PBCBA BAR BULLETINS pbcba_bulletin_February 2019 - Page 11

CDI C o r n e r JEAN MARIE MIDDLETION Imagine living in a school district in 2018 where the public schools are still segregated. Well, for the residents of Sumter County, Alabama that was their reality. That is, until August 13, 2018, when the University Charter School, (UCS) opened its doors for classes to begin. For the first time, black students and white students are getting an opportunity to attend the same school and learn in the same classroom. UCS is the first truly integrated public school in a county where more than half of the school’s 300- plus students are black, while just under half are white. The majority of Sumter county’s residents are black which is why it is currently known as the “black belt” . Mrs. J.J. Wedgworth, former Head of UWA’s research integrity, will head UCS along with Principal John Cameron. Her stated mis- sion is to not only provide an integrated school with high-quality education, but to also integrate the community by focusing on relationship building. The focus at UCS during this first year is forming relation- ships for this most diverse student body in all of Sumter County. She believes that you cannot maintain a high quality education without forging trusting and lasting rela- tionships within the community. The opening of USC was challenged in May just months before its scheduled August date. However, the opening made possible when Circuit Judge Gaines McCorquodale ruled against Sumter County Board of Education’s attempt to prevent University of West Alabama (UWA), the creator of USC, from opening. When the University purchased the building in 2011, the bill of sale prohibited them from using the building for a school unless it was under the county school board of education system. However, because the recorded deed did not contain the prohibition, Judge McCorquodale found that UWA did not violate the sale agreement. See: https://www.tuscaloosanews.com/ news/20180713/judges-ruling-favors-uwa- charter-school. Despite the historic Brown v. Board decision in 1954, it wasn’t until 1969 that a federal court mandated integration in Alabama’s public schools. Rather than integrate, many white families chose to create their own pri- vate segregation academies and leave the public schools. These segregation academies are still in op- eration in most counties in Alabama. WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG? It wasn’t until 2015, that Alabama legisla- ture passed a law allowing charter schools to be operated independent of the school board of education. A state Charter School Commission was created to supervise these new schools. The law was enacted in order to pave the way for alternative education options to the failing public school system in Alabama and move toward integration as Sumter County public schools had a mere 0.04 diversity score that was considerably lower than the statewide average score of 0.33. See https:www.publicschoolreview/ Alabama/sumter-county. With the passage of the charter school law, J.J. Wedgworth and a team from UWA be- gan researching whether a charter school would be the mechanism for improving public education in Sumter County. The idea was widely accepted because the dual school system required a better option for students which led to the creation of UCS. WHAT ARE SOME CHALLENGES THAT LIE AHEAD? The Charter School Commission has given UCS five years to make the school a success under its five-year contract. Should UCS fail to meet the stated academic benchmarks set in the contract, the Commission, rather than the School Board of Education, has the power to close the school. Recruiting young people as faculty mem- bers has been one of the challenges UCS board chairman Micky Smith has articu- lated. Now that the young families have a better educational opportunity, bringing in- dustry to Sumter County is more promising. HOW CAN THE ALABAMA SCHOOL BOARD CONTINUE TO MOVE IN A MORE POSITIVE DIVERSE DIRECTION? Alabama is on the road in a positive direc- tion toward diversity in its public schools as four charters schools are slated to open around the state for the 2019 school year. Those cities are Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Chatom. These future charter schools along with the strong open- ing of USC is expected to pave the way for more diversity and quality education in the Alabama school system. Jean Marie Middleton is a member of the Bar’s Board of Directors and co-chair of the Committee for Diversity and Inclusion. Mrs. Middleton serves as a Senior Litigation At- torney for the Palm Beach County School District.