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Students gather outside University Charter School in Livingston, Ala., the state's second charter school.

Charter school brings racial integration to Sumter County, Ala., classrooms

Aug. 15, 2018
White students had been attending a segregated private school, but the new University Charter School in Livingston opens its doors to black students and white students.

The opening of University Charter School in Livingston, Ala., marks the first time in Sumter County that black students and white students are learning side by side in integrated public school classrooms. reports that more than half of the K-8 school's 300-plus students are black, and just under half are white.

"This is an historic day and an historic mission," principal John Cameron said on the charter school's first day.

Even though federal courts long ago mandated an end to racial segregation in schools, white families in Sumter County, as in many places across Alabama, responded to the court decree by removing their children from public schools and establishing their own all-white private schools, known as segregation academies.

As a consequence, no public school in the county has come close to reaching the demographics of the student body at University Charter School, according to enrollment documents.

Overall, the county's population is 76 percent black and 24 percent white. Sumter is the poorest county in Alabama, with a median household income of $20,428—less than half of the state's $44,578 median income.

Parent Markeitha Tolliver, who graduated from Livingston High School, says the school's mission of integrating students means a lot to her. "Change is good. It's been a slow process, but it's happening."

University Charter School has a five-year contract with the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, the governing body that has the power to close the school if it fails to meet academic benchmarks at the end of those five years.

Segregation academies still exist across the state and still enroll a large portion of the white students who choose not to enroll in public schools.

After a court order directed Sumter County public schools to integrate, supporters of segregation opened Sumter Academy, a K-12 school in 1970 and had more than 500 students,

But by 2016, enrollment was down to 172, and the school closed at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. Meanwhile, according to the state figures for 2017-18, all but 11 of Sumter County's 1,500 students were black. 

University Charter School is Alabama's first rural charter school and only the second charter school in the state. Legislation authorizing the creation of charter schools in Alabama was approved in 2015.

The school is housed on the site of the old Livingston High School, now called Lyon Hall, adjacent to the University of West Alabama campus. 

University Charter School board member Anthony Crear says students no longer have to choose between an all-black public school or an all-white private school.

"It's an opportunity for whites and blacks to go to school together," Crear says, "to give the kids in Sumter County an educational experience that they perhaps have not had before."

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