Yes. You can get from Montgomery to Packer’s Bend. And it helps if you enjoy looking at the country side, don’t mind patched up country roads and passing through the remnants of small villages. Places like Braggs, Furman, Darlington, Snow Hill, Yellow Bluff, Lower Peach Tree. Eventually, after 114 miles, you come to Monroe Intermediate School in the northwest corner of Monroe County.
A one story, red brick building now 40 years old next door to Independent Baptist Church. Betty Madison has ruled this tiny kingdom as principal for the last 10 years. Kindergarten through eighth grade. Some 70 students and 10 teachers.
The road in front of the school ends at the Alabama River in a couple of miles. You can see a ferry that has not been in operation in several months on the far bank. Behind it sprawls the rest of Monroe County. The river snips off this corner of the county, meaning that anyone needing to get to the courthouse in Monroeville must backtrack through neighboring Clarke County to get there.
This geographical isolation explains why a Clarke County school bus picks up high school students in Monroe County to take them to school in Grove Hill. The school included high school until 12 years ago. The high school scoreboard still hangs on the wall of the small gym where basketball games were played. The fact that the gym is not regulation sized speaks volumes about the history of this community.
To say that life in Packer’s Bend is unique is an understatement. There was a time when cotton rows stretched to the horizon and hundreds of families eked out a meager living on farms. Nature has now reclaimed those fields and papermills in Monroe, Choctaw, Wilcox and Clarke counties have replaced cotton gins. Jobs are both scarce and distant for local residents. Government transfer payments fuel the economy.
But in the face of all of this, Betty Madison and her staff move ahead. “In many ways, the school is the community,” says Madison, “and we support it any way we can.” For instance, Madison is a notary public in case a local needs this service.
This backdrop explains why Madison, her staff and the community, were elated last year to be invited to Montgomery to be recognized as a Torchbearer School, one of the highest honors high poverty schools can attain. (100 percent of Monroe Intermediate students receive free lunches.) The banner proclaiming their honor is the first thing a visitor sees when they walk through the school’s front door.
Only six schools got the Torchbearer award last year. Four in Mobile County, one in Talladega County and Monroe Intermediate. This was the first time a Monroe County school had received this honor. It was an affirmation that hard work really is recognized.
But here is where this story becomes downright silly and vividly points out how inept we sometimes manage to be.
The 2013 Alabama Accountability Act decrees that the bottom six percent of all schools in the state will be labeled as “failing” based on their performance in reading and math. Originally if schools were in the bottom six percent in three of the last six years, they were “failing.” Then the law was amended in 2015 and now simply says that the bottom six percent each year will be “failing”.
And lo and behold, just a year after being saluted for doing outstanding work, Monroe Intermediate is now on the “failing” school list.
Why is probably a combination of changing the state assessment and changing the definition of “failing” school. Plus, the criteria for Torchbearer is not the same criteria used in determining “failing” schools. When the accountability act was passed, the state relied on the Alabama Reading and Math Test to measure school performance. Now ACT Aspire is used for lower grades like those at the Packer’s Bend school.
No wonder Betty Madison just shakes her head. One year her school is applauded, the next year all her parents get notification that their children go to a “failing” school. Did she forget how to be a good principal in one year? Did her teachers forget how to teach?
Or is her school simply another victim of Montgomery ineptitude largely created by legislation that ignores rhyme, reason and reality?
The 2013 Accountability Act was passed by 51 votes in the House of Representatives and by 22 votes in the state Senate. You have to wonder how many of these folks would be willing to go to Packer’s Bend and tell Betty, her staff and her community that they are failures?
My guess is none. But if any do, I can show them how to get there..