Making the Connection
In a rural Alabama community, a school newspaper gives the town a voice.
Without Pam Horn and her students, Millerville would be just another Alabama crossroads with a school, a Baptist church, a post office, two little stores, and a place to buy horse feed.
Instead, this community has something that many places don't: a voice of its own.
For the past six years, Horn's classes at Bibb Graves School in this scenic valley have published The Community Connection. They write it, design it, sell ads for it, and deliver it.
Without the monthly newspaper, people in this part of Clay County wouldn't get much coverage of their football games, or the damage left by a recent thunderstorm, or a first-of-its- kind concert that put a local bluegrass band and a black gospel choir on the same stage.
"Where we are is the most important place. It's the most important thing for us to cover," Horn lectures during a recent meeting of the paper's staff. "We need to write about here."
By this time next year, though, Millerville may lose its voice. The district superintendent wants to close Bibb Graves and another district school to save money, and provide a better selection of classes at the county's two remaining high schools.
People at the K-12 school here say students are learning in ways that don't always fit into a test score or state policy manual. Bibb Graves' youngsters attend the most racially integrated school in the county, for instance, and they take part in just about any school activity they want.
They also produce the newspaper that circulates all around here.
LeAnn Stewart, whose daughter Kristi writes and edits for The Community Connection, knows exactly what would happen if the county took the school away. "Within a few days," Stewart says, "the paper would be gone."
The journalism classroom brings together quite an array of characters from Bibb Graves: the potential valedictorian, the clad-in-black poet, some jocks, some rebels, some quiet kids.
"I love the way they think," Horn says. "It's one place where they get to say whatever they want to say."
Some two dozen students gather for journalism class in a room that once was the school's office, where Assistant Editor Kristi Stewart, a junior, stands on a metal folding chair and writes story ideas on a tall marker board.
"OK, we don't have a front-page article yet," she tells the staff.
"Was y'all gonna do something about the weather?" inquires senior Lisa Rowell, the top editor, speaking of how a recent storm had torn off a family's front porch.
Sports Editor Brodrick Thomas interrupts. He has another idea. "That's it right there, Ms. Horn. That's your front-page story," the sophomore says, pounding his finger on the marker board beside his idea on the first basketball game (and win) of the season.
Someone suggests coverage of the Christmas parade up the road in Ashland, or maybe an essay about the start of deer-hunting season. Talk of a column on alternative religion rears its head. In a place where people are either Baptist or nothing, an essay on paganism may stir the pot a little too much.
"You know I don't like controversy for controversy's sake," Horn tells the class. She laughs and admits, "Well, actually I do sometimes." She can't help but remember the raw nerve The Community Connection touched the last time it addressed alternative religions.
Named for a former state governor, Bibb Graves is one of 20 rural schools across the state that publish community newspapers. The network was started by the University of Alabama's Program for Rural Services and Research, or PACERS, and its founder, Jack Shelton. The institute has provided money and training for teachers and students to publish newspapers where there weren't any. The papers are a way of helping smaller communities keep their identities and build on them.
Within the network of student newspapers established by PACERS, some look better, read better, like those in Oakman and Notasulga. None of the other students, though, have had to cover the possible closing of their own school.
Even though Bibb Graves' newspaper gets some logistical and financial help through the network, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of putting out a paper, the students are on their own.
To create their newspaper, they have to search for a working computer in the school to write stories. Horn trains them in a software program that allows them to design pages and write headlines electronically. They learn to work together, give and take, to present themselves to strangers, and to write on issues in their community they had never known much about.
A small daily newspaper 30 miles away in Alexander City prints 1,500 copies of The Community Connection each month for the school at a discounted price. Each issue runs about 14 pages of news stories, opinion pieces, sports photos and articles, school and community news, and sometimes even weddings or births. The paper, which is free to its readers, doesn't usually run obituaries, but some of the girls on the staff recently wrote their own word puzzle.
When Kristi Stewart's mother brings the papers hot off the press from The Alexander City Outlook, where she works as a page designer, students distribute the latest edition to classrooms during the day and to local businesses, like Mike's Feed and Supply, as they go home.
People often have the same response when they get their copies: "Thank ya, ma'am."
Fred Beverly, a science teacher at Bibb Graves who often argues politics with Ms. Horn, is usually a first stop on the school delivery route. "I like it because it's ours, and it's very professionally done," he says of The Community Connection. "I think it pulls the community together, along with the school."
Over the past year, Pam Horn and her students have covered the life and impending death of their school. Enrollment has declined at Bibb Graves over the years, down to 339 students now in grades K-12. But in the fall of last year, school officials indicated they had no intention of closing the school.
Then the regional economy went south, and the school board ordered Bibb Graves closed. The federal government intervened last summer and kept it open, saying Clay County couldn't shutter its most racially integrated school. Now, the superintendent says this year will be the last.
For Horn and her students, covering the continuing story has been agony—like finishing a letter before your dying breath. And then waking up again.
"Last year was...," begins Editor-in-Chief Rowell, a studious senior.
"The worst year we ever had," finishes Lisa Fields, an independent-minded junior and an assistant editor.
Last school year, scheduling problems kept Horn from teaching a journalism class at all. The students put out the paper anyway, but managed to produce only three issues—far fewer than what the usual monthly schedule called for.
When the school board first decided in May to close Bibb Graves, there wasn't even enough time to publish a farewell edition.
Rowell submitted guest columns to the weekly Clay Times Journal, nine miles away in Ashland, the county seat. She argued in opinion pieces for a reversal of the board's decision.
Parents and students went to work, and raised enough money to hire lawyers who sought help from the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal agency sent investigators down here, then sent a letter giving Bibb Graves a new lease on life.
The letter from the feds told county officials they couldn't close Bibb Graves unless they closed another small school, Mellow Valley. More than one-third of Bibb Graves' students are black, and closing the school would mean the county's students would become significantly more segregated. The county couldn't close Bibb Graves without closing virtually all-white Mellow Valley, too.
Next year, the county plans to close both, leaving other schools in the district to absorb the new students.
Here at Bibb Graves, they're not giving up.
The school's new principal has known the county's superintendent of schools since they played Little League baseball together. Yet on the issue of whether to close the school, Principal Ben Griffin and Superintendent Gene Miller couldn't be farther apart.
"I was pulling for Bibb Graves before I ever got here," says Griffin, a first-year principal who taught for many years alongside the superintendent at Lineville High School, a school that could survive the new round of closings. "This county is not united at all. They don't need to herd these students into two buildings."
Miller was elected county superintendent last year, saying he would leave all four high schools open. Last fall, The Community Connection quoted the superintendent extensively on his stance. The main front-page headline read, "Superintendent Miller Against Consolidation."
A year later, he's changed his mind.
He explains it like this: If Clay County closes two of its four high schools, then high school students will be able to take a broader range of courses in the remaining schools. He could bring back the district's defunct vocational program, and add electives such as driver education and home economics. The closings would also save money on utilities and require fewer administrative jobs at schools, and could boost the quality of sports teams—helping more athletes qualify for college scholarships.
"We need more, and there's two ways to get more," Miller says. "Close schools or dump more money on the table."
Clay County people don't like either option. Bibb Graves and Mellow Valley parents and students are protesting consolidation, but taxpayers voted down a bond issue this fall that would have helped spare the schools. People want their communities to survive, but they apparently can't or won't give the county more money to help further that end.
Miller knows how they feel. His own local school in the communitycalled Delta, near Linevillewas forced to close in 1966 while he was a student, he says, after smaller country schools had consolidated there.
"I know what happens" when a school closes, he says fervently. "But when you can't offer courses till 3 o'clock to keep your seniors in school, something's wrong."
For the student journalists at Bibb Graves, however, the controversy has perhaps crystallized more than anything the goal of the newspaper program sponsored by the University of Alabama.
Not a single student of Pam Horn's has become a full-time journalist after graduation. Some have written for local papers while in college. A majority of students here go straight to work, not to universities. Horn isn't a specialist in journalism; she teaches English and wants to seek a doctorate in literature.
But, if Millerville loses its school and The Community Connection, it will lose the independent voice it claims as a community. Horn says the students will lose chances to lead, to work as a team, and to write with purpose.
Surely, she believes, that's as valuable as any elective course that the school closing might provide.
As her journalism students filed out of the room one day recently, Horn started to talk about losing Bibb Graves and the newspaper. She spoke of the school board and the superintendent and what they didn't seem to know about her work, her school, her students' lives.
She burst into tears. "They don't understand."
Vol. 22, Issue 15, Pages 25-27Published in Print: December 11, 2002, as Making the Connection