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After two tough years, Tuscaloosa City Schools ready to reach new heights – Tuscaloosa Magazine

Even though it may sound like a cliche, the truth remains that the massive splash from the COVID-19 pandemic has cast waves and ripples that continue to wash against all shores, leaving indelible marks.
“When you look kind of in our rear-view mirror, certainly these have been two complex years in public education,” said Mike Daria, superintendent of Tuscaloosa City Schools. “But I am still really proud of what our teachers and our leaders and our staff accomplished.”
After growing through those changing and challenging days, he believes the system is stronger for 2022-23. In some ways, 2021-22 presented more, or at least different, struggles from 2020-21, when the first adjustments were being made, on the fly, to virtual and combination schooling. That’s largely because, like many, TCS hoped the worst would be past, only for Omicron to rear its ugly viral head.
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“It was a tough year, and in many ways, it was tougher than the year before,” Daria said. “Organizationally and mentally, we were prepared for a better year last year, based on the summer before, when it seemed we were back to somewhat normal. COVID had decreased immensely.”
As TCS prepped for fall of 2021, the thought was schools would be back to something like normal, without virtual education’s requirements.
“What happened was the opposite of that, in so many ways,” he said. “We got hit with COVID; teachers, bus drivers, operations personnel were out regularly… We were up to 50 percent fill rates for substitutes, with a large number of absences on a daily basis.
“That hurt us academically, and for our teachers, it was fatiguing. If a sub didn’t show up, somebody had to cover that class. We had principals in classrooms teaching, because they just didn’t have anybody else.”
But teams were tenacious, and persevered, he said, even though forced to close for a couple of days to catch up, which is obviously not ideal.
“So I feel we’re stronger than ever because we went through that very tough time,” Daria said. “I’m just so much more optimistic this year. We’re really focused” on a return to something like normal.
The new normal includes continued implementation of A Focus on Excellence, a strategic plan launched in 2021.
Guided by 18 months of input from teachers, students, administrators, parents, board members and other concerned parties, and teaming with accreditation agency COGNIA, the TCS’ A Focus on Excellence has been constructed around four themes, each with its own scales for achievement.
Those four pillars are:
• Student success, with equity and access
• Stakeholder engagement
• Safe and supportive learning environment
• Organizational effectiveness and efficiency.
According to TCS’ 2021-22 annual report, targets include integrating literacy across all disciplines; increasing math proficiency and growth through STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and student-based activities; more college-level offerings through the advanced placement or international baccalaureate programs, or dual-enrollment courses; and alternative pathways for virtual students seeking blended or online learning.
For employees, the plan calls for implementing professional learning communities, and ongoing performance-based training.
From the 2021-22 school year, 595 students graduated, 236 from Northridge, 137 from Central, and 222 from Paul W. Bryant.
Five TCS students were named National Merit Scholarship finalists, all from Northridge High: Gabriel Feng, John Worden, James B. Perdue, Vivian Sui, and Ga Eun Jeong. Only 7,500 students are chosen as National Merit finalists, roughly the top 0.5 percent of the 1.5 million who take the PSAT test in their junior years.
One of the benefits of attending high school in a city rich with three colleges — the University of Alabama, Shelton State Community College, and Stillman College — is that the dual enrollment classes, bolstered by assistance from the city’s Elevate plan, set students up with college credits before they even graduate high school. Some students are walking at graduation with 15, 18 or 21 college credits, Daria said.
“When they get eyes on what they can do,” he said, “it’s a game-changer.”
One student, 15-year-old LeeAnna Roberts, received both her high school and associate’s diplomas on the same day, Aug. 6, 2021, having begun dual-enrollment classes in ninth grade, all the while maintaining 4.0 GPAs from both Central High and Shelton State. She’s moving on to UA on an academic scholarship, forging ahead with plans to become an orthopedic surgeon while also earning a master’s in business administration.
One Tuscaloosa city school, Woodland Forrest Elementary, became STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) certified by COGNIA. That school joined University Place Elementary as two of “… only a handful of schools in our state that have STEM certification,” Daria said. “What’s unique about Woodland Forrest, it’s STEM for all students, STEM lessons incorporated in the primary instruction.”
In February, UA donated $55,000 to Woodland Forrest Elementary to fund an initiative called “Million Girl Moonshot,” for girls in grades four through six collaborating on STEM activities after school. As a reward for their participation, the girls earn a trip to NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville. UA’s teaming with both Woodland Forrest and the Alberta School of Fine Arts to help create more STEM-literate girls, in hopes they’ll continue into related disciplines.
Eight middle school students developed science projects at the 2022 University of Alabama Center for Community-Based Partnerships’ STEM Showcase, winning awards from within nine categories, each judged by research, design, execution, creativity, and presentation.
Bryant High senior India Franklin became a state winner for the National Center for Women and Information Technology Aspirations Award program, in March. One of her teachers, Destiny Langford, earned NCWIT honorable mention for computer science education.
Three Woodland Forrest students won the state Governor’s App Challenge, elementary category, in April. Their app was a shopping boutique for clothing and accessories. The winners include Lamisse Eldani, Addisyn Hill and Parris Melton.
The Northridge High math team won two national titles at the Perennial Math National Championships in May. The Northridge Jaguars’ girls indoor track team earned its second consecutive state championship, and the Jaguar boys’ tennis team won its first state title. Students from Northridge and Bryant won individual track and wrestling titles; signed to college scholarships in football, basketball, track, soccer, baseball, tennis, wrestling, volleyball and equestrian endeavors were 20 students from each of the three high schools.
The TCS String Ensemble, with students from all three high schools, won first place in the entire orchestra division at the World Bridges Heritage Chicago Festival in April. Students from TCTA’s BCN-TV class networked with film professionals at the April Central Film Festival in Springfield, Mo., and brought home first place in the category of short film produced on site.
While all the students and facilities in the system are working on character-building, 13 have begun participating directly in a review for certification, the 2022 School of Character. Each works on 11 criteria, including providing students with opportunities for moral action; fostering shared leadership; and engaging families and communities in the character-building effort. Each can showcase and demonstrate, and be chosen for two levels, state and national.
In January, Westlawn Middle, Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary and TMS Middle, were each awarded State School of Character awards by
“It’s a lens through which to view or work, and be better,” Daria said. “Ten other schools are going through that process now. … Learning essential skills of the workplace, so much of that is rooted in the character of the worker. It’s essential to our becoming strong contributors to local industry.
“These values have to be embedded in the school, where a student can articulate their learning of character, can demonstrate their understanding. There has to be evidence to show that it permeates the entire school, and that it’s not just a one-off program. We have to demonstrate that it takes root, and withstands the test of time; not just that we talk about character on a given day.”
This emphasis stems from the motivating idea that character stands at the root of education.
“When our students walk across the stage, it’s not just about the diploma,” Daria said. “It’s about them being prepared for what’s out there, where they’ll have to navigate an uncertain future, frankly.”
While TCS hopes things run in smooth order for 2022-2023, some of that uncertainty lingers in the present. Daria noted this year’s seniors have not yet experienced a full year of what most think of as normal school days.
“So much of the high school experience is not just the learning, but the social part,” he said. “How do we get back to resetting that school culture, and that school pride, things that contribute to that, like pep rallies. Are we going to have a prom, or not have a prom? Are we going to have a graduation?
“I do believe we’re getting to that reset. We know much more about how to work with COVID. We’re better and smarter than we were than when we started.”
On the administrative side, there are some new system principals and assistant principals. Teacher shortages remain, with about 22 vacancies, as of late last week.
“We’ll fill most of those, but maybe not all,” Daria said. “We’re looking at ways to make sure we support our teachers at really high levels.”
Not unaware of horrifying news from Uvalde and other schools, TCS is also currently looking to hire a safety specialist.
“Somebody who kind of lives, eats and breathes school safety on a daily basis,” Daria said. Former law enforcement might be one entry level, but it could also be a person with leadership experience in school administration.
“They could also come out of private sector, if they’ve got experience in safety for buildings that are like our schools.” TCS is also working with the Tuscaloosa Police Department, and other first responders, to make sure all its current safety processes and procedures are in place.
All the schools have police officers, thanks to the support of the mayor, the city and TPD, he said. For the elementary schools, the city’s just increased the pay scale for auxiliary officers.
“We have seen an uptick in students’ disruptive behaviors,” Daria said, “and some of it is caused by the impact of COVID, with in the past 40 percent of students at home, teachers out due to COVID….
“Teachers, and our schools, have dealt with larger than normal problems in student discipline. So we’re making sure we’re really process-driven, safe and orderly, so students can go and learn in a safe environment. We’re taking a pretty tough line with discipline.”
Students need to come to school prepared to learn, and the schools need to be prepared to offer all the support they might need, Daria said, including social services, mental health services, counseling services and nursing services.
As part of that drive, the coming New Heights Community Center, in the old Stillman Heights building, will partner with support agencies in town for the full-on support for students and families. 
“This is exciting. It really addresses the whole student, and the whole family,” he said. “These pre-existing services, we’re giving them this (branch) location at little or no cost.”
The New Heights ground floor has about 10 classrooms, to serve as an alternative school, and upstairs will be community agencies, focusing on mental health, social services and more.
 “The facility is mostly prepared, so we’ll be moving in over the next couple of months,” Daria said.
Even with all the uncertainty and struggles of last year, TCS remains committed to the strategic plan, which lead the “great strides” of accreditation, honors, awards and other recognitions.
“Our commitment to our graduates: We want them to either be enlisted, employed, or enrolled. We want that diploma to have value, whether they’re looking at a college or a career, we want them to already have credentials in their hands, walking across our graduation stages,” he said.
“This year, and in future years, we’re making sure we’ve got confirmation of their next step. (Last graduation), close to 100 percent of our students showed us enrollment letters. Shelton State did a fast track with us, and we also partnered with Skilled Trades of West Alabama (an apprenticeship program for construction industries).” 
Combined with the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy, and other summer programs and experiences, the students are feeling the notion that they can accomplish at high levels.
“Some have to see it and really feel it,” Daria said. “When you walk in, and you’ve already got 18 hours of experience under your belt, you’ve demonstrated an ability to be successful. It instills confidence. It removes the questions.”


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