Mobile Says "Yes, We Can"

Community involvement helped a school system turn things around.
Allison Barnes

Seven years ago the Mobile County Public School system was in trouble―but fortunately for thousands of parents, teachers, and especially students―area residents said Yes We Can.

Stewards for the Community
“We had a negative reputation, and we’d earned it,” says former Brazier Elementary School principal Merrier Jackson. When she arrived at the school in 2002, Merrier found it overrun with problems including a lack of supplies, low teacher and student morale, and unkempt grounds.

“I told everybody that we couldn’t have an overgrown lawn; it didn’t reflect who we were or represent the children we served,” she says. “I see myself as a steward for the community. Parents send me their children, and as a mother I know there is nothing more important a parent can give.”

Merrier wasn’t alone in her concerns. A year earlier, Mobile County taxpayers had passed a referendum approving extra money to help the more than 65,000 students and 100 schools in the beleaguered system. Aided by the funds and working with the school system, the Mobile Area Education Foundation developed a program called the Yes We Can Initiative.

Now in its seventh year, the innovative idea brings teachers, parents, businesspeople, church congregations, and civic organizations together to discuss and get involved in ways to improve Mobile-area public schools.

Yes Means Success
“Yes We Can is really about creating genuine public ownership for our schools,” says Carolyn Akers, the foundation’s executive director. In addition to enlisting help from parents, teachers, and school officials, Carolyn also encourages local businesses to sign on as corporate sponsors.

Now parents, teachers, and local residents meet regularly to study similar programs and come up with ways to apply their successes to Mobile. Parents are encouraged to work with their children at home and lend a helping hand at school; teachers and principals look for new ways to spark their students’ imaginations.

“It’s like a movement,” says Carolyn. “Once it got going, things began to happen. In 2001, we were at the bottom of every list in Alabama, with only 27 schools meeting state standards. Now we have 85 making the grade.”

Spreading the Word
Back at Brazier Elementary, things just keep getting better. “I believe the children feel really good about being a part of Brazier now,” says Veronica Coleman, the new principal. “We’re a transformed school.”

Merrier has seen similar transformations at other schools. Last year she was named principal at Mae Eanes Middle School, which, along with Brazier, recently received the governor’s award for academic achievement. She also sees Yes We Can expanding, as officials in Birmingham; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Columbia, South Carolina, are planning similar programs. “It shows how far we’ve come,” Merrier says. “And it helps us to know where we’re going.”

For more information visit www.maef.net, or call (251) 476-0002.

The ABC’s of Yes We Can
In 2001 Mobile County voters approved the first tax increase for their public schools in 40 years, and Yes We Can was born. Under the direction of the Mobile Area Education Foundation, the grass roots campaign brought together some 1,400 educators, parents, students and businesspeople, who developed a citizen-run plan to improve the schools. The plan sets goals each school must reach in the areas of student achievement, district and school leadership, communications, governance, and equity. The foundation works with system administrators to help each school identify possible problems and reach the goals.

"Mobile Says "Yes, We Can"" is from the February 2008 issue of Alabama Living: People & Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in Alabama.