One of Alabama’s best schools sits on the outskirts of rural Mount Vernon, population 1,550, a dot on the map without a traffic light.
Close to 90 percent of its students live in poverty, roughly that many are Choctaw Indian, and, until a few years ago, they had to trudge through raw sewage to get to class when heavy rains swept through town.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that Calcedeaver Elementary School’s state math and reading test scores shouldn’t continue to outpace those of their peers in Mobile County and across Alabama year after year. The school’s test scores were always solid, if not stellar, past school employees say.
Calcedeaver’s transformation from what one former teacher called a “hidden gem” to crown jewel is a tale of students trumping expectations and conquering their circumstances. It’s also a story of requited love: the passion a school has for its community, and the support that community gives back.
The school is a tutorial on how to rely on community and culture to boost achievement and reel in accolades, but its tips for success may not easily apply elsewhere. People who study high-poverty, high-achieving schools caution there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to boosting student achievement. What works in rural Alabama may not work in inner-city Atlanta or the hinterlands of Alaska.
Former Principal LaGaylis Harbuck, a Choctaw Indian herself, arrived at Calcedeaver in 2001 with little more than a strong will and undying belief in the potential of the students, almost all of whom are MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribe based in Mobile and Washington counties in southern Alabama.
Sparked by an intense focus on improving reading and math instruction, Harbuck oversaw an overhaul that her successors have sustained and enhanced for the past 15 years. Now, more than 90 percent of Calcedeaver’s students routinely score “advanced” or “proficient” on the state’s reading and math tests.
To kick-start the change, the school participated in the federal Reading First program and the Alabama Reading Initiative, both of which, in its view, provided much-needed funding, training, and materials. Harbuck also worked to strengthen the community’s connection to its cultural identity and the Choctaw language.
In less than five years, Calcedeaver rose to rank among the state’s best, racking up recognition along the way that included statewide honors and the U.S. Department of Education naming it a Blue Ribbon School in 2006.
More than a decade after the praise began rolling in, the school remains a beacon, not only for its success in teaching students the three R’s, but also for its focus on what could be called the three H’s—heart, home, and hope. The school has a five-point plan for academic achievement that relies just as much on building relationships as it does on making data-driven decisions—using test scores and other data to find out which students are falling behind and to help them catch up.
“This is fundamentally a love story about a place and about people who believe in its possibility and its future,” said Bryan Brayboy, the director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University.
That love brought Calcedeaver alumna Nicole Williams back home in 2001 to teach Native American culture, language, dance, and history. Harbuck, the former principal, persuaded Williams to forgo her plans for a career in medicine or physical therapy to help inject life into her community.
“This school is the heartbeat of this community. Everything else are the veins and the capillaries and all that. This is the main organ that supports this community, and they support us. It’s a perfect union,” Williams said.
Ties That Bind
It’s part of a longstanding tradition, said MOWA Choctaw Indian Chief Lebaron “Big Man’"Byrd, a Calcedeaver graduate and former teacher at the school. Another alumnus, his twin brother, Lemural, served as principal in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Back when the Byrd brothers attended Calcedeaver in the 1950s and 1960s, the school was a 1st-through-12th-grade-school, serving almost exclusively Native American students. The campus long has hosted tribal powwows and served as a gathering place for community meetings, and as a place where news, good and bad, circulated quickly.
During Lebaron Byrd’s time as a teacher in the early to mid-1980s, fellow teachers often complained when reassigned to far-flung Calcedeaver, located 40 miles outside of Mobile. Their tunes often changed after their arrival, he said.
“This place has always been the focal point in our community,” Lebaron Byrd said. “When other people came here, they found out it was a hidden gem.”
Brayboy calls Calcedeaver a “unicorn,” because its results are the stuff that myths are made of.
In the past decade, the 250-student, 13-teacher school has had at least four principals and fairly constant turnover among its teaching staff. Almost all the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Many of their parents struggled to graduate high school, Williams said.
Now, in her 15th year at the school, Williams has strong ties to Calcedeaver. All four of her children attended the school; her youngest is in the 3rd grade. Her father went to school there. It’s where she spent most of the 1980s as a student. Her sister, Heather Hunt, the school’s library media specialist, also came back after earning her college degree.
Williams is one of the mainstays, but also an outlier. Among her classmates, she was the first, and one of just a few, to earn a college degree.
Through a mentoring program she founded, Williams also tracks former students to ensure they graduate from high school and attend college if they choose.
When she began her mentoring program, the high school graduation rate for Native students who started at Calcedeaver hovered around 50 percent; now, Citronelle High School—where Calcedeaver students enroll—has a 91 percent graduation rate, one of the highest in the state.
“I try to ensure the community and students are getting my best and they’re giving me their best,” Williams said.
Brayboy, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said successful schools don’t “get caught up in the narrative of Native students as victims.”
But the stark statistics that capture the state of Native American education in this country can make it hard not to.
American Indians continue to have worse educational outcomes than the general population by nearly all measures.
They traditionally post the worst achievement scores and lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup.
American Indians are also overrepresented in the school discipline system, and Native kindergarten pupils are also retained at nearly twice the rate of white kindergartners.
With those systemic challenges, it is not surprising that American Indian and Alaska Native students had the lowest national four-year high school graduation rate, 67 percent, of any racial or ethnic group, according to 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics
“Those things are all true,” Brayboy said. “Where we end up in trouble is where we attribute that to a culture or to someone’s lack of willingness to try. Our children have been underserved. That’s just the way it is.”
When the Education Trust selected Calcedeaver for its Dispelling the Myth award in 2011, Karin Chenoweth, the research and advocacy group’s writer-in-residence, took an in-depth look at the school. Two years earlier, she profiled another Mobile County school, George Hall Elementary, with results similar to Calcedeaver’s. It’s a mostly black school 40 miles away in urban Mobile.
The author of three books on high-poverty, high-achieving schools, Chenoweth has visited campuses and districts across the country, searching for common threads and shared traits.
“What do they have in common with a mostly Hispanic high school in Los Angeles County? That’s a really deep question, and it’s not an easy one to answer,” Chenoweth said. “I really think it has to do with their belief in the capacity of their kids and organizing themselves around that belief. It seems almost too simple, but that’s really at the core of these schools.”
Her observations sync with Brayboy’s principles for ensuring success for students, Native American or not. Topping the list: a recognition that relationships matter and that successful teachers are often embedded in the communities where they work.
“Do students feel like they’re being represented in the material and their experiences are being validated? [The teachers] understand the place, they’re present both inside the school and out,” Brayboy said."We have a perverse fixation on this notion of best practices. Context matters. Place matters. If you don’t have that, none of the other stuff is going to work.”
While there’s no cookie-cutter approach to school improvement, the educators at Calcedeaver Elementary School, in Mt. Vernon, Ala., follow some homegrown principles in working to get the best from their students:
Inspect What You Expect
The staff collaborates on a plan to meet the needs of all students, both academically and socially. The principal “inspects those expectations” through frequent visits to all classrooms and offers feedback to ensure student and teacher success.
Embrace Your Uniqueness
Despite its rural, high-poverty location, Calcedeaver focuses on the positive aspects of its students and looks for the necessary academic and social tools to help them succeed.
Involve the Community
The school sees itself as the nucleus of its community. The tight-knit connections between school and community means word travels fast about what’s happening at Calcedeaver. School officials work to find out what community members are thinking and make sure they have a stake in the decisionmaking.
Calcedeaver during the past several decades has developed a Partners in Education relationship with several businesses within the wider community. DuPont financed a greenhouse project to further science, technology, math, and engineering, or STEM, learning outside the classroom. Other partners include J&B Electric, MOWA Choctaw Housing Authority, Aldersgate Methodist Church, and SSAB, which provide donations, and programs such as Reading Buddies and Junior Achievement.
Unite on Common Goals
Chief among these goals are keeping the focus on student achievement and letting student needs guide the mission of the school.
Source: Calcedeaver Elementary School
Laura Hittson, who came to Calcedeaver in January 2015, is the latest in a long line of principals at the school. As a former central-office employee in the Mobile school system, Hittson knew about the history and culture of Calcedeaver. She also knew that a revolving door to the principal’s office could lead to issues with trust and allegiance.
To ease the transition, Hittson spent her first 18 months trying to work her way into the tight-knit community. To do that, she sat back, observed, and listened, getting to know the staff, students, and people of Mount Vernon.
Relying on Veteran Staff
She relies on the judgment of such veteran support staff as cafeteria workers, janitors, and classroom aides, not just teachers. At the onset of Calcedeaver’s ascent under Harbuck, they were pressed to double as reading tutors and boosters, touting the benefits of picking up books.
Hittson’s arrival coincided with the move to a new $10.5 million building. Less than a mile from the old site, the new campus is still a far cry from it, at least in Williams’ eyes. As a student and teacher, she spent more than 20 years of her life learning and teaching at the old campus, part of which now serves as a community center. It was where Calcedeaver’s latest renaissance began and where most of her children received their earliest formal schooling in a mix of small brick buildings and shoddy portable classrooms.
The new school honors the Choctaw tradition, incorporating Native American symbols into the design. But Williams longs for the old building, a place that she and her children still call home.
“We had dilapidated buildings with $20 million minds. Our children were still knocking it out of the park,” Williams said.
The effects of poor economic conditions and deplorable buildings in many Indian communities add to the challenges facing families and schools. But that, by no means, indicates they’re incapable of learning, and excelling.
“We have to stop treating kids as defective ‘just because,’” Chenoweth said. “So they’ve got strikes against them: What are we going to do to educate them?”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2016 edition of Education Week as Lessons From a ‘Hidden Gem’ in Alabama