By JEROD CLAPP
NEW ALBANY — On their own slates, students figured out the answer to a math problem written on the blackboard. After solving, they held it into the air and waited for the teacher to either tell them to wipe the correct answer off or try again.
That scene could have played out 100 years ago, but it happened with a group of fourth-graders Thursday at Division Street School.
The historic segregated school in New Albany is listed as the oldest in the state still owned by the district that built it. Fourth-graders in the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. spend a day in the bolted-down desks to see what it would have been like to have class a century ago, more or less.
“It’s a great day for them to go back in time see what it would have been like for their great-grandparents and get a better understanding of what a segregated school would have been like,” Anne Smith said.
Smith is a fourth-grade teacher at Greenville Elementary School whose class had their field trip to Division Street School on Thursday.
She said the experience taught them more than just what a class looked like all that time ago. She said it also taught them the inequities black students suffered from the time it was opened in 1885 until it closed in 1946.
“They did enjoy seeing and learning a little about the history of the segregated school,” Smith said. “It’s an opportunity for them to learn first-hand what that must have been like for someone of color.”
Saundra Scott was the teacher for the day. She showed students the books black students would have used, which were passed down from white schools once new ones came in.
She said students may not fully grasp the concept that white students and black students attended separate schools, but they get an opportunity to see what some of the differences in the schools would have looked like.
“I’m just trying to get them to understand how it was,” Scott said. “They may have some idea, but I don’t think they really have good hold on that. We just want them to understand what it was with segregation.”
In the room where first-, second- and third-graders were taught, a variety of displays showed how segregation took place with school policies and outside of the school.
One new exhibit features seating from The Grand Theater in New Albany. A chair for white patrons folded down with a padded seat and back, armrests on either side and a patterned blue carpet underfoot.
The seat next to it was an original piece of where black patrons sat, a thin wooden bench with painted seat numbers.
Vic Megenity, one of the founding members of the Friends of Division Street School group, said as one of the only field trips students get in the district, it’s an immersive experience that teaches them on a different level.
“It’s more than a field trip,” Megenity said. “The kids come here, spend a full school day here and go to class like they would have back then, as much as we can simulate it, 100 years ago.”
And he said students get a pretty full experience. The classroom where fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders were taught simultaneously has three walls of slate chalkboards. The connected rows of wood and metal desks in front of the classroom don’t move, which he said prevented concepts like group projects.
Smith said the amenities they’re used to — such as SMART Boards, computers and other electronic aids — are completely absent.
But aside from that, she said they come away from the school with a new appreciation for something else they either didn’t notice or took for granted — nonsegregated classes.
“While they were there, one of my students said they like it better now,” Smith said. “They can recognize that everybody should be going to school together, that there’s no need to separate anyone based on their race.”
Megenity said lots of students talk about how they’re glad schools are no longer segregated after visiting, but they often bring their parents in for a visit.
“I’ve talked to their parents and most of them say it was one of their best days in school ever,” Megenity said. “They’re excited when they come here and they’re excited to bring their parents when they leave.”
Scott said the historic component of the day’s instruction gives students a different perspective of how life was during segregation, but she said it also gives them a little more understanding of where some of their classmates’ grandparents might have come from.
“I hope they’re more aware of the history and I hope they become a little more compassionate toward different people than what they were when they came into the school,” Scott said. “I hope they get to be exposed to more of different types of people, because when they do, they’ll get to understand them a little better.”
DIVISION STREET SCHOOL — OVER THE YEARS
• Division Street School is established
• Black students attend Division Street School with only two classrooms. First-, second- and third-graders occupied one room and fourth- through sixth-graders took lessons in the other. The school closed in 1946.
• The building served as the local Veterans Affairs office.
• New Albany-Floyd County Schools used the space as a maintenance shop.
• Restoration by the Friends of Division Street School takes place. The district leases the building to the organization for $1 per year, covering many of the costs for operating the facility. Division Street School was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
• Division Street School becomes a learning center for students in New Albany-Floyd County School where students spend a whole day learning math, geography, reading and spelling lessons like they might have in 1885.