A Stake in the Ground: Restructuring the classroom

As part of the state department of education’s quest to redefine its graduates, the ALSDE has come to the realization that the traditional corporate classroom is not suited to all areas of Alabama.

That was part of the message Alabama State Department of Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice delivered to the Demopolis Rotary Club during his address last week.

Bice pointed to certain high schools within the state that have adopted a more organic learning environment as a means of producing graduates capable of contributing to the business and industry paradigms in their respective regions.

One such initiative has taken place at Winterboro High School, where teachers and administrators have partnered with outside industry to conduct wholesale changes of the learning environment and rapidly reverse an alarming dropout rate in the process.

“It won’t sound like the high school that most of us went to, which is probably the biggest obstacle standing in our way. We want it to look like the one we went to and we’re serving a whole new group of students,” Bice said of the changes that have occurred at Winterboro. “From the outside it looks like an old rock school. On the inside, it is one of the most innovative programs I’ve seen. They realized that their students weren’t engaged in learning. They were dropping out of school quickly. So they realized they had to do something different.”

The approach adopted at Winterboro led to a complete restructuring of the education model, the departure of approximately 75 percent of the school’s faculty and an entirely renewed focus among the school’s student body.

“They came in and tore down walls between classrooms in the school so no longer is math and science and social studies and English taught in little kingdoms we call classrooms,” Bice said. “All their learning happens around a real world project that’s provided directly from business and industry and, in this case, Honda. They have real problems that they need solved. They go to Winterboro High School and the math teachers, the science teachers, the social studies teachers, the English teachers plan their instruction interdisciplinary wise around solving that problem.”

What has resulted from the partnership is a learning environment that holds a striking resemblance to the atmosphere in which students will be asked to function in the secular jobs of their respective futures.

“They’ve created this learning environment now that looks like where kids are going to function when they leave high school,” Bice said. “You don’t realize that math and science and English and social studies is being taught because it’s not being taught traditionally. It’s all being infused into the product. Their student handbook looks like the personnel handbook from Honda, so they begin to learn what the real world looks like and what those expectations are.”

As a direct result of the initiative, the dropout rate at Winterboro has dwindled to zero with the school’s attendance rate hovering around 100 percent and discipline referrals having become almost nonexistent.

“All it took was a leader that was willing to think about school differently,” Bice said.

The success of Winterboro and other programs that have attempted to restructure the traditional classroom into more of an organic learning environment is made possible by the long-awaited ALSDE realization that legislation has little place in education.

“The last thing that we’re doing, which is heresy in a bureaucracy, but the part that excites me the most, is doing away with rules and regulations that have held schools captive forever,” Bice said. “Unless you were under a rock last year, you probably heard this conversation around charter schools in the state of Alabama. It failed. But, if we were real smart, we would listen to that conversation and take away from it some learnings that could help us and apply it to all schools.”

Bice pointed out that the greatest appeal of charter schools has been their inherent ability to cater to the need of the regions they serve, a feature that Alabama public schools can now duplicate thanks to the ALSDE’s willingness to be more flexible in its regulations.

“We’ve now put in place a rule that says that if Demopolis High School finds a rule or regulation that the State Department of Education has in place that’s standing in the way of you doing something aspirational and innovative for your students and you can show us how it is standing in your way, we’ll remove it as long as you’ve set clear standards of where you expect the outcomes to be when finish that,” Bice said. “We’ve got schools all across the state that have jumped on this.”


Part three of a five-part series on the changing face of Alabama’s education system. The series is taken from an address state superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice gave to the Demopolis Rotary Club last week. Stories will be posted at noon each day.