By Sherrel Wheeler Stewart
For the Birmingham Times
Even though the school year ended for Birmingham City School (BCS) students in mid-March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recently named interim superintendent Mark Sullivan and public school leaders throughout the state still face some unknowns—like when the traditional academic year can begin and what accommodations can be made for students and parents uncomfortable with the return.
Sullivan said he has committees in place putting together plans for a variety of scenarios. Children who come from economically challenged backgrounds and have limited exposure to enrichment activities outside of school tend to regress in the summer, he said. It’s called the summer slide.
“We haven’t been in school since the 13th of March, so we have summer slide, and we also have the ‘corona slide.’ If we don’t put some interventions in place, when kids come back in the fall some of the more academically fragile students may not be able to make up that summer slide or corona slide,” Sullivan said.
A BCS assessment found that about 20 percent of its students don’t have internet access, so a committee of educators is studying how to provide students with the technology and other resources if school buildings are closed in the fall, Sullivan explained.
“Our goal is that we put a device in the hand of every child. And then we are also on connectivity,” he said.
The school system has established a management system to ensure that teaching and learning can continue digitally if traditional buildings are shut in the fall because of the pandemic. BCS also has television studio that can be used for instruction, along with a public access television channel.
This gives Birmingham an advantage over other school systems when it comes to alternatives for providing instruction, Sullivan said, adding that BCS is also working to recruit and hire teachers and staff. That job is more difficult now, especially when it comes to teachers.
“There was a time when we would see about 200 students graduating with degrees in education from universities, such as [Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University],” he said, noting that the last time he went to look for potential teachers a few years ago, there were only about 20.
Still, Sullivan is optimistic about filling vacancies this summer before the school year begins in August.
Whatever the challenge, Sullivan said the solution rests with the lessons he has learned over the years working with BCS, particularly that every student, parent, teacher, and support employee is valuable—and they need to know it.
Parental involvement is important, too, the interim superintendent said.
“Back in the 90s, one of things I learned from [former principal and school administrator Samuetta Drew], who hired me, was how to engage the community,” Sullivan said. “We cannot change the circumstances our children walk in the door with. We can influence the parents by showing them how much we care about the kids and that they can entrust their children to us, knowing we’ll do the right things, we’ll make the right decisions.”
Sherrel Wheeler Stewart was named this week Executive Director of Strategy and Communications for the Birmingham City Schools after the planned publication of this story.