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Altamont Explores Birmingham’s Past, Present and Future during Fall Project Week
Laine Williams

For one week in October, Altamont’s doors swing open and the world becomes our classroom. A beloved tradition since the 1990s, pre-COVID Fall Project Week trips included such places as Chicago, Sweden, Rome and Washington, D.C. This year because of the pandemic, we pivoted to an experiential learning week in our hometown utilizing partnerships with local organizations to teach our students what makes Birmingham unique.


While we have had local trips previously, this was the first year all grades were focused on creating experiences that highlighted Birmingham’s past, present and future. “There is something special about this city,” said Beth Dille, director of the C. Kyser Miree Center for Ethical Leadership. “Students need to understand the role they play within Birmingham. It’s our job as educators to teach students about the value and significance of their hometown with the purpose of making their city even better in the future.”


Birmingham’s Past


The first step was acknowledging Birmingham’s history. Altamont’s 9th graders visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park on an educational tour created by Lisa Daniels, a history teacher at Altamont. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a cultural and educational research center that promotes a comprehensive understanding for the significance of Civil Rights developments in Birmingham. Part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, the 16th Street Baptist Church, an active church today, served as a meeting place for the organization of marches and other Civil Rights activities. In 1963, a bombing at the church resulted in the death of four young black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson. This devastating event led the federal government to take action on Civil Rights legislation.


In conjunction with the 16th Street Baptist Church visit, Altamont had the honor of hosting Carolyn McKinstry, an eyewitness and friend to the young ladies who died during the bombing. A survivor of the Civil Rights struggle, she is a national author and speaker on the topic of racial reconciliation. Her message encouraged and challenged our high school students to make Birmingham’s future one of peace and understanding. After her visit, McKinstry shared these words: “I enjoyed the young people more than you could ever know. My hope is in the youth of tomorrow. I believe that they will soar far beyond where we are today.”


Altamont’s 11th-12th graders participated in a Southern Stories tour created by JP Hemingway, Joni Wiley  and Andrew Nelson, three faculty members. Prior to the trip, the students participated in two lessons asking, “What is our community?” and “Who tells our stories?” This trip began at the Birmingham Public Library archives where Jim Baggett, archivist of the city of Birmingham, showed students artifacts such as redline city maps and the Birmingham jail docket that included Dr. Martin Luther King’s name. The students then toured Lynn Park and Kelly Ingram Park to see the Civil Rights monuments. Finally, they ended at the Birmingham Museum of Art where the All Things Bright and Beautiful exhibit showed people using artwork to tell their stories. “My favorite part of the trip was realizing that there is no singular story of Birmingham,” said 11th grader Margaret Schedler. “The multitude of stories we encountered cemented Birmingham as the city that it is, neither good nor bad, just a reflection of the people that call it home.” 


Birmingham’s Present


Students also learned about how to serve Birmingham through local partnerships with Jones Valley Teaching Farm, West End Community Garden, Black Warrior Riverkeepers and Rise Against Hunger.


10th-11th grade students worked with Jones Valley Teaching Farm and 9th graders worked with West End Community Garden to garden, weed and clean up local gardens. Jones Valley Teaching Farm creates opportunities for academic exploration, environmental stewardship, personal growth and leadership and pathways to employment. At the West End Community Garden, the students learned what it means to build community partnerships and affirmed the need for available and nutritious food to be provided for all people.


7th and 10th grade students worked with Black Warrior Riverkeepers to pick up 643 pounds of trash at East Lake Park and near Valley Creek. Students also discussed the vital need for the next generation to be involved with restoring Alabama’s waterways.


Altamont’s 7th-8th graders packaged over 10,000 meals for Rise Against Hunger, a global movement to end hunger by empowering communities, nourishing lives and responding to emergencies. These meals will be distributed worldwide to those in need through a network of community partners. “My favorite activity during Fall Project Week was packing rice for the Rise Against Hunger. One thing I learned is that helping others makes me happy,” said 7th grader Tylan Floyd.


Finally, students participated in a service day in the areas directly around Altamont, clearing overgrown vegetation on the city roads and the community trails behind the school. 7th-8th grade students learned that as part of a city, Altamont has a responsibility to contribute and help out wherever we can. 


Birmingham’s Future


The culmination of the week was educating Altamont students to become compassionate leaders, creating a better Birmingham and world. Partnerships with Alaquest Collaborative for Education (ACE), NewGen Peacebuilders, Red Mountain Theatre and McDowell Environmental Center focused on Birmingham’s future.


7th-8th grade students participated in ACE’s leadership, empathy, inclusion and trust workshops. Students practiced these skills through group interactive discussions and activities. With NewGen Peacebuilders, an award-winning peace education, training and mentoring program that equips young people to build and repeat peace, students learned how to actively resolve conflict, build bridges and create innovative solutions for change. At Red Mountain Theatre, students sharpened their ability to create and to collaborate. The theatre’s mission is to create powerful experiences that enrich, educate and engage audiences—nourishing the human spirit, fostering valuable life skills and cultivating a deeper sense of community.


5th-6th graders participated in McDowell Environmental Center programing that increased awareness  and understanding while encouraging a sense of responsibility for the environment. With the goal of connecting people to the natural world, this hands-on science program focused on topics such as Plant it Earth, Forest Connections, Farm Fauna, Radical Raptors, Art in Nature, Geology, Survival Skills and Team Building. “My favorite part of Camp McDowell was how you were constantly learning and having fun. You also got to participate in a lot of hands-on activities,” said 5th grader Caroline Perkins. “My favorite thing was learning about all of the different adaptations that animals have.”


Learning about Birmingham's past, serving the city in the present and building a brighter future was the purpose of Altamont's Fall Project Week this year. " The meaningful conversations and real-world community service provided by students will continue to shape them far past this week,” said Joni Wiley, Altamont’s geography teacher. “I am grateful that the students have the opportunity to engage with a city we all call home in an intentional and meaningful way." Utilizing this purposeful time to explore and invest in Birmingham challenged and empowered our students to become better leaders both in our city and in the world.


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