SMCA closes doors after steady fall in attendance
By Tim Gayle
After years of fighting an annual battle to stay open, South Montgomery County Academy closed its doors for the last time in late May.
The school’s board of directors met on Thursday night to discuss the future of the property in Grady.
“We met, but the only thing that has been decided right now is the fact that the school is not going to be open next year and right now all we’re doing is fulfilling our short-term financial obligations,” said Jeremy Brown, the chairman of the board of trustees. “At this point, we’re not going to reopen next year. As far as the outcome of the property and stuff like that, that’s yet to be determined.”
SMCA became one of the early members of the Alabama Private School Association when it opened its facility in 1970 and slowly evolved into one of the state’s better Class A programs. By 1975, John Faircloth guided the football program to an 11-2 record, losing in the semifinals to Demopolis Academy. In 1979, John Niblett won the Raiders’ only football championship. Scott Rials was the last football coach to have any noteworthy success, losing in the state title game in 2000 and again in 2002.
After Rials left in 2003, the school had nine different coaches over the final 13 seasons, resulting in four winless seasons and no winning seasons.
“I guess the realism of it is there’s a time for a beginning and a time for an ending,” Faircloth said. “I could probably name you 20-25 non-public schools over the years that started out, had a good era of success and for various reasons went away. And most of them were for the same reason – children not returning to that area to raise their families.
“Nobody comes down in this area to raise their family. It’s the very reason there’s no high school down here any more, public or private. People are not going to buy property here and build and settle down, knowing their ninth grader has to get on a bus at 6:30 in the morning (to go to Montgomery).”
The closing of the AISA school leaves the area with no high schools after Montgomery County High in neighboring Ramer closed its doors in the early 2000s.
“We fought hard to keep it open and couldn’t,” Brown said. “People aren’t moving into the country, they’re moving out of the country. I wouldn’t trade where I live for anything, but you can’t hang on to it when it gets to a certain point.
“You go back 20 years ago, you had South Montgomery County Academy with 250-plus students, Dunbar-Ramer Elementary School with about 250-plus students, then you had Montgomery County High with that many students. Now, you’ve got South Montgomery that had less than 100 students, the (public) high school has closed and Dunbar-Ramer with kindergarten through eighth grade with less than 200 kids. So you’ve got less than 300 kids in school versus 700 or 800 kids 20 years ago. It’s not a school problem, it’s a demographic problem.”
Carolyn Hicks was among the first group of teachers in the school when it opened in 1970. She had started her teaching career at Sidney Lanier, then transferred back home to teach at Montgomery County High for seven years before SMCA opened. Over the years, she has volunteered her time in a variety of ways for the school, serving as its headmistress on several occasions.
“There are not enough children in this area to keep the school going, but not all children in this area have chosen to go to South Montgomery,” she observed. “Some go to other schools, which is their choice. People from several communities, not just in Grady, supported the school for years and they still do. But a lot of them have gotten older and don’t have children and a lot of younger ones have moved away. We never should have opened this year, I thought. They’re struggling now to pay what they owe.”
SMCA students will now attend G.W. Carver, Park Crossing or Jeff Davis, depending on what area of the county they live, or they can transfer south to Crenshaw Christian Academy, northwest to Hooper Academy or one of the private schools in Montgomery.
“It’s a bad situation,” Hicks said. “I just really hate to see the children have to make that change. Some of them, I’m afraid, won’t go to school.”
In recent years, SMCA’s dwindling enrollment numbers have drained the athletic ability of the Raiders, but the school retained its popularity for other functions such as the Haunted Hayride, the Labor Bay barbecue and an annual wild game supper that was popular in the farming communities.
“That hayride was so much fun,” Hicks said, “and we had people from far away who would call us and say they were coming. Those two years we didn’t do it they almost drove us crazy asking why we didn’t do it. But this last year, we really didn’t have enough workers. It takes a lot of people to put on something like that. But we had a lot of people in the community who had nothing to do with the school any more that would come down there and work.”
The school obtained statewide recognition in the late 1980s for its girls’ basketball program, headed up by the late Buddy Edwards, a local resident who helped out the community school and earned recognition in the AISA Hall of Fame for his efforts. Edwards guided the Lady Raiders to state championships in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992, posting the state’s longest winning streak along the way.
The boys’ basketball teams joined the girls as state champions in 1989 and also won a title in 1998.
“The people in our community down here really don’t realize how much they’re going to miss that school,” Faircloth said. “It had events that brought the communities together and parents together. A lot of these people will never meet again, simply because of the demise of the school and the demise of the programs.”