Benjamin F. Yancey Elementary School and its predecessors have anchored Southern Albemarle’s African-American community for almost 150 years.
In 2017, Albemarle County closed the school in response to low enrollment and a loss of funding. Its 110 students divided into two neighboring school districts, Scottsville and Red Hill.
Ericka Jones-Ayers’ youngest son was among the students that moved from Yancey to Scottsville Elementary.
“Explaining it to him was hard,” Jones-Ayers said. “He cried a lot. And I just explained to him the best that I could…that a decision was made by a group of people to close Yancey and have the kids move.”
“He had a lot of questions,” Jones-Ayers continued. “‘What’s going to happen to us now? Are they going to like us at this new school? Why didn’t they come and talk to the kids and see what we had to say?’”
Jones-Ayers found herself unable to answer all of her son’s questions; she was shocked, too.
The Albemarle County School Board began to consider an option to close Yancey in late April 2017 and voted to close the school on May 25.
“It makes you wonder if they had already made their minds up, if it was already set in stone before we even went to the [public hearing] and expressed our thoughts,” Jones-Ayers said.
The past year has not been easy for Jones-Ayers’ son. Though he meets some of his friends at the Boys & Girls Club in Scottsville, he has not been able to keep in contact with several of his closest friends.
“It took [my son] about four or five months to really settle down and be able to focus and move on,” Jones-Ayers said.
One year since the school’s closure, parents, teachers, and community members continue to keep Benjamin F. Yancey’s legacy alive.
The promise of a school
Esmont’s first school for African-Americans was established in 1874, less than a decade after emancipation.
“With slaves legally not being allowed to read or write…to get the opportunity to read and write and build your own school in your community was very important,” said Lorenzo Dickerson, a local filmmaker and web specialist for Albemarle County Public Schools.
Dickerson, who grew up in Albemarle, produced a short film last year about Yancey’s closing. He also produced “Albemarle’s Black Classrooms,” a feature-length documentary about the history of black schools in Albemarle County.
“The original school [in Esmont] was a log-cabin style building – one room in the woods – and had no playground or anything like that,” Dickerson said.
As the area’s population grew, Benjamin F. Yancey, Isaac Scott, and other Esmont men and women pooled resources to create Esmont High School. The school became part of the segregated Albemarle County school system in 1915. Several years later, the younger students were moved into a second building, known as the Little School.
For Waltine Eubanks – Isaac Scott’s great-granddaughter – teaching at Yancey felt like home.
Eubanks spent two of her elementary school years at the Little School. She remembers playing in the creek behind the school during their lunch break.
“The teacher rang the little ding-dong bell and you had to hustle from the creek and hope you didn’t fall in as you were scrambling up the bank,” Eubanks said. “We came back muddy, but we had enjoyed the time.”
Eubanks was in fifth grade in 1951 when the city and county consolidated their three black high schools into Jackson P. Burley High School. The Little School closed and Eubanks’ classes moved into the Esmont High building.
“[The city and county] started something called ‘passive resistance’, which is to build African Americans a brand new school with all the bells and whistles, [so] they won’t want to integrate,” Dickerson said.
Integration finally happened in a few schools in Albemarle County in the early 1960s. Eubanks graduated from Burley in 1959.
Desegregation was not an easy process for black students. Buses no longer took students directly to their homes. The drivers instead dropped them off at the end of the “hard-surface road”, which could be far from the homes of black students in rural parts of Albemarle.
“It can be a hostile environment if you are walking past homes of white residents, where they’re throwing rocks at you,” Dickerson said. “You’re preparing yourself. You’ve got rocks in your pocket and you might go around a different way.”
Many historically black schools did not fare well under desegregation either.
“You will hear the students of these [historically black] schools say that they had old books and broken-down buses,” Dickerson said. “[One student] talks about riding on the bus and looking out the window and seeing a wheel roll down the street and realizing that the wheel was from the bus she was riding on.”
Yancey opened in 1960 on the same site as the former Esmont High School. But community activists have had to protect the school from closure since the 1980s, Eubanks said.
Yancey’s recent troubles began when Virginia introduced new standardized tests in 2012 and 2013.
Student pass rates dropped to 48 percent in 2013 – from over 95 percent in 2011. At the same time, fewer students were attending Yancey. Despite projections to the contrary, enrollment dropped from 132 in the 2012-2013 school year to 118 in 2014-2015.
Albemarle County was awarded a grant in 2015 for educational services to help turn the scores around. The county began to implement the grant in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education in the fall of 2016. However, by the end of that school year, the Virginia Department of Education informed the county that the grant was unlikely to be renewed.
On May 25, 2017, shortly after learning about the potential loss of $395,000 in funds, the Albemarle County School Board voted 5-2 to close the school.
“When [the Esmont community] donated that little two-room, log-cabin school to Albemarle County, they were promised that there would always be a school in this community,” Eubanks said. “In my heart of hearts, it’s a part of our family history that the county has reneged on.”
The county’s attorneys found, based on court documents and deeds from the time, that the donation of three acres of land in Esmont to the school board was not conditioned upon the provision of a school on that property.
“I was a pretty vocal opponent of them closing the school,” said Jessica Gordon, a former Yancey parent. “It was such a close-knit, safe place for my son Aiden to be, and I had hoped that [my daughter] Grace would get to have the same experience that Aiden did.”
At Yancey, kindergarteners through second graders were all in the same classroom. After the School Board voted to close the school, Aiden realized that he would not have a third year with his teachers as he had expected.
“He had those teachers for two years,” Gordon said. “You couldn’t have asked for better… he learned and grew so much. For him, it was home.”
Aiden is one of the 76 Yancey students who transferred to Scottsville Elementary School, where he is now a rising third grader. The other 44 students transferred to Red Hill Elementary School.
At Scottsville, Aiden has excelled academically and made friends in his new environment. His bus ride is only ten minutes, and because the school has added trailers to accommodate the influx of students, classroom space has not been a problem either.
Closing down a school - perhaps that’s lower on the list of traumas in students’ lives, but still it’s significant.
However, Gordon said she was disappointed by Scottsville’s after-school program. After pulling him out of the program, Gordon placed Aiden at the local Boys & Girls Club, where he sees more of his old friends from Yancey.
Gordon said that Scottsville’s staff did not do anything to specifically welcome the Yancey students either. At the beginning of the school year, Gordon requested that a guidance counselor check in on her son. The counselor agreed to have lunch with Aiden, but when Gordon emailed her to see how the lunch went, the counselor did not provide much information.
“I spoke several times with the principal about doing something [for the Yancey students.] There was never anything that took place,” Gordon said.
Scottsville’s principal, Sharon Amato-Wilcox, retired in June. She did not return multiple requests for comment.
“The school community did a lot last year, and I’m going to continue that work,” said incoming Scottsville principal, Staci England.
England directed Yancey’s after-school program from 2004 to 2008. She has been meeting with parents, faculty, and potential partners to prepare for her new role. One of the meetings was with the division’s new Social-Emotional-Academic Development team, who will help prepare the school to handle student trauma.
“Closing down a school – perhaps that’s lower on the list of traumas in students’ lives, but still it’s significant,” England said.
Scottsville also will have a full-time counselor for the upcoming school year.
Some parents were concerned that the schools their children would attend after Yancey would be less diverse.
A staff report presented to the School Board in May 2017 listed Yancey’s student body as 59 percent white the year the school closed, compared to 86 percent at Scottsville.
“I take pride in teaching my children that there’s a lot of different people out in the world, and it’s good to try to get to know as many different people [as possible],” Jones-Ayers said. “Yancey had that, while Scottsville doesn’t. And that concerns me.”
“It definitely does not have the same… community feel [as Yancey],” Gordon said. “We know a lot of people because we are from the area, but it’s not the same at all.”
Kimberly McLaughlin, the former director of Yancey’s 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, has had a more positive experience with her children’s transition. Cyrus, a rising fourth grader, and Aydan, a rising third grader, now attend Red Hill.
“They did an over-the-top back to school night and other things like that,” McLaughlin said. “Art Stow is an amazing principal. He really tried his best to get everyone to feel really welcome.”
“I joined the PTO right away, and they have been great,” McLaughlin said. “They tried to get the Yancey parents to come, and unfortunately only two parents from Yancey joined it.”
Former Red Hill Principal Art Stow oversaw the integration of Yancey students. Stow said he and his staff, as well as Red Hill students and parents, worked hard over the last year to make Yancey students feel welcome at the school.
Stow left Red Hill after the 2017-2018 school year. He is now an assistant principal at Sutherland Middle School.
When the school board decided to close Yancey, Stow and Amato-Wilcox visited Yancey to meet the kids who would soon attend their schools. Future Red Hill students went on a field trip to the school.
He’s kind of that "one best friend" guy. ... [Fortunately], his one best friend got put into Red Hill too and in the same class.
“All the Red Hill students wrote letters of welcome to the children who would be coming to Red Hill,” Stow said. “We had a celebration at the end of the year letting them know we were ready and happy they were coming.”
Red Hill also underwent renovations and named some of the classrooms after a few places in the Esmont community.
At the beginning of the next school year, Red Hill had their annual school picnic. With the new students in mind, the PTO added extra activities to the picnic, including a bounce house.
“We were very intentional in our activities to help with that inclusivity,” Stow said.
The addition of the Yancey students was a 20 percent increase in Red Hill’s student body, which had been declining in the preceding years. Stow said the addition revitalized the school.
Because McLaughlin’s family lives in Red Hill already, Cyrus and Aydan’s bus ride is only 20 minutes. Their bus driver, who is also their neighbor, picks them up right outside of their house.
Though both boys lost friends, Cyrus has made new friends easily at Red Hill, McLaughlin said.
“Aydan had a little bit more of a difficult year. He’s kind of like that ‘one best friend’ guy,” McLaughlin said. “[Fortunately], his one best friend got put into Red Hill too and in the same class.”
“I miss Yancey because I really liked it there, but I also like it at Red Hill,” Aydan added.
Over the summer, McLaughlin’s sons have been able to reunite with former Yancey students at Camp Corwith, a two-week summer camp hosted by St. Anne’s Belfield School. The camp allows 25 Club Yancey students to enroll for free.
“They go on five field trips. They feed them a hot breakfast,” McLaughlin said. “They do tie-dye. They are… treated like royalty.”
While working at Yancey, McLaughlin aimed to provide summer programming through community partnerships every year so that the children in Esmont would always have a safe place to go. Camp Corwith is one of the few partnerships that continue today, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin is now a volunteer organizer for the camp.
“I would like more things like that,” McLaughlin concluded. “I keep feeling a calling for it.
‘We will rise’
In September 2017, Albemarle County Public Schools turned the former elementary school over to the county’s Board of Supervisors to become a community center. The supervisors appointed a transition committee to craft the plans for the building’s future.
The B.F. Yancey Transition Team, which was largely composed of community members already concerned about the school’s closure, met on a monthly basis during the 2017-2018 school year. Committee members organized public input on possible uses for the building and reached out to organizations interested in using the space.
“We want the southern part of Albemarle to shine,” said committee member Berlinda Mills. “In this journey we are about to take, we will rise.”
Like several other members of the committee, Mills has keys to Yancey. Mills coordinates a food bank in the old cafeteria on the fourth Friday of every month. The building also hosts occasional yoga and exercise classes, Girl Scouts meetings and a youth program supported by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
To Peggy Scott, an Esmont resident who has led many of the transition team’s efforts, these activities are only the beginning of healing after Yancey’s closure.
“[Yancey] definitely was a pulse of the community. To see that there’s not activity here, that there aren’t students here this summer, it just feels wrong,” Scott said.
The transition committee plans to continue using the building as a multigenerational learning center, as Yancey Elementary had done in its final years before closure. The team has spoken with Piedmont Virginia Community College and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging about becoming Yancey tenants.
“I’m 77. I hope there’s going to be something here that I will be interested in doing,” Eubanks said, laughing. “I need to learn how to use my smartphone and my computer better than I do now.”
Other potential uses of the space include a literacy program, a therapy center, a daycare, a farmers market, a housing or docking area for the police department, and a place for medical services, such as telemedicine or mental health.
The committee also aims to reverse some of the underlying causes of Yancey’s closure.
“There are food deserts. There are places where there are no jobs. There are no private businesses,” Scott said. “People don’t have the ability to climb or rise.”
Albemarle County policies have consolidated development into Crozet and the urban ring around Charlottesville. This helps to maintain the water quality and rural character of Albemarle County.
“[Development] is not something that our farmers want. It’s not something that our landowners want. They like this quiet privacy,” Scott said. “But in the meantime, when you have people that you say are socioeconomically deprived…it’s really hard to pull back children that will have children that will be able to help us get a school again.”
Supervisor Liz Palmer said that Scottsville was a more likely location for a growth area than Esmont, because it already has a reservoir. Palmer represents the Samuel Miller district, which includes Esmont and Red Hill.
“What controls what a growth area is and what a growth area is not…is the ability to take care of people’s waste and give them that very precious thing that they need – water to drink, ” Palmer said.
Albemarle County would need to see signs of growth in Esmont before taking steps to encourage it through policy, Palmer said.
“There’s some organic growth that occurs first, and it just can’t be a county coming in and saying it’s going to change its growth policy because there isn’t that organic growth there,” Palmer said.
The B.F. Yancey Transition Team held its last meeting on June 30, but Scott said they will continue to play a role as an advisory board to the facilities group.
“We’re looking for people who have the interest and desire to stick with this,” Scott said.
On July 17, the Planning Commission evaluated the transition committee’s plans for the community center and unanimously ruled that the project was in line with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The Board of Supervisors is set to approve the plan at a future meeting.
Jones-Ayers does not think Albemarle County will reopen Yancey Elementary anytime in the near future. Though she is disappointed that her son will not be able to return to his beloved school, she hopes that the building will offer opportunities for her and her son.
Jones-Ayers is confident that her son’s next year at Scottsville Elementary will go more smoothly than this year.
“But if you were to ask him, he would tell you that he would want to come back to Yancey,” she said. “This is his home. This is his school.”