New charter school brings integration to Alabama county

University Charter School
[Photo Credit: University Charter School via Facebook]

At 7:50 a.m. Monday, when classes started at University Charter School, students in kindergarten through eighth grade began a new era, hardly aware of the history they were making.

Black students and white students were learning side-by-side in integrated public school classrooms in the west Alabama county. 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 University Charter, according to historical enrollment documents.

“This is an historic day and an historic mission,” principal John Cameron said as he directed cars in the student drop off lane. Cameron is a native of this area of Alabama, known as the Black Belt first for its fertile soil and now also because the majority of residents are black.

Kindergarten teacher Brittany Williams, who is one of the school’s 20-plus teachers recruited to open the school, graduated from the University of West Alabama in December. She said during last week’s open house she was thrilled to teach at University Charter in part because she fell in love with Livingston and didn’t want to leave.

Williams sees both the historical significance and the way students’ lives can be changed by attending an integrated school.

“For me,” she said, “I’m inspired because now students, when they come to this school as a kindergartner, that’s all they will know is an integrated school.”

Parent Robert Beard walked his first- and fourth-grade children inside the school. Beard said he hopes the school is able to bring everybody together and provide the support to build relationships in the community. “Hopefully we can keep everybody together and provide a great education program,” he said. Beard said the quality of teachers and the state-of-the-art offerings are great for the students.

As students were dropped off, families waited with their younger children inside the school. The conference center was jam-packed with students and their families.

Parent Markeitha Tolliver waited with her fourth-grade son, Marquez. Tolliver’s niece 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.”

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, 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.

As Alabama’s first rural charter school, University Charter joins 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.

There are no admission requirements at University Charter, and students enrolled this year are assured enrollment in subsequent years. The school plans to add one grade each year, becoming a K-12 school by the start of the 2022 school year, and a lottery will be held if enrollment next year exceeds capacity.

The school plans to add football in the future, officials said, but will start with a wide array of middle school sports, including boys’ and girls’ basketball.

The school is housed on the site of the old Livingston High School, now called Lyon Hall, adjacent to the University of West Alabama. The campus became the center of controversy when the Sumter County Board of Education sued the college and the charter school claiming that when the university purchased the building from the county in 2011 they promised not to open a school in the building.

A circuit court judge ruled in the charter school’s favor in July, clearing the way for the school’s opening.

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.