Read Across America

Anniston school board member Joan Frazier reads to students in 2017 during the National Education Association's Read Across America day at Cobb Elementary School in Anniston. 

Joan Frazier has a story to tell. A journey, she calls it.

She’s a career educator, a former superintendent of Anniston City Schools, now an elected member of the city’s Board of Education and a dogged defender of its public schools.   

Her husband, Don, isn’t doing well. He’s under hospice care. 

She shared this story with me Friday morning — not for pity or sympathy, but instead to make a point about the roughly 2,000 students the schools serve. And, more to the point, about this never-ending notion that Anniston could thrive if its school system ceased to exist.

Don spent time earlier this year at Regional Medical Center and another health-care facility, weeks on end. Along the way, she noticed a trend among the nurses and aides and hospital staffers and insurance advisers they met.

Many of them were Anniston High School graduates.

“They were service-oriented, they were doing their jobs, they were doing these different jobs with compassion and love,” Frazier said. “I sat there in the hospital and thought, ‘My gosh, we have numerous graduates working in this community and now I am on the other side of the fence, and I’m a citizen being served by them.’

“I’ve never been able to get around this notion that the system is not producing.”

These arguments about Anniston City Schools aren’t new. But they’ve blossomed this fall because a shadowy nonprofit — Forward 4 All — is pursuing a radical deannexation of east Anniston, Golden Springs and McClellan, and Alabama Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is listening to the overtures. Shame on him. 

This self-serving pursuit meant to advance east Annistonians’ property values and economic development opportunities would split the city into two halves, largely along racial and socioeconomic lines, and destroy any chance Calhoun County’s largest municipality has of a viable and expansive future.

Anniston’s schools and their overwhelmingly minority student population fit squarely into this narrative. Here’s F4A spokesman Charles Turner’s explanation:

“While F4A has received a significant amount of positive feedback on our de-annexation proposal, we have also heard from a number of residents calling for the dissolution of the school system and leaving the city intact,” he wrote in a recent email. “Although I personally don’t favor dissolving the school system, there are a great many, including some on our board, who think that is exactly what needs to happen. Instead of advocacy, we may find ourselves trying to measure support for various solutions.”

On this, I’ll give Turner a smidgen of credit. Measuring “support for various solutions” may be the most community-oriented comment F4A has made. It also hints at the philosophical chasm between that nonprofit’s methods and the rest of us. No one’s foolish enough to say Anniston isn’t without fault. Good Lord. But blowing it up — giving up — removing most of its white residents and most of its personal wealth and leaving everything and anyone west of Quintard to manage the fallout is equally cold and cowardly, a paternalistic travesty.

That some of F4A’s members think dissolving Anniston City Schools is “exactly what needs to happen” is much worse, a public admission that they believe the schools — not political dysfunction and demagoguery, not economic development mistakes — are the largest albatross swinging from the city’s neck, an impediment to be jettisoned. 

Remember, schools are mere buildings. Inside them are students who shouldn’t become unwilling pawns in the well-to-do’s political power play. What’s more, Anniston resisted full-scale school integration until the bitter end, well into the early 1970s, a terrible mark on the city’s past. And now there are white Annistonians who want to kill the largely black school system for what they say are economic reasons? But for whom?

“No. 1, you can’t take race out of this discussion,” Frazier said. “You cannot pretend that’s not part of it ... I can’t see taking a whole group of children and making them the root of all that ails us. I just can’t get around that.”

Think of the students, Frazier said. Think of the message they hear, she said. 

She wonders how many supporters of dissolving Anniston City Schools have been inside those schools, have met Anniston students.

“Do we think that (the students) don’t figure this out?” she said. “Of course they know. What is it saying to them about the community that is supposed to be here and support them? I doubt very seriously whether there are groups of students in neighboring school systems who say, ‘You know, our community doesn’t really support us,’ or, ‘Our community doesn’t really like us.’”

Frazier’s journey is emotional and instructive, a reminder of a city’s responsibility to its children. Giving up on them isn’t an option. If Forward 4 All’s supporters want to help Anniston — and, ultimately, themselves — they should join hands with those who believe in the irreplaceable value and civic duty within the city’s schools.

Email: ptutor@annistonstar.com

 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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