When Calcedeaver Elementary School students returned to class Jan. 6 after holiday break, students stepped into brand new facility complete with unique architecture designed to reflect the school’s Native American culture.

Out of the 250 students enrolled at the Mobile County public school, 87 percent are from the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, according to Rena Philips, supervisor of marketing and partnerships with the Mobile County school system.

The $12 million, 58,000-square-foot school, built on property donated by Riley Boykin Smith’s family business Tensaw Land and Timber Company, was designed for up to 400 students and is wired for 21st century technology with several computer labs, wireless Internet and “smart boards” in every classroom, Philips said.

But perhaps the most unique aspect of the school is its Native American heritage and the efforts made to incorporate the area’s culture into the school’s new building.

“Our facilities department worked closely with members of the MOWA Choctaw tribe to incorporate their heritage into the design with colors, artwork, etc.,” Philips told Lagniappe via email.   

According to Nicole Williams, Calcedeaver’s Indian education teacher, the entire school reflects Native American culture, whether it be through the tile work in the floor, the brick walls, the outdoor signs or the giant eagle mural on the outside of the building.

“We wanted people to know that when they pull up at Calcedeaver and walk in the building, that this is a school that has a high population of Native American students,” she said.

Currently, Calcedeaver’s old campus is still home to a special Choctaw culture exhibit, featuring 12 traditional, pre-colonial Indian dwellings including a teepee and wigwam, which was built in 2001 and served as an outdoor classroom. Though Williams said there were some concerns within the community about what would happen to the exhibit, she praised the school system for working with the school to keep its heritage alive.

“They [MCPSS] assured me that they will work with us to get it moved,” she said.

The new school, located between Mount Vernon and Citronelle on Patilla Road and about a half-mile from the former school, also has a gymnasium and a cafeteria with a state-of-the-art kitchen, Philips said.

Calcedeaver’s previous campus never had a gymnasium, and Williams said students oftentimes were forced to remain in classrooms during rain or icy weather instead of being allowed somewhere to play.

In addition, when Calcedeaver needed to host big events that included accommodating students and parents, the school had to borrow the gym at neighboring Aldersgate United Methodist Church, she said.

Further, because the old campus connected buildings from the outside, students had no choice but to go out in the elements during class changes and were often required to “muddle through standing water,” Williams said.

She went on to say students would have to roll their pants up and even sometimes take their socks and shoes off to go to class, but because the new facility is enclosed under one roof, such problems will no longer exist.

“It’s really going to mean a lot for our students because they’ve never had anything that nice as far as the school is concerned,” Williams said.

As now required by Alabama law for new schools, Calcedeaver also has a built-in tornado shelter, with one of its wings built with walls strong enough to withstand 200 mph winds in case of an emergency, Philips said.

Philips also said this particular wing has a generator and restrooms, and the MCPSS is planning to use the new building as a hurricane shelter for the community as needed.

However, in addition to new buildings and incorporating Native American culture into the physical and architectural components of its facility, Calcedeaver Elementary School has always strived to embed cultural elements into its academic curriculum as well.

Williams, who has worked at Calcedeaver since 2001, said her job as Indian education teacher is to ensure that the children in the community know their heritage and are proud of who they are.

“If you can be proud of who you are, no matter where you go, you’ll be successful,” she said.

Historically, Williams said students sometimes failed to realize the importance of their heritage upon leaving the elementary school and would have trouble transitioning to higher education because “they didn’t have that pride.”

When Williams began her career at Calcedeaver, she said the student dropout rate was greater than 50 percent.

However, currently 100 percent of students who graduated from sixth grade at Calcedeaver also went on to graduate from high school, she said.

“It’s been a dramatic increase” in the number of students who finish high school, Williams said.

“They make us as a community and as a school, so proud of them,” she said. “Our kids are a special group of kids.”

Additionally, Williams even follows students all the way through high school by visiting middle and high schools throughout the week. Williams said Calcedeaver especially works very closely with Lott Middle School and Citronelle High School.

Incorporating Indian education into its curriculum has been a “definite positive” for Calcedeaver, Williams added, noting the family-like atmosphere between staff and students that also makes the school successful.

With its new building, Calcedeaver also has a new principal. Laura Kittson was appointed as interim principal during a special-called school board meeting Dec. 30, replacing Paige Mixon, who was appointed principal at North Mobile K-8 School.

Williams said she met Kittson a couple weeks ago and she is on board with Calcedeaver’s mission and what it means to the staff, students and community.

“It takes a very special person to be the principal at our school because the culture is so unique,” she said.

Furthermore, Calcedeaver is a National Blue Ribbon School, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the top schools in the country, Philips said.

According to Williams, people from all over the U.S. have visited Calcedeaver Elementary School throughout the years to experience its unique culture.

“When they come, they fall in love with our school, and they don’t want to leave … they say it’s a gem,” she said. “They say it’s the best kept secret in Mobile County.

“Calcedeaver is one of a kind.”