When DJ Jackson and David Phelps approached Shelley Jones eight semesters ago with the idea for Bricks to Books, she didn’t know what to expect from the meeting. She didn’t expect the Honors students to want to create such a class, and didn’t expect Bricks to Books to develop into such a rewarding experience for not only her students, but for herself as well.

Ex-principal Shelley Jones spent more than 30 years in the public school system.

“I was so blown away by the passion they had to do something about public education,” Jones said. “They came to my house and we all decided to shape the course around challenges facing public education today and possible solutions to these issues.”

After some deliberation and syllabus planning, the Bricks to Books class came alive. Jackson said they wanted to talk about what makes schools successful including everything from bricks (the physical environment) to books (the curriculum).

It is now a one-credit hour honors seminar that is held once a week. Jackson and Phelps, who were honors students at the time, said they wanted to create a class that would spark change in public education.

“Bricks to Books came about as an opportunity for students who were not necessarily interested in becoming educators to learn how to support education regardless of their profession,” Jackson said. “David and I were very passionate about education, but we wanted to work with a community member [Mrs. Jones] to have a class that talked about current issues in Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama and the country.”

Jackson and Phelps thought Jones was a perfect fit to teach the class because she
worked in the public school system for more than 30 years, including stints as both a principal and as an elected school board member.

“You can’t just keep doing what doesn’t work,” Jones said. “It is important to be the change in public education and to develop innovative leadership styles.”

Through her course, students learn with practice and example what it means to be a powerful educator and to make a difference in communities through education. Jones requires her class to research many hot-button education issues and talk about these issues through group discussion. She also requires her students to attend Tuscaloosa School Board meetings.

Colorful name cards provide a fun atmosphere for learning.

Throughout the semester she brings many teachers, students, principals and school board members to speak to her class about different learning styles, challenges and policies. This line up even includes the mayor of Tuscaloosa, Walt Maddox, who Jones said is very in tune with the relationship between education and community.

“I share my personal experiences in education, but it is more important to bring in people from the community to share their own experiences,” Jones said. “I could stand there and tell them what education is about, but hearing from someone that experiences it day-to-day is more impactful.”

The class focuses on many different main areas of education. Some of these include: alternative education like homeschooling and private schools; shortage of qualified teachers and teacher recruitment; public school governance history; and the Pre-K initiative. The final project challenges the students to discover a process or problem in education that they wish to change. Students are required to look into current research and develop a possible solution to the problem. They then present the research and their proposed plan to the class.

Jackson said Jones’ class is important for someone who is interested in community development.

“After taking this class, I was able to better understand how education can be augmented by participation from community members,” he said. “I would encourage any student who wants to make a difference to take this class. After this class, students will be able to act as advocates in their own communities supporting equitable education for everyone.”

Jones said each semester’s curriculum changes depending on the present challenges. During the tornadoes, her class decided to take initiative to be involved in rebuilding The Alberta School of Performing Arts, which became a part of their class curriculum.

“The students really wanted to be a part of the design of the new school, but also the development of new curriculum,” she said. “They ended up interviewing parents, teachers and students to ask what they needed in a new school. I am proud to say they presented the plans to the school board and some were used.”

The Bricks to Books students met with active members of the Tuscaloosa school system, including the mayor of Tuscaloosa.

After completing the class, Jones said she hopes her students are inspired by how public education can be changed by community involvement.

“I dearly love this and get more involved than the students,” Jones said. “Most of my students leave this class and never teach, but I hope after this class they will become committed to giving support to public education in our country. This includes being school board members in their communities, and having a passion in their heart and appreciation for challenges public schools face.”

Teresa Farkas is a freelance writer for Mosaic.