It’s been 65 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated the nation’s public school system. Since then, schools by law have been “integrated,” or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in Alabama, a pivotal state in the civil rights movement, there are still areas where the school system is very much separate—and yes, unequal.
One public charter school in Livingston, Alabama, part of rural Sumter County in south Alabama, is seeking to change that reality.
This past August, the new University of West Alabama Public Charter School opened its doors to 300 students for the 2018-2019 school year. Slightly more than half the student body is African-American; the other half is white. In a county where 76 percent of the students are African-American and another 24 percent are white, this represents the first opportunity for a school in Sumter County to be even closely representative of the county’s demographics.
You might be wondering how it’s possible that a county’s school system could be in compliance with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision if UWA Charter School is the first fully integrated public school there? The answer to that question lies in understanding both how folks originally reacted to the Brown decision, and the correction that has, up to this point, never taken place.
After Brown was decided 65 years ago, families and educators wishing to see a continuance of segregation-style policies opened schools once described as “segregationist academies,” many of which are still in operation across Alabama today. These were—and are—private schools that, while not explicitly “whites-only,” effectively excluded the possibility of non-white student attendance based on criteria such as tuition cost and transportation logistics.
This created a system whereby the relatively small number of white students in the county attended their own private schools, and the African-American students attended Sumter’s public schools. While some public schools did have a few white students, the 2016-2017 school year had a total of 11 white students among the 1,500 students enrolled in the system. The overwhelming majority of the county’s children were still being educated separately.
UWA Charter School disrupted this decades-old divide with an intentionally diverse approach. African-American and white students would be learning beside one another, no longer separate, and be treated as equal members of the school body.
Of course, when you do something that upends an entrenched system, there’s usually some pushback, and UWA Charter School is no exception. The local school board filed a lawsuit against the school on a technicality in Alabama law, but the Circuit judge ruled against the school board. UWA Charter School will soon complete its first year in operation as the first fully integrated public school in Sumter County, serving as a model for school progress across the state of Alabama.
As we celebrate 65 years of the Brown v. Board decision, it’s worth re-examining the role we all play in educating our students. Although I’m not a classroom teacher myself, what gets me up and advocating for kids every day is the impressive successes that I come across in my states, like UWA Charter School. Yet overall, we still have an education system where wealth, status, zip code and, yes, race, determine the quality of the education you receive, and that’s simply wrong.
This is why I fight for school choice, equitable funding and high standards for all students. I want children everywhere to get the chance they deserve and for every community to stay true to the intent behind Brown v. Board of Education.
About the author
Nathan serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Gulf Region, covering advocacy and legislative efforts in four states including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Prior to ExcelinEd, Nathan was the Director of Advocacy at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and Executive Director of the Chamber PAC. He’s also spent time working on District staff for a Member of Congress and on various statewide and federal political campaigns. Nathan graduated from the University of Illinois-Springfield with a Bachelors in Political Science. He has served on the Board of Trustees for the University of Illinois System and the Board of Directors for the Springfield, IL Public Schools Foundation.