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Appalachian Scene: The Spirit of Oneida

by Carl Hoffman

It's two in the afternoon and the bleeps, honks, and squeaks of trombones, french horns, and saxophones are reverberating down the bright halls of Oneida High School. "Many small schools like ours have lost their bands," says teacher Barbara Shoemaker. But Oneida, nestled amidst the hills of Scott County, Tennessee, isn't an ordinary town, and its high school isn't an ordinary high school. Town and school have spirit.

So it shouldn't be surprising what happened in 1988 when the dilapidated building housing 1,100 students in grades K through 12—the entire Oneida Special School District, in fact—was threatened with closure by the state fire marshal. Indeed, said the fire marshal, the choice was clear: Oneida could shut the building down or fix it up. To the community, however, the choice was anything but clear. Closing the building meant losing the school system. But keeping the school meant spending millions of dollars the community didn't have.

Today, thanks to an extraordinary community effort, the Oneida Special School District is not just alive, but arguably one of the best school systems anywhere. It has three brand-new, state-of-the-art buildings, commitments of funding for years to come, and excited, dynamic teachers. And most important of all, enrollment is growing, students' test scores are rising, and more and more students are continuing their education after graduation.

To understand how Oneida saved its school system, you have to understand small towns, says Paul Roy, publisher and editor of the weekly Oneida Independent Herald. The independent school system had been serving Oneida's residents, estimated by city officials at about 5,000, for nearly a century. "And in a small town, everything centers around the school," says Roy. "It's our city hall." Indeed, says Steve Phillips, an Oneida native who joined the school board shortly after the fire marshal issued his warning, "the school was the nucleus of the community, and to close it meant losing that nucleus."

Rallying around its school, the community began raising money to repair or rebuild. Car washes, raffles, bake sales, "selling" classrooms to donors—all the usual fund-raising tactics were duly, and successfully, employed. Some $200,000 was raised, a lot for a small town. "But as we started to come up with an overall vision, we started to dream," says Phillips. And the dream grew ever more fantastic: Why not separate elementary, middle, and high schools, each with the latest in technology and a new curriculum? Why not, in short, a whole new school system?

"We had a belief that our kids were just as great as any children in the world and that our teachers were just as great as any in the world, and that if they had the opportunities and the tools, then our talents would shine through." And as that dream grew, says Phillips, "the [$200,000] was like a drop of water in the bottom of a barrel." The board turned to Oneida school alumnus Howard C. Tibbals.

Tibbals had owned a flooring company in Oneida that was founded by his father and uncle in the 1940s. Over the years the company had flourished, and Tibbals, having sold the company in 1988, was reported to be, well, flusher than the average Oneida resident. Tibbals' reaction to the school board's initial plea for funding wasn't positive, says Phillips. "But we were persistent, and he finally said, 'If I were to help, what would you do with the money? And what would you do to help yourselves?' " A week after that first meeting, Phillips returned to Tibbals with a detailed vision. And Tibbals had recently been thinking about the state of the school system and his commitment to a community that had helped his family flourish. Tibbals jumped in, with a caveat: He wanted the community to prove its commitment with more than words.

A Sign of Commitment

At the same time, Phillips and the board went to B. Ray Thompson Jr., an Oneida resident whose family had made a fortune in the coal fields and whose father had graduated from Oneida High in 1926. The hour Thompson reluctantly gave them to state their case turned into four, and a trip back to the decrepit school in Oneida. "When Mr. Thompson left the cafeteria," says Phillips, "he was in tears." But he, too, wanted some serious sign of commitment before he would donate any money. It was then that the people of the Oneida Special School District, whose average per capita income was about $9,500 a year, voted by an eight-to-two margin to increase their property tax rate by 43 percent, to raise $1.5 million. "For them to raise their own taxes—that was amazing," says William H. Swain, chairman of the board of the First National Bank of Oneida and a former member of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

With the community having proven its willingness to sacrifice, Thompson and Tibbals followed, Thompson with a grant through his family's private foundation, and Tibbals with a promise of an annual lump sum for ten years for curriculum, provided the school district's students showed continuous improvement in their academic performance. "When my dad came in 1946," explains Tibbals, "he had no money, and through his hard work and the wonderful work ethic of people here in Oneida, we were able to make the plant what it was. I owed it to the people and their children."

With dreams so big and so much money about to flow in, the school board hired Mayfield Brown, then superintendent of schools in Clay County, as special project coordinator in charge of implementing the rebuilding program. Six months later, in July 1991, he took over as superintendent. A big, soft-spoken man, Brown honed the community's ever-expanding vision. "I met with Tibbals, the school board, the Lions Club, different groups of pastors, coffee clubs, teachers—everyone." He helped set up a 26-person advisory council. "I asked teachers to dream. And most important of all," says Brown, "I listened."

"He asked us what we wanted," says Jann Lewis, a fifth-grade teacher. "I said I wanted air conditioning. 'Okay,' he said, 'you've got it. But what else do you want?' " If there was an intriguing school program or curriculum somewhere, Brown sent them to check it out—Nashville, Chattanooga, Kentucky, California, wherever. "I had never seen another school," says Lewis, an Oneida native, "and we had never been asked that question. It was incredibly morale boosting."

To date, over $14 million has flowed into the tiny school system, from Thompson, Tibbals, and other sources. "As a banker, I thought I knew what this town could come up with," says Swain, whose bank contributes about $100,000 a year to the system, "and I thought a million dollars was a lot of money." But the total amount, he says, "I find astounding." Forty-five teachers preside over an elementary school nurturing some 600 students in preschool through fifth grade. Lewis calls the building, a welcoming place where light streams in from huge windows everywhere and where every three or four classrooms has its own carpeted gathering space, "a dreamland." Every classroom has a TV and a VCR, the library receives 80 periodicals every month, and there's a computer for every two and a half students. There's a full-time art teacher, a full-time science teacher, a full-time music teacher, and a full-time guidance counselor.

An Academic Renaissance

"You have no idea how far our school system has come," says Linda Marlow, who teaches creative writing to third and fourth graders in one of the elementary school's five computer labs. Not far away from the elementary school stand two equally impressive buildings—Oneida Middle School and Oneida High School, connected by a shared cafeteria, library, and gymnasium. Spend time peeking into the high-tech classrooms or chatting with teachers, however, and it's not the facilities that impress but what's going on within them. Indeed, while some school systems might have been satisfied with better buildings, Brown—goosed in part by Tibbals' stipulation that academic performance must keep rising if his money is to keep flowing—has unleashed an academic renaissance.

"I want to make kids love learning," says Barbara Shoemaker, a science teacher who now works full-time (through the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative—see "On a Roll for Science and Math" in the May–August 1998 Appalachia) helping Oneida's elementary, middle, and high school teachers revamp the system's science curricula. "Brown has given us ownership of our own professional development, and we get to change what we need in our classrooms to improve our teaching. I'm trying to move teachers out of just textbooks to hands-on activities."

High school students can take advanced placement biology, English, and trigonometry classes. Middle school students attend four days of regular classes and on the fifth attend "mini-courses" in everything from World Wide Web page design to scientific research methods. There's band, chorus, even an after-school program in handbell ringing, and every child leaves fifth grade able to read music. "There's always been a big competitiveness here when it comes to athletics," says Brown, "and now I'm trying to get that to carry over to academics, too."

It all seems to be working. As the first decade of Oneida's grand experiment draws to a close, 90 percent of its high school graduates are going on to further education, and standardized test scores for Oneida's grades two through eight have climbed from 39th in Tennessee in 1990 to fourth in 1997. The word is getting out: "We've had no problem attracting [teachers]," says Brown. "I think we've shown that a community can pull itself up by its bootstraps, and once you've shown that, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon."

Indeed, says publisher Paul Roy, "You wouldn't have believed the enthusiasm for the school system in this community. I think we were looking for something to campaign for, and it turned out it was ourselves."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.