Independence Day: How Leeds took back their schools 15 years later

AP history teacher Cristina Allen at Leeds High School.

Seventeen years ago, the Jefferson County school district told Leeds residents they were going to close their high school.

Leeds fought back with a two-year communitywide campaign called “Save the Wave” that led to a split from Jefferson County schools to form their own Leeds City Schools district.

In 2019, Leeds will graduate their 15th senior class as an independent school district.

Superintendent John J. Moore gave a glowing report of the state of education in the Leeds City School district during the Leeds Area Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon at First United Methodist Church.

“I am but the face of the wonderful, caring team of people who make this district so great,” Moore said. “I am privileged to be the one who gets to deliver this good message.”

Since 2003, the number of students attending Leeds schools has grown 55 percent, to 1,941 students this year. The general fund revenue has also grown to $18.7 million, from $6 million in 2004.

Leeds schools now have 222 full-time employees, including 14 National Board Certified teachers, which surpassed the goal of 10 percent of teachers being board certified and is on their way to 20 percent, with about seven teachers waiting for their NBC results.

It’s been a busy 15 years. The city has spent $62 million building school facilities, including a new middle school and high school that opened in 2009-2010 school year and a new primary school.

“When people walk into one of our buildings, we want them to see we’re serious about what we’re doing,” Moore said.

Leeds residents continue to show how important their schools are to them by approving in February a property tax increase that will bring in $175,000 more a year for technology, which Moore says is “expensive and constantly changing.” St. Clair County was asked to increase the same tax and turned it down.

“We’re thankful for the confidence Leeds residents have shown us,” Moore said.

Leeds schools have added many programs that interest a variety of students, such as soccer, archery and AP classes. Students are less likely to drop out if they are involved in something meaningful as part of the school experience, such as band and clubs that help them feel plugged in, Moore said. Leeds High School recently added Advanced Placement, or AP, courses to give students an opportunity to take the AP exam and receive college credit. This year, the school added AP statistics and next year they’re adding AP Spanish. Leeds was recently named a School of Distinction for the high number of students passing the AP exams.

These added options have helped Leeds report a graduation rate of 93 percent, which is an improvement from 81 percent five years ago.

Moore said he made sure Leeds High School’s new Principal Rayford Williams knows to identify every at-risk student and hold his or her hand to get through high school. Not all students are mature enough to handle what school throws at them, but the administration cares about seeing them succeed, he said.

Leeds City Schools is also investing in the youngest in Leeds. The district received an annual grant of $414,000 to pay for Pre-K classes as part of an initiative through the state Legislature 10 years ago. Leeds now serves 100 4-year-olds in five classrooms with five teachers and five aids for the voluntary program. They also have a sixth class for special needs children ages 3 and 4.

“This has been a collaborative effort between the schools, the parents and the businesses,” he said.

Leeds Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Pool said he was a part of the “Save the Wave” group that met once a week at the former Johnny Ray’s restaurant more than 15 years ago to strategize how to “take our schools back.” And he now knows it was worth it. For one thing, “15 years later, our property is worth a whole lot more.”

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