Area leaders spent Tuesday morning reviewing and discussing key metrics about primary education in the region, particularly in Tuscaloosa County.

The West Alabama Education Summit was organized by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and drew hundreds of local leaders to the University of Alabama's Bryant Conference Center.

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The first part of the Summit was led by Ryan Hankins, Executive Director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

Discussion of education in our area is usually in terms of the Tuscaloosa City Schools and the Tuscaloosa County School System, but Hankins' data generally reflected the proficiencies of all 30,000+ students in both systems combined.

He said he was not arguing for the two systems to merge, but said when Chamber members are looking to make a hire or serve a customer, that separation between systems stops mattering almost immediately and looking at them combined provides a better regional birds-eye view.

Much of his presentation centered on three years of data drawn from the state's Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, which grades the competencies of students in 3rd through 8th grade.

Some of that data was promising - results improved from 2021 to 2023 in most categories and across almost all demographics, although that improvement was arguably marginal.

Other metrics were alarming. Hankins said 644 third-graders in the area are below grade-level competency in reading - that's in both systems combined.

Those numbers must improve, he said, because next year is the first that students will be retained or "held back" in the third grade as outlined in the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

After Hankins' presentation, TCS Superintendent Mike Daria and TCSS Superintendent Keri Johnson joined Donny Jones of West Alabama Works and Allstate's Michelle Coley to talk more specifically about the two systems and steps being taken in each to improve scores, results, attendance, safety and more.

Daria and Johnson both hammered chronic absences as a major hurdle for their systems and said it was a barrier to real learning that must be addressed.

"We had over 800 elementary students who were defined as chronically absent last year and that's unacceptable," Daria said. "That's not a child's issue, that's an adult issue. We have to work with our families and our communities and decide how we can remove those barriers and just get our students to school."

Johnson echoed those sentiments and said both systems are open to suggestions on how to best ensure students make it to school every day.

"Our numbers of kids who are chronically absent just continue to increase and it doesn't seem to matter what initiatives we put in place, strategies we use or celebrations we have - people just don't see the value of coming to school every day like when we were growing up," Johnson said. "The definition of being chronically absent is 18 or more absences. 18! Think about 18 days of missed instruction. It's no wonder that our scores are stagnant."

Both systems are also dedicating more resources than ever to making sure schools are safe environments where students are protected.

Jones and his organization are tasked with matching job-seekers with employers throughout the region, and excellent schools produce excellent workers. He said the bottom line is for results to improve in the Tuscaloosa area, the community is going to have to buy in.

That can take the shape of volunteering with the critically important Reading Allies program and the like, but it may also mean more funding for schools - a tough sell after a vote to increase property taxes to fund the Tuscaloosa County School System failed resoundingly earlier this year.

The city has not yet proposed a tax increase to benefit TCS, but leaders there have been probing the appetite for one in recent surveys to parents and other stakeholders.

For more from the Chamber and both school systems, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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