News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2005


Gordon-Bibb bids farewell to bricks, not to learning

Those attending Thursday's time-capsule ceremony at Gordon-Bibb Elementary School must have been puzzled if they had heard the school criticized as elitist.

The accusation is getting plenty of play for several reasons. The school, along with Benjamin-Davis Elementary, also a magnet school, requires considerable funding for its interim placement at the Lurleen B. Wallace Center next year. Even more money will go to refurbishing the Leon Sheffield Elementary School that will be home to the magnet program in two years.

Plus, there is the simmering dispute over whether Leon Sheffield should be solely a neighborhood school, or a school that also invites gifted children from anywhere in Decatur.

But the gymnasium at Gordon-Bibb looked nothing like the lily-white haven for rich children that clouds school-board rhetoric.

What hundreds of parents saw as Dr. Barbara Sittason, the principal, displayed the time capsule from 1923 was a salt-and-pepper group of eager children. Whites and blacks, Filipinos and East Asians, sitting together and enjoying each other.

The parents were diverse, too. This is not a school that receives only soccer moms. There were fat men and skinny, dark-haired moms and blondes. Some had factory-issued uniforms, some had dirty T-shirts, some wore suits and ties.

The school's significance is not its racial mix or the annual incomes of its students' families. Ask Dr. Sittason (Dr. Read Read Read, as her students call her) or Elaine Sharman (who just received a late-in-life master's degree in giftedness). Ask Sandra Barrett (who taught her horrified students to multiply fractions on their last day of school) or Monica Cosby (who never gets riled). Drop by and watch Traci Ingleright or Rachel Robinson, who have an innate ability to captivate their students.

They will all tell you that Gordon-Bibb stumbled upon an educational formula that works. Gordon-Bibb is a magnet school. That means that, as designed many years ago, it was a desegregation ploy to get whites to attend schools in neighborhoods that were predominantly black.

No doubt this is where the "elitist" tag originated. Many of the school's students scored well on standardized tests. They are bright and impatient to learn.

That's not the innovation, though. Dr. Sittason and her predecessors decided to try something novel. They would not split the "gifted" from the "normal" students. They would not teach all of them at the "normal" level.

What they did, and have been doing for years, is start with the assumptions that the children want to learn and that they are capable of doing so.

So students — of all races, of all academic skills, of all income levels — prepare "lightbulbs," an elementary equivalent to a dissertation, but a great deal more fun. They have "Fab Fridays," where students get to choose topics that interest them. Civil War history, art, science experiments, robotics and creative writing are a few.

The magnet program will undergo difficult transitions in the next two years. Its students and teachers shed tears Thursday as they said goodbye (complete with Taps and a human chain covering every foot of hallway) to a building that, although decrepit and crumbling, has been a seat of joy and learning for many years.

Next they will have a year in a temporary facility, followed by their move to a refurbished Leon Sheffield building.

But watch. The formula that brings such pleasure and learning is no more dependent upon the condition of a building than it is upon the race of a child.

The formula the Gordon-Bibb faculty discovered is one of love and revelation, of teachers who respect every student and are determined to find the seed that, when nourished, will lead that child to a lifetime of joy and learning.

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