We need to count the cost of closing Cave Spring Elementary. In an attempt to open new opportunities for the children of Floyd County, we may close a valuable portal in our community.

Floyd County is a place filled with portals. Portals give us instant access to different or far off places. The gates to our college campuses are portals. Enter Berry’s campus and you are transported to a place where stone castles meet pastures. As you drive up to Shorter’s hilltop campus, you are met with the gravitas of brick buildings with neoclassical columns. We are a county rich in natural beauty. River bottom farmland and mountain ridges grace our landscape. A few steps off the four lanes of highways 27 or 411, you can pass through portals into wonder and beauty.

Sometimes, the portals take you through time as well as space. I feel this change each time I drive down U.S. 411 from Six Mile to Cave Spring. Somewhere between crossing Cedar Creek and the red light (the only one in town) on Alabama Highway, you go back to an older and, in some ways, better time.

If you go through the Cave Spring portal, beware, traffic may slow down. It could be due to tourists, peering out their windows to admire the scenery; traffic from an event in Rolater Park; or my friend Cleve Jackson driving down the road on a tractor. The reduction in speed will be a blessing to you. Take some time to soak in some rare sights — a historic downtown free from the mars of blight that mark most of our small southern main streets, the park with its historic buildings, the beautiful church steeples. The portal that takes you to Cave Spring is a blessing to locals, travelers, and tourists alike.

We need to explore what separates Cave Spring from other small towns. I grew up in the rural south. I experienced firsthand the slow decay that haunts many rural communities–main streets with no businesses, once beautiful and thriving spaces now abandoned by time and by people.

Often we think of tourism as being a major factor in the health of a place like Cave Spring. Tourism certainly plays a role. Cave Spring is uniquely located in a setting with striking beauty and unique natural features. The people of Cave Spring do a wonderful job of making their town attractive to tourists. The antique shops, the festivals, and the restaurants all bring tourists from the surrounding area. In this sense, one of the ways Cave Spring is separated from other small towns is that the residents have been innovative in marketing themselves as a tourist attraction.

Tourists come to Cave Spring for more than the attractions. They come because they can feel that there is something different about this place than most of the towns dotting the American landscape. Cave Spring has not lost his sense of place. The people there do not just live there, most of them belong. Belonging to a place is a difficult thing especially in our modern world. I say this as an outsider. I am not a resident of Cave Spring, nor am I a native of Floyd County. I come from one of the many surrounding areas where the sense of place and belonging has been largely stripped away. In such places little community identity is left even for those who continue to reside in the area.

Cave Spring has maintained a sense of place in part because the community is connected to itself. Some of this is because not so long ago nearly all of the residents were educated within the city and largely by teachers who lived in or near the city. The last vestige of this arrangement is Cave Spring Elementary. Now that last remaining element of Cave Spring education may be going away.

I want to be careful not to paint the Floyd county school board as some type of villain in the situation. We should be confident that the board and Superintendent White are doing what they believe is best for the children in our county. However, I would ask them to consider two things.

First, the decision to remove Cave Spring Elementary will have consequences beyond the education of children in Floyd County. The decision will also impact housing, tourism, and the overall sense of community in Cave Spring. I know many people in Cave Spring and I am confident that they will respond admirably to this challenge should it take place, however, we would be remiss as citizens of Floyd County if we did not understand that we are giving them a tremendous trial—a challenge in a world where it is already difficult to maintain a sense of place and belonging.

Second, the Floyd county school board and residents of Floyd County should consider whether the centralization of schools is actually what is right for our children and our community. We have an assumption that bigger is better: more technology, more money, maximizing our dollars spent so that we can offer our children more in these areas.

I would encourage us to consider the words of Wendell Berry. He admonishes us that perhaps the drive to move toward larger-scale models for industry, agriculture, and education is a fool’s errand. He warns “we can’t go on too much longer, maybe, without considering the likelihood that we humans are not intelligent enough to work on the scale to which we have been tempted by our technological abilities.”

We should heed Berry’s warning. The centralization of schools will likely provide better technology and larger buildings, maybe even at a lower expense to taxpayers. As we make this decision, I hope we consider the fact that perhaps the money is worth it. The greatest argument I can offer is that there is value to institutions like Cave Spring Elementary is for you to drive through the portal on Cave Spring highway. Come see something that most Americans assume we have lost. As we cross that portal let us ask ourselves the question, “Do we want to risk losing this space as well?”

Dr. Cory Barnes is an associate professor of Christian studies and the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences for Shorter University.

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