The Rebirth of Birmingham City Schools

Birmingham, AL


When schools went virtual in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators at Birmingham City Schools in Birmingham, AL, were able to get a glimpse, via Zoom, into the homes of their students. Unfortunately, what they saw was that many of their students were struggling.

“I think the pandemic really opened our eyes to a lot of things that were just under the surface,” said Superintendent Dr. Mark Sullivan. “People felt real comfortable in their lives not seeing what was right in front of them. And the pandemic pulled that veneer away.”

What they discovered was that many students had to work or take on the role of parenting for their siblings rather than focus on their virtual lessons. Without access to free lunches, some were more worried about where their next meal would come from rather than turning in homework on time.

At the end of 2021, math proficiency scores in the district hovered around 4 percent, reflecting the challenges students went through the year prior.

Dr. Sullivan and his leadership team were determined to turn those scores around by taking the lessons they learned during COVID as an opportunity to rethink the way they taught their students in the district. He challenged his team to implement a new plan for increasing student achievement, which included Savvas Learning Company’s enVision Mathematics as their new district-wide math curriculum, a research-based teaching framework, robust professional development, and expanded learning time for students. And it’s paying off.

At the end of the 2023 school year, the district’s overall math proficiency scores for grades 3-12 nearly tripled since 2021, outperforming where it was before the pandemic. In grade 3 alone, scores skyrocketed from 4 percent at the end of 2021 to 19 percent at the end of 2023.

“Many districts saw a dip in their math data. We saw an increase,” said Dr. Pamela Williams, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. “A couple of percentage points is huge when you've been always going further and further back. So our trajectory is headed in the correct direction.”

Birmingham City School’s Plan for Increased Student Achievement

Ben Hill Middle School students

The pandemic brought to light many inequities in learning that had existed in the district. District leaders realized that in order to reach all of their students, they needed to change the way they had been teaching prior to 2020 to support them both emotionally and academically.

“One of the things that the pandemic has really taught us is that we really have to be very sensitive to all of those things outside of education, because those things affect what happens inside of education,” said Dr. Sullivan. 

So, the district came up with a plan to help them start moving the needle.

While the district has taken many actions to help increase student achievement, such as partnering with city officials, the United Way, and local universities on school-wide academic initiatives, the following four main factors have been largely attributed to their growth:

Step 1: Adopt a New, District-Wide High-Quality Math Curriculum

District leaders felt they needed to align instructional practices across the district by adopting a single standards-aligned, high-quality core math curriculum to be used in grades kindergarten through 12. So, they adopted enVision Mathematics by Savvas Learning Company and started implementing it in the fall of 2021.

“If we have common inputs, we can have common outputs. But if everybody's doing their own thing, we can't have any kind of common outputs,” said Dr. Sullivan. “So we made sure we had a uniform curriculum. That's where Savvas came in.”

Dr. Williams said that by having a district-wide common curriculum, students aren’t starting over every year, learning a new way of practicing math or relearning concepts they already learned because the curriculum and its underlying pedagogy are different from grade to grade.

“Having that coherence or alignment from fifth to sixth or eighth to ninth (grades) has been a big game changer for our students,” she said.

Math teacher Alexis Montgomery has noticed a positive change in the way her students learn by using a more rigorous approach to teaching math through enVision. She said that with enVision, the students are not only building their knowledge of what it is that they need to help them be successful on standardized tests, but they are also more engaged with their learning.

“They turn, they talk, they participate. They go up to the board,” she said. “They're able to explain what it is that they're doing. They have their ownership, their accountability.”

mount olive township school district


Savvas Solutions at Birmingham City Schools:



Learn more about enVision Mathematics.


Step 2: Establish an Instructional Framework for Delivering the Curriculum

In order to ensure that their new core curriculum was delivered in a strategic, intentional manner across all the grades, Dr. Williams and her team developed a framework based on a research-based model called the Six-Tier System.

The Six-Tier System, also known as the “Six Ts” was originally developed by award-winning literacy professor and author Richard Allington who, after a ten-year study, identified six characteristics of effective literacy instruction. Dr. Williams and her colleagues took those characteristics and adapted them to their math instruction to come up with their own framework. Their Six Ts included:

  • Target: Teachers begin by identifying the learning target or the standard. What do they want the students to learn at the end of the lesson?
  • Teach: Teachers decide on the teaching method they are going to use to reach that target, e.g., small- or whole-group instruction, collaborative lesson, explicit instruction, etc.
  • Task: Teachers determine what task or math problem the students will be asked to solve.
  • Technology: Teachers provide students with either a digital tool to help them solve the problem, or a paper workbook.
  • Talk: Teachers check that students are speaking the language of the learning target by including actions or questions in the lesson to ensure that students are obtaining the standard.
  • Test: Teachers should include many opportunities to check for understanding through formative assessments.

“The research is clear,” said Dr. Williams. “These models have been around for years, and the evidence-based practices demonstrate that they work when they're done consistently.”

Step 3: Provide Meaningful Professional Learning

In order to honor the fact that there are varying levels of experience among the teachers in the district, Dr. Williams and her team came up with a professional learning plan that would be tailored to teachers of all levels.

Students using digital tools in their math lesson at Birmingham City Schools.

“You can really turn teachers off if you're constantly giving them PD at the same level every time,” said Dr. Williams. “We have to diversify our levels of professional learning to ensure that PD is something that they are going to find useful, something that they can take back and utilize immediately in the classroom, and not the same old message over and over and over again.”

Before enVision was even introduced, Dr. Williams and her team started by creating an awareness around the frameworks for teachers, as well as principals and other administrators. They went to each school and helped them become familiar with the framework and how it would work with their new curriculum.

Then, as the components of enVision were implemented in the classroom using the framework, she and her colleagues monitored the progress that teachers were making so they could take that feedback back to their Savvas educational consultant, who could then develop professional learning based on their observations and specific needs.

“We had a (Savvas) presenter that came in the first week in August, and that by far was the best presenter. Oh my gosh,” said Alexis. “She went more in depth with what we needed … Stuff that we really needed.”

Step 4: Expanded Learning Time Through Intersessions

One of the most important lessons that Dr. Sullivan says he learned from the pandemic was that students learn better when they’re in school. Being back in the classroom after quarantine wasn’t enough. He wanted to provide opportunities for them to be in school beyond the typical school-year calendar.

Students using digital tools in their math lesson at Birmingham City Schools.

“Our goal was to provide more instruction for students because our data shows that they learn when they're with us,” said Dr. Sullivan.

He expanded the school year by 15 days into what they refer to as intersessions. In these intersessions, the school is opened during fall, winter, spring, and summer breaks to students to receive extra instruction whether they need intervention through remediation or enrichment opportunities, such as Lego club or dance.

The intersessions have grown from when they started in 2021, with only 1800 students attending, to nearly half of the student population attending intersessions this past year. A third-party organization helped the district analyze the correlation between the extra learning time and students’ math scores, and the results were extremely positive.

“The scores exploded,” said Dr. Sullivan. “Our kids really performed.”

Moving Forward without Looking Back

Birmingham’s scores are now moving in the right direction. Drs. Sullivan and Williams believe that their success is a testament to the work of the teachers and administrators in the district who created a well-thought-out plan and then implemented that plan to fidelity.

Birmingham City Schools students participating in intersessions

That work, the superintendent noted, was sparked by the lessons they learned from the pandemic, lessons that he wants to see continue to drive their mission moving forward to always support their students, not just academically but emotionally, as well.

“I hope that's something that's going to be a lasting legacy, that we always stay conscious of the needs of individuals that we serve,” he said. And don't ever go back to the point where just because they show up at my school every day, that means they're okay, but they may be going home to lives that you couldn't even imagine on your worst day. And that is what they deal with every day. So I just hope that we are always in tune to supporting our students.”