Charter opens as first integrated school in Alabama county
TRISHA POWELL CRAIN
Aug. 17, 2018
LIVINGSTON, Ala. (AP) — When school recently started at the University Charter School in Livingston, in west Alabama's Sumter County, students in kindergarten through eighth grade began a new era, hardly aware of the history they were making.
For the first time, black students and white students are learning side-by-side in integrated public school classrooms. More than half of the school's 300-plus students are black, while just under half are white.
While not fully representative of the county's split — 76 percent black, 24 percent white, no public school in the county has come close to reaching the percentage at UCS, according to historical enrollment documents.
The implications of the charter school opening wasn't lost on parents, teachers and school administrators.
"This is an historic day and an historic mission," principal John Cameron said as he directed cars in the student drop off lane during the school's first day. Cameron is a native of this area of Alabama, known as the Black Belt, first historically for its fertile soil and now also because the majority of residents are black.
In most ways, it was a typical start to the first day of school. Students arrived wearing uniforms and carrying school supplies, while teachers lined up to welcome families. Ladies from the First Presbyterian Church near the school set up a table and offered free coffee for parents and teachers as they mingled in the minutes before school began.
As students were dropped off at UCS, families waited with their younger children inside the school. The conference center was jam-packed with students and their families, the noise at an acceptable level considering the circumstances.
Parent Markeitha Tolliver waited with her fourth-grade son, Marquez. Her sister is a teacher at the school. "The school will work wonders for the community," she said. "I'm praying they keep it for a very long time."
What students learn here, she said, will give them an advantage as they grow. Tolliver, who graduated from Livingston High School, said the school's mission of integrating schoolchildren means a lot to her. "Change is good. It's been a slow process, but it's happening."
How is it that Sumter County residents have avoided integrating public schools until now?
When the federal courts demanded Alabama integrate public schools in 1969, 15 years after the Brown v. Board decision ending segregation, white students in Sumter County, as in many places across the state, left public school and created their own all-white private schools.
Those schools, called segregation academies, kept segregation in place long after the court ordered an end to it.
Sumter Academy, a K-12 school, opened in 1970 with more than 500 students, but by 2016, that number was down to 172 according to news reports. The school closed at the end of the 2016-2017 school year with school officials in part blaming the opening of the charter school.
According to the state department of education, during the 2017-2018 school year, all but 11 of Sumter County's 1,500 students were black. Black students accounted for nearly 100 percent of enrollment in five nearby counties, all part of the Black Belt region of Alabama, enrolling fewer than 20 white students during the same time period.
Segregation academies still exist across the state and still enroll a large portion of the white students who choose not to enroll in public schools.
Sumter is the poorest county in Alabama, with a median household income of $20,428 — -less than half of the state's $44,578 median income. More than a third of the county's residents live in poverty.
All of the students enrolled in the county's public schools qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty. At UCS, nearly 70 percent of students qualify.
As Alabama's first rural charter school, UCS is joining the small but growing number of rural charter schools, which, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, are only 11 percent of the nation's 7,000 charter schools. More than 3.2 million students attended charter schools during the last school year.
Charter schools, public schools funded with taxpayer dollars that are allowed some flexibility from regulations in exchange for more accountability, are still new to Alabama, and UCS is only the state's second public charter school to open. ACCEL Day and Evening Academy, a high school program for at-risk students, opened in Mobile in 2017 with 250 students in grades nine through 12.
Four charters, located in Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Chatom in Washington County, are expected to open at the start of the 2019 school year.
J.J. Wedgworth was named Head of School at UCS last year. She graduated from Sumter Academy and taught there for a year, more than a decade ago.
Wedgworth has been a driving force to get the charter school up and running since late 2016, when a group from the University of West Alabama, where she worked as head of research integrity until taking this job, began investigating whether a charter school might be the way to improve education in the county.
During last year's presentation to the state charter school commission, Wedgworth said more than 900 children who live in the county who do not attend the county's public schools. Wedgworth said students are leaving neighboring city school systems and private schools and are "coming home" to Sumter County by enrolling in UCS.
Integrating the school, she said, "means that finally that we as a county and community can move forward."
Opening a public charter school in Alabama is hard work. There are mounds of paperwork and checklists, and all start-up costs have to be raised by the group who wants to start the school. The state doesn't fund start-up costs for charter schools, and it will be a couple of months before the first state allocation for the school is made.
Wedgworth said more than $1 million has been raised, through donations and grant applications, to get UCS up and running.
Sumter County's four kindergarten through eighth grade schools earned 'F's on the state's recent report cards, while the high school earned a 'D'. On another list of failing public schools, required under the Alabama Accountability Act, one K-8 school and the county's high school earned 'F's.
The Sumter County Board of Education closed North Sumter Junior High, a K-8 school, in June, leaving the county with a total of four schools — -three K-8 schools and the county's sole high school.
The school has five years to make the school a success.
UCS has a five-year contract with the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, the governing body that has the power to close the school if it fails to meet academic benchmarks at the end of those five years.
Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews