How often do teachers in Mobile county wake up to a
bright, sunny morning in the middle of the week and dream
of a relaxed drive to Dauphin Island instead of going to
school? Most dreams include a day spent enjoying the sea
breeze, listening to the waves crash, and watching the
gulls and pelicans dive for fish. Perhaps eating a picnic
lunch by the dunes watching the sea oats blow in the
breeze would top off the day. This vision is a dream come
true for Paula Loper, except her drive across the bridge
every morning takes her to school not from it. Mrs. Loper
is principal of Dauphin Island Elementary School, the
Little Red School House near the public beach of Dauphin
Island, Alabama. "I get so excited every morning when I
cross the bridge. I have always loved the beach, and I
love teaching. Enjoying them both at the same time is
definitely a dream come true."
Dauphin Island School house a unique place in Mobile county, but not just because of its beach location. It is the smallest school in the district with only 68 students in K-6. Grade levels are combined to accommodate the small number of students in each grade. Because of the unique size and remote location, all faculty and staff members must wear many hats. Mrs. Loper divides her time as counselor, as well as principal. Three full-time teachers, Ms. Maria Wilson, Mrs. Henderson, and Mrs. Wendy Webster each serve two grade levels. Ms. Arta Musial teaches Kindergarden and also teaches subjects in other grades. The office staff consists of Mrs. Anne Waller who serves as secretary, bookkeeper, registrar and first aid worker. The faculty includes two half-time employees, physical education instructor Mrs. Jeannette Tabb and media specialist Mrs. Cathy Dreaper, and a part-time custodian Mrs. Belinda Bates. Mrs. Joyce Hovell, an island native and former student of the school (1941-1948), wears the unusual assortment of hats. She serves as general aide during the school day, but before and after school, she can be found in a Mobile County Deputy Sheriff's uniform directing the school traffic. She is also the longest continuing school employee, serving for the last 21 years. She has directed traffic since 1960. Since the school has no cafeteria, you will find teachers and staff in the All-Purpose-Room kitchen warming home cooked meals in six microwave ovens or selling milk or ice cream at snacktime.
The faculty is also unique in that it still resembles the one or two room schools common in the early 20th century. The wood-frame main building was constructed in 1930 further east on the island and consisted of two classrooms, a hallway and an auditorium. It was moved to the present location around 1954. Recently renovated and freshly painted, it consists of three classrooms, office space, teacher resource room, and first aid room. The All-Purpose-Room was added to the back of the main building in 1991 and serves as lunch room, meeting room, auditorium, etc. Two portable buildings, a classroom and library, are also recent additions to the campus. A covered picnic area is located just outside the All-Purpose-Room.
The image of the "Little Red School House" exists not just in the physical facility but in character. The first school building, a one room school, was built on the island in 1898. Dauphin Island School still enjoys the long tradition of parent and community involvement that supported the little school a century ago. Because most funding today is based on a per-pupil ratio, monies from state and local sources are extremely low. However, with the tremendous support of parents and community, the school not only survives, it thrives. Funds for the All-Purpose-Room addition were obtained through the efforts of the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association, a Partner in Education, and the school's Parent Teachers Organization. In 1993, H.B. Zachary Co. donated the portable building serving as the library. Another Partner in Education, Mobil Oil, provides many valuable items and services such as a sign with the school's dolphin logo, lawn maintenance around the main building, paint, etc. Exxon Corp. and many other businesses are active supporters of the school. The school probably has the largest percentage of volunteer parents in the district, and community members without children in the school are often seen working around the campus. Many of these volunteers attended the school themselves as well as their parents and grandparents. All of this support, both financial and physical, adds up to successful, well-adjusted students who go on to middle school and high school at Alba in Bayou La Batre.
So if you have the opportunity to visit Dauphin Island on a school day, drop by, and you will find faculty, staff and students ready to show off the "Little Red School House", a place where the tradition of the one-room school and modern education successfully blend. And if you arrive around noon, take your lunch and enjoy the view from the school's picnic tables under the dunes.
Photograph by: Billy Dunn