“We have tremendous stumbling blocks, but those stumbling blocks are not our children.”

—Susan Dickinson, principal

  • Mount Vernon, Alabama
  • Mobile County School District
  • Grades PK-6
  • Public
  • Rural
  • DTM awarded in 2011

School Overview

Recognized as a Dispelling the Myth school in 2011, Calcedeaver Elementary School is a leader in Alabama.

Most students at Calcedeaver Elementary School are “MOWA Choctaw” (MO for Mobile County; WA for Washington County), descendants of American Indians who agreed to renounce their language and culture rather than join the 1830 “Trail of Tears” to the West.

For years the school was low-performing and its graduates were often tracked into low-level classes in high school. Alumna Nicole Williams, now the school’s Native American interpreter and resource teacher, said that few of her classmates graduated from high school and she was one of few who went on to college.

Things began to change in 2001 when a MOWA Choctaw educator, LaGaylis Harbuck, became principal. Under her leadership, Calcedeaver faculty focused closely on improving their math and reading instruction. The school participated in Alabama’s Reading Initiative and the federal Reading First program, both of which provided sophisticated training and materials. Harbuck also worked to revive the community’s cultural identity and the Choctaw language, establishing an area on school grounds with representations of different kinds of traditional native housing teepees and wigwams) and providing a place for local pow-wows.

Academic achievement began to improve and, through two changes in leadership, Calcedeaver continued to improve through the years and was named an Alabama “Torchbearer School,” given to high-performing high-poverty schools, six years in a row.

“Despite our conditions,” says Principal Susan Dickinson, “we are truly dedicated to top-notch instruction and providing our children a loving and stimulating learning environment.” The conditions she is referring to is a long-neglected campus that floods often and consists of a brick building surrounded by a motley collection of dilapidated trailers used as classrooms. But down the road, construction has finally started for a new school building. It is expected to open in the winter of 2014.

With practically all its students meeting state standards (in 2013, 100 percent of sixth-graders met state math standards, and 91 percent of them met state reading standards, 79 percent at an advanced level), students are now entering high school more prepared. Native American interpreter Nicole Williams is specifically tasked with following Calcedeaver’s graduates and making sure they are assigned to high level classes and progress toward graduation. As a result of this careful work, just about all Calcedeaver students go on to graduate high school and most are going on to college or other postsecondary education.

“If the bar is set low, they’ll go low,” Williams said of the students. “If it’s set high, they’ll [go] high.”

In the summer of 2014, Susan Dickinson became principal of nearby Citronelle Elementary, and Paige Mason became principal of Calcedeaver.

Updated 2014

“A Whirlwind Tour of Award-Winning Schools,” by Karin Chenoweth mentions Calcedeaver Elementary and its plans to move into a new school building.

“Lessons From a ‘Hidden Gem’ in Alabama,” by Corey Mitchell of Education Week.

School website

District website

Great Schools Profile

More information about academic achievement in Alabama