Jackson County sprawls across more than 1,000 square miles of some of the most scenic land in Alabama, adjacent to Tennessee in the northeast corner of the state. It is home to more than 50,000 people and straddles the Tennessee River, overlooked by breath-taking views from the bluffs of Sand Mountain, and darts in and out of mountain coves and valleys on the west side of the county..
Russell Cave, near Bridgeport, is an important archaeological site because it was occupied by native Americans 10,000 years ago. In stark contrast is the fact that Bridgeport will soon be home to Goggle’s 14th data center in their worldwide network. Such centers have been described as the “engines of the internet.”
But on this day I was more interested in schools than caves and set off on a day long venture coordinated by A. J. Buckner, who handles curriculum and instruction for the county system of 19 schools and 5,300 students. Joining us was Melissa Shields who works throughout north Alabama for the state department of education. (Scottsboro has a city school system with six schools and 2,500 students.)
We visited Flat Rock elementary, Bridgeport middle, Skyline high and Paint Rock Valley high. In a county this large and rural, it was not surprising these schools are small. In fact, with an enrollment of 460, Skyline is larger than the other three combined..
And each has a rich history, hardly surprising since the county was created in 1819 the day before Alabama gained statehood.
Flat Rock school was established as a mission by the United Methodist Church Conference. The first school was built in 1905. It was the only high school in the area at the time and drew not only local students, but some from surrounding states, as well as Central America and Cuba.
Bridgeport was captured by the Union Army in the Civil War and was a major shipping point for supplies going to General William Sherman as he swept across Georgia. It will soon be home to a $600 million investment by Google. The data center is expected to have 100 jobs with an average salary of $45,000.
Middle school principal Jonathan Colvin is already seeing the impact of this new facility. “We have been fortunate to get about $150,000 in grants to upgrade technology,” he says, “and no doubt the location of Google played a role in these decisions.” Though small, this school is not deprived of technology. I sat in front of a screen wearing 3-D glasses and was able to watch a pumping heart and open it up to see all the moving parts. Jonathan said it was ZSpace. (We have written about Bridgeport schools before.)
It’s 40 miles from Bridgeport to the unique community of Skyline. Almost in the middle of the county, the Skyline Farms project was created in 1934 by the Federal government as an effort to provide jobs in the Great Depression. The government bought about 13,000 acres and divided it into 181 farms of 40 to 60 acres. Farm families were selected to get the land, a house and equipment. The hope was that they would become self-sustaining and make enough money to buy the property.
A school, commissary, warehouse and other facilities were built. Unfortunately this project fell on hard times, in large part due to poor cotton crops, and assets were liquidated in the mid-1940s. However, the school is still in use. Jason Davidson is the principal. He says the three biggest activities are Future Farmers of America, basketball and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA).
A greater percentage of Skyline students also take courses at the system’s career tech school than from any other school. In referring to the state College & Career Ready Standards (CCRS) Davidson points out that the school believes this refers to college AND career–not college THEN career.
My final stop was Paint Rock Valley school in Princeton. A beautiful rock building where hardwood floors sparkle. It’s been there 81 years and I will save the story of PRVS for another day.
At each stop I realized once again that the world of classrooms and dedicated teachers and students and committed communities is about a million miles away from the fifth floor of the Gordon Persons building in Montgomery where the leadership of our state department of education resides. And certainly that far away from the Statehouse where the legislature meets.
We too often get so caught up in grand plans and filling out endless reports and making meaningless political pronouncements that we lose sight of what takes place each school day in places like Flat Rock, Bridgeport, Skyline and Paint Rock Valley.