Fort Payne schools get state praise for programs

Fort Payne Superintendent Jim Cunningham recognized members of the Fort Payne City Board of Education on the occasion of School Board Appreciation Month. They are Board Vice-President Randy McClung, Kathy Prater, Carolyn Martin, Neal Baine and Board President Jimmy Durham. 

Fort Payne Superintendent Jim Cunningham used the portion of the school board meeting reserved for his comments to recognize several facets of the city school system that are making an impact statewide.

Educators today are forced to face a lot of mental health issues that go beyond the school violence in the headlines. Student anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, bulimia, substance abuse or addiction, ADHD, and family troubles fill out the list of impediments to learning. Then there are financial difficulties, medical concerns, behavioral problems, parent-child conflict, family crisis, suspected child abuse or neglect, poor academic performance, and truancy or chronic absenteeism.

Cunningham said Fort Payne is unique in providing for a system-wide social worker, Kayla Magbie, who started in that position in October 2018. She works with students, parents, teachers and administrators to identify and address mental, social, and concrete needs to overcome the barriers that interfere with the student’s ability to achieve academic success.

“The last couple of years, I was requested to come to Montgomery to meet with the Mental Health Task Force that Representative [Nathaniel] Ledbetter [R-Rainsville] has organized,” Cunningham said. “The first time I asked, ‘Can I bring our social worker, Kayla Magbie?’ and he said, ‘[We’d] love to have her.’ She spoke and did a great job. The next time we were asked to come, this had grown. It was a much bigger thing, and Kayla was asked to speak. You [school board members] would be very proud of her. She does a great job for our school system, but she’s also helping our government leaders to understand the need for mental health specialists in school. I wanted to brag on her while I had the chance. She does an outstanding job, and we take pride in her speaking there because she’s we take pride in her speaking there because she’s one of ours.”

Cunningham said it’s not common to see mental health specialists like her as a social worker in a school system being funded locally, but in doing so, Fort Payne has served as a role model for the rest of the state in addressing student health issues.

“I appreciate [the school board] for allowing that to happen. We’ll never know what a total difference it has made, but it’s good we don’t know because if we knew what she’s stopping from happening -- it’s bad things. She does a great job, not only with her daily job but also working with CED Mental Health and the [DeKalb County Children’s Advocacy Center] to coordinate that whole effort. They are very responsible in their jobs. They sit down once a month with me and go over every child and every situation they see. I can’t tell you that we can help in every situation to stop things that might happen, [but] we try to help every child that needs help.”

Cunningham said there’s momentum among state leaders “to see a Kayla Magbie in every school system in the state of Alabama. That would be a big plus for the state if that were to happen.”

Magbie is a Fort Payne High School 2006 graduate and obtained her master’s in social work from the University of Alabama in 2013.

Cunningham said city educators also received praise in a letter from Judy Warmoth of the Alabama Reading Initiative, a statewide K-12 initiative managed by the Department of Education. She was part of a group of principals and reading specialists from DeKalb and Jackson counties, as well as Madison City, who visited Wills Valley Elementary to see Fort Payne’s kindergarten reading program. She thanked Principal Sally Wheat and others for the presentation.

“I do not have adequate words to describe the wonderful experience,” Cunningham said, reading the letter aloud. “The ARI session was on student-centered coaching, and what we observed at Wills Valley School was truly student-centered. Every conversation and every classroom visit was clearly evidence of the staff’s commitment to quality instruction to every child every day. Sally Wheat and her staff are truly amazing. I just wanted you to know what a valuable experience it was to everyone in attendance. Such a joy spending my day learning from Fort Payne teachers.”

In other business, Cunningham also commented on the school board’s participation in state-required training.

“I think we heard some really good information on cybersecurity, which is a real concern,” Cunningham said.

“[System Technology Coordinator Greg Titshaw] sends out phishing emails to test whether we are vulnerable and making mistakes. He’s always watching, and I appreciate his efforts. With your permission, I’ll probably continue looking into tightening it up even more. We might get an audience with the right people to do this statewide. It’s a scary thing, but it’s real and we’ve got to do everything [we can]. [The training session speaker] had a message we all needed to hear.”

Cunningham said the two-hour program is just one of the many things school board members do for the community and thanked them because January is School Board Appreciation Month.

“On behalf of everybody in the city school system and this community, I want to thank you for the great job that you do as school board members for Fort Payne,” he said. “Thanks for wanting to do it. Thanks for the desire to do it. Your work makes a difference, and we all appreciate you. We appreciate the opportunity, the leadership and the support you give us. I see school systems that do not have that type of commitment and you can tell it. We are proud to have it. Thank you for being great school board members and community leaders for Fort Payne.”

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