After announcing a round of school closures this month, Chambers County is inching closer toward a plan to desegregate its schools.
The US Department of Justice, together with the school district and plaintiffs represented by the NAACP’s Legal Educational Defense Fund submitted a proposal Thursday afternoon to consolidate several Chambers County schools, and to address discipline, course offerings and student and staff diversity. The district says it will also gather community feedback in ongoing efforts to ensure students have equal access to educational opportunities.
The proposal awaits a ruling from a federal judge in the US District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.
“Education is the cornerstone of American society,” US Attorney Sandra J. Stewart for the Middle District of Alabama said in a news release Friday. “My office fully supports the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to ensure that equal educational opportunities are available to all students, and I am pleased that this case is close to a final resolution.”
Chambers County joins dozens of other Alabama systems that are still under decades-old desegregation orders. In order to be released from federal oversight, the district must prove to a court that Black and white students have the same opportunities to learn, and that its schools reflect the diversity of the community.
The district’s newest desegregation plan comes after years of negotiations with civil rights attorneys. In 1993, Chambers County officials agreed to consolidate the district’s two high schools – an effort that failed after residents opposed a tax increase. The district gave the plan another try in 2015 and has worked with lawyers in recent years to reach a final agreement.
“Our ship should not stay tied in the harbor,” Superintendent Casey Chambley told community members at a board meeting this month. “No matter the rough waters, no matter the rough seas or the storms that we will face, we must sail that ship to offer our kids better opportunities.”
School Closures and Facilities
Earlier this month, Chambers County announced plans to close and merge two elementary schools and one middle school in an effort to cut costs and help diversify feeder patterns. Currently, those schools feed into two high schools: majority-Black LaFayette High School and majority-white Valley High School.
Before the end of the 2022-23 school year, the district will select a site for a new consolidated high school. It says it will hold at least two public meetings in the Valley and LaFayette communities to determine where the school will be built.
After construction on the new school begins, students at LaFayette High School will temporarily take classes at Valley High School while the district renovates and transforms their school into a K-8 magnet academy for science, technology, arts, engineering and math.
No faculty will be fired as a result of school closures, and LaFayette and Valley students will get to keep their current class ranks until the newest class of 9th graders graduates.
The district will also review bus routes and says it will ensure that all facilities are brought to “acceptable – and to the extent feasible, equal” conditions.
Desegregation Advisory Committee
It’s common for some districts to solicit parent and student feedback throughout their desegregation process. Chambers County will create a Desegregation Advisory Committee that will consist of parents and students in each of the district’s two feeder patterns: Valley and LaFayette.
One parent will be appointed by the plaintiffs in the desegregation case, while others will be chosen by the superintendent. Together, the 12-member DAC will help advise the school board and superintendent on desegregation plans. They will also help decide on a new name, mascot and rebranding for the high school.
The DAC will convene for the first time in the 2022-23 school year and is expected to meet at least twice a year for the duration of the consent order.
Currently, Huntsville City Schools is the only system with a formalized DAC. In its seventh year, the group of parents and students has led several community meetings to try to identify trends and issues in different schools and feeder patterns. They also have the ability to share data and information related to achievement, funding, transportation, student discipline and school demographics with the public.
STEAM Academy and Academic Offerings
All students zoned for Eastside Elementary, JP Powell Middle School, and Five Points School will be assigned to a new magnet program at the Eastside building for the 2022-23 school year. When the LaFayette High School campus is renovated, the program will move there.
The program is open to all students in the district, but if the student body at the specialized school doesn’t reflect the community’s demographics after three years, the district will rezone.
Chambers County said it will also evaluate the district’s gifted and talented program by the start of the 2023-24 school year and ensure that parents are informed about available course offerings and extracurriculars, as well as how to request specific classes at their schools.
In 2021, Chambers County saw 77 fights and about 300 total disciplinary infractions, according to state data. Moving forward, the district says it will use evidence-based practices like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and restorative justice to improve behavior issues and bridge racial disparities.
Those practices have been proven to reduce discipline infractions. But rural and high-poverty schools may need more time, support and coaching to implement programs with fidelity, experts say.
The district says it will also train faculty and administrators on these practices and provide an annual report that analyzes discipline data by race.
Half of Chambers County’s students are Black, but nearly 75% of its teachers are white, according to 2020 state data.
The district plans to make changes to its hiring policies and shuffle staff to more closely reflect the racial demographics of the school system. The district says it will also avoid concentrations of highly-certified or under-certified teachers in particular schools, but will ensure that all staff at the magnet academy are properly trained and certified.
To recruit more Black teachers, the system said it will recruit from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and create a grow-your-own teacher program.
The order, if approved, will also require regular reporting to the court, the Justice Department and private plaintiffs. The court would retain jurisdiction over the consent order during its implementation, and the Justice Department would monitor the district’s compliance with the consent order.
You can view the full proposal below: