By Larry Lee
At its heart, education is more about hand-to-hand combat than about ballyhooed plans and initiatives. Sure, we love the big splash, but at the end of the day it’s all of the little splashes that make a difference.
And that’s what just happened at the University of West Alabama, tucked away in tiny Livingston, Ala. President Ken Tucker and Dean of Education Jan Miller announced the creation of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at a reception and recognized the first 10-member cohort of the program.
For sure, this swath of deep soil that cuts across the gut of Alabama, known as the Black Belt, is unique. When cotton created “Alabama Fever” in the early 19th century, it burned hottest here. It was the antebellum home of large plantations and hordes of slaves who tended endless cotton rows. It was first named for its soil. Today, it could be named for its population.
The beautiful countryside hides the grinding poverty.
And slap dab in the middle of it sits an institution of higher learning that first took in students in 1839. Since then it’s been kinda like the little engine that could. Impacting that little patch of earth one student and one life at a time.
Like all rural places, public education struggles here. With one of the struggles being – where will new teachers come from? So UWA has embarked on a program to grow their own teachers. To help students who plan to become educators and are mostly from the area, not only financially, but with special training to better prepare them to address community issues.
It’s a formula that has worked in the Missouri Ozarks. Gary Funk, who runs the national Rural Schools Collaborative, was instrumental in getting the Missouri program going. He and his organization are partnering with UWA in the Black Belt Teacher Corps.
Juniors and seniors selected for scholarships receive $5,000 per year, plus $1,000 to carry out a place-based education project.
All of this would not have happened without the whole-hearted support of Representative Bill Poole and Senator Arthur Orr who chair the House and Senate Education Finance committees and local senator Bobby Singleton.
I attended the reception. The smiles of the students getting scholarships were big, bright and genuine. Just as those of mamas and daddies who were there. I looked at the scholarship applications of the recipients. For the most part, these are not 3rd or 4th generation college grads.
Many are the first in their family to ever go to college. They are not riding around in a new SUV with daddy’s platinum credit card in their pocket. Instead, they are counting pennies.
One has never seen his father, and his mother went to jail when he was five. His grandparents raised him. The scholarship will save him from piling up more student loans. One of his professors told me it has been a joy to watch his “light” come on and to see him grow.
One has worked as a substitute teacher in Pickens County every time she can since graduating high school. As do the vast majority in education, she feels “called” to be a teacher.
One used to ask Santa to bring her teacher supplies for Christmas and her first class was stuffed animals. She wants to return to her small hometown in Choctaw County.
One graduated from Sumter Central High School. He would like to be a principal in the Black Belt some day and says the Upward Bound program at UWA kept him from becoming just another Black Belt statistic. He also has diabetes and struggles sometimes because of school work and his health. He said, “My health insurance is not good” and family circumstances means he sometimes doesn’t have the medicine he needs. This scholarship will be very beneficial in this regard.
One plans to be a special ed teacher and said, “I want to be the one who holds their hands, wipes their tears and tells them their situation is only a bad as perceived.”
Hand to hand combat. One student at a time. UWA understands this.
Larry Lee is a public school advocate and co-author of the study, Lessons Learned From Rural Schools. Larrylee133@gmail.com