By J.W. Carpenter
Over the last several weeks, a number of people have shared their opinions about the Birmingham Promise and the challenges in the Birmingham City Schools on both traditional and social media. While it is true that there is still much work to do, at the Birmingham Education Foundation (“Ed”), we fully support the Birmingham Promise as part of that solution. We applaud Mayor Woodfin (and the City Council for passing the budget) as we have seen firsthand how capable our students and educators are, and how much they deserve the kind of bold, innovative thinking represented by the Birmingham Promise.
There are two main parts to the Birmingham Promise: access to apprenticeships in high demand industries for current Birmingham City School students and a last dollar scholarship for Birmingham City Schools graduates who are headed to the workforce or a postsecondary institution. Both elements are crucial to student success and are representative of the type of innovation we believe in at Ed.
Since 2013, the Birmingham Education Foundation has been working with the Birmingham City Schools and the Career Academies to establish a college, career, and life training program that includes executive skill-building, job shadowing, workplace site visits, micro-grants for college visits, and paid internships. Our program now serves over 4,000 students as young as 6th grade all the way through their second year after graduation with the support of over 150 community partners.
As the largest provider of paid internships to Birmingham City School students, we have seen over 130 students gain valuable experience, important contacts, and, in two cases, full-time employment as they set off to pursue immediate employment, the military, and/or post-secondary education. Our students rave about their internship experiences and their experience with the Birmingham Promise has been just as impactful.
That work would be impossible without a generous business community and the many talented educators throughout our high schools – are too numerous to mention by name. At Ed, we know firsthand that our teachers will be crucial to the Birmingham Promise as they have been crucial to every element of our six years of partnership supporting students. Our support for the Birmingham Promise is not limited to this op-ed. We have shared our plans, our best practices (and our failures), and connected students and partners to the program. Like anything, innovation requires changing mindsets and behavior, along with new collaborations. At Ed, we were willing to make those changes because it met the only bar that should matter: student achievement. As we embrace innovative practices like the Birmingham Promise, everyone in our community should embrace the changes necessary to implement it.
Last year, Ed partnered with the Mayor’s office on a robust community engagement effort that reached nearly 3000 individuals, most of whom are parents of students in Birmingham City Schools. What we heard was that students, families, and community members are not satisfied with the status quo. They want what is best for students and are willing to try whatever it takes to get there. Many respondents cited the cost of college as a major challenge of post-secondary education, which makes the second half of the Birmingham Promise crucial. Mayor Woodfin and his team have picked an outstanding institution in the United Way of Central Alabama to help with these efforts and we should be applauding such a robust collaboration and working with that team to make the Promise a reality for students.
We are not supporting this effort because it is free from risk. There will be setbacks and mistakes, just as we have experienced in our work at the Birmingham Education Foundation, and as any visionary, inventor, and innovator does on the path to success. What we appreciate about this project is the message that it sends: that our students are worth the investment.
We applaud Dr. Herring, her team, and members of the Board of Education for their support of this work, and know they will be great partners. They know that unless we innovate and disrupt, we are destined to meet with results that do not reflect the abilities of our students, the hard work of our educators, and the deepest hopes of our families. It is easy to recognize the risks associated with trying something new, but we should also recognize that there are often bigger risks with not trying anything new at all, especially when too many of our students graduate without the knowledge, skills, experiences, and opportunities they need to be college, career, and life ready. Staying the course under these circumstances is a recipe for poor results and missed opportunities.
Our students have limitless potential and the Birmingham Promise represents a strategic investment in that potential. We know our community, our students, our families, and our educators are up to the challenge, and at the Birmingham Education Foundation, we stand behind them 100 percent.
J.W. Carpenter is Executive Director of the Birmingham Education Foundation.