The Year of Moving Forward

The Year of Moving Forward
At our 4 person wedding reception in DC

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Bessemer: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Today I am just going to write about some issues here in Bessemer. I might start doing this on Thursdays each week, because both The Western Star and The Birmingham News West News arrive on Wednesdays. Before I forget, be sure and read the comment left on yesterday’s post (No News) by Jennifer, who is voicing her concern about go-carts on the streets. I live in the area she is referring to, and I have seen them too. One guy a couple of days ago was (actually) stopping at a stop sign and was using his foot on the asphalt to stop his vehicle. Didn’t the Flintstones do this? For their own safety, even if they are going to continue to break the law, they should put those flags on the go-carts so people in vehicles might see it out of the corner of their eye.

Here is the good. Being a student of science (again…literally) I was excited to read in both papers about the return of the science fair to Jess Lanier High School. My hat is off to anatomy and physiology teacher Harriet Westbrook who reintroduced the program. I remember two science projects in particular that I did in public school. One was a volcano made of different colors of modeling clay, representing the different layers of the earths crust. Part of it was cut away to show the layers. Also, we had a substance (I can’t remember what it was) that I could put down in the crater of the volcano and light, and it would smoke and spew and make a little lava flow. This was a long time ago, and probably you couldn’t get away with that now (using open flame and explosives), and probably I released toxins into the atmosphere of the lunchroom/auditorium that might still be affecting me now, but it was fun. I won’t bore you with the other project. 1000 Science Projects from A to Z was the book that I got a lot of ideas from when I was a kid. I wish I still had that book.

Congratulations to third place winner Trenton Hearns (9th Grade) whose project compared modern digital music players to older record players, second place finisher Shemarkus Johnson (10th Grade) who analyzed the microbes that live on our hands, and first place winner Rickey Brown (10th Grade) whose project explored water purification.

Included in science is biology and a part of the study of life is ornithology. A recent article in the Birmingham News brought to my attention conservation efforts that have made a city park in Roebuck a birdwatcher’s haven. The Great Backyard Bird Count was recently completed, and there are bird watchers here in Bessemer too. Twelve counters reported 30 species of birds and 1228 total birds. Of course this is just a small sample of the actual number of birds around, but it gives an idea of what we might see. View Bessemer’s bird counts here:

Another thing we have in Bessemer is a National Wildlife Refuge. Did you know? The Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge is just off Eastern Valley Road, and was created in 1980 and contains a pond known as Thomas Spring which is vital to the survival of the endangered Watercress Darter. The 23 acre refuge is managed by the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge in Anniston. The web site is and here is the Watercress Darter.

The refuge is next to the McAdory house. There are no informational signs up yet, but there are improved paths for hiking and bird watching. Email me for directions.

By the way, the web site has not been updated and says the Refuge is managed by Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Now for bad. This building is one block from my house. It has been abandoned for years, and why the thunderstorms and strong winds don’t finish it off I don’t know. The building was pictured on the front of The Western Star months ago, to try to draw attention, but I guess the right people have not seen it. Maybe they will see this picture.

Can we not just all get on one side and blow real hard?

One more thing. In case you don’t know, the Galleria Mall now has online shopping for its stores. The site is, and from there you can type in a product, for instance "Clark shoes", and find where they are sold, and in some cases what styles are available and can reserve them. Type in “Weather Radio” (which we all should have) and several options come up. Also is a listing of “Hot Stores” and information for “mall walkers” and various other things. Explore, shop, spend!

And this is the Ugly. I will close with a quote from The Western Star of March 7, 2007. In an editorial, owner Bob Tribble says, “And we as newspaper folks must protect the rights of those with whom we disagree as well as those whom we agree” (Jefferson Was Definitely A “Visionary”). If only the editor, Dale Jones, agreed.


bungalow jen said...

Thanks for the coverage of the young scientists at Jess Lanier. As I read the article and thought of the bright minds at that school, I also though about some of the comments I hear about the same school. "It used to be a great school" and "Jess Lanier would hate to see what has happened to the school." These comments, of course, come from people who no longer live in Bessemer proper.

So it got me thinking -- how are the Bessemer Schools really doing? And how do they compare to other area schools that may be considered by many to be "superior?"

Bessemers schools have their challenges. The elementary schools are bursting at the seams, with almost 800 students at Jonesboro Elementary alone. But great grounds have been made in the last few years in standardized test scores, a benchmark deemed necessary in the current education/government mindset. (I'll weigh in with my opinion on "teaching the test" vs. "teaching the child" at another time). So why are they still deemed to be "undesireable?"

I took a look at the stats of the Homewood School system, a system strikingly similar to the Bessemer system. Homewood has three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Bessemer has five elementary schools feeding one middle and high school.

Homewood has a total enrollment of 3,230 in K-12. Of those, 1,010 (31.26%) are enrolled in high school. Bessemer has a total enrollment of 4,125. Of those, 1,031 (or 1,054 depending on the source) -- 25.5% -- attend Jess Lanier. We're losing them somewhere along the line.

Let's look at middle school -- 25% of Hpmewood's enrollment is in middle school. 19% of Bessemr's is.

So, we start losing them early. This is the same thing the Birmingham schools are experiencing -- residents who like their neighborhood elementary schools, but because of either known or perceived problems, pull them from the system in either middle or high school. And then there are the students who simply drop out of school.

How about this: How about we work to make Bessemer a magnet school system for the Jefferson County area? The science fairs are a great start. The revitalization of music programs also helps, as do the distance-learning opportunities for gifted students. Little by little, the Bessemer schools can begin to offer students more than they can get anywhere else.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to hear of someone moving from Birmingham to Bessemer "because of the schools?" How wonderful would it be for families to be able to live comfortably in Bessemer and not feel they have to scrimp for private education, or move to cramped rented quarters in Homewood or Hoover in order for their children to get a better education?

I don't know all the answers. I really don't even know any of the answers. I just know there is an opportunity there. In Alabama, a City's "worth" is measured largely by the success of its schools. The potential is there in Bessemer. Let's celebrate it and develop it.

Jennifer (Errett) Robinson said...

Hey Jen,
I agree with your comparisons and the importance of the school system to the sucess of the city. I have experience with the Davis Middle School in Bessemer. Brief, but enough. I know that it COULD be a better school and it SHOULD be a better school. I had a sixth grade foster daughter that went there for 1 semester. What I noticed was a lack of basic upkeep and maintenance on the school building itself (ie dingy appearance, poor lighting, lack of grass, trash recepticles next to the main entrance and not tidy, etc). The building itself is old but was built well and quite spacious but it seems very neglected. Some problems that I had that mean alot to parents are: #1 Parking was bad; #2 there was usually always 1-2 pregnant girls in the school office (this is 6-8 grade!!); #3 I always had a hard time to get the attention of the office staff, either in person or on the phone; #4 Much of the staff that I met were nice but almost all said that they do not have their children in Bessemer City Schools; #5 My child was the only non-african-american in the entire sixth grade; #6 I know she often would have issues with her belongings being stolen. #7 She was often being approached sexually on school grounds with no supervision.

I don't exclusively blame Bessemer Schools for most of the things that I found unsavory. Its the unfortunate nature of the lives and situations of the children that are in the school system. My guess is that if we were to compare average household incomes and property values, as well as 2 parent households that Homewood would no longer be comparable. Homewood has a reputation for the investment they have in their schools. I have coworkers who live in small houses just to be in that school district. They themselves are active parents and my guess is that much of Homewood school's faculty send their children there. I felt that the teachers in Bessemer were competent but not ambitious. Their complaint was that they had to deal with more behavioral problems that distracted from being able to focus on learning. I also noticed alot of school days on the calendar that were not being used for learning and the students were told they didn't have to attend. I am not sure if this is common to other schools or just Bessemer.

I am not saying that Bessemer is hopeless. What I do believe is that if Homewood has well adjusted kids from stable families and spends X dollars, then these kids probably need an even larger investment in resources and programs. The drop out rate in Bessemer is terrible. I don't know the figures but its very bad. My experiences are truely that, my experiences. Others may have had better or worse. The root of the problem is the children and their lives. The school cannot teach if the kids are either not there at all, or not there to learn. If their personal lives distract them then its very hard to teach.