Darcel Green didn’t think much of her quiet life in the small, West Alabama town of Livingston, until she took a car ride with her high school science teacher one day after school.
Like many teachers in Green’s majority-black high school, this teacher enrolled her daughter in Sumter Academy, the town’s majority-white private school. On that day, Green went with the teacher to pick her daughter up before a club meeting. There, for the first time, Green began to wonder:
Why can’t we have computer science classes? Why can’t we have swim teams or debate teams?
As graduation neared at Livingston High School, and the question of careers and futures began to come up, Green’s curiosity grew.
“I kept wondering, like, why don't we have more jobs in this area?” she said. “Like, why – you know, we have a university here – why couldn't we keep a Walmart?”
While concerned citizens were successful in bringing back the only Walmart in the county after it tanked in 2008, the economic struggle in Sumter County endures.
An hour south of the University of Alabama, Sumter County sits on the western edge of the Black Belt, a region named for its fertile, black soil that is now the state’s poorest area. Home to the University of West Alabama, or UWA, the county has a 33.2 percent poverty rate and ranks 62nd among the state’s 67 counties for child well-being, according to the Alabama Kids Count Data Book.
Some have argued that those numbers are due to the town’s long legacy of segregation, survived by its three main schools: the private, majority-white Sumter Academy and the public, majority-black Livingston Junior High School and Sumter County High School, which merged with Livingston High School when enrollment plummeted.
Often nicknamed “segregation academies,” these schools are, to many people, standing symbols of a mass exodus of white families, who fled from the public schools in response to court-ordered desegregation in 1970, leaving those schools nearly all-black and strapped for resources.
“I feel like it held Sumter County back,” said Green, 32, who now works as the program assistant for UA’s Blackburn Institute, a leadership development program aimed at promoting civic engagement in Alabama.
Racial division in the schools, Green said, stunted business, education, and any hopes for social harmony beyond their walls.
“You don't get the chance to see people for who they really are,” she said.
But now, nearly 50 years after the court order, some students might finally get that chance.
A CREATIVE SOLUTION
In a first grade classroom housed in UWA’s Lyon Hall, 13 students greeted me. Their school the subject of national press, they’d gotten used to visitors.
“Why are you here?” a girl named Ruby asked after her classmate was scolded for asking my age (It’s not polite to ask ladies that, after all).
“I’m writing an article,” I said.
“What’s an article?”
“Do you know what a story is?” I asked.
They nodded. They were learning about The Boy Who Cried Wolf, their teacher explained.
The story of Livingston’s school system isn’t exactly fit for a children’s book. But it does tell familiar tales of resistance, pride, conflict, despair and, now, hope.
On August 13, University Charter School opened its doors to about 300 students in grades ranging from pre-K to eighth grade. Three-fourths of those students are black, and 26 percent are white – a ratio that’s historic for a public school in Sumter County, where school desegregation hasn’t been achieved since the ‘60s, when a handful of black students sought to integrate the then-white Livingston High School.
UCS is also one of few examples across the nation of a rural school that’s governed by a regional university like UWA. In the charter’s 107-page proposal, “place-based learning” appears several times. Along with adding reading to the traditional STEM model, the school’s curriculum seeks to teach students to love the place they’re from through community partnerships.
So what does that look like?
I peeked into a 7th grade classroom, where students equipped with iPads were rapping along to something called “Flocabulary,” a new-age “School House Rock”-esque curriculum that used hip hop music to teach core subjects.
“Memory and melody are linked, the same way we learn our alphabet when we’re little bitty,” the teacher, Jay Russell, said, explaining that they used the system for everything. Today, his class was reviewing the five literary elements:
Ya got a story to tell, ya betta have a plot. If it doesn’t, am I listening? No, no I’m not.
Outside, underneath Lyon Hall’s Tuscan-style columns, two second graders, Lane and Caroline, waited anxiously for playtime.
Caroline likes her new school. She likes everything about it, she said.
Before, both girls went to Sumter Academy. When people started hearing about the charter school, Lane said, a first grade teacher started a signup at Livingston First Baptist Church.
“I think we’re trying to make Livingston better,” Lane said, smiling.
While the girls left to play Duck Duck Goose, their teacher, Haley Richardson, said she recently went over an exercise with the students where she asked them what they want to know about their town. They asked about dinosaurs, the town’s founders, or if Livingston was ever underwater.
“Some people think, ‘Oh, Livingston’s so boring, it’s just this small little town with nothing in it,’” she said, pausing to address a rowdy student. “But once you understand the background behind it, you keep people here who understand and appreciate it.”
Richardson pointed to the music building across the lawn, where the students go a couple times a week to learn from a UWA professor – a perk of the partnership, she noted.
“Can you tell her what you did in music?” she asked a girl named Keseanna.
Keseanna pointed to her diaphragm, showing both of us the proper way to breathe while singing. At her former public school, the only time she went out of the classroom was for lunch and P.E.. It was also cold in the mornings, she said.
“I think my old school, I don’t like it,” she said, noting that though a few of her friends followed her to UCS, she misses her old classmates.
“What does this school make you think about your town?” I asked her.
“It makes me think that my town is a great place to be,” she said.
A POWERFUL PARTNERSHIP
Creating a sense of pride in Livingston students is important for J.J. Wedgworth, the new school’s founder.
Wedgworth was born and raised in Livingston and went to the recently-closed Sumter Academy, which succumbed to a fate much like Livingston High: low enrollment.
In the past 20 years, Black Belt counties have lost 8,451 people, while the state has grown by 400,000. Of Sumter County’s 2,664 children, only 1,736 are enrolled in traditional public schools, according to the data book.
Even before Sumter Academy’s closing and the merger of the public high schools, families that had the means to do so – including UWA faculty – would often enroll their children in schools outside the county or resort to other options, like homeschooling.
Former UA chancellor and Honors College founder Robert Witt, who serves on UCS’s board, referred to that decline as a “death spiral.”
“I think if something isn’t done to reverse the population decline – while I don't think it means that Livingston will die and disappear, it will continue to decline in population,” he said. “And when population is declining, you reach trigger points, which make it economically not feasible for certain services to exist in the community,” such as hospitals and retail outlets.
Witt’s expertise in forming a community of scholars through the UA Honors College made him especially valuable to a committee interested in keeping families in the Black Belt.
UWA’s plan to create a charter school, Witt said, would provide a solution.
“What I like about charter schools is if you approach it the right way, I think you can achieve what they achieved in Livingston, which is racial balance,” he said.
But Wedgworth and Witt also anticipated some resistance to the plan. Charter schools are sometimes criticized for draining resources from struggling public schools, and some are skeptical about a lack of direct district oversight.
“I think part of the role I've played was to try to reassure the community members that I talked with at the public hearings, that this was going to be a net benefit to the community,” Witt said.
If UCS is successful in adding a grade level each year, he said, the model could very well be replicated throughout the Black Belt region in the next five years. That means that a movement may be in order for a state that’s been slow to catch up to a nationwide push for school choice.
“The goal is to set up more than a charter school,” Witt said last year, before the school opened. “The goal is to create a system that will address a systemic problem.”
The phrase “failing school” is a loaded one, but it wasn’t foreign to Green or many of her classmates.
For her, that phrase meant a lack of resources and access. It meant old textbooks and a prom she’d have to fight for. It meant students phone banking for a property tax increase and graduates playing catch-up through remedial college courses.
Even as the valedictorian, Green said, she felt inferior to students in other schools.
“I’m supposed to be one of the top 10 of our class and, you know, they know a lot more than I know about things,” she said.
That feeling was echoed by Green’s cousin, Shakendra Bowden, who attended the same school.
“I thought I was just the smartest thing here on God’s green earth,” Bowden said. “And then when I started college… and I saw how intelligent [my peers] were, it made me feel like, like I was just dumb.”
But none of this meant that Green and Bowden weren’t proud of the place that molded them into young adults, or that they weren’t capable of success, or that their teachers didn’t care.
“I never wanted anything to defeat me,” Green said, adding that she was an avid reader and often supplemented her lessons with books. Later, she’d befriend teachers who’d tell her how much they spent on classroom supplies for students who couldn’t afford them.
So, when she saw plans surface for the charter school – even 14 years removed from high school – Green was skeptical.
“I became conflicted because my allegiance has always been to the public school system,” she said. “I thought it was going to be like an attempt to create a new private school basically, that segregation would prevail, still, and, you know, just be more of the same.”
While a student, Bowden was top of her class, the cheerleading captain, and in the honors society. She also admired her teachers, many of whom were part of her family.
“I wouldn’t have chosen another school,” she said.
But when her son Brayden reached the first grade, that’s exactly what she did. And she didn’t think twice about it.
“Before, he would come home, and he would never brag about the things he did in school,” she said. “‘How was school?’ ‘It was alright,’ he would say. Now at UCS when he comes home and I ask him, ‘How was school?’ he has so much to tell me, and his face lights up.”
Bowden taught at Livingston Junior High School for five years before taking a job outside the county. As some of her fellow teachers started to enroll their children at the charter school, she said, UCS quickly became a hot topic.
“Basically, it was all based on race,” she said. “‘Cause we are still heavily embedded in the South. If UCS is to just flourish, [some of my coworkers thought] the rest of the schools will basically crumble, and at some point they’ll close doors and the students are left out.”
Like Green, Bowden had memories as a student of her teachers pulling their children out of the schools that they taught at for schools like Sumter Academy, with more resources, and, subsequently, more white students.
“I remember looking at that teacher thinking, ‘Well, you just think your child is all that. You don’t want your child around us,’” she said. “That was my train of thought. But now, I can see where that teacher was coming from as a parent. She only wants the best for her child.”
At UCS, Brayden will be fluent in Spanish by the 5th grade, she said – a subject Bowden didn’t take until high school.
At UCS, he’ll get to build robots and play strings instruments.
At UCS, he’ll have the resources that his former classmates might have to go without.
And Bowden’s ties to the outside system won’t keep her from giving him those resources.
“That’s the school system I grew up in,” Bowden said. “I love that school to death. I just wish that we had, if not all, at least some of the opportunities that UCS has.”