Speak Up Community Forum

Wednesday, August 18, 2010, 6:44 AM Steve Doyle, The Huntsville Times

Speak Up Community Forum

There's been lots of talk about how to improve Huntsville's schools.

 

Now the listening begins.

 

More than 100 people -- business executives, teachers, Army officers, grandparents -- attended the Tuesday night launch of Speak Up, an effort to re-energize the public about the need for quality public schools.

 

Beginning in October, the not-for-profit Schools Foundation will sponsor a series of "community conversations" designed to get regular folks engaged in the success of the Huntsville, Madison and Madison County school systems.

 

Akers_forumWhat's said in those meetings -- as many as 300, in every corner of the county -- will be used to create a citizen-driven blueprint for change.

 

Commercial developer Scott McLain, who is co-chairing Speak Up, told the crowd at Redstone Federal Credit Union's Wynn Drive headquarters that everybody wants the same things: an education that prepares kids for the future; inspirational teachers; lots of parental involvement; safe campuses.

 

In the past, schools board members and superintendents have been left to figure out how to make that happen.

 

But McLain said other Alabama school systems have had great luck by asking the public to lead that conversation, then handing the ideas off to school administrators to implement.

 

"This is not a top-down approach," he said. "It's a whole different way of doing things."

 

Carolyn Akers, executive director of the Mobile Area Education Foundation, is helping the Schools Foundation get started here. In 2001, her group launched the Yes We Can! campaign to revive Mobile County's struggling school system.

 

Things looked grim at the time. Kids weren't graduating, the superintendent's job was a revolving door and residents had "chronic low expectations" for the school system, Akers said.

 

But by giving regular folks a say in the system's future, she said, many of those doubters became believers. And many of them later voted to raise education property taxes -- the first successful tax referendum of its type in Mobile County in more than 40 years.

 

"This is not rocket science; it's more political science," Akers said. "It's making sure you connect everybody in the community around this mission" of making public schools better.

 

Birmingham, Dothan and Baton Rouge, La., have followed the same model for improving their school systems, and Baldwin County also recently kicked off a Yes We Can! movement.

 

Akers said the effort here should not try to copy what Mobile did. The education blueprints for Huntsville, Madison and Madison County should reflect the wishes of the "civic brigade" of residents that show enough interest to attend the community meetings.

 

"This isn't an event, it's a movement," she said. "And it's going to take time."

 

McLain said the meetings will be held in private homes, neighborhood clubhouses, churches and other places. Some will be invitation-only; others will be open to anyone.

 

The goal is to wrap up the meetings by Thanksgiving.

 

"We're the Rocket City. We go to the moon, we do great things," McLain said. "And in our school systems we need to do that, too."

 

 
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