CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL GROWS, IMPROVES WITH THE CITY IT CALLS HOME

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Central High used to be home to a number of state championships. Photo by Ben Lasseter

Written by WVUA 23 Contributor Ben Lasseter

Located six blocks from Bryant-Denny Stadium, Central High School boasts competitive athletics, favorable game-day RV parking and a historical reputation as a primary center of Tuscaloosa academia.

The 700-plus students, mostly from West Tuscaloosa, continue the school’s tradition of a proud namesake, though their experience differs greatly from what students at Central from 1979-2003 knew.

“There’s a lot of people coming into Tuscaloosa who don’t know the rich history of Central,” said current dean of students Dennis Conner, who graduated from and has spent his career with the school.

The high school was founded as the sole Tuscaloosa high school in 1979 when a federal court order required the desegregation of high schools in the United States. In 2000, however, this order was lifted, and three months later, the Tuscaloosa City School Board decided to break the mega- school into three smaller ones: Northridge, Paul W. Bryant and Central.

Some ramifications of this decision remain a subject of scrutiny and debate among those impacted throughout the city. The resulting West Tuscaloosa zone designated to Central resulted in a drastic change from the once considerable diversity there. Some call it a “resegregation.”

“It went right back to having a predominantly African American school, and that was the thing that we tried to get away from in 1979,” Conner said. “You don’t get to be in a relationship with (students of) other races.”

Seventeen years later, only 19 of last year’s students were not of the majority African American population, per an Alabama Department of Education enrollment report. Simultaneously, the school board was considering the big picture of education in the mid-sized Alabama college town.

Shelley Jones, a retired educator who served on the city’s school board during the time of this reassessment said they considered many factors in the decision besides with student diversity.

“We looked at our vision and what it needed to be to meet the needs of the demographics in the population where people live and projected where the growth of the city was to be,” she said, referring also to economic and population demographics.

Jones, who served as principal of Woodland Forest Elementary for 20 years and spent half of her eight years on the board as chair, described the decision as immensely complex. Its nuances also included tricky financials, the philosophy behind having one big school versus multiple smaller ones and a facilities conflict.

“Lots of people in the community had very strong opinions about it,” Jones said.

Those to be zoned for Central were “not very accepting of redoing,” said Jones. “They wanted a brand-new high school if, in fact, the other two were gonna be brand-new.”

For this reason, the board chose to tear down the old high school, which contractors said could have remained in good condition for another 100 years.

“We still have people in the community who are vehemently against (the separation),” Jones said. “They think it was wrong that we tore down Central High School.”

Central’s statistics have landed the school on Alabama’s failing schools list each year since the Alabama Accountability Act of 2015. This defines “failing schools” as the “lowest 6% of public K-12 schools based on the state standardized assessment in reading and math.” Paul W. Bryant High School has also made the same list each of these years.

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Jones, who objects to the concept of accusing a school of “failing” because of test scores, maintained that she stands by the decision the board made. She said much of the reparation after the change has taken longer to happen than she had hoped, though. Whereas this could serve to explain some of the frustration around the dissenting Central community, Jones and Conner both laud Central’s stimulating classroom environments and continued improvements.

Among these good signs, the high school always remained Tuscaloosa’s only institution with International Baccalaureate (IB) certification. As described on its website, the program fosters academic rigor and personal development.

Jones said after the school breakup, parents were reluctant to take advantage of this opportunity for their children. In 2013 and 2014, though, Central’s feeder schools also earned IB status, per the IB program’s website, which attracted more students to the program over time.

Jones said this has played into the board’s 2000 vision because more students are moving through the program more steadily now.

“We’re getting back to our great academic standpoint,” Conner said.

Just down the road, the University of Alabama benefits from this growth, along with the rest of the community.

“We’ve always cared so much about our local students,” said Sara Shipp, the university’s Tuscaloosa County admissions recruiter. “We want to see students in Tuscaloosa feel like this is their home.”

Shipp, at the time, was preparing for what she described as a large group of students from Bryant High to visit, with another from Central to come soon.

Given the city’s recent prosperity, with high student enrollment, increasing population and booming tourism, any positive impacts of the 2000 decision come at an opportune time, if long- anticipated. Though many still miss the school’s nostalgic nature – with all of Tuscaloosa’s high-schoolers together – Falcon pride remains strong.

“We have great students, we have a great school,” Conner said. “This is Central High School.”

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