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WBHM In Collaboration With The

Southern Education Desk

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90.3 WBHM Birmingham Public Media began in education, so you might say it's in our DNA. So who better than a team of public media reporters to explore the challenges and opportunities confronting education in the southern United States in the 21st century?

WBHM is part of an innovative collaboration between public media stations in five Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee) called the Southern Education Desk.

Former teacher and educational publishing editor WBHM's Dan Carsen is one of a team of reporters around the region providing in-depth feature stories on a broad range of education issues, from K-12 to secondary to adult learning. Below are some of his recent stories and interviews. For a complete list of his weekly education interviews with WBHM's Tanya Ott, click here.

"Backpack Buddies": Making a Dent In Student Hunger: As we reported in Part One, about 17 million kids in the U.S. are in danger of malnutrition, which can trigger behavior problems and stunt brain development. Given the scope of the problem, the importance of subsidized school meals becomes clear ... but what happens to needy kids from Friday night through Monday morning? In this second story on student hunger, Dan looks at one solution in Shelby County.

Student Hunger Harder To Address On Holidays: Roughly 30 million students in the United States rely on federally subsidized school meals. Even so, more than half that number are in real danger of malnutrition. So many kids depending on school for food may seem troubling enough ... but what happens when school's closed? Dan has more on that deceptively simple question as districts across our area prepare for the holidays.

Mobile's George Hall Elementary's Remarkable Turnaround, Part Two: This school went from one of the nation's worst to one of its best. But how exactly did they do it, and how are they still doing it? The conclusion of a two-part report.

Mobile's George Hall Elementary's Remarkable Turnaround, Part One: This school went from one of the nation's worst to one of its best. How bad was it, and just how good is it now? You might be surprised. Part One of a two-part report.

Alabama's First And Only High-School "Freethinkers' Club: A recent national poll shows a vast increase in the number of non-religious Americans. Roughly a fifth are now atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular." But polls also show non-believers are the least-trusted group in the country. So the trend is a prescription for some tension, tension that sometimes plays out in the nation's schools, including those in the Bible Belt. Here's the story behind Alabama's first and only public high-school "freethinkers" club.

Should Students Learn to "Counter" An Armed Intruder? Jonesboro, Columbine, Virginia Tech. Those names and others have become tragic shorthand for school shootings. Today, when there’s a threat, the typical lockdown plan that most schools follow is sound the alarm, call police, lock doors, and stay put. But a growing number of schools are adopting controversial training that includes how to fight back against a gunman.

Two-Dozen Families "Reverse-Integrating" A Birmingham City School: Birmingham was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, a major front in the battles that ended legal segregation. When the schools were integrated, white people fled the city, taking resources and other advantages with them. That continues today, but about two dozen families are bucking the trend and trying to reverse the process.

NEWSFLASH: Birmingham School Board Holds Congenial, Productive Meeting: Surprising to many, the Birmingham School Board conducted a civil and efficient meeting Tuesday night, perhaps tempered by a judge's ruling that the state does have authority over the district and that Superintendent Craig Witherspoon will keep his job during the takeover. State Superintendent Tommy Bice presided and was clearly in control, setting the tone from the beginning.

Judge Extends Orders Against Birmingham School Board: After two sometimes arcane, sometimes fiery days of testimony, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Houston Brown extended two temporary injunctions against the Birmingham Board of Education by 10 days or until further notice. One of the orders protects local superintendent Craig Witherspoon's job by rescinding his recent firing by the board; the other directs the board not to interfere with the state takeover of the school system or disobey direct orders from state education officials.

Birmingham School Board Votes to Fire Witherspoon but State Legally Rescinds Action; Employees Confused: People who've been saying they could no longer be surprised by the Birmingham school board were surprised Tuesday night, for several reasons. The most important was the fact that, though expressly forbidden by the state team currently administering the district, the board voted five to three to terminate the contract of Superintendent Craig Witherspoon. After filing a national Newscast spot with NPR, Dan turned in this web-exclusive story.

Little River Canyon: Tranquil Resource, Contentious Beginnings: About seven miles from Fort Payne is the northern gateway to a vision, a vision of a nearly hundred-mile "central park" between Birmingham, Atlanta and Chattanooga. Decades in the making, the conservation, tourism, and education opportunities are gelling in this huge green corridor. In Part Two of his series, WBHM's Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen has the intriguing story behind this growing resource.

Lessons Learned At The Little River Canyon Center: On a high plateau in rural northeast Alabama, there's a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art education complex. Campus, museum, community center, and event spot, Jacksonville State University's Little River Canyon Center is becoming a destination for students, tourists, and regular local people. How this unlikely place came to be is a twenty-year story of politics, money, celebrity, and inspiration. But for this first of two reports, WBHM's Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen focuses on what people are learning there now.

INTERVIEW: UAB Researcher On The Brain, Education, and Cognitive Decline: Education affects how the brain ages, and when older people take cognitive tests, the results are compared to those of others the same age and with the same amount of schooling. But new UAB research shows that because of racial and economic disparities in education quality, that approach could be leading to disadvantaged people being diagnosed as impaired when they really aren't. Our Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen sat down with Dr. Michael Crowe, who says the disparities in our schools are obvious.

What Makes Good Teaching Series: A Play-By-Play: In some ways, teaching is like sports: there’s a lot that’s unseen by the untrained eye. That’s one reason post-game analysis is popular. So why not do that for something vital to our future? Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen used to be a teacher and a teacher-trainer. As part of our series What Makes Good Teaching, he offers a play-by-play from right here in Birmingham.

Birmingham Schools Meet First Part of State Deadline; Local System Submits a Detailed Cost-Reduction Plan: The Birmingham School System has met the first part of a state-mandated deadline by submitting a detailed cost-cutting plan. But the state still could take over the local system's fiances soon. Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen had this late-breaking web exclusive.

State BOE Votes to Step Up Involvement in B'ham Schools; Total Takeover of Finances Could Be Around The Corner: The Alabama State Board of Education today voted 6-0 to have the state oversee the Birmingham School Board's day-to-day financial operations, specifically its implementation of the cost-cutting plan the local board approved Tuesday evening. And according to the resolution passed today, if the local board hasn't pushed ahead with the financial recovery plan to the state's satisfaction by June 22, or doesn't approve those cuts at its meeting scheduled for June 26, the state will take total control of the district's purse strings.

In Risky Move, B'ham School Board Rejects State Cost-Cutting Plan: In a 5-4 vote along increasingly familiar lines, the Birmingham Board of Education rejected a cost-cutting plan proposed by the state team investigating the local board. Ironically, the defiant move could result in a loss of autonomy if the state education department decides to take over the district. Our Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen has this web-exclusive report.

Expanding Horizons and Futures: Six Birmingham Students Headed For China: Lack of exposure to other kinds of people, languages, and ideas is a disadvantage for poor rural and urban students across the country. Inner-city Birmingham is no exception, but six local high school students are hoping to become exceptional ... in more ways than one. Thanks to their hard work and the efforts of a first-year teacher, they're planning to study in China this summer. Our Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen has the story.

Craig Witherspoon Controversy: Birmingham School Superintendent Craig Witherspoon could very suddenly lose his job just after 5 p.m. today. In this web-exclusive report, Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen explains how this surprising situation came about.

Citizens Rally for Craig Witherspoon: About 150 people gathered in Birmingham's Linn Park today to show their support for embattled schools chief Craig Witherspoon. The superintendent's job security has been in doubt over the last two days especially, after the Board of Education on Thursday suddenly called a special meeting for the very next day on the topic of his contract, knowing two staunch Witherspoon supporters would be out of town. Dan Carsen has this web-exclusive follow-up story.

Wilkerson Middle Defies the Odds: It's easy to focus on what's wrong with education. And it's no secret that Birmingham Schools, like other urban districts around the nation, face serious problems. But there are schools here that are achieving success regardless. From the Southern Education Desk at WBHM, Dan Carsen has much more.

Carsen & Ott Talk Guns on Campus, Awards, Benefit Cuts, and Corporate Tax Incentives: This week's chat covers the positive, the negative, and the in-between, or at least the "in the eye of the beholder": politics makes an appearance once again.

Carsen & Ott Talk Storm Damage, Budgets, and Public Servant Salaries: Severe thunderstorms, hail, and multiple tornadoes raked Alabama last week. Were any schools hit? And are there figurative storms on the horizon for the state's Education Trust Fund? In this fifth installment of a weekly series, WBHM's Tanya Ott starts the interview by asking about storm damage and an incredible recovery. The education budget may not be so lucky.

Carsen & Ott Talk Syringes, Pistols, and Space Archaeology: Alabama legislators have their hands full with a variety of education bills, including ones that would authorize charter schools and offer credit for creationism classes for public high schoolers. But for this week’s chat with Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen, we move outside of Montgomery for some interesting education news. He tells WBHM’s Tanya Ott that some of it is positive, some of it not – beginning right here in Birmingham.

Dan Carsen Speaks with Education Icon Diane Ravitch: Diane Ravitch has been a key figure in American education for decades. The prolific author and outspoken advocate was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to the Secretary of Education under the first President Bush. She was a pioneer in the accountability movement, but has since made friends and enemies by changing some of her views. She spoke with Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen, who asked her about issues hot in Alabama right now, including charter schools, charter advocate Michelle Rhee, and much more.

Carsen & Ott Talk Charters, Creationism, Pepper Spray: When it comes to education in Alabama, it's safe to say there's enough going on to keep a journalist busy. In our third installment of a new weekly series, Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen sits down with WBHM News Director Tanya Ott to break down some of it.

A Constitutional Law Scholar on Alabama's Bill to Allow Public School Credit for Religious Electives: A bill in the Alabama House would allow public school students to get elective credit for religious instruction. Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen recently interviewed Blaine Galliher, the bill’s sponsor and a proponent of such “release time” programs. The programs would have to be approved by local school boards and would not cost the schools any money. And, Galliher said, students would not be coerced in any way. But a day later, Dan discussed the bill with legal scholar and religious liberty advocate Douglas Laycock...

Interview with Ala. Rep. Blaine Galliher, Sponsor of Bill to Allow "Release Time" Religious Instruction in Public High Schools: The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But does that mean public schools can give credit to students for creationism classes? What if they’re off campus and privately funded? A bill in the state Legislature would authorize school boards to set up such “release time” programs. Dan Carsen speaks with its sponsor, House Rules Committee Chairman Blaine Galliher.

Dan Carsen and Tanya Ott Talk School Budgets, Caffeine, Controversy: It’s week two of the 2012 legislative session in Alabama and job creation and budget shortfalls continue to take center stage. Officials predict a budget gap in the many hundreds of millions of dollars – meaning cutbacks, possible layoffs, and other belt-tightening measures. WBHM’s Dan Carsen of the Southern Education Desk tells Tanya Ott that the budget crisis in non-education departments could pit the Education Trust Fund against everything else.

Interview with Michelle Rhee, controversial education reformer. After closing schools and firing staff in Washington D.C., she was featured on the cover of Time magazine holding a broom. Emily Schultz, Governor Robert Bentley's new education policy advisor, who also favors charter schools and other reforms, worked for Rhee in D.C.

Rhee's advocacy group is now in Alabama pushing for charter schools and new ways to evaluate teachers, among other things.

Legislative Preview: Carsen Interviewed on Potentially Game-Changing Session

When lawmakers returned to Montgomery for the beginning of the 2012 legislative session, they had a lot of meaty issues to deal with, from tweaks to the state's immigration law to a potential $400 million budget shortfall. They're also tackling several education reform initiatives, and as the Southern Education Desk's Dan Carsen told WBHM's Tanya Ott, this year looks to be a lot like last year, with plenty of controversial issues on the table.

Charter Schools: None in Ala., but May Change Soon: In a national ranking on charter schools, Alabama did not even come in last. That's because the state is one of only nine that doesn't have charter schools, but that could change, and soon.

Bards of Birmingham: When schools cut their budgets, arts and theater programs are often the first to go. But in Birmingham, a youth acting group is still teaching lessons to any kid with the chops to get on stage. It's also pushing boundaries in a way that might make some theater traditionalists and parents uncomfortable.

Officers Pepper-Spraying Birmingham Students: Depending on the details, recent images of police pepper-spraying protesters have triggered varying levels of outrage. But here in Birmingham, police are regularly pepper-spraying students while they're in school.

Despite Successful Fundraising, Imagination Library Still On Hold: Though the United Way of Central Alabama surpassed its 2011 fundraising goal, a popular early literacy program is still on hold in Jefferson County.

The Private Eye Program: What's common to all academic subjects? Well...thinking. "Critical thinking" is a buzzword for a reason, regardless of whether educators think today's students do it well enough: it's basic to what students are meant to do in school. But can you actually teach thinking?

Plaintiffs to Appeal Lynch vs. Alabama Ruling: The plaintiffs in the landmark Lynch vs. Alabama property tax case are appealing a federal judge's recent ruling that seemed sympathetic but ultimately went against them.

Dan Carsen Interviewed Re Immigration Law on "The Takeaway": Education reporter Dan Carsen is interviewed by PRI's "The Takeaway"about the latest immigration-law dust-up between the U.S. Department of Justice and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.

Strange Rebuffs DOJ Again: In the latest chapter of a blunt back-and-forth over Alabama's immigration law, state Attorney General Luther Strange on Friday again rebuffed the U.S. Department of Justice over access to student information.

IMMIGRATION LAW: State AG Balks at DOJ Request: The U.S. Department of Justice, concerned about the new immigration law, has requested enrollment data from district superintendents across Alabama. But it's unclear when or whether that information will be provided, as state Attorney General Luther Strange balked at the request.

Lynch v. Alabama Ruling: A federal judge recently ruled on a case that has implications for how schools are funded and taxes are assessed across Alabama.

Religious Exemptions to School Vaccine Requirements on Rise: Today's students and most of their parents are too young to remember a time when epidemics crippled and killed millions. And there's a reason we've forgotten: vaccines. Even so, a small but growing number of Alabama students are getting religious exemptions to school immunization requirements. The reasons are sometimes religious, sometimes philosophical, and sometimes health-based.

Immigration Law and Schools: Trying to Calm Fears: Across Alabama, people have been marching to spotlight children affected by the state's strict new immigration law. The measure requires schools to record the immigration status of newly enrolled students. After more than 2,000 Hispanic students were absent from Alabama schools early last week, activists and educators are reaching out to families worried about what the law will mean for them.

Immigration Law and Schools: Students, parents, and school officials are reacting to Alabama's new immigration law, the toughest in the nation. The law went into effect last week after a federal judge upheld many of its most controversial provisions, including a requirement that schools check the immigration status of newly enrolled students. And that extra layer of administrative responsibility may pale in comparison with the fear it's engendered.

School Transportation Safety - Part Three: Walking School Bus: What has bright colors, traffic signs, dozens of feet, and provides exercise, companionship, and a safe way to school? It's a new community-oriented health and safety strategy called a walking school bus.

School Transportation Safety - Part Two: Rural Challenges: Safe transportation to and from school is a challenge across the country. Roughly 800 children die making that trip each year, and the dangers vary by location. The rural south has its own challenges, some preventable, some not.

School Transportation Safety - Part One: Urban Trains: It's no secret that kids trying to succeed in school face hurdles. But for students in many of Birmingham's urban neighborhoods, serious safety challenges start before they even get to school.

Jones Valley Tutorial: Birmingham City Schools kitchen staff get a tutorial on nutrition and locally grown, sustainable food at Jones Valley Urban Farm. They picked herbs and vegetables and helped bury stereotypes in the process.

Defibrillators: All Alabama public high, junior high, and middle schools now have defibrillators. So, in a state with tightening education budgets, how did this come about?

A.P. Exam Update: At Alabama public high schools that first implemented the A+ College Ready Program in 2010-2011, A.P. exam pass rates increased by 111 percent. The pass rate for minority students increased even more. But how did that happen?

Teach for America in Alabama: Everyone knows that schools report on student progress at regular intervals. The national service program Teach For America has now been in Alabama for one full school year. And as it gears up to send our state more than 50 new teachers, it makes sense to ask, how are they doing?

Polluted Schools: The Walter Coke plant in North Birmingham makes high-grade coke used in blast furnaces and foundries. But according to a class-action lawsuit, that's not all it makes: property owners allege carcinogens from the plant have drastically lowered their property values. But for people living and going to school in this industrial area, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Alabama's New Immigration Law Worrying School Staff, Parents: Supporters and opponents of Alabama's new immigration law generally agree it's the most severe and far-reaching in the nation. Some educators are concerned because the law makes schools determine students' immigration status, and in some cases, their parents' immigration status.

Driver's Education on the Decline: If you're over 40 and you grew up in the United States, there's a good chance you took driver's education classes in your high school. But you can't say the same for today's young drivers.

Boman interview: Alabama state representative Daniel Boman has done something rare: he has left the Republican Party to become a Democrat. The reasons, he says, are Republican stances on educational and other issues.

Closing Corporate Tax Loopholes: In Alabama and other states, education budgets are being squeezed. Teachers and support staff are facing layoffs and cuts in benefits and supply money. Seen against that background, it's not surprising that states are looking harder at a tricky but increasingly attractive source of funding.

Lynch versus Alabama: Most court cases focus on a given event - an act, a crime, an accident. But a tax-policy trial in federal court recently put more than a century of Alabama history on the stand. As WBHM's Dan Carsen reports, in Lynch vs. Alabama, the plaintiffs allege the state's property tax system and its effect on schools are direct outgrowths of the overt racism of the past.

Greg Mortenson Interview: Bestselling author and internationally recognized education advocate Greg Mortenson spoke with Dan Carsen, WBHM's education reporter, at Birmingham's Samford University shortly before media reports questioned Mortenson's financial dealings and his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the interview, Mortenson shares his thoughts on issues facing education in the South, including teacher pay and teacher tenure. Mortenson tells Carsen that education is at a real turning point in the South and across the U.S.

Main/top photo by B. Brown, courtesy of Flickr