With R.A. Hubbard School landing on the state’s failing schools list this month, community members want action and support from the county superintendent to improve the school and to keep its doors open.
Some want him to show more urgency encouraging students to remain at Hubbard. They have the right to transfer from a failing school under the 2013 Alabama Accountability Act.
Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said his hands are tied and the Alabama State Department of Education advises him and the school board to “remain neutral.”
“We have to do what is best for the students,” he said at community meetings in Town Creek and North Courtland last week. “If kids want to transfer, they can.”
Bobby Diggs, a former school board member and the first vice president of the Lawrence County Chapter of NAACP, said Smith is not trying to boost the school and wants to close it.
“He’s not being transparent,” he said. “Other superintendents of failing schools and the (Alabama Association of School Boards) recommend supporting the failing schools.”
District 1 County Commissioner Jesse Byrd said Smith needs to ease the concerns of the community.
“Is he closing R.A. Hubbard or not?” Byrd said. “Everyone in the valley thinks the school is closing. He needs to come up with a plan to keep the school open. He needs to quit dancing around the issue. People don’t want to sit in turmoil and have to wonder.”
R.A. Hubbard — a grades 7-12 school with 138 students this school year — was labeled “failing” because the academic performance of students as measured by standardized tests was in the bottom 6% of schools statewide in three of the past five years.
According to the state, 18.9% of Hubbard students reached proficiency in reading; 12.1% in math; and 9.6% in science on the state standardized test students took in the spring.
The proficiency numbers for Lawrence County districtwide were 41.5% in reading; 39.1% in math and 31% in science.
The Accountability Act, which mandates the failing school list, and the law that requires the state's Department of Education to issue schools and school districts letter grades are different.
The Accountability Act is a law that helps state officials identify “habitually low-performing schools” and is designed to give students other choices by providing them the opportunity to transfer to a non-failing school.
Hubbard’s academic achievement and academic growth numbers — which are on the report card — were up and the school had a 100% graduation rate. It received a B on its report card. But these numbers do not factor into how the state generates the failing school list.
Smith said low Scantron test results from seventh and eighth graders and ACT scores from 11th graders in the spring were detrimental to R.A. Hubbard. He said the school did well on the state level in college prep rate, graduation rate, chronic absenteeism rate and academic growth, which was the second highest in the state.
“The problem is the way the law is written. Pure academic achievement is one area the school did poorly in,” he said.
Jan Turnbore, president of the Lawrence County NAACP, said it is unfair for a few students not planning to attend college to dictate how the school does overall. He said 19 of the 23 graduates in R.A. Hubbard's 2019 class are now enrolled in college.
“Some students don’t want to go to college,” he said. “They may decide to go into the service or job market. For those, that ACT is not going to be a concern to them. The ACT should not be a barometer on how the school does. They need to poll the students. If you’re not going to college, you should not have to take that test. If you are not going to college you’re not going to focus or care about the ACT.”
Byrd agreed. “The ACT scores don’t reflect the progress,” he said. “They’re not representative of what is going on at the school.”
The Lawrence County school board will send out parental notification letters by Jan. 1 detailing the four state-mandated choices their children have because they are attending a school on the failing list.
• Remain enrolled at R.A. Hubbard;
• Transfer to another school inside the county, in which case the district will be responsible for transporting them to and from the school;
• Transfer to a school outside of the county;
• Or possibly receive a tax break by having their child attend a private school.
The district will not be responsible for transporting the students who opt for the last two choices, Smith said.
Parents have until March 1 to return their choice. Parents not returning their letters will be counted as having opted for their child to stay at R.A. Hubbard.
Turnbore urged the parents at both meetings last week to keep their children at R.A. Hubbard.
Student-athletes electing to leave R.A. Hubbard will be eligible to play immediately at the school they attend, school officials said. Residents at the community meetings expressed concerns that Hatton High coaches would try to recruit R.A. Hubbard athletes.
Smith said declining enrollment is a cause for concern.
In the 2004-2005 school year, R.A. Hubbard and Hazlewood schools collectively had 761 students. This school year, there are 344 students. “That’s a loss in 15 years of 417 students or 55%,” Smith said.
In 2009-2010, the first year after consolidation closed Hazlewood High, enrollment at Hazlewood Elementary and R.A. Hubbard totaled 532 students, down 56 students from the year before. When the International Paper mill in Courtland closed in 2014, enrollment at the schools dropped to 419, including a drop from 275 to 162 at R.A. Hubbard. In the 2015-2016 school year, 139 were enrolled at R.A. Hubbard. That number has stayed flat in the past three years.
Those declining numbers have the cost per student at R.A. Hubbard at $15,881. In comparison, East Lawrence Middle School with its 408 students has a per-pupil cost of $6,662. Smith said the figures include set costs such as utilities and teachers’ salaries divided by the number of students at the school.
“R.A. Hubbard is the highest expenditure in our county,” he said. “When we lose students, our costs increase.”
Will it close?
What enrollment number would result in R.A. Hubbard's closure?
“That’s a million dollar question,” Smith said Friday. “Right now, our school district must get through the process that’s dictated by state law. In the future, we’ll see where the process takes us. R.A. Hubbard is already being significantly funded more than any other school in the district. Any loss of students will mean an increase in local funding expense to keep the same educational level for those students.”
Diggs, a former District 1 school board member, voted to close Hazlewood High School 10 years ago. The system has lost 244 students since the 2009 consolidation, school numbers show.
School board member Christine Garner, representing Hazlewood and R.A. Hubbard schools, said she doesn’t want to see another school closed in the valley.
“It created deep-seated hurt,” she said of the Hazlewood High closing. “Deep-seated hurt that is still there. If this was a bad school, a failing school, I’d say close it. Our kids are getting a good education here. We need the parents behind us.”
Kee Kee Porter, a 2009 graduate of Hazlewood High School, said it would have been a difficult choice to transfer to the rival R.A. Hubbard back then.
“But I think consolidation was a good thing,” said Porter, a star athlete at Hazlewood. “It would have been better to join my rival than to leave the county. It makes the community a better place. I know some of the Hazlewood guys didn’t go to Hubbard because of the rivalry thing. If they had come, Hubbard would have won unlimited titles in sports. People would think we were cheating over here winning so many.”
North Courtland Mayor Riely Evans Sr. said his town will feel a financial pinch if Hubbard closes.
“We need our school to stay open,” he said. “If it closed, it would take a chunk out of our sales tax revenue. When IP closed it really hurt not just this town, but the entire county. We’ll still be here, but it will create more difficult times for us.”