My involvement with public education began in 2008 when Owen Sweatt, Gerald Carter and I set out to study ten high-performing rural elementary schools around the state. Since all were high-poverty, we wanted to find out why they were doing so well academically in the face of so many challenges.
We drove 10,000 miles to visit schools, attend PTA meetings, fall festivals, native American days, etc. It was fascinating and probably the most heart-warming project I ever tackled. We learned a LOT and hardly a day goes by that I don’t recall something we found out and some of the insights we came across.
The result was the publication of Lessons Learned From Rural Schools, a 40-page review of our journey. Some 10,000 copies were printed. I only have three left. The project was underwritten by a grant from the Alabama Farmers Federation.
The best experience for me was making lasting friends with these ten principals. I’ve often told others that the schools were tucked away in mostly out-of-the-way places. And that is no exaggeration. How many of these places have you heard of? Calcedeaver, Huxford, Lockhart, Gilbertown, Pine Hill, Marion, Fruithurst, Arley, Phil Campbell and Dutton..
I thought principal Aimee Rainey was showing me a storage room on my first visit to Calcedever in the north end of Mobile County. Nope. It was two classes in an ancient portable. Fortunately, they now have a new school. When I went to W. S. Harlan in Lockhart, principal Brent Zessin took me in the media center and showed me where he made his first goal playing basketball in what was once the gym.
F. S. Ervin was across the tracks in Pine Hill in the west end of Wilcox County. It was always spotless and principal Richard Bryant told me how when he was named to head the school, he sent the janitor home and got some trustees from the county jail to paint and clean up.
With the recent announcement that Phil Campbell principal Jackie Ergle is retiring after 44 years in education, only one of the ten still remains in place. She is Dr. Christy Hiett at Fruithurst Elementary. She grew up in this community, went to grade school there, got a degree at Auburn University and came home years ago.
John Kirby left Dutton to go to the Jackson County central office where he is today. Amy Hiller left Meek in Arley in Winston County and today is principal at Gulf Shores elementary, Buddy Dial retired the following year from being principal at Albert Turner, in Marion.. (This school is now closed.) Richard Bryant retired from F. S. Ervin. Jacqui James was principal at Southern Choctaw in Gilbertown. Today she works for the Cooperative Extension Service in Choctaw County.
Aimee Rainey went from south Alabama to become a principal in Florence several years ago. Donna Silcox retired as principal at Huxford in Escambia County and started practicing law in nearby Uriah. (She already had her law degree before retiring.) She won the Democratic nomination for District Judge in Monroe County on June 5 and hopes to be elected in the November general election. Brent Zessin retired from Alabama and now teaches and coaches in the Florida panhandle.
What a great group of special people. I will always treasure their friendships.
Some wonder why I am passionate about public schools and why I have a quick tongue when educators are under fire. You’ve just met ten reasons.