to make adjustments during the year, based on the parents’ concerns.
“We did that as an effort to make sure the community understood where we were academically,” she said.
A Bright Future
Gacutan believes the future is bright for Birmingham City Schools and its students. She predicts significant improvement over the next decade.
“I see a lot more academic options. I see more emphasis on foreign language. I would love to see more of our students be in the position to go directly from high school into a career. I see a more diverse student population and employee base. Ten years is more than enough time for us to do everything well,” Gacutan said.
16 schools to offer after-hours care
Special to The Times
Birmingham City Schools will offer after school care at 16 schools beginning Monday, Aug. 8. Those schools are:
Here are a few things to know about the program: