Christy Hiett attended Fruithurst Elementary. After going away to college, she’s come back to her home and is now the school’s principal.
Photo: Larry Lee
At first glance, there is nothing to distinguish Fruithurst from any of the hundreds of similar hamlets tucked into forgotten corners of Alabama. The last census said there were only 270 residents of this community that straddles U.S. 78 in Cleburne County, which means it ranked No. 382 in size of the 456 incorporated places in the state.
And you’re more likely to find a mobile home here than a white picket fence, as its citizens are, by and large, blue collar. The same census that counted 270 folks also tells us that only 53.2 percent of them finished high school, compared to a state average of 80.1.
These are people who pull on their jeans and boots each morning and go off to build things, pour asphalt and put pipe in trenches.
But Fruithurst definitely has something that sets it apart. It’s the red brick elementary school about 200 yards north of U.S. 78.
Some 220 youngsters go to school here, 72 percent of them receive free/reduced lunches. Considering that the median household income in Fruithurst is only 66 percent of the state’s average, this is not a surprise. (See this Yonder story for percent of low income students in every state.)
But what is a surprise is how well these students perform in the classroom.
Free/reduced lunch kids are not supposed to do very well in class. But someone forgot to get this message to Fruithurst Elementary. Take the scores from the 2006-07 school year for fourth-grade math.
The Alabama reading and math test breaks results into four categories: level 1 (does not meet standards), level 2 (partially meets standards), level 3 (meets standards), level 4 (exceeds standards).
Last year 78 percent of this little country school’s fourth-graders on free/reduced lunches were level 4 and 22 percent were level 3.
None were level 1 or 2.
This was 42 points better than the state average for free/reduced lunch students and better than any other system in the state. Pick any other system—Hoover, Vestavia, Huntsville, Auburn, you name it—and the kids from this tiny east Alabama community outperformed them.
This remarkable accomplishment has not gone unnoticed. The Alabama Department of Education has selected Fruithurst as a “Torchbearer” school, one of only 10 such rural schools in the state. They were recently awarded $45,000 for reaching certain goals.
So what’s the secret?
You’ll find tee shirts at Fruithurst that say, “We believe that high expectations and hard work will make us successful.”
And you don’t have to roam the halls long to realize that this is a genuine belief, not just a slogan.
Fruithurst, Alabama, is small in size only.
“We have truly dedicated teachers,” says principal Christy Hiett, who went to school at Fruithurst and returned to teach after graduating from Auburn University. “Plus, we work really hard at making sure we continually reinforce lessons that have already been taught. For example, we teach math constantly by keeping up with the days in the month, the daily weather report, counting money and any other way we can think of.”
What might be best described as “sense of community” figures prominently in the school’s success. Like Hiett, six of the 14 teachers live in the community. Superintendent Scott Coefield was principal at Fruithurst for several years. He’s a native of Cleburne County. His wife Tammy, also a native of the county, was principal there as well.
“In a way, this school IS Fruithurst,” says Hiett. “People here are proud of the school and very supportive.”
The fact that the recent Fall Festival (the school’s only fundraiser) made $11,000 and was the most successful ever bears out Hiett’s contention.
The real lesson of Fruithurst Elementary is simply this: regardless their circumstances, children should not be hampered by the low expectations of adults.
Fruithurst has set very high standards. But if they can do it, others can as well. And that’s a lesson for all of us.
Larry Lee is director of The Center for Rural Alabama, a division of the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries.