Ensley High Closes

School is out for aging Ensley High School
Saturday, May 27, 2006
VAL WALTON
News staff writer

Carolyn Sanders stood proudly as she sang Ensley High School’s alma mater. Memories of pep rallies, football games and classes associated with her school days came flooding back. It was a bittersweet moment for Sanders, a 1980 Ensley graduate. Moments earlier, her daughter, Charity, had walked across the stage to get her high school diploma, graduating with honors.

Thursday night’s commencement at the W.F. “Bill” Harris State Fair Arena marked the final graduation for Ensley High School. School is out for the aging building at 2301 Ave. J in the western Birmingham neighborhood. School officials say they don’t know what will become of the building. “I never dreamed 26 years after I graduated, my daughter would be part of the last graduating seniors at Ensley High School,” Sanders said. “It’s so funny standing out here knowing this will never happen again.”

Ensley High School and Jackson-Olin High School are merging as part of the system’s plan to renovate, repair or replace dilapidated schools. In August, the new Jackson-Olin High School will open with state-of-the art equipment focused on preparing students for careers in technical fields. The new school also signals a merging between two schools steeped in sports rivalries.

“I think that all of the children in the Ensley community deserve the very best that we can give them,” said Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Wayman Shiver Jr., who attended the graduation ceremony. “I think we are on our way to giving them what they deserve.”

Construction on the new school, which will have a capacity of 1,800 on Avenue F between 12th and 14th streets, started in 2004. The decision to close Ensley did not come without initial controversy. Many Ensley High alumni questioned why there could not be a blending of both schools’ names. Some are upset there will be no visible Ensley connection. “It was something that was of concern,” said Joseph Dawson, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association for Ensley High. “It’s not as heated as it was before. I think the kids are doing well in trying to come together. I think more of the problems are not from the kids as much as the adults and parents.”

Ensley’s rich history:

Ensley is a school rich in history. The school started in 1901 on the top floor of the Old Bush School, according to “Landmarks of Ensley Past and Present” by A.G. Prince. Ensley entered the Birmingham School System in 1910. It was located in a thriving community because of U.S. Steel and ACIPCO.

The school was one of the “Big 5″ schools in Birmingham along with West End, Woodlawn, Ramsay and Phillips. Through the years, the school has turned out thousands of successful students. Among them were Hoover Mayor Tony Petelos, Pelham Mayor Bobby Hayes, Jefferson County Commissioner Mary Buckelew, state Sen. Jabo T. Waggoner and University of Alabama and NFL standout Cornelius Bennett.

“A lot of history went though those doors,” said Petelos, a 1971 graduate, who is saddened the school is closing and losing its name. Eight members of the Petelos family graduated from the school, beginning in 1952 with his oldest brother.

Waggoner, a 1955 graduate, said he grew up three blocks from the school. While saying the decision to close belongs to the Birmingham Board of Education, Waggoner is disappointed to see the end of the school that brings up memories of basketball, track and Friday night football games and dances. “It was just a good place for young people to grow,” Waggoner said. “It’s sad not only for me, but thousands of other kids who went to Ensley High School.”

‘On to better things’:

In recent years, the stigma of violence and poverty held a tight grip on the Ensley community. JaVone Williams, 18, the 2006 valedictorian for the class of 134 graduates, was concerned about the negative impression when she arrived at the school as a freshman with her mother in September 2002. “I was hesitant to come to Ensley,” Williams said after the conclusion of Wednesday’s commencement exercise practice. “I cried not to come.” Williams, who plans to major in education at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, filled her years with achievements. She was on the dance team and participated in the African-American bowl, the Stock Market Challenge Team, the National Honor Society and Beta Club. “All my years here at Ensley were great,” she said. “Now, I’m going to cry when I leave this place because it has really helped me grow. I’m just sad that it’s closing.”

Keith Boyd Jr., 17, the salutatorian and class president, also was reticent about attending Ensley. Boyd now carries his Ensley connection proudly. Boyd, who plans to major in computer science at Miles College, leaves with no regrets, only that Ensley’s doors have closed. “I got a lot of knowledge from Ensley,” Boyd said. “That knowledge will carry me on to better things.”

Jasmine Williams wiped away tears Thursday night as her graduation came to an end. “It’s going to be sad, not to have anywhere to come back to,” said Williams, who will major in criminal justice at the University of North Alabama. “That makes it even harder.” For Sanders, the new school year means better opportunities for Ensley students. She spent this week thumbing through her memory book. “Both schools are so old, the students deserves something new,” Sanders said. “We will have our old memories, and the kids can make new ones.”

News staff writer Niki Doyle contributed to this report.