Behind the shuttered school, the old playground rusts into the sandy yard. It’s a silent hulk of wood and metal: There are no children here anymore.
A block away, Pastor Joseph Marshall sits in the sanctuary of St. John Divine Missionary Baptist Church. It is late Monday afternoon, and the room is filled with the peculiar, comfortable silence of an empty place of worship. In the back, a small group of people has assembled at a few tables to discuss the loss of Spencer Bibbs Elementary School.
“It happened pretty suddenly,” Marshall recalled.
In early 2011, Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas had stood behind the church pulpit and told a group of administrators and community members of his plan to close Bibbs.
The school simply did not have enough students to keep it open, he had said. It was costing too much.
The analysis Thomas presented showed that, while the attendance zone for Bibbs had 613 children, the school’s unweighted FTE (full-time equivalent students, by which the state funds the school) was only 329 pupils in the 2009-10 school year—down from 400 students four years earlier. The historic elementary school had struggled to make the grade since the inception of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The school’s grade had bounced between “C” and “D” since 2006—earning two “C’s” and three “D’s.”
Only 34 percent of the children living in the attendance zone went to Bibbs, and the school district estimated the unweighted FTE would drop in the 2011-12 school year to just 241 students. That drop, 27 percent, would have been the largest single-year decrease in the school’s history. From the time Thomas had been sworn-in as superintendent until 2011 the school had lost 107 students. In the three years before he took office, the school had lost only 37.
However, Thomas didn’t tell that to the parents and teachers sitting in St. John Divine. The superintendent had no way of knowing the school would improve its grade that year to a “C,” and no one can say now how that grade might have impacted Bibbs enrollment the following year had it remained open.
Marshall said the charts and figures were enough to keep most people quiet.
“The ones that couldn’t understand it, it shut them up,” he said. “The ones that were educated enough to understand it, it shut them up, too, because the stats were right there.”
“What did not show up on the stats,” the pastor said, “was the care and concern that the school had rendered to these children.”
BIBBS: OUR SCHOOL, OUR NEIGHBORHOOD, OUR BRAND
While Felicia Smith listened to Rev. Marshall, her 8-year-old grandson Tyrell anxiously shuffled his Air Jordans.
Tyrell had attended Bibbs. When the school closed, he was transferred to the new Global Learning Academy, which absorbed 60 percent of Bibbs’ students. Smith said the new academy was a “good school.” However, she had known most of the teachers at Bibbs, she said, and this had made a difference in discipline.
Deborah Brooks, who sat nearby in a very colorful headscarf, was living in Miami while her grandchildren were students at Bibbs. Their parents were often absent, but school administrators had kept a close eye on the children and knew to call Brooks if there were problems.
Brooks furrowed her brow and moved her hands as if directing a very grave symphony when she spoke. Her words were measured, heavy, sad, full of dignified indignation.
“At least by going to school you got your teacher, who didn’t play with you,” she said. “You got your principal that didn’t play with you. There was always somebody that knew yo’ momma, yo’ daddy, or yo’ grandmama in that school. But now? … The children have no identity.”
Her palm fell forcefully on the table—once, twice, three times, purple acrylic nails clattering on plastic. “They have no purpose,” Brooks said. “They have no reason.”
“Our children have no identity,” she repeated. “That is the root of the ills of our community. They’re bussed off to these other schools. They feel like, ‘Hey, they’re bussing me out of my neighborhood. These people don’t care about me.’”
Bibbs was deeply rooted in the community’s sense of identity. It had been for 91 years.
The namesake of the school was a mulatto taxi driver and grocer, said to resemble a darker John F. Kennedy.
Bibbs became supervisor of one of the District’s original “colored” schools in 1889. That institution—Public School No. 44—was located across the street from the present facility. When children graduated from No. 44, they had to walk nearly five miles to the nearest school on the west side if they wanted to continue their education. When it stormed, Bibbs would taxi the children to and from school.
To make it easier on everyone, Bibbs requested a new school be built on the east side of the city. His wish was fulfilled. The school was completed in 1920 and later named in his honor.
Marion Williams is the great nephew of Spencer Bibbs. He worked for the School District for more than 30 years. The retired educator wrote the book on African American schools in Escambia County—literally. It is entitled “Historic Colored or Negro City Public Schools: 1885 – 2008.”
When Williams was a schoolboy, he said, Bibbs was one of the finest schools in the County—“colored ” or otherwise.
Mary Sander Todd, now the librarian at St. John Divine, attended Bibbs in those days.
“It was ideal,” she said. “We thought Spencer Bibbs was the best school in the world.”
Ethel Gibson Simpson also attended Bibbs.
“I remember playing on the school grounds ‘cause there was nowhere else to play,” she said. “It was just home for us.”
Over the past few decades, the neighborhood declined, and the school followed. The deathblow, Williams said, was declining enrollment. Many of Williams’ generation left the neighborhood and did not return. They raised their families elsewhere. Meanwhile, the middle class families that did stay elected to send their children to other schools.
The students that were left were the poorest, and the least likely to succeed on standardized tests.
“The problem is that, when you have low income students who are taking tests that are designed for middle class kids … It only takes a small number of those kids for the school to test low,” Williams
said. “Poor kids are going to do poorly on tests that are really not designed for them.”
And so the school got a bad reputation that further accelerated the decline in enrollment.
A few blocks walk from the church, past the rusting playground and through the summer swelter, Freddie DeSoto reclined in an overstuffed, green velvet chair. The mantle of his fireplace was a clutter of frames—smiling grandchildren, serene-faced images of Jesus and military decorations from his years in the Marine Corps.
DeSoto reached for a manila folder on his side-table and retrieved an 8-by-11 photo. In the black-and-white picture, a group of children stood on the steps of the old Spencer Bibbs Elementary School.
“That’s me,” DeSoto said, pointing to a young boy in the right-hand corner of the photo, “the one without shoes.”
DeSoto attended Bibbs in its heyday. His grandson followed in his bare-footsteps, attending Bibbs for a year. However, DeSoto’s daughter, Chanelle, soon pulled him out. She said he had been involved in several fights at the school, and administrators met her concerns with hostility.
She transferred her son to Cordova Park Elementary, and she said that he had not been in a fight since. She thought it was better for her son and others to escape the “mentality” of the Bibbs neighborhood.
“I think they made the right decision closing Bibbs,” she said.
DeSoto said he didn’t worry about the closing. “The most important thing is that the children get a good education,” he said, even if that meant bussing them to other schools.
Williams said that he was not initially pleased with the District’s decision to close Bibbs, “but I understood it,” he said, “and eventually I came to accept it.”
He said that good teachers were the vital thing, and they could be found at any school.
“I could be raised with foxes or wolves, but if I got support, I got a chance to make it,” he said.
Back at the church, Marshall said he worried that wouldn’t be enough. The school, he pointed out, was not just a place for children to learn.
He likened it to the community’s “brand.”
“It’s not just a ‘hood,’” he said. “It’s a neighborhood, and everything is linked to the brand.”
When this is lost, he said, “other brands move in.”
Marshall’s congregation recently purchased several houses across the street from the church. They did so, he said, to combat the increase in prostitution, drug dealing, and other “extracurricular activities.”
When Superintendent Thomas announced the closing of Bibbs, Marshall said, the community felt ambushed. They were not given the chance to rally behind the school.
“There is no time to recover from what is already in motion,” he said. He also said there was a feeling of “mental belittlement,” because the community was not brought to the table to try and save the school.
“I hate to say it,” Brooks said, “but it gives the appearance that black schools are being targeted.”
“Why?” she asked. “Why? Why?”
“It’s just sad,” Gibson said. “I pass there often now, and I just say, ‘Well, maybe one day it will surface back again.”
“There is always hope.”
ACROSS THE BAYOU
Across town on the other side of the Bayou Texar sits A.K. Suter Elementary School, a little 90-year-old school that has earned “A’s” every year since 2002. The attendance zone for Suter has only 96 children, according to the reports Thomas showed the Bibbs parents in early 2011. The school enrollment this past year was 367—32 fewer students than the prior year and one less than when Thomas took office. In 2006, Suter’s enrollment was 327.
Eight years ago, NFCN of Tallahassee, Fla. was employed by the Escambia County School District to review its schools and make recommendations for renovations, improvements and closures. Through a public information request, the IN got a copy of NFCN’s report titled: “Improving Student Performance Through Better Educational Facilities: An Analysis Of The Facilities Of Escambia County Florida.” Then-Superintendent Jim Paul and his team used the report to justify the renewal of the Half-Cent Sales Tax for the schools.
The conversion of Woodham High to a middle school was one of its recommendations. Four elementary schools were recommended to be closed—Hallmark, Allie Yniestra, Bibbs and Suter.
“Due to shifting student populations, school enrollments have dropped below a cost-effective level,” wrote the consultants. “High administrative and operating costs make it impractical to continue to operate these facilities.”
By the end of the 2010-11 school year, Hallmark, Bibbs and Yniestra had been closed. Suter remained open.
In January 2012, Superintendent Thomas announced his plans to replace A. K. Suter with a new $21.5-million facility. The Master Plan Study that was completed by Caldwell Associates in October 2011 shows that the new school would be two stories and have a capacity of 600-800 students. There is no mention of how the district plans to more than double the enrollment of the elementary school.
SUTER: THE HEART OF ‘THE HEIGHTS’
Jerry’s Drive-in has been the beating … stomach of East Pensacola Heights since 1939. By mid-afternoon on a Friday, the crowds have thinned. A few hungry souls linger in salmon-colored booths, while a smattering of lonesome thinkers nurse oyster dinners and pints of Bud Light at the bar.
Sharon Johnson shuffles about. She scribbles orders, tears them from her little book and clamps them with clothespins to a string in the kitchen window. She tops off a coffee mug and points through
the front windows, across Scenic Highway, to A.K. Suter Elementary School.
Built in 1921, the school is rooted even more deeply in the bayou muck than Jerry’s. It’s the beating heart of the neighborhood, attended by three generations of Johnsons, starting with Sharon’s father.
Johnson says she is pleased the District is replacing the facility: It is one of the oldest in the County. However, she worries what effect expanding the school might have.
“I like the smaller feel,” Johnson said, and she worries the influx of new students might damage the quality of education.
A. K. Suter has always been the little school that could. There has always been a friendly competition with the larger and more modern Cordova Park Elementary. Parents, neighbors and surrounding business owners have taken an active role in the school’s success.
Dale Rooks is one of these people. Rooks owns the Marina Oyster Barn, another landmark of “The Heights.” He is also a long-time crossing guard and volunteer running coach for the school.
As a crossing guard, he shepherded generations of children (including two daughters of his own) safely to school. An especially zealous ward, he used to point a hair dryer wrapped in black electrical tape at passing cars. Drivers would slow down, thinking his improvised device was a radar gun. The curiosity is now mounted to a wall of the Oyster Barn, along with a plaque from the school recognizing his years of service.
Rooks shared Johnson’s concerns about expanding the school. “I liked it better when it was small,” he said, “but economically, they can’t keep small schools. That’s what I’ve been told.”
Low enrollment has placed the school on the District chopping block more than once.
When Superintendent Paul broached the idea of closing Suter in 2008, community members rallied to put political pressure on Paul and their school board representative, Patty Hightower, to block it.
Rooks had a daughter at Suter when the District threatened to close it.
“They felt like … it wasn’t feasible to keep these small schools open,” he said, “… and Suter was a little school that had 250 kids in it.”
“When a school leaves, … it just kinda hurts the whole area,” he said. “That’s why everyone in this area was against them closing Suter. We all felt like ‘why would you close a school that makes an ‘A’ every year and makes the District look good?’”
A.K. Suter Principal Russell Queen believes that it’s the history of his elementary that sets it apart.
“All schools have a sense of community,” he said, “but I’ve never been to one that had a sense of history and tradition like this one does.”
“I have teachers here who were students here,” he said. “I have second, third and probably fourth generation students. I have teachers whose children went here.”
People living in the Heights still remember the early days of the school—people like Mary-Lou Butler, who walked every morning down a sandy path through a grove of blackjack oaks to get to Suter.
That was the 1930’s, when the 20 or so students who attended the school all hailed from the Heights.
“Everybody knew everybody else, and to tell you the truth, a bunch of people were just kin to each other,” Butler said.
Things have changed since then. Of course, the student population has grown, but it has changed in other ways as well.
“There’s hardly any kids in this area any more,” Rooks said. “I do the crossing guard stuff up here, and I just have hardly any that walk. Most of the kids have grown up, moved out, and they’re not moving back.”
In recent years, more and more students have come to Suter from outside the school’s attendance zone. Many of these transfer students migrate to Suter from low performing schools under the school choice provision of the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
Queen said that in Nov. 2011, these transfers made up 47 to 49 percent of students at Suter, an uncommonly high figure.
He said he could fill several hundred more slots tomorrow if he had the capacity.
The principal said something was lost in the move away from neighborhood schools.
“[With a neighborhood school] everything’s kept at home,” the principal said. “The businesses, the parents. It’s part of their life, part of everything they see every day. Their boys and girls walk there … It just becomes an integral part of everything that goes on in the neighborhood.”
Queen said, “It’s kind of something you feel when you’re a part of it.”
Editor’s note: The Independent News made several attempts to contact Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and Deputy Superintendent Norm Ross for comments. Neither responded as of the paper’s publication deadline.