DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, the reality is, school integration remains a distant goal in many parts of the country. In Sumter County, Ala., where enrollment in the public schools has been virtually a hundred percent African-American, the new University Charter School has opened with the goal of changing that. For most students, this will be the first time they'll be learning next to someone of another race. Sherrel Wheeler Stewart of member station WBHM has the story.
MORRI MORDECAI: Let's try it again. (Chanting) Class, class, class, class, class.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Chanting) Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
SHERREL WHEELER STEWART, BYLINE: Welcome to University Charter School in Livingston, Ala. Of the school's more than 300 students, only about half are black, and that's big news in Sumter County.
MORDECAI: When I tell your table to line up...
STEWART: It's the first weeks of school, and some fourth-graders are getting to know each other. They each have pieces of colored paper, and they can do anything they want with them. The idea is to be creative. Teacher Morri Mordecai cheers them on.
MORDECAI: They put theirs together and said it represented rainbow. Is that not cool?
STEWART: Mordecai says she wants students to collaborate.
MORDECAI: We have such a diverse grade. And to see them all working together as one and them talking about it is just extraordinary. And you can't get experiences like that everywhere.
STEWART: You're probably thinking, what about Brown v. Board of Education? The Supreme Court ruling was supposed to desegregate schools with all deliberate speed in the 1950s. But it took years for Alabama to actually desegregate. And when it did, as in many parts of the country, whites living near blacks moved out of their school zones or started new private schools. That's exactly what happened here in Sumter County. Ashley Strickland is white. When she was growing up here, she traveled to another county for school. She says she probably would have done the same for her 4-year-old, but now she's sending her daughter to pre-K at University Charter, a public school operated by the University of West Alabama.
ASHLEY STRICKLAND: I've got friends with different-race children, so she's grown up that way. It doesn't make a difference to her. It's important for the kids to commingle.
STEWART: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about a third of Sumter County residents live in poverty. Its public schools are 99 percent black, and achievement is consistently low. The system received a D on the last state report card.
JOYCE STALLWORTH: Sumter County, like so many rural counties in our state, suffers from a lack of highly effective teachers.
STEWART: That's Joyce Stallworth, a retired University of Alabama education professor. She isn't convinced a charter school will solve the county's achievement and integration challenges.
STALLWORTH: Could those resources be used in some kind of fashion to improve the existing public school to make it attractive to white kids and their parents, to black kids and their parents, to all kids and their parents?
STEWART: In the first week of school, Morri Mordecai's students worked on a project - interview a classmate, then share what they learned with the teacher. One thing a lot of them had in common...
MORDECAI: They were going to miss some of their friends. So the fact that they're gaining new ones is so awesome.
STEWART: It's by no means clear that this one school will solve Sumter County's integration problems, but these fourth-graders are making new friends with children they might never have met otherwise. For NPR News, I'm Sherrel Wheeler Stewart in Birmingham.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANNING SPENCE'S "FOREVERMORE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.