Saks seniors

Saks High School teacher Rob Owen teaches a senior Government class at Saks High School on Friday. Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

If Calhoun County Schools administrators are able next year to break ground on a new middle school in Alexandria, they’ll do so without seeking permission from a federal judge first.

It will be the school system’s first project begun without that permission in nearly 50 years.

The system in February of this year learned it was freed from four of six restrictions ordered by federal court judges following a landmark 1967 decision mandating racial integration of schools in Alabama. Calhoun County Schools have been bound by those restrictions since 1971 when the federal judges issued a roadmap for achieving total desegregation, known as “unitary status,” for more than 100 Alabama schools. School administrators say being free of the restrictions will make it easier to build new schools or renovate old ones, and gives flexibility in assigning students to school zones.

The federal judge who lifted parts of the old order ruled more work still needs to be done, however, and administrators think they’ve taken steps to achieve unitary status in the coming years.

According to the ruling, called a “consent order,” the school district “has satisfied its obligations” to provide transportation, school zones, extracurricular activities and schools to all students.

The order cites analysis of reams of data collected each year from the school system as showing “no evidence of racial discrimination” in the fulfilment of those obligations.

“It’s a fascinating achievement,” superintendent Joe Dyar said in a recent interview, “50 years in the making.”

The ruling immediately affects how soon Dyar, with the Board of Education’s approval, can expect to begin work on any project costing more than $50,000 —  such as construction of a new Alexandria Middle School, or the planned renovation of Saks, Wellborn and Weaver high schools.

“It gives us an enormous amount of flexibility,” Dyar said of the ruling, “with capital projects, particularly.”

While the system must still clear new projects with the state’s Building Commission, there is no longer any review by federal judge required.

“We had to seek permission from a federal judge in Huntsville — that takes 120-200 days, minimum — before we could send it to the state for final approval,” the superintendent said.

The original desegregation order forbade administrators from allowing parents living within the school zone of a given Calhoun County school to send their children to any other school.

That changed with the February ruling, and Dyar said the school system now can make exceptions.

“Say a child has been going to the same school for six or eight years” but moves into another school’s attendance zone, he said. “We want to allow the student to stay at that school, if that’s what they wished. We couldn’t do that before.”

Dyar said he’s approved “three or four” such requests to continue attending a previous school since April.

The loosening of restrictions regarding school lines will be especially useful in situations of students experiencing hardships, he said, such as the loss of a parent or long-term housing.

“It’s really good for kids,” said Dyar.

More work needed

The order, issued by Judge C. Lynwood Smith Jr. in the U.S. District Court for northern Alabama, says more work is required, though: Calhoun County Schools must make a greater effort to hire black faculty and staff members, and must re-examine the way students are disciplined.

According to the ruling, the school system has made “limited progress” in attracting the talents of black educators and administrators over the past six years.

In 2009, only 4.4 percent of the system’s certified personnel — those filling teaching, administrative, counseling or other specialized jobs — were black, according to numbers supplied by school administrators.

That number grew to 6.3 percent in 2014, and remained the same in 2015.

“Seven of the District’s 18 schools have one African American teacher or none at all,” the ruling notes. “Fifteen ... have no African American administrators.”

That’s not for lack of effort from the system, says Holly Box, executive director of curriculum, instruction, and federal programs for Calhoun County Schools.

Box also is the system’s liaison to the Department of Justice in matters regarding desegregation compliance.

“We want to have a diverse population for our students,” Box said Friday by phone. The problem, she says, is that there are few black teachers coming from the colleges with which the system has partnered.

“There’s not that many minority candidates going into education,” she said. “You have to go recruit them from other areas.”

Recruitment efforts are also not always successful. Box recounted interviews at a training conference with a minority teacher who showed interest in working in Calhoun County, but ultimately chose to stay near her family.

The federal judge’s ruling also found black students in Calhoun County Schools — about 14 percent of the student body —  were “significantly more likely than white students to be referred for disciplinary action” between 2011 and 2013.

“This disparity was most evident for minor infractions,” the ruling said.

To remedy both areas, the consent order lays out a set of objectives the school system must achieve, and stipulates it ask the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Southeastern Equity Center for help in reaching those objectives.

The center, begun in 1965 to assist schools in the Southeast in accomplishing desegregation, is funded by the U.S. Department of Education; school systems must be referred to the organization by the Department of Justice.

According to the order, the center is to help Calhoun County Schools officials “cultivate and train a racially diverse pool of internal administrative talent” through a professional development and mentorship program. The program must begin in the 2015-16 school year.

The center must also assist with establishing a “positive behavioral intervention and support program” designed to encourage students’ good behavior with incentives.

The program should discourage use of discipline “requiring exclusion from educational programs” unless withholding that action could result in “serious and immediate threats to safety.”

Implementation of that program has already started. According to Box, Calhoun County teachers began training to use the program in July, and are using it in their classrooms this year.

It will be three years before Calhoun County schools are re-evaluated for compliance with the final two areas in the desegregation order.

“They’ll look at the documents we submitted, and where we’re at in the process,” she said.

Box and Dyar both believe by following the framework supplied in the order, the system can achieve unitary status.

“We’ve aggressively pursued this with this board over the last three years,” Dyar said, hiring two minority assistant principals in the past year. “We’re on the right track.”

Staff writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.