To learn more about The Alabama Education Lab and receive notifications about stories and events, sign up for its newsletter, Ed Chat.
The state is investigating a Talladega school district as high school students continue to protest in support of their principal, whose contract was not renewed last week.
The Talladega City Board of Education voted 4-1 last week to not renew employment contracts for three of its six principals, including Darius Williams of Talladega High School; Shari Dye, who is retiring from Houston Elementary School; and Nicole Korreckt, a former library specialist who was named principal of CL Salter Elementary School in 2020.
Principal shuffles are not unusual, but in Talladega, many decried the changes and asked the district to keep Williams on. Parents and community members praised his work and started a petition to keep him. Students referred to their principal as a “father figure” and said they felt he had been unfairly removed from a high school that he had helped to improve.
“There were times where I wanted to give up on school, and he’d tell me, ‘Keep going, keep pushing, you got this, you almost through,’ and stuff like that,” said senior Chalyria Pointer, who said Williams tutored her in his spare time to keep her from filing geometry.
“If it wasn’t for him,” Pointer said. “I’d probably be somewhere I wouldn’t want to be right now.”
Pointer was one of at least 25 Talladega High School students who walked out of class March 29 to protest the board’s decision. Throughout the week, that number grew to about 50 as groups of students, parents, and at least one teacher marched from a nearby neighborhood to the front of the central office.
“Doc Stay, Lee Go,” and “No Doc, No Peace,” they chanted in reference to Williams and the current superintendent Quintin Lee, while holding signs that read “We Want Doc” and “Save Our School.”
Meanwhile, state officials say they are offering guidance and support to the district, which put on an e-learning day March 30 to quell concerns after the vote. The state does not typically get involved in personnel decisions, but leaders said they’re worried about lost instruction and are investigating a potential disruption of 11th grade ACT testing – a disturbance that could threaten district funding.
State superintendent Eric Mackey told AL.com that the district had logged a “probable test administration issue” after the first walkout that Tuesday, though students said their 11th grade peers didn’t participate in the protest.
“This is the last opportunity for these students to take the ACT, and there’s not another administration,” he said. “That’s a serious violation. It’s inappropriate for those kinds of things to happen. ”
Williams, a local graduate and former math teacher at Talladega High School, was hired as the school’s principal in 2014 and was a finalist for superintendent last year.
The high school, which in the past decade has seen decreasing enrollment and growing numbers of economically disadvantaged students, struggles to compete with surrounding high schools in test scores. But despite the challenges, the school has seen growth in several key areas since Williams’ hire, according to state and district data.
The district reported an overall decline in total disciplinary infractions at the high school from 2013 to 2019 (from about 149 to 115), with a steep decrease in 2020 – likely due to hybrid learning.
According to the school’s improvement plan, the school used several methods to decrease chronic student absences (which remained at around 25% throughout Williams’ tenure), and students say the principal has shortened break times and established strict hallway rules to limit fights and other disciplinary issues.
Others pointed to recent championship wins and new dual enrollment offerings as examples of ways that he positively impacted the school.
“He always wanted the best for us,” said Sophomore Summer Merritt. “He’s a day brightener. He has a really nice heart and you can just tell it makes people respect him and not want to be disrespectful to him. ”
Among all other performance measures, the school saw the greatest increase in college and career readiness rates – from 18% in 2015 to 72% before the pandemic hit, according to state data.
But like much of the rest of the state, the school struggled to recover from pandemic learning loss.
Test scores reached a new low last year, when the state switched assessments. Recent state data shows that, after some gains before the pandemic, math proficiency rates plummeted to 2% last year, and just 5% of students were proficient in English and language arts.
‘Not the time’
At the board meeting Tuesday, Williams addressed apparent concerns about a transcript issue in 2018, saying officials had denied his request for a 12-month counselor who could input that data, as well as requests for more teachers.
“As a result of that, how do we expect test scores to improve?” Williams asked the board last week, alleging that a prior superintendent had said that the board had previously considered firing Williams for personal reasons.
Williams also claimed that district officials gave no evidence of unsatisfactory performance. State law requires school boards give principals a written notice of their reasons for contract nonrenewal.
No board members commented on the vote at the public meeting, and superintendent Quentin Lee did not answer a request for comment related to Williams’ claims that he did not receive an evaluation or the specific support that he asked for. Williams also declined to answer questions after consulting with an attorney.
But a week after the vote, students and community members continue to press for answers, and they worry that Williams’ termination will not bode well for the district or town.
Former mayor Larry Barton said Williams was a sign of stability in the system, which has gone through four different superintendents in the past decade and narrowly avoided state takeover in 2015. He said he supports the students who are peacefully protesting and fears school board politics are ruining the town’s reputation.
“It’s giving the city a black eye,” he said. “I’ve been in this town for 82 years, and I’m proud of Talladega, but I’m very disappointed [with] whats going on. ”
Rev. Timothy Caldwell of Bellview Baptist Church also questioned the board’s decision, citing achievement data and a petition that, as of Monday, had been signed by more than 300 people to keep Williams at the school. And even if there were concerns about Williams’ track record, he said, now was “not the time” to replace him. Ongoing impacts of the pandemic and gun violence, he said, feel more pressing.
“Here we are with shootings on a weekly basis, and you go and remove a principal that is connected with the kids,” he said. “They’re taking away a very important element of us trying to stabilize the city.”
Bridget Merritt, Summer’s mother, echoed Caldwell’s concerns. She wasn’t sure whether she should enroll Summer in the high school or look for other options, but when she saw how Williams had “turned it around,” she felt at ease.
Now she’s considering pulling her out again.
“My fear is that when they remove Williams, because those students love and respect him so much, that when they remove him from that school, then all the violence that we experience right here in this small town – we’re going to start seeing it at the high school, too, ”she said. “That’s my greatest fear.”
Mackey said he will meet with district leaders when the investigation ends, which should take a couple of weeks.
Education reporter Trish Crain contributed reporting.