But there was something about a recent Anniston Star story that bothered John White, the U.S. Department of Education's head of rural outreach.
Last Tuesday, The Star wrote about Randolph County Schools' efforts to attract African-American teachers. Increasing the black faculty is one step the rural county system needs to complete if it wants to be declared in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education.
The system has been under a court order since school integration began in Randolph County in 1970. And it faces a number of challenges to black faculty recruitment – a lack of big-city social opportunities, a mid-1990s race-relations debacle, and, administrators say, court-ordered rules that make it even harder to get the teachers they want.
White, whose official title is deputy assistant secretary of education for rural outreach, e-mailed The Star to say that he hoped future coverage would shed more light on black teachers who choose rural schools. In a later phone conversation, he even offered to set the paper up with sources who could suggest some solutions to Randolph County's problems.
Underlying the conversation was a certain amount of worry -– anxiety about the recruiting challenges of rural schools across the country. White and his colleagues say that even in today's tough job market, with states facing budget shortages and possible layoffs in some states, rural schools still have trouble getting the teachers they want.
“There are rural schools across America that are struggling with the same problem,” he said.
White referred The Star to John Wilson, director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for advice on how Randolph County could attract more black teachers.
White said that even though they're young, prospective teachers probably know Randolph County's troubled history. In the mid-1990s, the system made nationwide headlines when a school principal threatened to cancel the prom because of interracial dating.
Today's college seniors were 10 years old or younger when that incident happened, but Wilson said that doesn't mean it won't loom in their minds.
“If you’re dealing with sharp candidates, they’re going to have done their homework,” he said. “If they do that, they’re going to know the history.”
Wilson said that in discussing Randolph County’s past, school administrators should “get right to it,” acknowledging that there was a scandal and that they want to work toward a better future.
“I’m going to venture a guess that you’ll be more respected if you’re up front with them,” he said.
Wilson said a good strategy would be to establish a long-term relationship with an HBCU (historically black college or university), working with students early in their teacher preparation courses – possibly establishing a fellowship program that would allow teachers-in-training to see Randolph schools in person.
“Historically black colleges are usually the largest producers of African-American teachers,” he noted.
He mentioned Alabama State University, a Montgomery-based HBCU, as a good example. He said Alabama State produces more black education graduates than any school in Alabama. Located in Montgomery, it’s also closer to Randolph County than the closest runner-up, Alabama A&M University in Huntsville.
But whether Randolph County and Alabama State are interested in working together on a fellowship program is anybody's guess.
Attempts to contact Randolph superintendent Paul Gay on Monday were unsuccessful. In earlier interviews, Gay said his staff was recruiting teachers at both Alabama State and Alabama A&M, through job fairs.
Officials at Alabama State wouldn’t comment on the possibility of working with Randolph County, despite a number of attempts over several days to get a response. On Monday, Alabama State spokesman Kenneth Mullinax described The Star’s questions on the matter as “race-baiting.”
Wilson and White, the federal officials, both said that in rural counties, just a few new teachers can make a difference on the percentages that are so important in a desegregation case. Most rural counties work with a small number of employees, and relatively small number of teachers might tip the balance.
“This is doable,” Wilson said.
Contact assistant metro editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-3560.