Avondale Elementary Climate Frustrates Parents and Teachers

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Avondale Elementary School, 2012

Dan Carsen

The Birmingham Board of Education has some hiring to do, particularly at one elementary school. Thirty percent of the educators at Avondale Elementary from last year will not be returning. Teachers and parents say the environment at the school was chaotic last year, and they worry about safety and communication. It’s also leading some parents to consider other education options for their children.

Morgan Richardson was president of the Avondale PTA, but this year, she says her children will attend private school.

She says she is an advocate for public education, but she has concerns about Avondale.

In the last school year, there were regular reports of fights; one student brought a BB gun to school, she says. Also, the school eliminated recess for second graders to allow more instructional time, but parents say they were not informed. During the hottest part of the year, the air conditioning in the aging school often did not work.

Parents took their concerns to the principal, but Richardson says they were not pleased with the response.

“It did not seem to be appreciated, and we definitely didn’t see any action on it,” she says.

They went up the chain and met with the other school system leaders, including Superintendent Lisa Herring.

“We were allowed to express our concerns, but we were not communicated with in a way that gave us any resolution,” Richardson says.

Parents weren’t the only ones frustrated.  Three of last year’s third-grade teachers resigned; only one remains.

Current and former Avondale teachers we reached declined to comment publicly, but say privately the environment was chaotic and they didn’t feel supported by the administration.

We reached out to Superintendent Herring, who referred all questions to Avondale Elementary’s principal, Sonya Shingles.

Shingles says she’s heard the criticism and is managing the turnover.

“Every school throughout the country and district deal with turnover rates at the very end of the year,” Shingles says. “Avondale has not had anything significantly, or significant turnover that would impact the school in a negative way. It’s just your normal.”

Shingles says some teachers left for jobs in other industries or because their spouses relocated.

To address the concerns about communication and safety, Shingles says she’s developed a plan for stronger communication and is organizing volunteers as extra eyes and ears around the school.

And she says she is taking some additional steps.

“As the principal, I think it’s very important that I am very visible throughout the day and that I work very closely with Birmingham police to just come by and visit the school just make sure everything is okay,” Shingles says.

Amber Pope, incoming PTA president and former teacher, says she’s focusing on solutions and preparing for the new school year.

“The turnover has happened. Now, going forward, how can we prioritize support for those new teachers, and all teachers?” she says.

Avondale Elementary has the largest percentage of white students among Birmingham City Schools, according to state records.

The influx started in 2012 when about two dozen white middle-class families moved in and decided to send their kids to Avondale instead of private schools. It made news locally and nationally on NPR.

Today, breweries, restaurants, and renovated homes mean rising property values and more people interested in moving to Avondale and Crestwood.

Call it revitalization or gentrification — but the community is changing, and it’s a tension that’s not lost on parents like Pope.  She says sending her kids to a predominately black school is not an experiment.

“As a white person at a mostly minority school, figuring out is what I’m doing helping, or am I marginalizing,” she says. “Am I really bringing people to the table? Should I be the one setting the table?”

August 8 is the first day of school at all Birmingham schools. Avondale principal Sonya Shingles says she’ll fill the time between then and now interviewing potential teachers so the school will be ready for opening day.