A private school in Birmingham, Ala., offers a last chance to students who have fallen through the cracks in public high schools.
Out amid the weed-choked factory lots and the bare yards of housing projects here, Steve Orel has become a kind of hero.
The 50-year-old Orel runs the World of Opportunity School out of an old industrial building. Affectionately known as WOO, the school is a private, shoestring operation that offers students a last chance at getting the high school education or the job skills they need to build a future.
Students come to WOO when schools suspend them for fighting, when the General Educational Development program at the community college fills up, or when school counselors look at the courses they’ve failed and the absences they’ve accumulated and suggest they’d be better off somewhere else.
| Steve Orel works with Erica Smith, 16 in the World of Opportunity School’s classroom. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week
So teenagers beg rides or take the city bus past the east end of town to Georgia Road. They turn up the gravel parking lot and enter a cinderblock building where a neon sign on a trailer says school is always open.
Orel was an adult education teacher working here in 2000 when he noticed an influx of teenage students crossing his doorway. They carried identical forms from their home schools in Birmingham, stating that they had withdrawn from school for “lack of interest.”
It seemed like no coincidence to Orel that many of the students were handed those slips just as they turned 16, the legal dropout age in Alabama. He also noticed that the influx had grown suspiciously in the weeks before city high schools were scheduled to administer state-required tests.
A university student at the time, Orel wrote a term paper suggesting Birmingham students were being “pushed out” of high school by administrators desperate to boost test scores. The paper made its way to Birmingham school officials, and the story eventually hit the local newspapers. In the brouhaha that ensued over Orel’s allegations, the instructor lost his job with the government-sponsored adult education program.
But Orel kept going and, along the way, he became a martyr for the national anti-testing movement. Prominent activists in the cause came to Birmingham and raised $9,000 to keep his school going. They chronicled his story on Web sites and in newsletters and, even now, continue to send shipments of new books his way. He remains a hero, too, to the local parents who credit him for picking their children up when the public school system dropped them.
“He risked his job standing up for those children,” says Brunetta Wade, who has had two children in Orel’s school. “He respects them and they respect him.”
Lacking a college degree himself, Orel is an unlikely education activist. But, as someone who has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, he also knows what a struggle learning can be for some.
Orel stumbled into adult education after a long career as a welder, pipefitter, boilermaker, and, finally, union organizer for textile workers. But he was looking for new options in the 1990s, after the textile and steel jobs dried up in Birmingham.
| Quinton Wade, 16, and his sister, Tashundra, have studied at the World of Opportunity School. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week
Adult education appealed because Orel had seen firsthand how some of the union workers he had represented lacked the skills even to fill out an unemployment form when their jobs headed south.
“I was shocked that we had overlooked such an important part of someone’s life,” he says.
He signed on in 1996 as an instructor in a state-supported adult education program that was hosted by the Birmingham public schools. He eventually wound up teaching at Miller Wire Works, the family-owned company that now rents unused factory space to his school.
“When he started doing this, it was like he found his calling,” says David A. Gespass, a longtime family friend who later became Orel’s lawyer.
At first, most of Orel’s students were company employees and their adult relatives. When the high school students arrived, six schools in the city were on the verge of being taken over by the state if they failed to raise scores on the Stanford Achievement Tests. A few of the students told Orel that their principals, before sending them on their way, had warned them that they would not be allowed to “mess up” their schools’ test scores.
Wade’s daughter, Tashundra, now 20, was in the first group to show up with a “lack of interest” slip in hand. Brunetta Wade says the school gave her daughter the form after she served an out-of-school suspension for fighting.
“I wanted to get her back in afterwards, and he [a school administrator] said her grades weren’t up to par and she had too many days absent,” she recalls. “But the days absent were the days he had suspended her.”
Tashundra impressed Orel because she persisted in her studies despite some formidable obstacles. She was beaten and robbed on the first day she was scheduled to report to WOO, yet still arranged for a friend to call Orel and explain her absence. Bruised and depressed, she was back in class two days later.
“This did not strike me as a student who ‘lacked interest,’” Orel says.
Convinced that city schools were systematically withdrawing students to help raise test scores, Orel made his case in a term paper for Dail Mullins’ Current Issues in Secondary Education class at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Concerned by the allegations, Mullins showed his dean the paper.
“I don’t have any way to know if that really happened or not, but Steve made a very convincing case to me in the term paper, at least,” says Mullins, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction. “He is salt of the earth. I have no reason to doubt Steve.”
The dean shared the paper with other university officials and, from there, it somehow made its way to city school administrators. (One city educator later testified that the document had been anonymously slipped under her door.)
Meanwhile, Virginia S. Volker, a city school board member, also began raising questions about the large numbers of students leaving one particular high school, where rumor had it that more than 100 students were told to leave.
In the school system’s resulting investigation, officials acknowledged that a total of 522 students citywide had gotten “lack of interest” withdrawal notices during the 1999-2000 school year. That marked an improvement, the report added, over each of the previous two years, when 531 and 625 students, respectively, left school for the same reason.
The district report found no evidence, though, that the students had been kicked out because of low test scores. Half the students who had been withdrawn had scored at or above the national average on the previous year’s tests, according to that report. The real reason the students were urged to leave, one high school principal told local reporters at the time, was that they were troublemakers.
A subsequent state department of education investigation also failed to substantiate Orel’s claims. The state faulted the district, however, for not routinely informing parents when students were withdrawn.
Orel was fired in July 2000, two months after he turned in the term paper that had set off the controversy and a day after he appeared before the school board with a plan for bringing the students back to school.
“I don’t know that we understood that would be such a hot political potato,” Orel’s wife, Glenda Jo, says as she looks back over the experience.
In court documents, Orel’s supervisor in the adult education program said that she had good reasons to fire him. For one, she said, he had failed to generate the requisite number of “contact hours” with students. He did not have a college degree, though he was—and still is—working on one. Also, he had earned some “marginal” ratings on his last job evaluation, which was a change from his earlier job reviews.
| Bonita Davis dropped out of school after giving birth to her daughter, Jaylen, in 1997. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week
To Orel, though, the firing seemed more like retaliation for blowing the whistle on the schools.
“He was made a scapegoat for exposing when people were being thrown out,” agrees Volker, the school board member. “I couldn’t be fired and Steve could.”
In his defense, Orel says he had fewer contact hours because his supervisor had pulled him away from teaching to write curricula or perform other duties. The requirements are also unrealistically high, he says, because adult education students often attend school sporadically, sometimes disappearing for months when they land a job or get arrested.
Alleging that his free-speech right had been abridged, Orel filed a federal lawsuit against his adult education supervisors and city school officials the same year. But federal courts twice sided with the education officials, determining that Orel’s right to free speech was outweighed by the disruption that he had caused the school system.
Amid the controversy, adult education officials removed the school’s textbooks and even padlocked the door at one point. Orel managed to reopen the school, at first with the help of a local Roman Catholic charity. The $87,000-a-year program now operates as an independent nonprofit organization, and Orel earns less than half the $26,000 annual salary he made as a public employee.
Much has happened in the Birmingham public school system since Orel’s allegations first surfaced. The 36,000-student system has a new superintendent and mostly new top school officials, a new school board, and new state high school exit exams. Now schools have to answer for the percentage of students who pass the exams, rather than for their schools’ average test scores.
Even so, students keep finding their way to Orel’s school across from the Gate City housing projects. By 9:50 a.m. on a recent Monday, typically a slow day for WOO, 11 students have come in to study; half are 18 or younger. One is Tashundra Wade’s brother, Quinton, 16, who was suspended for one year after a broken gun was found in a locker he shared with another student. Now a model student at WOO, Quinton represented the school this summer at a regional conference of student leaders.
Three 18-year-olds—Candace Ferguson, Nakia Munford, and Andrea Hamby—tell a more common story: They came after reaching 12th grade and learning that courses they failed back in 9th grade would keep them from graduating on time this year.
“I hated that they waited until a couple of months before I graduated to tell me,” Munford says.
To Orel, they are all victims. “We can’t just discard these kids,” he says.
Like most students in the Birmingham public schools, these students are African-American. Orel sees parallels between their struggles and this city’s famous civil rights battles in the 1950s and 1960s. As a reminder, he keeps pictures of four young girls and a young boy who were killed the day the city’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by segregationists in 1963.
“Only the struggle is not for integration now,” says Orel, who is also an anti-Ku Klux Klan activist, along with his wife. “It’s to make sure kids get an education.”
Orel sees parallels between his students' struggles and Birmingham's famous civil rights battles in the 1950s and 1960s.
It’s not entirely clear how the system is failing these students now. According to Claudia J. Williams, the curriculum and instruction officer for the Birmingham public schools, the system no longer administratively withdraws students unless they or their parents cannot be located. The district also maintains an alternative secondary school for students with a history of violent behavior, though few students at Orel’s school ever ended up there.
“To be fair,” Williams adds, “it’s unlikely that you failed a course and didn’t get credit for it and you don’t know it.” She concedes, though, that in a system where students move from school to school regularly, records do occasionally catch up to students long after they’ve moved on and enrolled in new courses.
Volker, the only member who kept her seat in 2002 after the board moved from being an appointed body to an elected one, agrees with Orel that problems exist.
“We certainly are not as blatant about throwing students out now, but there are too many students falling through the cracks,” says Volker, a retired biology professor. “The new administration does understand that we’re here to educate all children, but that’s difficult.”
At WOO, a few of those wayward students manage to get their schooling back on track. Of the 1,715 students who have come through the school’s doors for one reason or another over the past four years, 32 have earned a GED diploma. Judging by the awards the school has earned from local literacy groups, that’s probably a decent record—partly because so many clients are just here for computer training and vocational classes.
When students succeed, Orel is ready with his camera to take their pictures and tack them up on the wall. Every inch of wall space at the school is plastered with fliers congratulating students on finding employment, giving birth, passing a GED exam, or reaching some other milestone. Memorial services, weddings, and birthday parties happen here as well as classes in rape-prevention, Spanish, and nursing-assistant training.
| April Anderson, 18, center, watches as the remaining students enter the First Baptist Church of Gardendale for a graduation ceremony for the Jefferson County, Ala., GED program. Anderson was the valedictorian for World of Opportunity and will attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham this coming fall on a scholarship. She has been living on her own for the past two years. |
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week
The peripatetic instructor will halt conversation in midsentence when a student walks in the door. “I hate it when I hear myself say ‘just a second,’ because these students have heard that all their lives,” he explains.
The students sign in, pull up a metal folding chair, and work quietly from GED workbooks until classes break at 2 p.m. But visitors and students stream in all day: a young woman with “Fe-Fe” tattooed on her arm who wants to return to class, 5th and 6th grade boys looking for snacks and some computer time, an older man browsing the racks of donated clothes that Orel keeps on hand.
“Whatever walks in the door, Steve is ready to deal with,” says Peter Maynard, a registered investment adviser who tutors at WOO several days a week.
Classes resume at 6:30 in the evening, when most of the older students come in after work. By the time Orel heads home, it’s usually around 9:30. He makes one last stop at the market down the street to offer an encouraging word to any errant students who might be hanging about.
“Sometimes students leave here feeling defeated,” he says. “Maybe they don’t understand why fourth-eighths can be simplified to one-half. We can usually get them back the next day.”
When—and if—they do return, Orel will be the first to jump to welcome them back.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as One Last Chance