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Education Summit addresses variety of school concerns

By By BILL CRIST
Staff Writer
Comparing education to a four-legged stool, Coalition for a Healthier Escambia County Chairperson Ruth Harrell welcomed an audience of over 90 people to the Escambia County Education Summit last Saturday in Flomaton.
The crowd, made up primarily of educators, listened to a variety of speakers speak not only about the current state of education, but to three ideas for improving our schools by offering more to the students.
Harrell said one could think of education making up the top of the stool. Community, elected officials, the faith community and businesses are the four legs that support it. If any one of those four supporting parts is weakened or lessened, the top of the stool becomes unstable.
From thinking "outside the box" to reforming the tax code, a variety of topics were covered by the first several speakers. Dr. Wil Baker, co-project director for the Southern Rural Access Program, compared methods of problem solving and encouraged the group to work toward partnerships.
Dr. Marsha Raulerson, a Brewton pediatrician, gave an update on children's health care issues in Escambia County. She said children make up about a quarter of the population here and 27.8 percent of them live in poverty. She also said the county continues to have a higher infant mortality rate than the state average, that 16 percent of newborns are born to teenagers, 80 percent of whom are single moms.
The next four speakers spoke about the education system, from a historical, current and statewide perspective.
Bradley Byrne, member of the state Board of Education, said there is a great transition going on in the classroom that mirrors society. He said as technology jobs are increasing it is vital for each person in Alabama to have a high quality education.
Curtis Parker talked about the history of education in Escambia County before superintendents Lynn Smith and Melvin "Buck" Powell talked about their respective systems.
Smith listed 10 things he believes the Brewton City Schools have done well over the past several years. He said pointing out the problems is always easy, but that the kids in Brewton had done many special things.
Powell focused on three areas that he felt were worth noting. He said that academics in the county system continue to improve, that the system has been hurt by proration but that it is going to survive and beat it and that several capital projects had recently been completed, although there are still pressing needs at some schools.
Both superintendents said they were positive about the future and that the local schools were headed in the right direction.
Ruth Underwood, a member of the Baldwin County School Board, talked about forming partnerships between the schools and community. She said in Baldwin County the Partners in Education Program has grown from 20 or 30 businesses to over 500 partners.
Escambia County Commission Chairman Larry White said that it is time for government to start listening to the problems the schools are facing and to make funding a top priority.
Ben Hill then spoke about character education and the importance of prevention rather than rehabilitation. He told the group that the problems society faces, including those in the schools, have more to do with the condition of the human heart than with any revenue problems the community and schools may be facing.
Dr. Bill Thallemer, dean of students at Jefferson Davis Community College, introduced the group to the UPS programs. UPS, Unlocking Potential Students, is a small pilot program that will start with five eighth graders from each school in the county.
The Coalition for a Healthier Escambia County is made up of a group of concerned citizens of Escambia County. The group has been meeting on a monthly basis for the past six years. In addition to the Health Summit, the Coalition has been active in sponsoring Hispanic Outreach, an Escambia County Resource Directory, a web site, AllKids, Building Leaders for a Healthier Tomorrow, Tri-County Dental Clinic, Ozanam Charitable Pharmacy, Fluoridation Project and the Brain Train Initiative.