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  • Writer's pictureMeredith Cummings

EPIC Success Story: How one radical idea in education became a long-term success story.

This originally appeared in Birmingham magazine and on

Even then, we knew it was special. It was January 1980 and our new school was about to open. My second grade class had been housed at Glen Iris School while we waited on our own building to be built for the pilot program we were part of – EPIC (Educational Program for the Individual Child).

Many of my classmates had been together since kindergarten, so I was a latecomer to the program. On my sixth birthday, in 1978, I started first grade at EPIC School. It set the trajectory of my life. We came from all corners, nooks and crannies of the city.

We were white, black, Indian, Asian, Hispanic and “other.” Children don’t see color unless they have been taught to, so we didn’t notice, except to know that we were a big melting pot of bubbling goodness, eager to learn.

“It was a place where I went from being scared and hating school to someone who felt like she fit in — but it was OK to be different,” my friend Jennifer Venable Humphrey told me recently. She joined our class in fourth grade.

This month, 30 years after we held hands at our fifth-grade graduation, we gather to tour both EPIC and Glen Iris, as well as reminisce and give back at our reunion Aug. 17 to 19.

I’m not sure how often people keep in touch that long, but many of us saw each other at our 20th reunion for Ramsay High School a year ago. To have the same friends since first grade is a privilege.

I don’t think in that first year at EPIC that I realized how magical the place was. I had never been to school, and had nothing to compare it to. But as we grew emotionally, mentally and physically, we all realized that we were part of something spectacular. It was a land of fairy tale proportions. Walking into that building was like making movie magic in 1970s Technicolor! So much so, that people often didn’t believe us when we talked about EPIC.

I would brag to my church friends about my school, about how we got to — no, were required to — learn sign language. How we had music class in soundproof rooms built with special floors and walls so that the children who were deaf could feel vibrations. How braille was on every surface. How I routinely pushed friends in wheelchairs around the school and occasionally helped them do wheelies.

We performed “Ebony and Ivory” in sign language for our parents. We danced to “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang while signing the words. We played beneath the beautiful trees at recess, gathering flowers to weave for our hair. Occasionally an 8- or 9-year-old might get “married” under a tree. Those were the best, giggliest days.

And the zoo!

When I got to tell someone I had a zoo at my school I got mixed reactions. Other children would be envious and suspicious, while adults just flat-out didn’t believe me.

“A zoo? In your school,” I remember an elderly, male adult saying to me once in that talk-down, sing-songy voice adults use when they don’t believe a child. “Mmm hmm. That’s reaaal nice.”

On one occasion, my classmates remember, a bird got loose. A chase ensued. Snakes, guinea pigs and fascinating creatures were available to us any time. Our lives there were right out of the pages of a book. Don’t get me started on the library. There is not enough space on this page to tell you about its greatness, but I’m pretty sure it’s why, even today, I am happiest around books.

We got to pick the school’s colors (purple and gold) and mascot (the eagle) and learn the new school song, written by our stellar music teacher, Cindy Epps.

One of the coolest parts of the school, we thought, was that anyone could tell where they were by the color of the rough, carpeted walls. We would often run our hands over them as we walked in single file from one place to another. Blue was pre-school, orange was primary and brown was intermediate. It was a small thing, but for someone who was afraid of her own shadow, like me, it helped me feel safe. I would never get lost.

We also had hundreds of skylights, as well as exposed beams and pipes, before any other school even thought of it. We even got to know the architect, Pedro Costa, because his wife was one of our teachers.

A description of the building on a brochure I saved from 1977, goes into great detail about how “the building is designed to blend with the environment and make as much use of the natural elements as possible.”

For example, 65 percent of the lighting was natural. In the mid ’70s! Take that, global warming. Eighty percent of the existing trees were preserved. The building was designed to have a “non-institutional, home-like environment.” It was better than home for many students.

Thirty-five years ago a group of children came together to take part in a Birmingham City Schools pilot program. Our story shows what can work in schools, and how it produced better citizens.

EPIC was admittedly a crazy idea. To teach “handicapped, educationally disadvantaged, underachievers and academically talented” under one roof was bold. And then, the Board of Education decided, let’s throw in a vegetable garden, a zoo and music education like no other school in the city.

It was a huge gamble, but it paid off. If someone had studied those first classes into adulthood, they would note that good and just citizens of the world and stewards of the Earth were created. Today, my classmates and I note that, though not all rich, we all each feel successful in our own way. We are doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, social workers, counselors and politicians. One thing we notice is that we all skewed toward careers in social justice and helping the underdog.

Five years after I started at EPIC, my brother enrolled, but not before my parents had to camp outside overnight to try to get him in. EPIC had grown to proportions that lived up to its name.

In this case, at least, the Birmingham City Schools got it right. We need more happy endings to fairy tales in education.

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