Grace Under Pressure

Forging hot ironI had such a delightful conversation, recently, with a student I am mentoring. As we sat outside the local coffee shop, shivering because it was so cold and there were no seats inside, we talked about many things. I cupped my hands around my coffee, trying to keep my hands warm, and we talked about life–hers and mine; she asked me how I manage to have grace under pressure.

“Grace” is an interesting word for her to have used. At first, I took her to mean “grace” in the sense of calmness and composure. My answer was somewhat rambling as I thought through the lessons I have learned in life when dealing with difficult people and stressful situations:

Don’t respond when you are feeling angry.
Share complex situations with a trusted friend before you take action.
Try to understand the other person first before figuring out your response.
Disarm people by showing you understand their feelings and give them information to help them understand your position.
Let your understanding of the other person’s position inform your own.

As we dug deeper into the answer to her question, I mentioned grace is not just something you have; it is also something you extend. Having a forgiving heart is not easy when you are mad or insulted or misunderstood, but extending grace can do so much for mending relationships and moving towards productive solutions.

I explained if we have been on the receiving end of grace, we are better able to extend grace. We receive our spiritual “grace” from God when we are humble enough to admit our failures first. This is a powerful lesson that I am still learning. It is only through accepting grace that we can have full relationship with God and with others.

This young woman came to ask me questions, but, through our conversation, I realized something important: Grace is not part of our nature; it is a gift. We don’t extend it out of our own resources, but out of God’s fullness in our life.


Identity or Ideas: What Will We Defend?

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.48.22 PM.pngOn the long drive to and from Nashville to deliver my daughter and all of her belongings to her dorm room at Vanderbilt University, I listened ad nauseum to news reports about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Commentators said the police were not vigilant in stopping the violence and police responded that protestors refused to comply with instructions to ensure their safety; they talked about the clubs people were carrying and how protestors deployed balloons filled with urine to spray reporters and opposing protestors; they discussed how the original intent of the rally was only to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Sadly, for seven hours, the talking heads and their paid experts went round and round the boxing ring, jabbing at paper-tigers and looking for someone to blame, but they never really got to the heart of the problem: The riot in Charlottesville was not prompted by the removal of a statue, but was the culmination of a political philosophy that has been fermenting for some time now in America–a phenomenon known as identitarian politics.

An identitarian’s ultimate political purpose is to promote his or her own culture, race or social ideology and is “founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” [] The identitarian cares more about bolstering his or her own image than in affecting positive social or political change. The movement, which first emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, has experienced a recent, strong revival in Europe and is often associated with fascism. In America, this resurgent ideology has been comingled with the epithet “white supremacy,” from which it is a short hop, by the liberal media, to conservatism. Surprisingly, both right and left apologists acknowledge this tactic is a blight to rational and productive debate and that both sides are guilty of its use.

From the right:

“Which is why identity politics — after decades of polluting our minds — now feels so wrong. We finally wised up. Identity politics preaches a splintering of one large collaborative group into competing vindictive ones — resulting in new angry tribes whose central thesis is to NOT cooperate. Because cooperation is a sign that you are violating their religion of separateness. In the American “melting pot,” identity politics wants to smash that pot — to bring us back to the Dark Ages, when collaboration was sparse.” [Identity politics: the biological fraud; by Greg Gutfeld]

Likewise, from the left:

“Identity politics of this sort leads us, when confronted with a social conflict, to ask a familiar question: ‘What’s the politically progressive position on this?’ This approach to social issues betrays a troubling narcissistic displacement: rather than analyze the social issue on its own merits, the political identitarian uses the issue as a way to assert his own persona. At worst, the social stakes of the issue are just a means to the end of his self image—what matters is what his position on the issue says about him.” [Political Identity as Identity Politics; Richard Thompson Ford]

When taken to the extreme for any group, identitarian politics results in monolithic positions that degenerate into verbal rock-throwing and produce nothing. Speakers on both ends of the political spectrum do a lot of speaking, but not a lot of listening–because listening might require a change of position that would threaten the group’s identity.

What if politics became less about people (one’s idols, statues or favorite team) and more about ideas? What if we had monuments to ideas–the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Federalist Papers–instead of people: Would we be tearing those down too?

Until political discourse becomes more about ideas and less about your ancestors, where you grew up or what news station you watch, we will remain stuck in the political quagmire that we see displayed in Congress. Some say the ultra-left are responsible for the emergence of the ultra-right (and visa versa). Is this stark division reversible or have we returned forever to the time of skins and clubs, where the strongest and meanest survive? We need to return to the foundational principle that we are a people who use productive, civil speech to build a better republic. If not, we create our own destiny, which is the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville last weekend.

LPM Curriculum Meeting Minutes


Notes from Liberty Park Middle Curriculum Information Meeting

  • 2017 May 18, 8:30am
  • Prepared by: Kimberly Cook

[These notes are my personal notes and paraphrase of comments made at the meeting. I also recorded the meeting, so if anyone has particular questions about the discussion, you can inquire.]

Elective Courses Overview:

  • 2008-2009: offered Art, Band, Choir, Spanish
  • 2016-2017: added Family and Consumer Science

Note: Career Prep A / Digital Photography were offered in 2016-2017, but they did not have success in getting enough students enrolled–2 or 3 at most—so the class did not “make.”

  • 2017-2018: French, German and Coding were added to course offerings.
  • LPM will continue to offer these courses each year; at some point, we hope they will have enough numbers to “make” the course.

Roger Dobnikar, LPM Asst. Principal: LPM contacted Central Office with the numbers that signed up for French and German and they were instructed to let those parents know that, due to the number who signed up, these courses will only be offered online with a person in the room with them (facilitator), but not with an actual teacher of the language. Parents were offered the option to drop back to their child’s second option. That is why those parents received a letter.

For Coding, there was not a second option, so parents did not receive a letter; the school automatically went to the second option on the student’s course card.

Dobnikar reviewed the process used for choosing electives:

  • Current 6th and 7th grade students went over course cards in a meeting on May 1 and Mr. Dobnikar explained options for electives.
  • Parent and student signatures are required on the card.
  • For 7th and 8th grade, course descriptions sent home and posted on website so conversation could continue at home.
  • Courses were explained in a video and in meetings with students.

Q: Many students chose Robotics as their first choice for Lancer Period; how many slots will be made available for the club?

A: Everyone should be able to get their first choice; the school will expand the opportunity to meet the need

Q:[Jennifer Weaver] Could you address the advantages of taking some of the electives?

A: Discussion ensued regarding foreign languages:

  • The middle school foreign language program takes one year (Level I) and divides it into a two-year program
  • Taking the Level I course in middle school allows students to start Level II foreign language in 9th grade; it also opens another slot in grades 9-12 to take another elective course
  • Students do not receive a Carnegie unit for the middle school Level I course, but it prepares them for Level II in grades 9-12 and gives them a headstart in that foreign language

Q: [Stacy Hurst] How will scheduling be handled when 8th and 9th grade are together, with the 8th grade 7-period schedule and the 9th grade 8-period schedule?

A: [Jane-Marie Marlin, Asst. Superintendent] These are long-term decisions we are not prepared to make right now.

Q: What will the schedule be like for 9th grade in Fall 2019?

A: [Marlin] Students would have the same schedule as what is in other high school grades; can’t answer about how 7th-8th grade schedules will change at this time.

Q: Why can’t students be allowed two electives, instead of just one?

A: [Marlin] This option was carefully considered (“explored deeply”) in the task force that studied middle school scheduling earlier this year. The group concluded this would create a more stressful environment for students, having an additional graded course.

Q: [Sarah Brown] What are the advantages of taking Career Prep A in middle school?

A: [Marlin] Career Prep A is required by the state for graduation; A is computer skills-based and B centers on financial literacy. There is some discussion that, with offering Career Prep A in middle school, Career Prep B may be embedded in another subject in 9th-12th.

Career Prep A and B are offered in summer school also, but there is a fee. Rising 9th grade students are eligible to take summer school courses this summer.

A parent pointed out that if someone starts a foreign language in 7th grade, they can’t take Career Prep A in 8th grade.

Q: Why is Career Prep A paired with Digital Photography?

A: [Dobnikar] Digital Photography was the only semester course that was an option to pair with Career Prep A.

Q: What if a student wants Career Prep A and 3D Art?

A: [Dobnikar] We would not have the teacher availability to do both.

Mr. Munger discussed how the goal of the VHHS 8-period day change was to eliminate the need to take summer courses and provide more flexibility and opportunity for elective courses.

A parent suggested it would be helpful to invite parents of students in lower grades to participate in curriculum nights at VHHS so parents and students can have a better understanding of how early curriculum choices in middle school can affect their path in high school.

A parent encouraged people to sign up for daily email blasts from VHHS to start receiving important information about summer school, etc.

Q: [Weaver] Would offering foreign language (first year) to 8th grade help LPM achieve the numbers needed to “make” a course? Jennifer encouraged the central office to look at numbers from a different perspective and provide opportunities for students, even though the numbers are lower at LPM.

Q: [Stacy Hurst] It was stated a student cannot change languages in middle school or take a first-year middle school foreign language course in 8th grade; why?

A: [Brooke Izurieta, LPM Spanish teacher] explained you need both years to qualify for the next language level in high school. She explained that first-year language in middle school is an introduction, whereas the second year is more reading and writing.

Discussion ensued about the value of taking a language course to “try it out” before committing to a long-term course of study in that language.

Q:  LPM has less than half the number of students compared to Pizitz Middle. If 15 is the number required to “make” a course, shouldn’t the board consider offering the class to LPM students at a lower threshold, to compensate for the lower student enrollment at LPM?

A: [Marlin] The online foreign language delivery method was never was just going to be about sitting in front of a screen. She discussed a “blended” experience, perhaps with some high school students coming in to assist.

A parent commented that online vs. live teacher is obviously a very different experience.

Q: Can we offer a unified arts approach for language? [rotating through various languages]

A: [Kacy Pierce, LPM Principal] We currently don’t have the teachers for that.

Q: [Joanna Rumbley] What is it going to take to get French/German off the ground? Students are staying away from foreign language because they heard it was going to be a video. In order to achieve equity, both schools need to be treated as one student body, both in Fall 2019 and now. The LPM community pays the same tax dollars as everyone else, but we are not being provided the courses. [applause]

Marlin said it is the intent, when 9th grade is added, that courses will be held to the same standards. If it is a Carnegie Unit course, we absolutely will offer it.

Q: Then, why is there currently a different analysis for LPM compared to PM [in regard to numbers in a class]?

A: [Marlin] Whatever we currently have at the high school we will have in Fall 2019.

Kimberly Cook made the statement that obviously students/parents do not consider an online course to be equivalent or of the same value as a foreign language taught with a teacher in classroom. You can see that from the way the enrollment numbers dropped from 6 to 2 and from 5 to 1 in French and German when parents were notified the class would be online.

A: [Marlin] Once we have all the changes in, the board will revisit the decision.

Q: What about the rotating schedule?

A: It is the desire of the faculty to continue the practice because it is best for students. This creates potential problems with teacher-sharing. [My observation: It will be difficult to teacher-share unless the schedules are identical.]

Marlin said they would have to be creative in designing the 9th grade schedules.

Q: Is there a plan in place to choose the people who will administrate the change?

Q: What will happen with the handful of students who take French/German using the online program in the first year if we add a teacher for second year?

A: They will transfer to the live teacher.

Kimberly Cook encouraged parents and students to make their elective choice, before the change deadline, with the assumption that the foreign language class would be offered by a teacher in the classroom. This is the only way to ensure that the board can properly assess the level of interest. She asked that this be communicated to parents and students by the school. Mr. Dobnikar indicated it would be shared.





Curriculum Alignment Report


Community Meeting, May 16, 2017, at Liberty Park Baptist Church

Thank you for attending our community curriculum alignment meeting last night. It was nice to get to discuss this important topic on our turf, without someone timing us. I want to thank Liberty Park Baptist and Pastor Scott Guffin for providing the space so we could meet as a community. They provided the chair setup and signage to direct us to the meeting room. This was so much appreciated.

There are several important meetings coming up of which you will want to be aware:

  • Wednesday (tonight), May 17, 6pm, Board of Education – Anna Velasco asked the superintendent to be placed on the agenda as a delegation representative; the superintendent will allow Anna 5 minutes to lobby the board for complete curriculum alignment for Liberty Park Middle School. If you are able, please come out as a show of support for this concern.
  • Thursday, May 18, 8:30am and 6pm, Liberty Park Middle School – The Board of Education and school administration will present information regarding new course offerings. This will be an opportunity to ask questions and get more information about the courses and scheduling process.

Helpful Links:

Meeting Report:

We had approximately 30 people attend last night, which was good for a busy school night at the end of the term. The discussion centered on our community’s desire to have a curriculum that is completely aligned with Pizitz Middle School. This concern grows from a desire to provide Liberty Park Middle-zoned students with the same academic opportunities as those provided to other student in our community and to protect our neighborhood property values. With the advent of 9th grade moving to Liberty Park Junior High in Fall 2019, the issue is time-sensitive and critical.

Anna presented information regarding her experience with Liberty Park Middle 2017-2018 course scheduling.

Anna received a letter from the school stating there had not been enough students to register for French and so the class would be provided as an online course with a proctor supervisor. The letter advised if her student wanted to change course selections, in light of this information, the school could make a course change. Anna felt the implication was that the school expected the delivery method would make their family desire a course change, since someone checked with her student to say, as a paraphrase, “We haven’t heard back from you; do you still intend to take French?” and also because the procedure for switching classes was outlined in the letter. (If the course was equivalent to what was promised initially, there would have been no need to outline the delivery method in a letter to the parent.) After further investigation, Anna discovered 6 students enrolled for French and 5 for German. Since the parent notification regarding the delivery system, the numbers have dropped for 2 for French and 1 for German.

In addition, Anna was told that the following elective classes would also not be offered due to low enrollment: Career Prep A and Coding. The school indicated Coding would be offered as Lancer Period club. (Lancer Period is a non-academic, 30-minute class offered at the end of each day for club and athletic activities.)

Anna pressed Asst. Superintendent Jane-Marie Marlin to provide more information to parents about the new course selections to boost enrollment. Parents shared there was no curriculum night or notification to parents/students regarding the new course offerings. One parent said she was not even aware her daughter had signed up for courses—there was no communication from the school to let parents know courses were being scheduled or to inform parents about the new aligned course offerings. She was unaware of the courses for which her student had applied.

In response to Anna’s concerns, the school produced a video, published on social media and sent out as a link in an email. She was told course cards would be sent home for review and possible revision, but this has not yet happened. Only a course change card has been posted.

A discussion ensued about the differences between courses offered at Pizitz Middle and Liberty Park Middle. The following are the published course guides for the two middle schools:

Notable differences are that the new courses added at Liberty Park Middle (French, German, Coding and Career Prep A) to achieve alignment had insufficient enrollment. Parents agreed that an online language course with a proctor is not at all the same as a language course with a qualified teacher in the classroom–the two experiences are not at all equivalent.

In the recently released curriculum video, VHHS World Language Department Chair Lisa Garrison explained world languages were “a vital tool all of our students need.” She said it was best to “begin this journey at an earlier age–not waiting until they are at the high school” because “starting a language early is always a benefit because their minds are set up [such that] the earlier they start learning a language, the easier the acquisition….” (At this point, the video abruptly trails off so that we cannot hear the rest of what she said.) Pizitz has offered all three world languages (French, Spanish and German) since before the beginning of Liberty Park Middle school. In its nine years of existence, Liberty Park Middle has never before offered French or German, although parents have clamored for it.

Also in the video, Brooke Brown, VHCS Director of Curriculum and Instruction, said, this year, LPM French and German would be offered through the Middlebury online interactive program, as well as through making use of “resources and experts from our community who can also enrich that experience for our students.” Liberty Park Middle will use this delivery system, but Pizitz Middle will not. One parent shared her child had been part of a pilot “French Fridays” offering this year, using the Middlebury delivery system, and that it had been a useless course. She said her child had gained nothing from the experience and the child said she did not understand why she had bothered to participate. Unless something changes, Although this will be the tenth year of LPM’s existence, unless something changes, it appears French and German will still not be offered as full electives with a teacher in the classroom.

After further discussion, parents concluded the following:

  • Course alignment must be complete: the same courses delivered as electives in both schools to all students who enroll and the courses must be delivered in an equivalent manner. (An online delivery system is not equivalent to having a teacher in the classroom; a 30-minute club period is not equivalent to an elective, academic class offering.)
  • Alignment cannot be a numbers game, because this is what has been used as an excuse for nine years, during which Liberty Park Middle students have suffered due to lack of opportunity and delivery of an inequitable learning experience.
  • Parents suggest a paid advocate (such as a junior-high administrator or ombudsman for Liberty Park Junior High) to ensure that parity is achieved, not only now, but as plans are made for the addition of 9th grade in Liberty Park.

Parents were encouraged to contact the Board of Education by email to share concerns and also attend the board meeting, May 17, 6pm, at which Anna Velasco will speak as our delegate.

Action Items:

  • Attend the BOE meeting on 5/17/17 to show support for Anna’s message regarding parity.
  • Write (email) board members and the superintendent to express the need for parity to be a priority. Please provide reasons for your concern.

  • Encourage your students (and get them to talk to their friends) to reconsider elective choices—choosing electives they think would best serve their interests without regard to fears it might not be delivered in an equitable manner. We need students to sign up to display the true level of interest in these classes before we can advocate for parity.

Report submitted by: Kimberly Cook (

Community Engagement – The Final Chapter


As I go around our city meeting people, I often have the experience of encountering a Facebook friend whom I have never met face to face. It always happens the same way: she says her name; I take a moment to think through the list of profile names who have commented on my posts recently and then there is the smile of recognition, followed by a spontaneous hug. My existing, virtual connection is made more intense because I have now made real contact. Regardless of the lure of social media, with all of its safe anonymity, people desire personal interactions. As human beings, we get our context from each other. Without face-time (the real kind, not the application), our social media interactions are like talking to paper dolls.

For communities to be strong, they must be built on a foundation of positive relationships, which lead to trust and cooperation. Neighbors who talk over the fence don’t have arguments about whether the fence is in the right place.

So, how can cities better provide opportunities and facilities for citizens to play and connect?

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  Winnie-the-Pooh; A.A. Milne


  • Renovate the Civic Center to provide classroom, recreational and exercise facilities at a reasonable cost to citizens.
  • Provide banquet space for special city events such as the Dogwood luncheon.
  • Update the sidewalk plan to prioritize installation of sidewalks in areas near schools, city facilities, parks and retail areas.
  • Develop more entertainment districts within our city and provide incentives to retail developers to provide more green and community gathering spaces.
  • Encourage and promote neighborhood social gatherings.
  • Maintain a list of volunteer service organizations and clubs, including city groups, for newcomers.
  • Promote generational recreation and learning programs to meet needs of underserved groups such as seniors, empty-nesters and young professionals.
  • Promote youth manners and dancing classes.
  • Provide better publicity for city recreational programs and events by 1) issuing press releases before and after city events; 2) ensuring city events are on various community calendars; 3) promoting events on social media; 4) publishing a digital subscription newsletter.
  • Develop a comprehensive, interactive, subscription calendar to include all city events in all city departments;
  • Administer annual surveys to find out what services are most important to citizens.
  • Publish results of annual Parks and Recreation surveys through press releases.
  • Establish a focus group as a subsidiary of the Parks and Recreation Board to assess and improve programming.
  • Provide adequate transportation for seniors, so they can participate in city programs.
  • Attend senior events/gatherings to find out if needs of senior citizens are being met.
  • Promote through community organizations and various avenues of communication our annual, city-wide Day of Service.
  • Assess recreational sports programs to ensure they are affordable and accessible to all, regardless of athletic talent, physical ability or income level.
  • Cooperate with Parks and Recreation Foundation to develop an athletic scholarship program for indigent youth.
  • Survey to determine what services are most desired in different parts of our city and develop a Parks and Recreation master plan to address needs of various neighborhoods; budget to ensure equitable distribution of services across the city.

Community Engagement – Part II

courthouse_andy_1024I grew up in a small town, in Southwest Virginia, that only had one main street. I lived in the same house for 15 years, so that, riding my bicycle, I knew every bump and dip in the road. I knew where everyone sat in the pews on Sunday. As a first grade student, when I accidentally got off the wrong stop on the school bus, miles from my babysitter’s house, an elderly stranger took me in and fed me buttermilk and crackers until my mother could come from work to get me. (To this day, I have an acquired taste for buttermilk.) Every Friday night, I spent the night with my grandparents and every Sunday afternoon, I sipped sweet, iced tea on my grandmother’s sofa. This was life in a small town. This was my Mayberry.

After graduating from college, I desired to see the other side of the fence. I got my first job in Washington, D.C.—about the furthest place removed from Mayberry one can imagine. I learned to navigate traffic circles, drive six-lane interstates and read a subway map. I experienced coming home to an empty apartment because I knew few people in a large city. I eventually found my community and met my husband, Greg, at First Baptist of Alexandria. As a redneck, Alabama boy, he felt as much an alien as I did in D.C.

Even further removed from Mayberry was Boston. Greg and I moved there right after our marriage so he could attend law school. I worked for Electronic Data Systems at a GM plant in Framingham, MA, supporting a car manufacturing production system. I parked my shiny, red Honda Prelude in a parking lot full of GM cars every day, and not once did anyone threaten me with a baseball bat. I learned the difference between blue collar workers and management. (Management eats in a dining room and workers eat in a cafeteria.) I met people who played recreational ice hockey. I learned how to understand a Yankee accent and they learned to interpret my Southern one. My husband and I attended a Baptist church service where they served Kool-Aid and animal crackers for communion. (Yes, we drank the Kool-Aid.) We attended a Passover Seder with upstairs apartment neighbors hailing from California and New York who became close friends.

After law school and our adventures in the frozen North, Greg and I decided to return to his roots, so we picked Birmingham as the best place to start our family. In 2002, we moved to Vestavia Hills because we found a beautiful home in Liberty Park, where our children could walk to and attend a great school. At first, we knew few people in the Vestavia Hills community, but I engaged right away in PTO and local Scout groups and soon found connections, making lifelong friends from all parts of our city. We can’t imagine a better place for our children to have grown up than Vestavia Hills.

Thank you for indulging my recitation of the places I have lived. My point is I grew up in Mayberry, where “everyone knew my name” (and my mama’s name and my granddaddy’s name); but, I have also lived in Raleigh, where I was a small Barney Fife in a big city pond. Probably all of us have had these experiences, however temporary, where we were the outsider—the alien.

In talking to all sorts of people in Vestavia—both those who grew up here and those who “are not from around here”—there is a common desire: we want our community to continue to be a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

So, what is the best way to make that happen? How do we connect pride in our city’s heritage and the desire of everyone in the community to continue moving forward? How do we engage our newcomer residents and help them form connections with their Mayberry neighbors?

Below is Part II of my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform. Here are my ideas about how we can WELCOME others to our community and make it easy for newcomers to engage:

  • Organize “Welcome to the City” receptions on quarterly basis.
  • Enlist the help of realtors, apartment managers and school board to distribute “Welcome to Vestavia Hills” packets of information to new residents; include voter and school registration information; helpful information about city services (libraries, parks and recreation programs, garbage pickup, police and fire protection); helpful links (QR codes) to city website resources.
  • Organize voter registration drives before city elections and provide sample ballot/issue information.
  • Provide comprehensive publicity for community events through a variety of methods such as email (by subscription); social media; newsletters (digital and paper); community events page on website).
  • Provide a community events calendar on city website to which residents can subscribe for regular updates.
  • Establish a “Newcomers” page on the city website to include links to: Action Center, city services index, FAQs, contacts for city council and school board representatives, city volunteer opportunity index. (Link to this from Chamber and PTO websites; provide a “contact” for newcomer questions.)
  • Encourage partnerships between community business leaders and schools to provide enhanced learning opportunities through mentor relationships, work-study programs, and enrichment studies.
  • Establish city directory of opportunities for service and engagement (for example, Friends of the Library, youth athletic leagues, Sunrise Rotary Club, Toastmasters, city boards, Help for the Hills, Leadership Vestavia Hills); allow citizens to add to the directory, upon moderated approval.
  • Establish a moderated, online “suggestion box” where citizens can post recommendations for ways to improve our city.
  • Work with schools to ensure prospective students visiting our schools have a good first impression.
  • Work with schools to institute student ambassador program for new students in the first month of school.
  • Encourage the school system to allow foreign exchange students to attend city schools.

Community Engagement – Part I


VH City Logo Unity Prosperity FamilyAs I sat in the city council chamber audience, waiting through numerous business items to hear the results of the February 2016 board of education appointment, my eyes were drawn to the emblem laser-etched on the back of the chair in front of me. I read the words, “Unity, Prosperity, Family.”

There are many definitions of unity. For our city, I prefer the definition of unity that is described in the Bible as it relates to the body, which has many diverse parts, but they all function towards one unified goal and purpose—to live a life of purpose and meaning. There are certainly other definitions for “unity,” such as “oneness of mind, feeling, agreement,” but we all know this doesn’t often happen for a family of four, much less a city of 35,000.

In our city emblem, the word “Family” appears as the balance to “Unity.” As I developed my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform, I kept the word “Family” in mind, because this is a metaphor that works well for a city our size.

There are certainly all kinds of families. My parents divorced when I was twelve, so I have a different perspective than my husband, whose parents are still together after more than 50 years of marriage. From his parents, Greg learned three things about how to have a happy household:

Treat all your children the same. Having three sons, no doubt Greg’s parents understood the importance of this precept. In Greg’s family, this did not mean every child had the same rules to follow, demanded the same amount of parental attention or even got the same big present for Christmas. Why? Because, all three sons were different—with diverse needs, desires, and personalities. Nevertheless, Greg knew his parents loved all three sons equally because his parents went to great lengths to give equal treatment. Children are more likely to overlook a disappointment if they understand they have been treated equitably and given a fair hearing.

Families need to hang tight and be ready to welcome new friends. Greg’s Air Force family moved frequently. He described his childhood as a series of starting new public schools, packing and unpacking, living in temporary transitional quarters, and getting accustomed to new climates. To me, a girl who grew up in the same small town and attended the same church until I went off to college, this sounded terrible. Greg explained that the frequent moving was a good thing because it made his family close, because family was the only thing that didn’t change. Frequent moving also meant you either had to make friends quickly or be isolated.

Don’t go to bed angry. Even if your family is tight, there will be disagreements. As parents, Greg and I have learned when there is an impasse—a decision that must be made and there are two directly opposing views—one person has to “give.” Often, the outcome is more important to one parent than another, so it is best to allow the parent with the stronger interest to get his or her way. In all negotiations, communication should be open and civil. Once the decision is made, put any unhappy feelings about what happened behind you. u.Make the decision and then put it to rest, realizing, at the end of the day, what you have in common is more important than what divides yo

So how can we make our Vestavia Hills family stronger? Over the next several weeks, I will publish my ideas in sections. This week, I would like to focus on OPEN DOORS. At my house, we fight a continuing battle to get our youngest son to leave his door open when he is upstairs and we are downstairs. We desire this because having open doors facilitates conversation and interaction. This makes families stronger.


  • Schedule weekly “office” hours at various neighborhood locations; invite the community to drop in and talk about any subject.
  • Recruit community members to serve on boards to ensure diverse representation (geographic; socio-economic; long-timers; newcomers); publicize board and commission openings through multiple media outlets.
  • Organize topical town hall meetings in various parts of the city, as needed.
  • Once every two months, rotate the location of a work session to an off-site location, choosing venues in various parts of the city.
  • Allow public comment and questions at the end of work sessions.
  • Assign communication tasks to city employees to ensure effective, regular communication.
  • Monitor social media forums for issues and respond to questions and concerns.
  • Publish “Tales from the Meeting” – a bi-monthly councilor blog regarding old and new business.
  • Publish monthly work session reports regarding requests and response rates for our Action Center.
  • Issue press releases to alert media regarding important topics to be addressed at council meetings.
  • Publish calendar of board and commission meetings on website.
  • Facilitate subscriptions to a city calendar so citizens can receive notifications regarding city board, commission and council meetings.
  • Publish minutes and agenda packets for all city boards and commissions on website.
  • Video-record work sessions and board/commission meetings and post on website.
  • Support and encourage development of community groups to address specific neighborhood issues and facilitate special projects; put community groups in touch with city resources to assist their processes.
  • Provide an online “community engagement” portal, to provide information about ways citizens can become involved and volunteer in our city government.
  • Schedule council meetings at a time that is convenient for citizens.

Community Engagement

“Strengthen your VOICE…Great by Choice.”

What happens when people are not happy with the way things are?  They want change. They want a VOICE and they want their CHOICES to matter.

Over the past two years, beginning with Dr. Blair’s early paid retirement, our community has experienced squalls that have threatened our unity and identity. John Oliver’s satirical commentary, broadcast to a national audience, was the icing and sprinkles on the donut. The formation of the Cahaba Heights Community Foundation and the “Not in My Schoolyard” campaign was a reaction to a perception that one segment of our community lacked consideration and representation. (One councilor’s statement, “They don’t matter; they don’t vote,” really summed it up.)

In my “Coffee & Conversation” meetings with friends and neighbors, I ask the question, “What would you like to see change in our city?” One common theme is the desire for our community to come together as one community, and not just individual parts of a whole. One trusted friend said she would support my candidacy, but only if I would run as a representative for the entire community.

In our community, we are geographically fragmented. In 1950, the city of Vestavia Hills was incorporated and eventually included most of the current area shown on the map to the east of Highway 280. Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 11.13.45 AMVestavians have an ongoing, friendly debate about the proper term to use for this original part of Vestavia Hills. Some call it “Vestavia Proper,” which doesn’t work very well as a descriptor because it implies the rest of Vestavia is somewhat “improper.” Others call it “Old Vestavia,” which also offends because it implies an elderly aristocracy. I still don’t know what to call the original part of Vestavia without offending someone, so I have decided to go with “Pre-1995 Vestavia.”

In 1995, the legislature passed an amendment to the state constitution (because that is how we roll in Alabama) to allow the annexation of Liberty Park. At the time, the City of Vestavia Hills and Liberty Park did not share any borders and such an annexation violated the state constitution. The annexation of Liberty Park added Liberty Park Elementary and now Liberty Park Middle to our school system.

A short time later, in 2002, Cahaba Heights was also annexed, which connected Liberty Park and Pre-1995 Vestavia like a jewel pendant strung between two large beads. The annexation of Cahaba Heights added Cahaba Heights Elementary to our school system.

In all, our city covers about 19 square miles, although there is nothing “square” about the configuration. What I do know is that it takes me 25 minutes and one cup of coffee to drive from Liberty Park, through Cahaba Heights, to the high school. We have 34,000 residents and 15,000 households. Our median house value is $318,000. We are 90% white (Caucasian), 4% black (African-American) and 6% other races. Our median household income is $87,000. We have 4% of our population below the poverty line. We are the third largest city in Jefferson County.

As we reflect on our history and recent events, it becomes clear that for Vestavia Hills to move forward, we need positive and inclusive leadership. We all want to have a seat at the table. After the Memorial Day holiday, I will publish the second part of my platform: COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT. I will share my vision for how we can make our community ONE.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 9.49.44 PM.png
Cpl. William F. “Sonny” Silver

Over the weekend, I will be visiting my oldest son and daughter–both VHHS graduates–in D.C. My daughter is a summer intern on Capitol Hill and my son is working as a software developer in Herndon, Virginia. On Monday, I will visit the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial because my uncle’s name is on that wall. My youngest son proudly shares his name—William Franklin “Sonny” Silver. Uncle Sonny was killed by a grenade on Hamburger Hill, May 13, 1969. He was 21 years old and unmarried. He did not even complete a full year of service, but he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a “V” for Valor. As I remember my uncle’s faithful service, I hope you will take the time to honor our veterans who have served us so well. Have a happy and safe weekend.



Transparency. We all want it in our government, but how does transparency “look” in real life and what are its effects?


  • Plan meetings at a time and place so that people can reasonably attend.
  • Discuss issues in open meetings, where citizens are invited and encouraged to hear all that is being said.
  • Provide public information to citizens in a convenient, accessible format through an open data platform.
  • Record and post public meetings.


  • Post meeting agendas for work sessions and regular meetings in a timely fashion on the city website.
  • Provide meeting materials (agendas and agenda packets) to citizens who subscribe.
  • Post meeting notices on city social media pages.
  • Record and post minutes for all city council meetings–work sessions and regular meetings–where business is transacted.
  • Record and post minutes for all of our city’s subsidiary foundations, boards, commissions and committees.


  • Post all city contracts, competitive bids and relevant conflict of interest statements before contracts are awarded.
  • Post publicly all service agreements and conflict of interest statements in advance of the agreement signing.
  • Regularly review and evaluate professional service contracts that are not bid to ensure an optimum level of service and cost-effectiveness.
  • Select professional service vendors, whenever possible, who are not impeded by a conflict of interest.
  • Rotate the selection of auditors to ensure independence, objectivity and fiscal responsibility.
  • Advertise vacancies on all city boards and commissions; use an application process to identify potential conflicts of interest and ensure the best selection is made.
  • Provide mandatory ethics training for new city council, board and commission members.
  • Require appointees to adhere to this transparency platform.

When we ACE transparency, we achieve:

  • Development that is responsive to the desires of the community
  • Stronger ethics in government
  • Efficient, responsible use of taxpayer dollars
  • Decisions that put citizens first and other concerns second
  • City services that best meet the needs of citizens
  • Community image and reputation that makes us all proud

If you elect me to the Vestavia Hills City Council, you will have a pair of watchful eyes and an advocate for the examples of transparency provided above.

“If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” [Justice Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court]

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