Chamber hosts annual State of Education luncheon

Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette speaks during the 2024 State of Education luncheon on Friday, April 12, 2024. (Janet Chandler)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the 2024 State of Education luncheon on April 12, featuring Wallace State Community College President Dr. Vicki Karolewics, Cullman City Schools Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff and Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette.

“This luncheon is a special luncheon for us,” said Chamber President Joey Orr. “We host one seven months out of the year and this is the most attended; I think it’s because of what it stands for. Our community supports education, from little kids all the way up to our post-graduate and graduates at Wallace State. We are so thankful for you being here today to honor the education-minded community.”

Listerhill Credit Union was the luncheon sponsor. Its Kicks for Kids program provides children in need of safe and sturdy footwear with new shoes. The credit union partners with businesses and donors to provide shoes to students across Alabama and Tennessee; to date, Kicks for Kids has placed over 18,000 pairs of socks and 4,500 pairs of shoes directly onto the feet of Alabama school students in need of comfortable, safe and well-fitting footwear.

State Farm Insurance Agent Shirley Quattlebaum was the registration sponsor of the event. Quattlebaum recalled a trip to Vinemont High School, where the State Farm-sponsored nonprofit from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) – the university’s TRIP Lab – was present, giving the young scholars a first-hand look at inside research for traumatic brain injuries

Quattlebaum championed, “They are developing protocols for the length of time that a teen needs to be off of the roads or away from the ballfield so that they can recover from injuries.”

The lab took the students through a teen driver safety presentation, before delving into simulators demonstrating different impairments and their effects on driving skills. Along the way, the new lab students learned from current UAB students and faculty about brain injuries and the catastrophic results of impaired driving and repeated head injuries.

“We had a great time; they always love that. It’s just one more way that State Farm gives back to the community and our students,” smiled Quattlebaum.

While the attendees enjoyed their meals, each presenter used his or her time at the microphone to champion their schools.

Barnette began his address with gratitude for the overall interest in advancing educational outlooks from each of the three school systems, including the area’s private schools.

Cullman County Schools saw 150 more enrolled students than last year, bringing the system total to over 9,900 students, according to the superintendent. Barnette said Cullman County Schools has a 96.68% graduation rate and that 99.67% of Cullman County Schools students meet College and Career Readiness Indicators (CCRI).

“We want every student that graduates from Cullman County Schools to have a college credit and some type of tool in their toolbox like a credential where they can go out and do something,” he said.

Barnette shared a humorous sentiment that he sometimes shares with his students: “I always say, ‘I want you to get a W-2,’ and I mean that with all of my heart. If you want to go to college, we can make it happen. If you want to go into the workforce, let us know what you want to do and we are going to make it happen. We want you to be successful and build a life for your family and live here and work here and be a part of our community.”

Enrollment is not the only growth that Cullman County Schools has seen since the last State of Education event; Barnette reported that the system has successfully completed or begun work on a total of at least 14 projects and undertakings over the last year. Cold Springs High School built a new gymnasium, West Point Elementary, West Point High School and Vinemont Schools all got an expanded and revamped lunchrooms; Good Hope Middle is the home of a new office complex, library and gymnasium; and there is a new multisensory playground at the Cullman County Child Development Center.

Other notable achievements for Cullman County Schools that Barnette called to attention in his time on stage included the system’s 100% growth on its annual State Report Card, the state’s new Biliteracy Seal as well as the many programs and certifications the system offers through the Cullman Area Technology Academy.

Kallhoff took the stage to champion Cullman City Schools and give an update to the community on all the updates and changes taking place.

Cullman City Schools is the middle of the largest overhaul yet to its infrastructure, as laid out by Kallhoff previously in his long-term strategic plan. ( The projects include new, state-of-the-art educational tools and areas designed to steer students toward success. At the time of publication, the addition of a second-grade wing and new lunchroom to Cullman City Primary School and a partial demolition and rebuild for Cullman Middle School were tangible proof of Kallhoff’s plans; those completed and nearly done projects are just the tip of the iceberg for Kallhoff and the Cullman City School Board.

Currently, Cullman City Schools students in grades three through six are either zoned for and attend West or East Elementary School. Beginning in August 2024, sixth graders will no longer attend East or West, but instead attend Cullman Middle School. By late 2026 or early 2027, the board is expected to greenlight an 18-classroom addition at West Elementary, creating the new Cullman Intermediate School, housing all students within the Cullman City Schools district in grades three through five. The current East Elementary School will eventually be home to the district’s Headstart and Pre-K programs, creating a dedicated space for the children to learn cohesively and hopefully double enrollment numbers for the pre-grade school program.

Improvements to the campus and curriculum are taken directly from feedback from the community; administration uses that feedback and the volume of those voices to create a strategic plan, which Kallhoff notes as the ‘Six colors of Commitment’, including Student Safety and Support, Curriculum and Assessment, Extra-Curricular Opportunities, Employees, Finances and Facilities.

Kallhoff also utilized his time on stage to speak about the system’s State Report Card. The school system received all ‘A’ marks, an improvement from the report of 2023, with one school receiving a score of 89. Cullman City Schools is known for its academic excellence, but Kallhoff hopes that students in his schools will take something more valuable away from their time in the Cullman City Schools system – a drive for success and hunger for improvement.

“All of our schools have As on their report card, we are proud of that work. It’s not the first time that has happened in the Cullman City School system. Last year, when report cards came out, we didn’t accomplish that; one of our schools received an 89,” shared Kallhoff, before speaking to the students in the gathered crowd, saying, “Sometimes in life you don’t meet your goals; what makes up your fabric is what you do when you don’t meet your goals. Do you say, ‘Okay, well I got an 89,’ or do you make a plan and say, ‘What can I do to make this better?’ I’m so proud of this school that when that score came out, they did not accept that. They didn’t accept not making an A. They made a plan, put it in place and they no longer have a B, so thank you to Mrs. (Allison) Tuggle for your hard work and dedication over there.”

Karolewics stepped on the stage to discuss the additions and improvements to the community college, including the new Nursing and Welding buildings and the new Workforce Training Facility on REHAU’s industrial campus. One large undertaking that the school will begin by the summer of 2024 is a complete demolition and remodel of the campus’s front six buildings, which remain from the original construction in the 1960s.

“Wallace State is the fourth largest college in the Alabama Community College System, and there are 24 of us, but we are easily the best. Our student outcomes, and I may sound braggadocious and I guess I am, but we do a really good job with students here,” Karolewics said. “We have a partnership with the city and the county (schools) with the Fast Track Academy and the Fast Track to Industry. We have about 175 kids in that program who will finish their high school diploma and college degree simultaneously in the last years of school. We have 1,150 dual enrollment students at this moment; we are opening the Winston County Community Learning Center in Arley in the summer.” Driving home the importance of the versatility and wide array of certifications and degrees that WSCC offers, Karolewics pointedly said, “Anything any of you need in terms of customized training, we can provide that.”

At the end of the luncheon, 12 local students were recognized as Student of the Year for their school:

  • Fairview High School- Crimson Wright
  • Cold Springs High School- Evan Freeman
  • Holly Pond High School- Ellie Burks
  • Vinemont High School- Vivian “Gracie” Moody 
  • Good Hope High School- Avery Flynt
  • Hanceville High School- Logan Lisle  
  • West Point High School- Aaron Warren
  • Cullman Area Technology Academy- Breaze Freeman
  • Cullman High School- Sophie Peetz
  • Cullman Christian School- Skylar Driver
  • Saint Bernard Preparatory School- Viktoria DeCicco
  • Wallace State Community College- Vianney Maldonado

The scholarship for 2024 Student of the Year for Cullman County was awarded to Vinemont’s Vivian Moody.

Other awards included:

  • Career Technical Student of the Year: Breaze Freeman
  • Cullman City Elementary Teacher of the Year: Miranda Gunter
  • Cullman City Secondary Teacher of the Year: Cassie Bowen
  • Cullman County Elementary Teacher of the Year: Kristy Salazar
  • Cullman County Secondary Teacher of the Year: Lucretia Smith
  • Wallace State Community College Teacher of the Year: Jackie Donaldson 
  • Wallace State Student of the Year: Vianney Maldonado

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