AP NEWS

High school principal gets creative, saves magnet program

October 25, 2019

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — As if the devastating fire that forced Booker T. Washington High to move into an insufficient elementary school hadn’t already tested the administration, students and faculty, a school district directive to cut teachers really hit hard.

As part of a district-wide reduction of more than 100 teachers, the teacher for the technology magnet school unit was on the chopping block at BTW. However, ending the program didn’t sit right with Principal Quesha Starks. Instead, Starks saved it by combining virtual learning with community partnerships.

“I told them I was scared to break the children up — that I wanted to keep them together,” Starks said about the meeting with parents she had last spring about the cut. Incoming freshman had already received notice they were accepted into the program, and current students were passionate about continuing the track they’d been on.

She turned to community members involved in the information technology industry for guidance and found that losing the teacher did not have to mean losing the program too.

“Honestly, no good principal wants a program and industry that runs the world taken off the docket,” Boyd Stephens, founder of Netelysis, a regional IT company, said. Starks’ idea of relying on ACCESS Virtual Learning to continue offering courses to the students, Stephens confirmed, would be a great substitute.

ACCESS is available to all Alabama public school students for free. It allows students to earn their credits, with a certified teacher teaching them remotely and providing their assessments.

“A lot of IT professionals — that is the preferential way they want to learn. It is the dominant way for IT professionals to learn,” Stephens said.

To supplement the virtual component, Stephens and Kalonji Gilchrist, who also works in the IT sector and is founder of the local artists collective 21 Dreams, have been working to connect others in the industry with the school to come and talk with students.

“I try to think of how to get students engaged in the community outside of just their work in the classroom,” Gilchrist said, explaining that that engagement is necessary if the city wants to retain young people after graduation.

“When the school system isn’t able to support the school, that’s when community partners have to look at how they can help with the educational process,” he said. “These are creative students and we know enough people who can give them real, on-the-job training and early entrance points into their career.”

It is that creativity that Stephens pointed to as the reason these particular students can excel in the technology industry.

“What I love about the curriculum at BTW is that they don’t produce uniformity and we need some cyber security professionals who bring their artistic skills, their creativity,” Stephens said. He pointed to the people who create code as artists “whose canvas just happens to be in the virtual space.”

The community partnership, he said, is going to help students make the early connections in what they are learning in their core classes to what they’d like to do professionally.

As an example, when a student questions the importance of learning Algebra 1, an IT professional could explain the systems created for artificial intelligence are based off those equations. Speaking to Alexa on your iPhone is possible because of the lessons taught in Algebra 1, Stephens said.

Despite the free virtual learning option and the support from people like Stephens and Gilchrist, there were still challenges to making sure students were able to continue in the program.

One issue: there weren’t enough computers for the 40 students to do their ACCESS course work. But, it was the students who found a solution.

After the fire, there were various computer parts that were initially discarded but then collected by the former technology magnet teacher, Kayana Sharp, an 11th grade student, said.

“He took them in case we needed them,” Sharp said.

The students went on a search, finding the necessary parts to assemble more computers tucked away in filing cabinets and boxes throughout the school. The tech theater room was cut in half, with one side turned into the second computer room.

The lab was just one example of the program’s students leading the effort to make sure they had what was needed.

Principal Starks assigned Sharp the task of reaching out to different universities to see what kind of support they could offer to the class. Sharp sent emails to schools that offered degrees in the different areas the students want to pursue — such as engineering, artificial intelligence and cyber security.

That led to a trip to Tuscaloosa for the University of Alabama’s Engineering Day in October. The group also went to the Air Force tech conference.

They’ve helped repair smart boards in the school, walked teachers through new software programs and are currently building the school’s website calendar. One student makes sure the labs are in good shape each morning. Another is hoping to display a virtual school — one that illustrates the environment BTW staff and students desire — during the school’s next Showcase.

“You just don’t give up because things get difficult,” Starks said. “Despite funding issues, parents are still expecting us to deliver. Students are still expecting us to deliver. ... I was raised to believe that wealth doesn’t come in your money, it comes in the human resources you have to support whatever goal or opportunity you are trying to provide.”

Starks said she likely won’t be able to accept more students into the program until a full-time teacher is retained but she wants to keep it going for current students, “because of the richness they’ve added (to the school).”

With students now responsible for making sure their assignments are in on-time and are taking a more active role in the education they receive, she believes it is teaching them resilience that will come in handy in the paths they choose after graduation.

Between the fire and the loss of a teacher, Sharp said she’s learned that, “the more that you go through, the more you can handle.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com