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On The Closing of Our School

The primary topic of discussion at the Courthouse Grill the past few days has been the announcement that the public school here in Carrollton will close this May. The focus of discussion has been on placing blame. Few, if any, have presented a plan for a cure.

Meanwhile most of the 300 students enrolled at the school are either staying at home or picketing at the school. Tensions are high. The media has descended upon the school.

Carrollton, the county seat of Pickens, was one of four communities in the county which was able to retain a public school when a wave of consolidation and desegregation resulted in several school closings about 40 years ago. The other survivors were Aliceville, Gordo and Reform, the three larger towns in our county.

In that same time period, as in other Black Belt counties, an academy, non-sectarian, was formed and located in Carrollton. Over time all of the white students left the public school in Aliceville and many of the white students at Carrollton did also.

Today the Aliceville schools have no white students and African-American students are in the majority at Carrollton.

Maintaining the academy has not been easy. Costs keep going up. Teachers are paid less than in the public system. Much time and effort is expended by the families of the students in a continuing parade of fund-raising events and projects. Certainly, however, one evident benefit of this struggle has been fierce loyalty in the hearts of its patrons.

According to the reports of standardized test scores, the schools in Aliceville are performing reasonably well today. Not so the school at Carrollton. This is one reason given for its closing. Other reasons include needs to deal with issues related to deferred maintenance with very significant resultant costs, lack of community support, problems with getting qualified faculty and loss of state funding for the school given its low enrollment.

Next fall the 300 Carrollton students will be reassigned, apparently with about 100 each going to the three remaining schools in the county.

The diners at the Courthouse Grill, mostly white, talk about the lack of discipline at Carrollton school as a major problem. Popular culture with its disrespect of authority is another cause roundly condemned, as is its glorification of violence and sex. Absentee and indulgent parents also come in for condemnation at the diner. Many times I have heard criticism of parents not being involved in the life of the school in a supportive way.

Down the street with the picketers at the school “racism” is cited as the cause of the closing. The reasoning runs something like this, ‘since the white students have largely abandoned the Carrollton school, it has been mistreated by the superintendent and the board of education. The buildings have not been well maintained. The more effective faculty members have been moved to other schools. There has been a conspiracy to close the school because of the “blackness” of the student body’, the marchers declare.

These allegations are roundly rejected up the street at the Courthouse Grill. The diners are quick to point out that the superintendent of schools is a black man, as is the board member for the Carrollton District.

I have neither children nor grandchildren in the schools of Pickens County.

I am ashamed that my contact with the schools has been rather limited across the eight years I have lived here. But the announcement of the closing of the Carrollton Unit School is troubling to me. My thought is that the “root problem” of the Carrollton school is the failure of the residents of the community, white and black, to work at creating and maintaining “the spirit of true community.” Let me explain.

When the schools were desegregated, apparently that was about it. The community did not get far beyond old barriers. We learned to be cordial when our paths crossed at the post office or at the dollar store, but there were few places and occasions where we could with honesty and candor discuss the deep issues of our lives, our families and our communities.

Whites and blacks occupied the same space, but community was not created. So now, as the community faces a crisis, we do not have lines of communication, occasions and spaces where we can listen, share and come up with a plan for the future.

I wish for someone to create an opportunity for the people of the community to meet together and calmly share their thoughts about such matters as what does our community and its children need from an education; how might a school be designed to provide that need or needs; how might the community create a climate in which education is valued; and how might the citizens work together to create a school which will contribute to true community among those who live in Carrollton, Ala.?

For this to happen a great deal of honest listening to one another would need to occur.

We would need to get beyond the “blame games” which are now being played and learn to cooperate around setting goals together which are attainable. And we all, even those of us with no children in the schools, would need to commit to work hard and together toward achieving the goals.

Such could happen if those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus would apply his teachings to the challenge of creating and maintaining community across ancient barriers. I mean by this living out the Golden Rule and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves community could be created.

The conversations and collective actions I am asking for will, over time, build trust. There will be disappointments along the way. But if I read the Bible correctly, the goals of community among people and between people and God are central unifying themes. So, it is Satan who benefits when it is not present where we live.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church Leadership in Carrollton, Ala. His blog is here