LEW’s last days

Published 2:31 pm Friday, May 22, 2009

After 45 years of sheltering young learners, Lillian E. Williams Elementary School in Attapulgus was filled with the noise of children for the last time on Friday.

For Lillian E. Williams’ Principal Florence Harrell and many others associated with the school, the school’s closure stirs mixed emotions because the site is filled with many memories.

The school is closing due to a combination of factors: Declining enrollment and Decatur County schools’ efforts to satisfy the U.S. Department of Justice, which has scrutinized the racial makeup of the school’s students.

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But for Harrell, and a host of others who have attended the school or worked there, what’s being lost is more than just a building, but a part of the community’s spirit and pride. There’s been a school on McGriff Avenue in Attapulgus—a small rural town with less than 500 residents in southeastern Decatur County—since 1954, when the all-black Mount Moriah High School was built.

“It’s been a tremendous asset to us here, and we hate to see it close,” said Attapulgus Mayor Johnny Medley.

After Georgia public schools were integrated, a second school building was constructed on the campus.

Lillian E. Williams Elementary School, named after the woman who oversaw instruction in black schools for many years during segregation, opened in 1966 with the inclusion of the former high school building.

In 1972, the school began serving all students from Attapulgus in grades 1-6, and later transitioned to hosting pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

Harrell said she remembers the school having an enrollment of about 650 students when she started working there as a teacher in 1982. At its closing in 2009, it had just 207 students, a trend Harrell attributes to an older, declining population in Attapulgus, her childhood home.

According to Harrell, Lillian E. Williams was the last school focused on serving a specific community. To her, that has made a difference by fostering a strong rapport between teachers and students’ parents, who knew each other and were partners in the children’s development and discipline.

“Parents respected us, they knew that once their children got on those yellow buses, they belonged to us,” Harrell said. “We washed and bought clothes for some of the students. We know it just won’t be the same after Friday, but we don’t expect it to be.”

Mayor Medley’s wife, Maxine Medley, taught at LEW from 1970-1997, said she believed the school had been outstanding for both its students’ achievements and for the way it helped students learn.

“It was always more like a family there, as most of the employees had been there for years,” Mrs. Medley said. “It created a good atmosphere, and I think the children benefited from it.”

Moving forward, looking back

Although Lillian E. Williams will join West Bainbridge Middle School in closing down this spring, its faculty, staff and students will move on to new homes.

All of the school’s faculty have been retained, save one: “Mac” McRae, who is retiring after 30 years of teaching solely at LEW. McRae, who taught fourth and fifth grades for one year apiece and kindergarten for the past 28 years, lives in Tallahassee but like Harrell, has felt “at home” at LEW, where he met his wife, Terry.

“If the school wasn’t closing, I’d probably be here another couple of years,” he said.

LEW’s graduating fifth-graders will be moving to Hutto Middle School, which will be home to all fifth- and sixth-grade students next year.

Harrell will be joining them as a new assistant principal at Hutto. The rest of LEW’s students will be moving to West Bainbridge Elementary School, which, according to Harrell, has room to accommodate them after the transfer of its fifth-grade classes.

Most of LEW’s teachers will go to West Bainbridge Elementary as well, while a few more will be placed at Hutto and the new Bainbridge Middle School, which will be home to all seventh- and eighth-grade classes this coming fall.

“It’s sad to know that the students are going to have to get up so early to get to school on time,” Harrell said. “But change is inevitable, it’s just one of those things you have to adjust to.”

For Harrell, who has helped LEW achieve recognition in recent years for meeting achievement test goals despite its students’ lower-income backgrounds, the closure of Attapulgus’ school has deep personal meaning, too.

A native of the town, she graduated from Mount Moriah High School in 1964 and once lived across the street from the school. After moving outside of Decatur County for a time, Harrell returned to begin teaching at LEW in 1982. She taught for six years before becoming the school’s assistant principal in 1989. She led the school as its principal from 2003-2009.

“It’s been a joy to work here, this being home, I knew all the people in the town … it’s been like a real close family here.”