Story by Phyllis Jones, Speakin’ Out News senior staff writer
Michelle Watkins is currently serving her second term (5th year) as a Huntsville City School Board Representative for District 1. She is proud of the changes that have been made in her district, especially school improvements, community collaborations, parents being heard and student needs being met. She also addresses issues such as budgets, hiring practices and various mandates that may not be as popular.
When asked about the budget, Watkins shared, “The budget for Huntsville City Schools is distributed evenly across each district. Everyone has the same programs and opportunities.” For FY 21, state revenues are $169,240,772.65 and federal revenues are $69,218,653.01, totaling $238,459,425.66. However, Watkins’ district consists of several Title I schools, which allows her to receive additional federal funding. The additional funding received, for Title I schools, is used to ensure that at-risk students (who normally come from lower income families) will have an opportunity to have resources to meet educational goals. Watkins is confident that Huntsville City Schools District is in a good place, even though some improvements are needed.
Watkins is continuously making footprints in her district and collaborating with organizations to support the students she serves. Just recently, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement (NOBLE) made a $250 donation to Watkins, to help purchase school supplies for the students in her district. A grateful and honored Watkins stated, “NOBLE wants to establish a partnership and plan programs on a larger scale. This is the beginning of many things to come.”
In any city school district, there is always the concern in regards to the number of African-Americans in administrative roles. For Huntsville City Schools, from the 2014- 2015 school year to the 2019-2020 school year, the number of African American principals increased from 13 to 21. As documented in the Consent Order (Case 5:63-cv00109-MHH / Document 698 / filed 11/16/2020), the percentage of African-American principals (47%) and assistant principals (53%) is now higher than the percentage of African-American certified teachers (28%). Additionally, the percentage of African-American principals and assistant principals is higher than white principals (44%) and assistant principals (44%). Watkins says she feels good about the number of African Americans filling these roles and is pleased with the overall direction in which district is headed.
Prior to the pandemic, there were some schools who had an “Alert” status. Since the district is still waiting to receive test score results, Watkins mentioned that it will be hard to determine where those schools currently stand. She anticipates that the schools’ status will remain the same or increase, but do not anticipate any school going back to a “failing school” status.
Now speaking of failing, the Alabama Literacy Act goes into effect this school year. In essence, if a third grader doesn’t read on his/her grade level, the student may potentially be retained and not promoted to the fourth grade. Watkins doesn’t agree with Governor Kay Ivey’s mandate. “This bill was passed, but there wasn’t any funding passed along to support the bill. It was left up to the local school districts to figure it out. Any bill issued on this level should have resources to go along with it.” Watkins went on to share that Huntsville City Schools has a collaborative classroom reading program, which they are getting good results. Extra funds received are also being used to design extra reading programs for the students. She also encourages parents to reinforce what their children are being taught at school and to encourage reading during breaks when school is not in session.
The discussion of the Critical Race Theory is a sensitive subject for some. Watkins, whose grandmother picked cotton, insists that the truth about race relations should be told. “People must realize that they didn’t wake up one day and America was built on its own. They need to accept the fact that African Americans played a major role in cultivating America. It’s going to be left to us to teach our children about their rich heritage and where they came from. Respect our race.”
Now on to another sensitive topic…mask mandates. Due to the rise in the number of Covid-19 cases, Watkins and her colleagues decided that the mask mandate would the best line of defense for the teachers and students. When schools reopened August 4th, Madison County had 191 new cases. By August 15th, there were 378 new cases and a total of 2,177 cases. “I respect everyone’s opinion and their rights, however, at the same time we have to think about the safety and the welfare of the students and our employees.” Watkins goes on to state how vaccinations aren’t anything new. She recalled how as a child she had to be vaccinated to attend school and that there are still certain vaccinations children are required to get today. “I don’t want someone’s death to be on my hands. If the numbers decrease, the board will go back and readdress the mask mandate,” Watkins expressed.
Watkins and her colleagues have a harmonious relationship, which has improved over the years. Even though they may not always agree, they have a common goal to promote education and work for the betterment of the Huntsville City Schools District.