The Black Belt has always been a study in contradictions.  Both bewitched and bewitching.  It was always the land that set the table for both wealth and grinding poverty.

When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, the scramble for new lands to grow cotton was on.  The Black Belt lay waiting.

Of the ten most populous counties in Alabama in 1850, five were in the Black Belt.  Greene county had more citizens than any other county in the state.  (Today it is the smallest county.)  These five counties had 18 percent of the state’s population in 1850.  Today they have two percent.

From the beginning, this region has had two cultures.  One white and one black.  The whites owned the land, the blacks were slaves who worked the cotton fields.  And probably nothing better illustrates this division than public schools.  There are six school systems in Lowndes, Dallas, Wilcox, Perry and Sumter counties.  Of their 12,022 students, 92.6 percent are black and 72 percent get free lunches.

It has been this way since desegregation, two generations ago.  There is little point to arguing if this is right or wrong.  It’s just important that we face reality.

Which brings us to a fascinating effort taking place on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston known as the University Charter School where nearly 300 students from pre-K through eighth grade have just begun a new school year.  The racial breakdown is about 55 percent black and 45 percent white.  Many of these students have never been in a class with someone of the opposite race.

The design of the course of study is unique in that it includes both traditional and non-traditional approaches to education.

In elementary school the morning is dedicated to traditional instruction with an hour each of reading, writing, and mathematics. The second half of the day for elementary includes recess, place-based education (PBE) and an hour of specials/elective courses. For middle school, their entire day rotates back and forth through traditional courses (math, reading, writing, and science) and non-traditional, custom courses  called STREAM  (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, math) and PBE. They start their day with an hour of specials/elective courses and then rotate through the rest of their courses in 45-minute blocks.

All students have a daily 60-minute block of PBE. Teachers plan lessons/units based on the interests of their students. For example,  students are interested in the history of the Livingston area. Based on this, teachers have been working a project where the students find local people to interview to create a compilation (a documentary in elementary and individual oral history accounts in middle school) of the history of Livingston and what the area has to offer to visitors as told by the public figures and long-time residents in the town.

As this project progresses, teachers will work on other necessary skills with literacy (writing from the voice of a journalist), career exploration (doing research on the job titles and responsibilities of the community figures chosen to be interviewed), interpersonal and intrapersonal skills (eye contact, greetings, formality, dressing for interviews, best practices for interviewing), and other related topics. As this project nears completion, the same process repeats where teachers start surveying student’s’ current interest to build a unit that brings in multiple skills and content to complete through project-based learning.

The goal, since this PBE time is the same for all students in all grade levels, is to have students sign up for their favorite PBE topic so that students of various grades can work together instead of keeping them contained by their birthday.

I recently visited a fifth-grade class where two days a week the course is taught by a college instructor with a background in theatre/drama, and three days by teachers with backgrounds in coding, computer science, and mechanical engineering. Students study aspects of theatre and learn to code robots with the other teachers. Coding will reenact some of the plays, movies, and texts they study.

One example is studying The Wizard of Oz. One instructor teaches costuming, lighting, stage design, etc. while other teachers (the ones with engineering and computer science backgrounds) continue to work on coding and programming to have the robots reenact parts of the performance.  Such as the scene where the characters circle around the start of The Yellow Brick Road and then continue down its path. The students will have to use precise mathematical calculations to successfully program the robot to maneuver correctly

A key component of the school is parental engagement.  A Parent Academy meets monthly with the purpose of educating parents on instructional and operational life at UCS. Parents have learned about plans for handing out iPads to each student, the security to keep students safe, how parents have access to the content students access on their iPads and how they can access this at home.

Being associated with UWA is significant because a number of university professors can work as adjuncts in the charter school.

All in all, it is quite a venture.  Not only because they are breaking the mold of how most schools approach education, but equally as much as to its impact on the local community and any success it may have in breaking long-held perceptions.

Editor’s note: Few things in education are more controversial than charter schools.  Their original intent was to be places of innovation and partners with more traditional public schools.  However, it didn’t take long for this concept to become bastardized and dollars replaced good intentions.  I have written many pieces about charter shortcomings.

But I have long maintained that each potential charter should be examined carefully on a case by case basis, not simply turned over to some group with little real experience in education whose first step is engaging some management group.

Because I know the people so well at UWA and their motives, resources and experience and because I understand the unique cultural challenges of the Black Belt, I fully support this effort and will watch them closely.