At its heart, education is more about hand-to-hand combat than about grand plans and ballyhooed initiatives. Sure, we all love the big splash, but at the end of the day it’s all of the little splashes that really make a difference.

And that’s what just happened at the University of West Alabama, tucked away in tiny Livingston, AL in the heart of Sumter County.  President Ken Tucker and Dean of Education Jan Miller announced the creation of the Black Belt Teacher Corps at a reception and recognized the first 10-member cohort of the program.

For sure, that crescent swath of deep soil that cuts across the gut of Alabama, known as the Black Belt, is unique.  When cotton created “Alabama Fever” in the early 19th century, it burned hottest in this region.  It was the antebellum home of large plantations and hordes of slaves who tended the endless cotton rows.  It was first named for its soil.  Today, it could well be named for its population.

The beautiful countryside hides the grinding poverty.

And slap dab in the middle of it sits an institution of higher learning that first took in students in 1839.  Since then its been kinda like the little engine that could.  Impacting that little patch of earth one student and one life at a time.

Like all rural places, public education struggles here.  With one of the ever-growing struggles being–where will new teachers come from?  So UWA has embarked on a program to grow their own teachers.  To help students who plan to become educators and are mostly from the area, not only financially, but with special training to better prepare them to address community issues.

It’s a formula that has worked for a number of years in the Missouri Ozarks.  Gary Funk, who runs the national Rural Schools Collaborative, was instrumental in getting the Missouri program going.  He and his organization are also partnering with UWA in the Black Belt Teacher Corps.

Juniors and seniors selected for scholarships receive $5,000 per year, plus $1,000 to carry out a place-based education project.

All of this would not have happened without the whole-hearted support of Representative Bill Poole and Senator Arthur Orr who chair the House and Senate Education Finance committees and local senator Bobby Singleton.

I was able to attend the reception.  The smiles of the students getting scholarships were big, bright and genuine.  Just as those of mamas and daddies and grandparents who were there.  Prior to the reception, I looked at the scholarship applications of all 10 recipients.  For the most part, these are not the 3rd or 4th generation of college-educated kids in their families.  Many are the first to ever go to college.

They are not riding around in a new SUV with daddy’s platinum credit card in their pocket.  Instead they are counting their pennies.

One has never seen his father and his mother went to jail when he was five.  His grandparents raised him and his grandfather is now deceased.  The scholarship will save him from piling up more student loans.  He grew up in a rural community and wants to live in one.  One of his professors told me that it has been a joy to watch his “light” come on and to see him grow.

One has worked as a substitute teacher in Pickens County ever time she can since graduating high school.  As do the vast majority in education, she feels “called” to be a teacher.
One used to ask Santa to bring her teacher supplies for Christmas and her first class was stuffed animals.  She wants to return to her small hometown in Choctaw County.
One graduated from Sumter Central high school.  He would like to be a principal in the Black Belt some day and says the Upward Bound program at UWA kept him for becoming just another Black Belt statistic.  He also has diabetes and struggles sometimes because of school work and his health.  He said, “my health insurance is not good” and family circumstances means he sometimes doesn’t have the medicine he needs.  This scholarship will be very beneficial in this regard.
One is the middle daughter of a single mom.  Both of her other sisters have health issues, which means money is sometimes stretched quite thin.

One plans to be a special ed teacher and wants to work in a Black Belt title 1 school.  She said, “I want to be the one who holds their hands, wipes their tears and tells them their situation is only as bad as perceived.”

Hand to hand combat.  One student at a time.  UWA understands this and has put a plan in place.