Starting Strong: Tuscaloosa City Schools’ superintendent putting future at forefront

Mike Daria

While school’s out for summer, Tuscaloosa City Schools administrators are taking time and reflecting on what worked and what didn’t last year, and how that affects students for years to come.

TCS Superintendent Mike Daria said one potential future features students attending school year-round.

“We don’t know enough about that yet, but it is of interest for us,” said Daria. “And that is why we got into summer learning work five, six years ago. We need more time with our students.”

That won’t be happening for the 2023-24 school year, but what will is enforcing Alabama’s Literacy Act signed into law in 2019. Implementation of the act was delayed across the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s full steam ahead this year unless Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey says otherwise.

Here’s what the act does: Third-graders must demonstrate sufficient reading skills via testing before they can be promoted to the fourth grade. Students who don’t pass will repeat the year.

Ensuring TCS’ third-graders can pass that requirement has been in the works since long before the law was signed, Daria said.

“We have seen some progress,” said Daria. “We believe we are going to be closer to the 90%, 100% mark at the end of the year for our third graders. We have got to make sure they have what they need so retention is not an issue at the end of the third grade.”

While there’s progress, the system has also been tackling some longstanding challenges.

Students getting into fights happens in kindergarten through 12th grade, but in the days of social media school fights and bullying spread far beyond the playground. Videos of fights are widely spread on apps like TikTok and students who face bullies at school may find more of the same or worse from peers on Instagram or Snapchat.

That’s part of the reason, Daria said, that TCS adjusted its student code of conduct at the end of the school year, giving administrators more sway over potential punishments.

It’s also a reason why the system joined two fellow Alabama school districts in a lawsuit against social media companies Meta, which owns Instagram, Facebook and the just-launched Threads; TikTok parent company ByteDance; Youtube, owned by Google parent company Alphabet; and Snapchat.

The lawsuit claims the companies’ products are contributing a major youth mental health crisis.  

“When you look at the number of conflicts our students have and the issues they deal with in school and out of school, it stems from social media,” said Daria. “This impacts their ability to come to school and focus on learning. A large amount of administrators’ time is spent dealing with conflict resolution that comes from a result of what happens on social media.”  

Bridging the gap between students, their parents and their education took a big step forward last year with the opening of the New Heights Community Resource Center, a one-stop spot where families can get assistance from local service agencies. And there’s more coming, Daria said.

“We also are working now on a pilot program with different community groups to identify a select area to focus on making sure needs are met for the entire family,” said Daria. 

TCS educates about 11,000 students, and Daria said he’s hoping every single one be will at school when the year begins Aug. 9.

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