Brooks addresses pandemic response, ongoing challenges

By WILLIAM MARLOW / Special to the Reporter

CHELSEA — Shelby County Schools Superintendent Lewis Brooks spoke at the Chelsea Business Alliance monthly luncheon on Wednesday, June 9 and provided updates to community business leaders concerning the school district.

Brooks specifically focused on the school district’s accomplishments throughout the past year as well as challenges relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

One notable accomplishment Brooks noted was the fact that SCS remained open throughout the pandemic, and said that the school district’s faculty and staff had played a major role in the district’s response to the pandemic.

“Whether an administrator, teacher, staff, bus driver or custodian, folks made a lot of tremendous sacrifices, to open the doors and give kids an opportunity. And they found themselves navigating a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty and changes,” Brooks said. “We use the term pivot a lot. Sometimes that pivoting didn’t make everybody happy, but our folks made the sacrifice to make it work.”

With vaccinations picking up across the country, however, Brooks said the school district is hoping to transition to more in-person learning in the coming months and has found this teaching approach has remained the most effective learning method for students. Over the past year, SCS hosted 2.6 million hours of in-person learning this past year.

“That’s huge. We’ve seen the fruit of that in every school district in the state and across this area,” he said.

Despite the woes of the pandemic, Brooks said SCS currently ranks in the top 15 percent of schools in the state.

Among the 20,000 students currently enrolled in the district, graduation rates are also the highest that they have ever been according to Brooks. Chelsea High School’s graduation rate in particular was among the highest in the county at 94 percent.

Brooks said the school’s data also indicates that students are also continuing to excel after graduation.

Among Chelsea High School’s 2021 graduating class, 56 percent are planning to attend a four-year university while 28 percent will attend a two-year university. Of this class, these students had generated nearly $6 million in scholarships.

Even with these achievements, Brooks said that the pandemic has resulted in a loss of learning among students over the past year. Brooks attributed this loss to remote learning and the fact that students either missed school due to being sick or quarantined.

Brooks said the district has launched a countywide summer school program in order to address any educational gaps that occurred during the pandemic, and that schools are providing in-person teaching as well as lunches and bus rides for students in the program.

“We’re all dealing with the whole idea of learning loss. Well, what we’ve seen in some of our data, is that we have in fact had some learning loss, and we’re addressing that. We’ve never had a substantial summer school program like we’re having right now,” he said.

Brooks said that partnerships with local businesses has been crucial in helping the district meet their educational goals during the pandemic.

He specifically noted the contributions of Chelsea businesses and the city’s leadership, including the city’s grant program. Through the program, Brooks said the county purchased several Chromebooks, which have been critical for remote learning.

“We are really fortunate to have a great partnership with the mayor, city council and the Chelsea business community. Because of what that partnership has done, it has helped us meet some instructional needs, and go above and beyond how we serve our kids. So we were grateful for that,” he said.

Brooks said he only expects the district’s partnership with Chelsea to expand in the coming years. Over the last 10 years, Shelby County has invested over $27 million in Chelsea with new construction and renovations, and the school district has several development projects currently underway in the city.

Brooks said the district is presently expanding parking access at Chelsea High School ,and is planning to construct additional classrooms at Chelsea Park Elementary School.

“We understand that it’s important to invest here. We as a county system have three communities that are growing in population, Helena, Calera, and the 280 corridor in Chelsea,” he said. “This partnership understands what we’re trying to do, and that is to prepare our kids for opportunities in business, industry and entrepreneurship, which will really help our communities be better and grow.”

Donna Bowles, president of the Chelsea Business Alliance, said Superintendent Brooks’ partnership with Chelsea businesses is important and reaffirms the value of cooperation among communities.

“We were so glad that he could join us, and give us a glimpse into the backbone of Shelby County Schools. We appreciate his heart for servant leadership and everything that he contributes to Shelby County Schools, but in particular, the schools of Chelsea,” she said. “He recognizes it’s not just about school leadership, it’s about our community, and that this community’s future business leaders are our kids.”

Brooks said that he will continue to prioritize strong community relations, and is overall optimistic about the school district’s outlook over the coming year.

“We’ve had obstacles this year, and the past 15 months have been some of the most difficult experiences that we’ve ever had,” he said. “But I believe very strongly that we put the obstacles away and are focusing on opportunities. Our goal has been to keep going, to keep finding a way to educate our children.”