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The state is investigating a school district in Talladega as high school students continue to demonstrate in support of their principal, whose contract was not renewed last week.
The Talladega City School Board voted 4 to 1 last week not to renew the contracts of three of its six principals, including Darius Williams of Talladega High School; Shari Dye, who is retiring from elementary school in Houston; and Nicole Korreckt, a former librarian who was named principal of CL Salter Elementary School in 2020.
Major reshuffles aren’t unusual, but many in Talladega decried the changes and called on the district to keep Williams. Parents and community members praised his work and started a petition to keep him. The students called their headmaster a ‘father figure’ and said they felt he had been unfairly removed from a secondary school he had helped improve.
“There were times when I wanted to drop out of school, and he was like, ‘Keep going, keep pushing, you got this, you’re almost done,’ and stuff like that,” said Chalyria Pointer, who has said Williams educated her in her spare time to keep her from failing geometry.
“If it wasn’t for him,” Pointer said. “I would 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 on March 29 to protest the board’s decision. Throughout the week, that number rose to around 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 current Superintendent Quintin Lee, while holding signs reading “We Want Doc” and “Save Our School” .
Meanwhile, state officials say they are offering guidance and support to the district, which hosted an online learning day on March 30 to ease post-vote concerns. The state doesn’t typically get involved in personnel decisions, but leaders said they’re concerned about the loss of instruction and are investigating a potential disruption to Grade 11 ACT testing — one that could threaten district funding.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey told AL.com the district experienced a “probable test administration issue” after the first walkout on Tuesday, though students said their 11th-grade classmates had no did not participate in the demonstration.
“This is the last opportunity for these students to take the ACT, and there is no other administration,” he said. “It is a serious violation. It’s inappropriate for this kind of thing 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 over the past decade has seen declining enrollment and a growing number 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 was hired, according to state and district data.
The district reported an overall drop in total high school disciplinary violations from 2013 to 2019 (from approximately 149 to 115), with a steep drop in 2020 – likely due to hybrid learning.
According to the school’s improvement plan, the school used several methods to reduce chronic student absences (which remained at around 25 percent throughout Williams’ tenure), and students say the principal has shortened break times and established strict hallway rules to limit fights and other disciplinary actions. Questions.
Others pointed to recent championship wins and new dual enrollment offers as examples of how he has had a positive impact on the school.
“He always wanted the best for us,” sophomore Summer Merritt said. “He’s a day scout. He has a really good heart and you can just tell that makes people respect him and not want to disrespect him.
Of all other performance measures, the school saw the largest increase in college and career readiness rates — from 18% in 2015 to 72% before the pandemic, according to state data.
But like much of the rest of the state, the school has struggled to recover from pandemic learning loss.
Test scores hit a new low last year when the state changed its rating. Recent state data shows that after some pre-pandemic gains, math proficiency rates fell to 2% last year, and only 5% of students were fluent in English and language arts.
“Not the time”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Williams raised apparent concerns about a transcript issue in 2018, saying officials denied his request for a 12-month-old adviser who could enter that data, as well as requests for more teachers.
“Following this, how can we expect test results to improve?” Williams asked the board last week, alleging a former superintendent said the board once considered firing Williams for personal reasons.
Williams also claimed that district officials provided no evidence of unsatisfactory performance. State law requires school boards to give principals written notice of the reasons for their nonrenewal.
No board member commented on the vote at the public meeting, and Superintendent Quentin Lee did not respond to a request for comment regarding Williams’ claims that he had not received an evaluation. or the specific support he had requested. 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 fear Williams’ firing could bode well for the district or city.
Former Mayor Larry Barton said Williams was a sign of stability in the system, which has gone through four different superintendents over the past decade and narrowly avoided a state takeover in 2015. He said that he supported students who protested peacefully and feared the school board’s policy was ruining the city’s reputation.
“It gives 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] What’s going on.”
The Reverend 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 school. And while there were concerns about Williams’ background, he said, now was “not the time” to replace him. The continued impacts of the pandemic and gun violence, he said, appear more pressing.
“Here we are with weekly shootings, and you are going to remove a director who is related to children,” he said. “They’re taking away a very important part of our attempt to stabilize the city.”
Bridget Merritt, Summer’s mother, echoed Caldwell’s concerns. She wasn’t sure whether to enroll Summer in high school or look for other options, but when she saw how Williams had “turned the tables” she felt comfortable.
Now she is considering taking it out again.
“My fear is that when they remove Williams, because these students love and respect him so much, that when they remove him from this school, then all the violence that we’re going through right here in this small town – we’re going to start to see in high school too,” she said. “It’s my biggest fear.”
Mackey said he would meet with district leaders when the investigation is complete, which is expected to take a few weeks.
Educational reporter Trish Crain contributed reporting.