06/12/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Tales from the 'Magic City'

Arguably no city played a more pivotal role in the American civil rights movement than Birmingham, Ala. It could even be said that no children were more important to the movement than Birmingham's.

Children played a critical role in demonstrations that defined the civil rights movement 50 years ago in Birmingham. In 1963 -- the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, dubbed the "Magic City" -- children marched alongside adults for peaceful protests in the face of fierce opposition from Sheriff Bull Connor, who used fire hoses and dogs to disrupt the demonstrations.

In response, student after student filed out of school and was jailed as part of what was called the "Children's Crusade." Modeled on the work of Mahatma Gandhi and King, children marched with nonviolent dignity, serving as a model for the nation. Jails became so crowded that the children stood shoulder to shoulder. That same year, four girls were murdered at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Criticized for encouraging children to participate, King said the protests helped them develop "a sense of their own stake in freedom."

Fifty years later, we remember another leader, the late Dr. Michael Froning, for helping Birmingham's children, families and teachers develop a sense of their own stake in education.

In 2002 -- long before people like New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich began talking about education as a civil right -- Froning, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, used the concept to rally support for Birmingham's schools. He wanted the level of engagement that so distinguished Birmingham during the civil rights movement to power its education reform movement.

A transformative leader who understood the importance of teacher quality for children of color and those challenged by poverty, Froning died unexpectedly last month at age 71.

"The problem," he wrote, "can be stated simply, but is difficult to solve: How can we find enough highly qualified, well-prepared teachers for urban schools who have the skills to survive, the will to succeed and the unshakeable belief in the capacity of all children that inspires their students to work hard and learn at high levels?"

He believed education can help the poor live the American dream, and that "... colleges of education, especially those in urban universities, have much to offer... to design and carry out truly collaborative preparation with local and national partners, targeted to the particular needs of local school districts."

He persuaded his university to stand firm in its support of partnerships designed to recruit, train and retain high-quality teachers. And he believed teachers must meet children where they are culturally and see the world through their eyes, using language and concepts that are familiar to them. He favored the same approach for families, encouraging educators to build meetings around parents' work schedules and not according to the school day.

Urban education presents true challenges, but Froning, working with key stakeholders - university staff, the board of education, the state department of education, district educators, as well as business leaders of the Rotary Club, foundations and outside education reform partners - set in motion initiatives that have helped stabilize Birmingham City Schools during the past 10 years. Student achievement and graduation rates are on the rise; career academies are being created to engage students earlier in their school careers and appeal to their passions; and Dr. Craig Witherspoon, a dynamic superintendent, has been hired. Partnerships and the community are reaping benefits for Birmingham students.

Since 2005, I have met and talked with hundreds of high school students in Birmingham. Recently I was the keynote speaker at the district's first celebration of its career academies. Highly motivated to succeed, these students talked about their renewed hopes, dreams and the unified goal of attending a college and pursuing a career of their choice. They had come to recognize the impact of Froning's leadership and the community synergy that encourages them to embrace education as a civil right. (During the celebration, one student pointed at Froning and said, "You are the man!") Like their grandparents and parents before them, who went on a "Children's Crusade" for civil rights, students today in Birmingham are beginning to understand the role their "Magic City" has played in the history of this country -- and can play again, going forward.

It means embracing what Froning taught us, and finding ways to bring the large-scale changes that worked in Birmingham to many school systems.

"A key factor in leveraging [our efforts] will be the ability to expand the partnership to other universities, avoiding a proprietary mentality that has traditionally kept higher education partners separate," Froning wrote in a chapter contribution to the book, "Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Urban Teachers." "This is our dream."

The path is wrought with challenges, and poverty will continue to be a factor in achievement to some degree. But with the leadership of Froning and others, it's magic time again.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at