Man who led Bledsoe probe speaks out

September, 28, 2010
9/28/10
2:56
PM ET
In the 1960s, U.W. Clemon marched with Martin Luther King Jr., took part in boycotts and risked plenty in confronting Bull Connor and others in an effort to desegregate the Birmingham Public Library and the city’s school system.

Now, four decades later, Clemon has come face-to-face with a disappointing reality: The schools he fought so hard to make better are still failing their students.

Clemon, who went on to become a prominent member of the state Senate and the first black federal judge in Alabama, led the investigation into Eric Bledsoe's grades, an investigation he called one of the ‘more challenging’ of his illustrious career.

The results -- a teacher deemed not credible by Clemon and a school board that nonetheless validated Bledsoe’s grades -- have been the headlines so far, but really this ought to be as much a referendum on the Birmingham school district as it is on Bledsoe.

Clemon’s investigation revealed a school district that is failing to fulfill its most important charge -- namely protect and preserve a student’s academic records -- and is too much in the red to really dig for answers.

“It was definitely one of the more challenging things I’ve done,’’ Clemon said.

He and his law firm were told to spend no more than $10,000 on its investigation, not a surprise for a school district facing a $3.2 million deficit and no reserves for 2011, according to the Birmingham News. They were also asked to answer one simple question:

“Our sole mission was to compare the grades in the grade books with the grades on the transcripts,’’ Clemon said. “That’s all we were asked to do and we were told to do nothing more than that.’’

However, officials were unable to produce any of the grade books from Bledsoe’s junior year at Hayes High School and only nine of the 15 from Parker High, where Bledsoe attended his senior year.

“Frankly I was surprised that the grade books were missing,’’ Clemon said.

Alabama law requires that schools retain school records for three years.

Hayes High School closed, necessitating Bledsoe’s transfer, and Clemon was told that none of the grade books from that school -- for any student -- were available.

More confounding, Clemon said, were the missing grade books from Parker. Unlike Hayes, Parker, opened in 1900 as the first school in the city for blacks, remains open today.

“We made three separate written requests for all of the grade books from Parker and we were finally told by the representatives that they simply could not be found,’’ Clemon said. “There was no other reason given. We could not give a complete answer [on the report] because most of the grade books were missing. There may have been other grade books showing significant changes, but we will never know.’’

Clemon also said that, of the grade books he was able to look at, some of the grade changes were made much later than when the make-up work was reportedly done.

“Yes, there was a gap; that’s true,’’ Clemon said.

He said he based his decision that the teacher in question was ‘not credible’ based on interviews he conducted and information he was given.

Asked if he was surprised by the school board’s decision to render Bledsoe eligible despite his report, Clemon paused, “Let me defer comment on that.’’

It is easy to cast aspersions on Bledsoe and raise eyebrows at the grade changes Clemon labeled ‘conspicuous’ in his report, but the school district ought to be in the line of fire here, too.

Whether it’s a basketball player hoping to gain eligibility or a brainiac in search of an academic scholarship, a student ought to be able to put his or her head on the pillow and know that the grown-ups in charge of his education are actually doing their jobs.

School superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon was hired in March to help resuscitate the district’s floundering school system. According to Department of Education statistics, 14 schools in the city’s district -- including Parker -- missed making the mark for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. AYP is measured by results on standardized tests and other requirements set by each district.

Now the Bledsoe investigation reveals Witherspoon’s job is even harder. He now must contend with incompetence as well as underperformance.

Clemon, who worked so hard to make Birmingham schools better, wouldn’t comment on what the Bledsoe investigation said about the school district, but did hope for one result.

“I would assume that, as a result of the report, the Board of Education would take some measures to ensure the retention of the grade books in the future,’’ he said.

Seems the least they could do.

Dana O'Neil | email

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